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  • Editorial Comment:On the Possibilities of AI, Performance Studies, and Digital Cohabitation
  • Sean Metzger

Over the three years that I initially conceived and eventually edited this special issue, I have become convinced of the pressing need to think through the intersections of performance studies and artificial intelligence (AI). Many factors shape this belief, but they might be summarized in a relatively succinct formulation: Code is performative, and interfaces are theatrical; the elaborations of these claims reveal the shifting of both human and machine ontologies as the networks we inhabit proliferate. To a large extent, the constituent essays in this volume complicate and extend such ideas. The following editorial grounds these elaborations and provides one pathway for viewing their collective charge.

Scholars of digital media have established the performativity of computer code.1 For example, Lisa Nakamura has pointed to the performative acts that occur as users create avatars in virtual environments.2 N. Katherine Hayles has explored performativity to account for how computational theory might shift the linguistic framework of this concept provided by J. L. Austin:

Computational theory treats computer languages as if they were, in Austin's terms, performative utterances. Although material changes do take place when computers process code (magnetic polarities are changed on a disk), it is the act of attaching significance to these physical changes that constitutes computation as such. … Whereas in performative utterances saying is doing because the action performed is symbolic in nature and does not require physical action in the world, at the basic level of computation doing is saying because physical actions also have a symbolic dimension that corresponds directly to computation.3

From a related perspective, Wendy Chun refers to code as "an inhumanly perfect 'performative' uttered by no one. Unlike any other law or performative utterance, code almost always does what it says because it needs no human acknowledgment."4 Code within this context generally denotes steps or commands for a computer to execute.

Coding pertains to, but is not limited to, AI, which relies on sophisticated algorithms. A high-performance algorithm generally refers to any complex formula that "optimally organizes the intake of input and the production of output."5 AI's processes of decision-making often remain unknown, a black box. The ways such algorithms [End Page xiii] increasingly structure our lives have become ever more vexing, leading to what Safiya Noble has called "algorithmic oppression" as "fundamental to the operating system of the web" in her writing on search engines.6 In Noble's research, the results of algorithmic search processes yielded disturbing presentations of bodies for consumption; put otherwise, the histrionic display of Black women on porn sites substituted one vision of femininity for the one that Noble sought (specifically, material that might be interesting to some of the youth in her family). Typing "black girls" in a search engine in 2010 produced unexpected iterations of ostensibly Black womanhood. This example demonstrates both the performative nature of the algorithm and also points to the theatricality of the interface.

Broadly speaking, discussions about computers often use "screen" as shorthand for the specific structure called the graphic user interface (GUI). However, as Johanna Drucker has explained, such usage eschews the complexities of human–computer interaction (HCI) that involve keyboards and the like used for "remediating common tasks as formal instructions coded into a plan of menus or buttons."7 Automated interfaces involve aural, visual, and tactile sensory modalities.8 As technology advanced, "graphical icons … no longer just looked like objects; they could also mimic the behavior of the things they resembled."9 Many implications follow from this statement, but Drucker offers one illustration relevant to theatricality in particular: "The GUI is a mediating scrim, a boundary space in which we interact with an abstraction of computation … neither the file folders nor the other objects in the screen space are things; they are icons that represent behaviors and actions we want to perform … and they interpellate a user through disciplinary and scopic regimes."10 She further explains that the GUI effects a "constitutive exchange" that involves "cognitive adaptation and change" through which the interface facilitates "individual and collective subject formation."11 Drucker does not mention theatre studies or...


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