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  • Performance Arts and the Effects of Presence
  • Louise Poissant

IN THE LAST FEW DECADES, a multitude of technology-driven agents and interventions have radically transformed the practice and diffusion of performance arts and, more broadly, any live art. Problematics have emerged with the advent of these new technological “partners” that, in certain instances, attach directly to the actor. One of the recurring questions common to all such productions pertains to the effects of presence. It is precisely with the aim of advancing this problematic that the research group Effets de présence (UQAM) will host its annual international colloquium, in partnership with Laboratoire international pour la re cherche en arts (LIRA) of the New Sorbonne University, on the theme “Bodies on Stage: Acting Confronted by Technologies” <> 3–5 June 2015.

Stage direction undoubtedly has a long history of inventions and strategies reaching back into antiquity, including mediation devices (megaphones, artificial lighting), simulation processes (shadow puppetry, sound effects) and special-effects mechanisms (smoke, disappearances).

The Baroque period, and more recently the pioneering experiences of the early 20th century, from Appia to Piscator and including Fuller, the Russian Constructivists and the artists of the Bauhaus, all called upon the most advanced technologies of their day in the pursuit of a broader scenic vocabulary. The proliferation of screens and the infiltration of onstage connectivity have increased the spectrum for scenographers and playwrights as well as actors, establishing a new framework onstage and for the audience. Indeed, it is the very notion of presence that has been reinterpreted.

This notion of presence is actually the object of important philosophical research as well as that in cognitive sciences and neurosciences. The significance of presence has increased with productions in virtual reality and digital art. Regarding these art forms, we now distinguish between two fields of investigation: the effects of presence and the sense of presence. The former stem from the works’ devices, and the latter derives from the audience’s disposition. Although the effects on the audience merit examination, the devices themselves are what have most interested artists.

Indeed, the notion of presence becomes central in a context in which the virtual is emphasized. What creates a sense of presence in relation to an onscreen character? Once the public overcomes the magical effect of the appearance of a virtual image, the shadows, the projections of magic lanterns, the color organs or the Pepper’s Ghost effect, what role is the virtual character destined to play? And which device or interface will best renew the dynamics between acting, decors, the stage and the audience? Where do the audience and events held outside the white box fit when impacted by connectivity technologies?

A large portion of our research at the Effets de présence group has consisted in defining various devices and interfaces that we call “presence shifters,” following the linguistic work of Roman Jakobson. These shifters allow the virtual character or the technological element to irrupt as a partner in a scene and to become an agent in the strongest sense of the word—a character or a part of the scenery that guides the action. Shifters refer to actants (onscreen or virtual characters, avatars, electronic puppets), whether in a spatial environment or a temporal context (now, yesterday, tomorrow). In the case of performance arts, spatial dimensions (fictional, imaginary, psychic, relational) are consecutively added and may be superimposed or interrelated. Their substance must be understood in order to grasp the scene. Additionally, temporal dimensions (delayed time, abstract time [Nam June Païk], uchronic time [Couchot], etc.) are engaged by scenic devices in connection with various temporalities.

A shifter is that through which action is engaged, giving substance to the whole scene, including real actors as well as virtual characters. Shifters also serve to integrate various elements, creating new meaning that emerges from this integration. Furthermore, they reveal levels of language, links, elements or clues that are essential to the comprehension of the work.

The work of identifying and analyzing various scenic devices creating effects of presence forms a field of research in which there is still much to discover. Overlapping perspectives from several disciplines—stage directors, scenographers, media artists and cognitive science...


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