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A short exploration around visions and practices of networked performance, looking at issues of the cybernetic stage and of presence as doubt.

Networked Performance & Cybertheaters

Through the ’found’ [1] term Cybertheaters I aim to describe an emergent, transdisciplinary genre of networked performances which, ontologically, exist as hybrids between theatre, performance/ live arts, cinema, Internet and computational technologies (including AV streaming, multi-user environments, VR, AL, AI). Our perception of the Internet as a cybernetic space, a ’Cyberspace’, acts as a catalyst for this process of hybridisation by providing a spacetime for Cybertheaters . I argue that the emergence of this immaterial, performative spacetime that can function as a cybernetic stage, radically challenges traditional concepts and parameters of temporal and spatial structures, and relations in (live / mediated) performance: Cybertheaters enable the fusion of mediated / unmediated, live / pre-recorded, proximal / distant, synchronous / asynchronous, natural / artificial elements of practice.

Cybertheaters are performance practices that make use of the Internet both as a distribution medium and as a space /stage for the development of dramatic (re /inter) actions and co-creations between their diverse agents. They are also fantasies; expressions of utopian visions -my own and these of others- for the future of performance. Central in these is the vision of a performance-rhizome [2]: an acentered, non-hierarchical, non-linear and non-arborescent system; a networked multiplicity with no beginning, middle or end, every point of which can connect to every other point. Among current practice and abstract fantasy there exist points of mutual recognition: some practices are indeed morphed into rhizomes – in either obvious or subtle ways. Not surprisingly, since their very medium is of a rhizomatic ontology: the Internet, “a system of many interconnected networks, capable of almost indefinite expansion” [3], is a rhizome.

The field of Internet-(semi)-mediated performance which I christen Cybertheaters , is broad and diverse; other practitioners / theorists use different terms to refer to techno-performative practices, such as:
- ’Virtual Theatre’ or ’teatre virtual’, a term used by the Spanish group DOGONEff
- ’Cyberformance’, a term coined by the New Zealand-based artist Helen Varley-Jamieson and used by the globally-dispersed female group Avatar Body Collision: http://www.avatarbodycollision.org/. UpStage is the group’s platform for online performance: http://www.upstage.org.nz
- ’Networked Performance’, a term used by the Turbulence project (Network and Performing Arts Inc., USA), among others. Their networked performance blog is at http://www.turbulence.org/blog/
- Other terms currently in use are: ’Digital Performance’ (as in the Digital Performance Archive, USA: [http://www.meetingtomorrow.com/cms-…]), ’Digital Theatre’ (as in the Experimentarium project, Denmark: http://www.daimi.au.dk/ sdela/dte/), ’Desktop Theatre’ (as in the Desktop Theatre project, USA: http://www.desktoptheater.org/), among others.

What is so Spatial about Cyberspace?

Cyberspace’, a term very indicative of the spatial qualities we attribute to the Internet, was coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer , where it was described as “a consensual hallucination” shared among billions of users [4]. ’Cyberspace’ clearly describes a notion of space that emerges through the conception and application of an ’invisible’ but real network that connects people within an immaterial, virtual world. This spatial quality embedded in a virtual system of networks appeared even before the Internet itself, with the first multi-user virtual environments, MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons), in the early 1970s. MUDs were being used to host computer games, but what was really exciting about them was not the game element, but the fact that many people could log on at the same time and talk to one another, play together inventing their own characters, relationships and circumstances, and form communities. Sherry Turkle describes MUDs as:

[…] a new kind of virtual parlor game and a new form of community. […] MUD players are MUD authors, the creators as well as consumers of media content. In this, participating in a MUD has much in common with script writing, performance art, street theatre, improvisational theatre -or even commedia dell’arte. […] As players participate, they become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction. [5]

So it emerged, the spatial virtuality [6] of Cyberspace, providing us with another level of existence through our cyborg selves, “transgressive mixtures of biology, technology, and code” [7]. In this conception of “computer networks as a cybernetic space” [8] we meet, socialise, communicate, fall in love, and have myriads of real experiences of value, despite the fact that presence is not physically manifested and relationships are not physically realised. It seems that, once our perception of space shifts from the coherent, material physicality to a fluid abstraction of virtuality, our concept of presence is also bound to transform. According to Peggy Phelan, “In performance, the body is metonymic of self, of character, of voice, of ’presence’” [9]; when it comes to mediated performance though, the human body is mostly absent. Does the absence of the body entail absence of the self?

