* note to the online version: The following text has been my finishing thesis after a two years masterclass in new media, arts and communication at Media-GN, Groningen, the Netherlands. My observations on theater and technology are closely connected to my performance work; for further information about these projects I would like to refer to my homepage on http://www.9nerds.com/isabelle
I.Introducing new media into the performance arts
I.1 forces of attraction
The last two years have been spent almost exclusively behind the computer. Sometimes I've been isolated with the machine as agent, mirror and object-to-think-with; sometimes in online exchange with others from all over the globe; often experimenting hands on with the integration of digital media in theatrical situations.
The daily confrontation with the computer has had a great impact on my life, work and perception of the world, but it is important to note, that the computer itself has remained secondary to my true interest, and that is making theater.
To me, the beauty and magic of theater lies in the momentary act of creation and the shared concentration of the performers and audience. It's alive. The vulnerability of live performance, the risk of failure, as old as theater itself, is at the center of my fascination.
I.1.1 theater and technology
Theater is a mirror of its time and has always reflected the state of technology in a society.
Elaborate projection techniques were employed by the ancient Mesopotamians not so much to evoke the gods as to impress the worshippers. Centuries later, when a performance's duration was still determined by the length of the candles illuminating the theater, the invention of the gaslamp was the beginning of stage lighting as we know it today, giving control over the light's direction and strength. A recent example would be the media intensive approach of the Wooster Group or Robert Wilson's highly visual theater, both of which are unthinkable without advanced lighting and projection systems.
Technology shapes the way we live and think. By using new technology in theater today, I interact with contemporary experiences - not to reflect on technology itself, but to extract the sensations it produces and to assign to them a dramatic structure.
The radical change in cultural and perceptual conventions at the end of this millennium has widened and dematerialized our perception; we have completely accepted an astounding situation: when we see something it does not mean it exists, but that it may have existed or that it might be completely artificial. Microprocessors, cinema, TV, VR, hypertext, (tele-) communication on the internet are agents of a new intangible immaterial world - but theater is physical and bound to the laws of reality. By bringing these two contrasting forces together we are creating a new stage dynamic, one that comes closer to the multilayered way we read information in our daily lives.
Brenda Laurel in Computers as Theater makes us aware of the dramatic quality of 'human-computer activity' through 'direct-manipulation systems, like the Macintosh desktop' that represent 'the world of the computer as a collection of objects that are directly analogous to objects in the real world'. 1
Sherry Turkle describes this phenomenon as 'role play' with yourself and others:
"Here is how it happens. People decide that they want to buy an easy-to-use computer. They are attracted by a consumer product - say, a computer with a Macintosh-style interface. They think they are getting an instrumentally useful product, and there is little question that they are. But now it is in their home and they interact with it every day. And it turns out they are also getting an object that teaches them a new way of thinking and encourages them to develop new expectations about the kinds of relationships they and their children will have with machines. People decide that they want to interact with others on a computer network. They get an account on a commercial service. They think that this will provide them with new access to people and information, and of course it does. But it does more. When they log on, they may find themselves playing multiple roles, they may find themselves playing characters of the opposite sex. In this way they are swept up by experiences that enable them to explore previously unexamined aspects of their sexuality or that challenge their ideas about a unitary self." 2
Already when studying scenography at the Academy of Applied Art in Vienna (1992-96), the theater spaces I designed were fluid; light, sound and sculptural objects, e.g. stage hydraulics, sliding walls, gauze screens, were bound into a process of continuous movement. Later, my attention shifted to the actor on stage as the central scenographic element. Now, I construct the theater space by defining a trajectory for the moving performers, themselves emanating sound and giving visual significance in an autonomous light-sound-space.
On a very material level, I've always had problems with things, solid substance that can only shift from one place to another or change shape only with the help of tricky apparatus (classic stage mechanics). This led to a certain sparseness and a special interest in light. My involvement in a dematerialized, smart scenography can be seen as logical progression. A reductionist approach.3
I.2.1 film and theater
The immersive quality of memory media like film, the very personal point of view, the director's eye, the easy flow from reality into worlds inside the mind, greatly influences our perception and imagination. The cinematic language is an important part of modern narrative. Theater didn't die out because of film, but it has lost influence. Before we die, it's said that we see our lives passing before us like a film, not like a play. Film is manipulative, tear jerking has its own formula, comparable maybe to the melodrama on stage:
"Yet night after night, regular theatergoers break into sobs at that same predictable denouements - the triumph of mother love or the sacrifice of family for duty, for example. A moment later, they are laughing, in rapid and vast swings of emotion that only the excesses of melodrama can provoke." 4
Despite the great differences in filmmaker's vocabularies, there are cinematic conventions to indicate flashbacks, mind travel, streams of consciousness or dreams through for example voice over, slow motion, the dissolve or desynchronisation of sound and image. Structurally, film has greatly influenced dramatists. Quick jumps from scene to scene as if to cut into the middle of a dialogue, or the associative montage-like approach to storytelling are only two examples.
