- Sound and Subjectivity in the “Technosublime”:Autobiographer and Ring
The concept of the sublime is traditionally understood as a means of critically framing emotional and sensory experiences pertaining to fear and fascination, usually evoked by nature. In art, it is not the object but what the object does that evokes a sublime experience; subsequently the sublime (as an experience) can provide us with insights relating to human existence. In this instance the theatrical event is the art object that I propose has the potential to evoke a technosublime experience: a sublime experience specifically mediated through the use of digital technology. My experience of Melanie Wilson’s performance Autobiographer in 2012 provoked for me a turn to the sublime.1 The production, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and Fuel Productions, was the result of collaboration between Wilson and the Alzheimer’s Society. Autobiographer features a soundscape that constructs an aural experience of disorientation, deepening confusion, a sense of fear, disconnection, isolation, and/or abandonment, arguably all experiences associated with dementia. Many of these experiences were achieved through the use of audio technology: the voice of each actor was amplified via a discreet microphone and sent to discreetly positioned speakers. Thus the performance played with the audience’s perception and sensory experience in such a way as to replicate the dis-ease of Alzheimer’s.
Shortly after seeing Autobiographer I experienced a second production by Fuel Productions, titled Ring.2 An immersive performance in which audience members used headphones, Ring took place completely in the dark and caused me to further reflect on the efficacy of theatre events that set out to play with the audience’s sensory engagement. This was achieved through the use of binaural recording technology. The distinctiveness of these two exemplary productions is that they mobilized the sublime (for me at least) in that they afforded a profound experiential dislocation of subjectivity through an audio-led immersive experience, which nevertheless sustained some aspect of critical distance in the very disturbances of its dislocations. That is to say, the intensity of the dislocations of immersive visceral experiences activated mental reflection on the experience while it was happening. [End Page 21]
As a consequence of the particular experiences that these two theatre performances triggered for me, this article critically explores Autobiographer and Ring as case studies that employed audio technological soundscapes to disorient, confuse, and disturb the audience, generating what I argue is an experience of the technosublime. I define this as a sublime experience mediated and heightened by aural technologies. The case for the technosublime extends a previously published account of Autobiographer published in 2013 and further demonstrates contemporary theatre’s potential to mobilize experiences of the (Lyotardian) sublime.3
In both performance events the complexity of the structure made the experience profound. The aesthetic processes utilized challenged our perceptual field: it was as though we were unable to trust our own senses, perceptions, experiences; we were rendered temporarily unstable and out of control. As audience members we were driven to feel as though we were on the brink of oblivion: losing ourselves through perceptual dislocation. The performance events aimed to disrupt relationships between spatial and aural environments. The audience member as “reader” begins to wonder why the theatre artists chose to effect such responses. In Autobiographer, the aural environment was controlled through the judicious placement of small speakers within the audience. The location of each actor’s amplified voice was displaced and the perceptual experience for each audience member was dependent on where s/he was positioned within the performance space. In Ring, the aural environment dominated as the audience’s presence became suspended between the live space that they thought they were in and the prerecorded, predetermined space constructed for the listener that simulated the live space. Similarly, both events situated the audience between a fictional institutional environment and the actual performance studio where the events took place. For example, Ring, when the darkness descended, implied ambiguously that the audience had been transported to a self-help group meeting. The following is a critical account of the theatre experiences, beginning with a description of each event, followed by an examination of the spatial and...