The Presence / Absence Dialectic

In networked performance practices the participants (performers and/or audiences), although not present through a corporeal self; although not proximal, tangible, or physical -can act, react, and interact in a/synchronous modes of communication: they are alive and present. This bodily absence which, not being absolute or indisputable, often leads to the paradox of an absent presence, a hybrid state where one is simultaneously present (e.g. through an avatar-mediated representation /reproduction of the self) and absent (e.g. through the lack of physicality) calls for new definitions and perceptions of the notions of presence and absence. Once the self escapes or expands the limits of the physical body to exist as a cyborg being, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” [10], presence ceases to be an obvious quality linked to the body, and physical proximity no more constitutes the main criterion for it. This means that presence can no more be automatically identified and attributed as a quality; rather, being based on doubt, it needs to be manifested and ’proved’ for it to be perceived at all. At this point of absent presence and/or present absence, Cybertheaters become games of identities, subjectivities and simulations, where “the difference between true and false” -and, I would add, between presence (as the ultimate corporeal truth) and absence (as the ultimate fake presence)- “is obscured in a reality that is both actual and staged” [11].

Baudrillard, as quoted, refers to a reality staged by the mass media (e.g. TV news) as opposed to theatre and the performing arts. In Cybertheaters one can claim that participants are knowingly dealing with staged fictions rather than actual realities. Nevertheless, the difference between ’true’ and ’false’, natural and artificial, presence and absence, staged and non-staged, can still be obscured in these elements that, one would normally assume, compile for each performance a first level of reality as a base for its fiction, for example: (post-)human performers and audiences, ’real’ connections / interactions and relations between them, clear distinctions between dramatic and non-dramatic actions. Are these ’real’ -i.e. authentic or original- or simulated? Do they exist at all? And does this ambiguity really matter? To go back to the notion of presence: was this not always an ambiguous quality, based on doubt? As Peggy Phelan reminds us, at least in Beckett’s plays it was: “[…] Beckett makes clear that presence is doubt; presence is impossible without doubt; doubt is the signature of presence […]” [12]. This discussion leads us to the conclusion that the presence / absence dialectic is not sufficient when analysing networked performance practices; the distinction between the two qualities becomes obscured by the disembodied state of presence-absence a cyborg being finds herself in. Within the cybernetic spacetime both states exist only simultaneously: we can perceive presence as absence and the reverse, but we can no more distinguish between presence or absence.

A complementary dialectic is vital to keep this discussion going, and Katherine Hayles’ work has offered one: in her book How We Became Posthuman Hayles argues in favor of a shift of focus towards the notions of pattern and randomness which, she claims, are more appropriate for the discussion and analysis of such hybrid states-of-being [13]. Hayles proposes that we look at notions of pattern as the outcome of our interactions with the system and other users, rather than presence; and at notions of randomness as the outcome of the noise created by stimuli that cannot be encoded within the system, rather than absence. Randomness can turn into pattern when extraneous stimuli merge together, whereas pattern can gradually fade into randomness. Pattern /randomness systems, explains Hayles, evolve towards an open future marked by unpredictability, rather than a known end. I believe that the adoption of the pattern /randomness dialectic as proposed by Hayles is definitely a way around old dichotomies that can lead us to conceptual ’dead-ends’ when discussing issues of networked performance. The pattern /randomness dialectic is not a dichotomy in itself, as the two states do not exist in opposition to each other: we do not need to distinguish between pattern or randomness. A system can integrate both in varying degrees and mutable combinations. And a cyborg being can be characterised as being ’more present than absent’ or the reverse, according to the varying degrees of pattern and randomness produced through her interactions with the system. In any case, immateriality -the dominant epistemic discourse of the information era-, cyborg existence, and Cybertheaters all challenge assumptions of a sine qua non relation between physicality and presence, while they endorse information, and to that extent, pattern.

Artistic Practice

I will now refer to the work of two groups of artists who, I believe, have been pushing the boundaries of performance by use of new technologies: Entrupy8Zuper!, based in Belgium, and Blast Theory, based in the UK.

Entropy8Zuper! - Wirefire

Entropy8Zuper! are a couple, Auriea Harvey (Entropy8) and Michael Samyn (Zuper!), with joint motto:
"Information Technology is not the Future. We are." [14] Among a very diverse range of media art work, their piece I want to focus on is Wirefire , a “performance /software /net-art piece”, which lasted from 1999 to 2003. Entropy8Zuper! describe the award-winning [15] Wirefire in a live performance in 2001, as follows:

The secret history of Wirefire is sex in a virtual world. The loss of physicality - but let me not call it a loss - because of what is gained… What one can gain through Wirefire is a new sense of touch, an enhanced fantasy, a glimpse of a personal utopia… […] Wirefire is an online performance, a communications environment and a very good story. [16]

Wirefire is a piece that grew out of necessity. Entropy8, then based in NWirefireew York, and Zuper!, based in Brussels, met and fell in love online. For a long time, the Internet was their only means of communication, being together, sharing, belonging, love making. Wirefire was created out of the couple’s need to express their love and desire telematically, in combination with their frustration with the limitations of commercial software. Nine years earlier (1990), Roy Ascott was posing the question “Is there love in the telematic embrace?” [17] through his powerful article of the same title, arguing that digital and telematic arts can, potentially, embody love. Many telematic performances supported this argument -some even before Ascott’s question was posed and the argument made, such as the seminal work of the pioneers of telematic performance Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz in as early as the 1970s. I believe that E8Z! share the same utopian vision as Galloway, Rabinowitz, Ascott and others demonstrating, through Wirefire, that telecommunication and computational technologies can indeed embody love. If love there is, it can be embodied in the telematic embrace as well as in the proximal. If love there is.