Projected video material has become ubiquitous in contemporary theater, especially since beam and LCD projectors became widely accessible. But, embedded in a theater performance, prerecorded elements are often experienced as lifeless, standing in piercing contrast to the creation of momentary tension on stage. Switching over to a taped sequence to be interpreted as the actors thoughts clashes with the live action we witness: A tape cannot depict present thoughts as it has been taped in the past. (In film of course there is no such dilemma as everything is prerecorded.) A better solution might be to use a live video of an actor facing the camera in closeup, speaking lines and to apply taped material to indicate a flashback. But even in these two examples the tape or the live video is experienced as something from a different order of materiality than the ongoing theater performance. Beam, screen, camera are awkward strangers on stage; it is hard to combine the projection's need for darkness with the lighting of the live action and to let them simultaneously unfold their own qualities.
Computers and computer mediated communication seem to offer the possibility to unite film and theater. With digital media, the moving pictures loose their position as backdrop, they become interactive and less alien to the live action on stage because realtime manipulation as such has become possible. But the big obstacle working against a smooth integration into a theater performance remains: Light, carrying information, needs a surface to materialize, usually a screen. In cinema and on TV this skin is the stage, confined by its borders as if framed by a proscenium, which allows viewer immersion into the two dimensional space and the transmitted visual and sound environment. The intuitive change in perspective is easily achieved, whereas a screen on a theater stage is a plane in a cube, it's an obtrusive object.
I.2.2 2D vs 3D
Unless methods to display 3D data in actual 3D space become accessible and realtime, mixing concrete and projected action on stage means to deal with the unintuitive dissimilarity in dimension. Projecting on bolic surfaces or semitransparent screens can mitigate but not eliminate the flatness. Methods to transcribe 3D imagery onto a 2D surface with a special pair of glasses are simply working with a spatial illusion. It is ironic that elaborate 3D worlds have to be represented in just two dimensions; e.g. detailed data gained through motion capture results in a 2D animation.5
The augmented 2D experience, the so called 2 1/2 D, is the closest we can get to the achievement of true 3D at this time; even in a VR environment geared up with a head mounted display (vision tracking) we are basically watching an interactive movie.The most promising developments towards true 3D representations probably are image generating laser beams projected onto a spinning helix display, as have recently been introduced by the US Navy for air traffic control use.6
I.2.3 Realtime telecommunication
In my search for a possible common ground between performance art and the memory media, live telecommunication methods immediately interested me. Realtime telecasting events combine characteristics of both film and theater - the action is live, capturing the excitement and intensity of a stage performance, but as the output is motion pictures and sound, it builds on filmic conventions.
The imagery borrows characteristics from video and film. It is possible to use elaborate cinematic language for journeys into the mind guided by the invisible director's eye, or to seek the authenticity, the voyeurism and privacy of home videos with a hand-held camera or to switch over to the surveillance system, depicting life in its mundane every day rhythm, suddenly interrupted by a crime or an accident.
Realtime telecommunication allows access to other realities as well as the exoticism of the geographically distant and foreign place. As a scenographer, my designs leapt over the proscenium into the audience's space and gradually spread throughout the entire theater. Now in logical progression, they can involve the whole world.
In live videoconferencing7 as in theater the emphasis lies on communication. The transmitted video image is not so much a picto-aesthetical device as much as a representation of someone else &endash; somewhere else. This is very much like an actor on a stage. The interaction between participants, the quality of their communicative act is of primary importance to the videoconferencing session as to a theater performance.
II. aesthetics of urgency
My first videoconferencing experiences were made via the internet with the freeware CU-Seeme on public reflectors, virtual marketplaces where people from all over the world can connect and communicate with each other. Participants can broadcast their video images or just lurk and only communicate via language, which is usually typed as the audio requires too much bandwidth.
Apart from the aesthetic attraction to the images made with CU-Seeme there was the sensation that one was encountering other human beings in a way that was different from any meeting in the real world. Literally, the monitor screen had genuinely become my window to the world and to my excitement I saw on the other side of the glass a human face!
