- The Performing Subject in the Space of Technology: Through the Virtual, Towards the Real ed. by Matthew Causey, Emma Meehan, Néill O’Dwyer
The most useful contribution from this anthology is its central thesis linking digital performance and technology with emerging arguments in posthuman performance studies. Connections have been developing between posthuman and media scholarship over the last several years, notably in Richard Grusin’s writing, which moves from his influential Remediation: Understanding New Media with Jay David Bolter (1999) to his recent collection, The Nonhuman Turn (2015). In the introduction the editors frame their engagement with the performing subject both in technological terms like “human–computer interfaces” (2) and in what they propose as “visceral technologies” (3), including not only bioart (Orlan’s Harlequin Coat features prominently in the first chapter and the book’s cover), but also the neurological, cognitive, and emotional effects of performative encounters with technology. (Animals, however, are surprisingly absent.) Key examples include the late Tony Conrad’s structural film Flicker, which presents unique challenges to theatre and performance studies. Other media include videogames and a range of digitally augmented dance performances from the well-known examples of William Forsythe to newer performances. The anthology includes first-person accounts of practice-led research projects, as in Mary Oliver’s account of her Swimmers and Jeanette Doyle’s examination of Jeanette Doyle: Fifteen Days, as well as studies of digital imagery, social media, and the related considerations of documentation, preservation, and the archives of performance.
The editors divide the book into two parts: “Provocations: Subjectivity and Technology”; and “Practices: Embodied Negotiations of Art and Technology.” The first of these focuses on what they call “the three-way relationship between aesthetics, ethics and politics” as it relates to identity formation in digital systems. The second section, written predominantly by artists focusing on their own work as practice-based research, is categorized as “first-hand accounts of embodied negotiations with technology in performance” (119). If these sound similar, they are, with topics like digital dance performance and preservation appearing in both sections. In the introduction the editors (who also contribute to each section) contend that although such a division may be seen as perpetuating the durable divide between theory and practice, an emphasis on process [End Page 686] and practice-based research in the second part justifies the division. Reading through the collected essays, however, one may wonder about other possible juxtapositions and associations. As the book’s chapters on videogames and social media highlight, distinctions among user, practitioner, and audience become productively complicated. Those interested in teaching from the book may want to explore different groupings for texts.
From the beginning the book links technology with nonhuman performance and its effect on contemporary digital culture. Some of the observations here rehearse familiar arguments, such as Burcu Baykan’s analysis of Orlan in relation to Deleuze and Guattari. Others introduce new theoretical contexts. Néill O’Dwyer’s consideration of Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy, for instance, provides a productive and original framework for rethinking the modernist avant-garde in relation to computational performances by Klaus Obermaier. Sharon Phelan’s analysis of Conrad’s Flicker as a form of “biocontrol” questions the potential of media art against capital when Conrad’s technique of the flicker effect (sequences of light and dark celluloid alternating at different speeds to produce neurological sensations) is used today as a tool of riot suppression. Both essays extend prevailing notions of performance (to computers and structural film, respectively) within the concept of digital technologies as coercive and disciplinary frameworks. In subsequent chapters Sarah Whatley examines what can never be captured in digital documentation of dance performance, and Matthew Causey looks at online images as digital performances that never fully disappear. (I will admit that as he anticipates on page 79, I found Causey’s consideration of child pornography and online sexual exploitation within the context of performance practices quite troubling. There...