E8Z!’s disembodied, baroque love-performance-making was opened up to viewers, who could not only watch, but also participate through text and image. E8Z! used to inhabit the Wirefire environment live for an hour, once per week, for four years. Every Thursday, throughout these four years, they narrated a new story about the same subject: being digital and being in love. They explored the desire of a cyborg being for a pixel image; they became themselves cyborg beings in love, and they experienced “what is ecstasy like in the network” [18]. These live Wirefire performances generated a passionate, globally dispersed ’fun-club’, who would be online every Thursday to watch and participate in this act of performative, poetic love-making.

Technically, Wirefire is a combination of animations, sounds, images, chat, and live camera streams pushed into motion with an engine of scripts, and built layer upon layer to form interactive improvisational performances. As E8Z! put it, Wirefire is their “personal remixer of emotions and graphics. […] A thin wire strung between two camera images, fingers on keyboards like fingertips on each others skin, letters on a monitor screen, whispers.” [19] According to the SFMOMA Webby Prize 2000 Jury [20] what is remarkable about E8Z!’s work is their recognition of the Web as “a place where abstract images, text, representations and sounds can come together to create compelling and seductive narratives” [21]. I do consider Wirefire to be a very seductive multi-narrative -in fact, many, multiple, seductive narratives, as it existed in diverse narrative modes (e.g. Live, Replay, Random), and it performed live many times, telling the same story, again and again, to and with audiences who never had enough of it, for four years.

Blast Theory – Can You See Me Now?

I will move on to the work of Blast Theory, a group based in London and renowned internationally for the adventurous use of technologies in their artistic projects. Blast Theory describe the focus of their work as an exploration around notions of interactivity and the relationship between physical and virtual space, with an interest in the social, political and economic aspects of technology. Since 2000, the group has been collaborating with the Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham. The aim of this collaboration is to explore the convergence of Internet and mobile technologies in order “to create groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art mixing audiences across the Internet, live performance and digital broadcasting” [22].

The project I will focus on is the award-winning [23] installation /performance /game Can You See Me Now? produced in 2001. Can You See Me Now? is a chase game that takes place simultaneously online, within a virtual city in Cyberspace, and in the streets of a ’real’, physical city. The players can be physically located anywhere in the world; by logging on the group’s website they find themselves ’re-located’ within a virtual city together with other players and members of Blast Theory. The presence of both the players and the artists, or “runners”, in the virtual city is avatar-mediated. The artists /“runners” are located in the streets of a physical city, which they use as their game terrain /stage [24]. Each runner is equipped with a handheld computer connected to a GPS (Global Positioning System) tracker. The handheld computer sends the runner’s location from the tracker over a wireless network to people playing online, whereas the positions of players online are passed back the other way and displayed on the screen of the runner’s computer. Alongside this, online players can communicate with each other through text messaging, and runners can communicate with each other trough walkie talkies. Online players can eavesdrop on the runners’ conversations through an audio streaming of their walkie talkies to the players. [25]

The aim of the runners it to chase and ’catch’ the online players; while the runners chase the players and these try to confuse and escape them, the two cities, ’real’ and virtual, meet and merge into one hybrid city built in overlapping layers of physical and digital spacetime, each characterised by very different qualities and behaviors. As Blast Theory put it “the virtual city […] has an elastic relationship to the real city. At times the two cities seem identical […]. At other times the two cities diverge and appear very remote from one another.” [26] Thus, CYSMN? produces a new space which is neither physical nor virtual, but hybrid; it is, most of all, relational, as it is the space where ’virtual-world’ players and ’real-world’ runners meet, play, and relate in this cyborgian chase game. The city of CYSMN? does not reproduce qualities and laws of the physical universe -instead, as it creates its own spacetime systems, it also brings forth new existential rules, specific to these systems and their ’inhabitants’.

