- Virtual Realisms: Dramatic Forays into the Future
“‘Virtual Reality’ is not a computer. We are speaking about a technology that uses computer-ized clothing to synthesize shared reality. It recreates our relationship with the physical world in a new plane, no more, no less. . . . It only has to do with what your sense organs perceive.”—Jaron Lanier1
Technology futurist Jaron Lanier claimed to have coined the term virtual reality in the 1980s, but Antonin Artaud first used it when he argued that theatre belonged to the “virtual arts.” To the best of my knowledge Lanier never acknowledged Artaud, and yet both highlight the notion of the virtual in art and performance as not about the technology with which it has most often been associated, but about a social and experiential phenomenon. Less cited than other essays (Susan Sontag’s collection ignores it entirely), Artaud’s “The Alchemical Theater” (Le théâtre alchimique, 1932) draws on alchemy as a metaphor for theatre as the physical instantiation of an unseen and dangerous world lurking beneath the surface of everyday reality. Not so different from Lanier’s description of what the “sense organs perceive,” Artaud’s theatrical fantasies have much in common with virtual reality, [End Page 687] immersive performances, and role-playing video games.2 The concluding paragraphs to his related “No More Masterpieces,” for example, describe a theatre experience that will “crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator” and send the audience into “trance, as the dances of Dervishes induce trance.”3 This ideal spectator, experiencing a crushed and hypnotized sensibility, bears a striking resemblance to the young (often male) gamers described in hyperbolic news articles about the dangers of video games, such as the BBC’s 2005 coverage of a South Korean man who died of heart failure after playing an immersive role-playing video game for fifty hours with limited breaks.4
Not surprisingly, theatre’s engagement with what Charlie Gere refers to as “digital culture” has most often been realized in experimental, largely nonnarrative, and often individualized performances.5 Mediated performances in art installations like Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007) and performance lectures like Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution (2012) highlight the eroding distinctions between reality and mediated representation, while Belgian artist Kris Verdonck has staged both humans displayed as objects in performances like In (2003), where an actor stands motionless in a transparent water tank, and the humanity of robots who elicit sympathy through their failures in his Dancer series (2010). German performance group Rimini Protokoll has explored the implications of techno-culture throughout a diverse array of projects through interactive, mobile performances, such as Call Cutta (2009) and The Situation Rooms (2013), almost always mediated through screens or other digital devices.6 Although not always as formally radical as these performances, contemporary playwrights and theatre companies have similarly explored technology through productions that often align with what Hans-Thies Lehmann influentially called “postdramatic theatre.” Companies like The Builders Association and their intermedial productions of Jet Lag (1998–2000) and Continuous City (2007) stage the discontinuities of technology within fragmented, multi-plot narratives. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2012) and Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat (2007) further break down dramatic structure into increasingly smaller units, what John Muse calls “microdramas.”7 Tracing their emergence in modernist performance, Muse links this development to modernist technologies, such as the railroad and the telegraph, and their effects on time. Similar arguments have been made about the historical avant-gardes by scholars who highlight both the rapidly developing [End Page 688] communication and war technologies as fundamental pressures on theatrical forms that eschewed realism in favor of alternative representational strategies. For much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries scholars have often accepted that performances focused on technology and contemporary digital culture would follow the nonnarrative, nonrealistic experiments of the modernist avant-garde.
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