Blast Theory describe the conceptual background of the piece as drawing upon their fascination by the ubiquity -in many Western countries- of handheld electronic devices such as the mobile phone, and the way this changes and ’augments’ our urban environments. The mobile phone in particular blurs the boundaries between private and public space by ’broadcasting’ fragments of private information (in the form of discussions) into the public arena, thus staging little private dramas. The presence of audiences alters the actual nature of these private instances, transforming them into public spectacles, whereas the people involved in these become performers who ’act out’ their everyday lives. Through this exploration around the merging of private and public spaces, Blast Theory reach, from a very different approach, the same question E8Z! were asking themselves and their viewers some years earlier, namely: “In what ways can we talk about intimacy in the electronic realm?” [27]

Intertwined with issues of intimacy are ideas of presence and absence, and CYSMN? uses the overlay of this hybrid city to explore such ideas. The issue of presence-absence is posed from the very beginning of the game: when the online players log on to the virtual city, they are asked to identify the name of a person who is absent from their lives (someone they haven’t seen for a long time) but also present in their minds (someone they still think about). Once this person is identified (becomes present), no other reference is being made about her (considered absent) till the end of the game, when the player is caught by a runner. To signify her victory, the runner says: “Runner 1 has seen ----------” speaking loud the name of the afore-mentioned person (signifying presence - contradicting apparent absence). Is this person present or absent? If it is present, which layer(s) of spacetime is her presence manifested in? It this person and her presence/absence a fact or a fiction? Is the runner’s statement ’true’ or ’false’?

Such situations that blur the boundaries between presence and absence are experienced throughout any CYSMN? game performance on many different levels: the online players are both present (in the virtual city) and absent (in a corporeal form, from the physical city); the runners are present (in both the virtual and physical cities) and absent (in the proximity of the players). Finally, when the game is over and the players caught, the runners take photos of the empty terrain where each player was ’seen’. These photos are then uploaded on the game’s website linking absence and presence and visually articulating – in, I think, a most succinct, beautiful, and poetic way - the present-absent state. The player is there, in the picture, can you see her now? [28]

[1] The term ’Cybertheater’ was coined by the Russian kinetic arts group “Dvizjenije” (Motion) in 1967 to describe one of their artworks, a machinic performative environment that was “[…] one model of our man-made world and of the relationship between the Machine and Man”. See: Nusberg, Lev “Cybertheater” in Malina, Frank J. (Ed.) Kinetic Art: Theory and Practice. Selections from the Journal Leonardo . Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1974, p. 104

[2] Rhizome as defined and described in Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix Milles Plateaux vol. 2 Capitalisme et Schizophrénie Les Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1987

[3] Abbate, Janet Inventing the Internet MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2000, p. 113

[4] Gibson, William Neuromancer Ace Books, New York, 1994 (1st published: 1984)

[5] Turkle, Sherry Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet Phoenix , London, 1997 (1st published: Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995, p. 11-2

[6] Virtuality is a term coined by Ted Nelson to refer to the “conceptual structure” of an electronic literary system in which ideas could be freely exchanged and linked to one another. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtuality (retrieved April 2005). Katherine Hayles defines it some years later as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns” in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics , Literature and Informatics University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1999, p. 13-4

[7] Turkle, Sherry Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet Phoenix, London, 1997 (1st published: Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995, p. 21

[8] Nunes, Mark “What Space is Cyberspace? The Internet and Virtuality” in Holmes, David (Ed.) Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace Sage Publications, London, California & New Delhi, 1997, p. 163

[9] Phelan, Peggy Unmarked: the Politics of Performance Routledge, London & New York, 1993, p. 150

[10] Haraway, Donna “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of Nature Routledge, New York, 1991, p. 150

[11] Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulation (Tr. Sheila Faria Glaser), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 1994 (1st published: Editions Galilée, Paris, 1981)

[12] Phelan, Peggy Unmarked: the Politics of Performance Routledge , London & New York, 1993, p. 115

[13] See Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics , Literature and Informatics University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1999

[14] See www.entropy8zuper.org (retrieved March 2004)

[15] Among others, the piece was awarded the SFMOMA Webby Prize in 2000

[16] http://e8z.org/wirefire/SECRET.HISTORY/A_SECRET_HISTORY_OF_WIREFIRE.txt (retrieved March 2004)

[17] See Ascott, Roy “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” in Art Journal 49: 3, 1990, p.241

[18] See www.entropy8zuper.org (retrieved March 2004)

[19] ibid

[20] The Jury was comprised, among others, by Machiko Kusahara, Gary Hill, and Benjamin Weil.

[21] http://www.sfmoma.org/press/press/press_webby.html (retrieved March 2004)

[22] http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/about.html (retrieved June 2005)

[23] Interactive Art, Prix Ars Electronica 2003 among other awards and nominations.

[24] Unfortunately, I think, there is a clear distinction between the artists /”runners”on the streets, and the players who can participate online but cannot become runners and involve in the game their corporeal bodies locating themselves within the physical city-scape.

[25] see http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_cysmn.html (retrieved June 2005)

[26] ibid (retrieved January 2006)

[27] ibid (retrieved June 2005)

[28] To see her visit: http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/sheffield/sightings.html, http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/v2/photos.html, http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/tokyo/en/sightings.php, http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/koln/