C-Us, portrait of a net.community 1997; a series of digital photographs taken on public reflectors using the free videoconferencing software CU-Seeme, exhibited at Niet De Kunstvlaai in Amsterdam
During a period of two months spent almost exclusively online, an archive of over 1,000 images was collected, the majority being portraits in the sense that they showed faces and simultaneously provided an insight into the subject's living or working environment. This was the first time I was struck by the poetic impact and the theatricality of this way to communicate, amplified and depicted by the crudeness of the imagery.
When a participant's 120 X 160 pixel video window first comes up on the computer screen, it is covered with a coating of opaque gray. Slowly bits of the image reveal themselves, a face, human features, anything that moves, while still some gray blocks remain in the corners where the background is motionless. The algorithm, used by CU-Seeme to build the images replaces only the parts of the image that have changed. This can create astounding superimpositions, like double exposure in photography. You see two heads on a person or a whole series of snapshots revealing fragments of a moving limb. The crude pixelation gives the impression of looking through a crystalline lens. The images are often under- or overexposed, out of focus, have funny stains or speckles - as the main purpose of these virtual get-togethers is to chat with each other, the participants are more or less inattentive to the quality of the video. (fig.2)
The participants' appearance, like a costume, gives them (unintended) characteristics: an out-of-focus softness in the face of MaleryNox with her shock of white hair; Owen Gallagher seems to be shy because his video lacks contrast. Dramatic flashes of light, melancholic blurs, cruel fragmentation of the pictures trigger our fantasy to construct a story around the images.
Another intriguing aspect which seems to go unnoticed in these virtual communities is the intimacy of showing your face! Except the occasional "Let me show you my room" excursion, any attempt of broadcasting something else than a seated person facing the camera, is usually booed out. Unless a session is pronounced as a theatrical experiment, participants usually don't dress up, only their nicknames are different from their real names. The subject matter follows every day experience and does not get wildly absurd. Poets are casual. Honesty is the word. This was surprising and perhaps disappointing to me, as in other online communities, cyberspace is used as an outlet of multiple personalities and invites to invent.
II.1.2 erratic beauty
There are many different videoconferencing systems, ranging from dedicated lines in hospitals for video-assisted surgery, setups in world class hotels for business meetings, Picturetel setups at copy shops where you pay by the hour, to low quality share ware for home use. The exchange of data happens via optical fiber, usually the telephone or ISDN line. The transmission of streaming video and audio data packages often exceeds the capacities of our telephone lines, which leads to a low quality output despite the sophistication of the hardware and software. The consequence is a crudeness and striking errors especially in the imagery, that can often lend an unexpected poetic quality to the transmitted material.
Suzan Kozel, herself dancer and creator of connected performances:
"I suggest that physical experimentation with digital systems can evoke an unexpected poetics of feedback (images and movement returning, interrupting, and transforming), lagging (time delay), and resonance (vibrations of interaction across layers of time and space)." 8
This special order of beauty or poetry I would like to place in the context of a tradition that uses the accident or uncontrollable forces in the art making process: For example, in integrating stains or irregularities in the paper in a drawing, or exposing a work to fire, water or time, the artist invites nature to intervene and alter materiality; the artwork is bound into the cycle of life and death. In music, stochastic algorithms are used to create chains of events which the composer wouldn't have expected or couldn't have thought of.
"...An accident gives something to a substance...; in fact, an accident gives so much to a substance that, although the accident had its being from the substance, the substance cannot exist without any accident." 9
A meaningful coincidence originates beyond our control.
By its limitations a medium or an instrument receives its character. Errors can give a materiality to otherwise perfect surfaces. Through surprising imperfections we can relate to an otherwise abstract mathematical process (the computer), that now becomes less cold and clean.
II.2 connected performance
In C-Us my role was that of a documenter, I watched and analyzed, often as a passive lurker. Eventually, I wanted to apply my findings to a theatrical situation. Two very different pieces were made: I DO FLY (discussed later), where I myself played an online character that interacted one-to-one with the audience and the following example, soft mirror.
soft mirror was performed on the first of March 1998 in the Grand Theatre Groningen in collaboration with the Society for Old and New Media, De Waag in Amsterdam. It centered around the integration of a telepresent figure in a dance performance.
The public gathers loosely in front of a large screen that (like a huge window) opens up onto a seemingly empty octagonally shaped space. As if reflected, a trapezoid of light is shed onto the floor of the theater space, where the dancer Beppie Blankert is standing with her back towards the screen, moving slowly - absorbed in herself. Suddenly something flashes by on the projection behind her, a shy slender creature dressed in glimmering gold and green - hides, then comes back - tiptoeing - curiosity and attraction taking over. Beppie, at first indifferent, becomes attentive. The figure on the screen is Echo, waiting for Beppie's slightest move in order to follow it. Eventually, they meet on the surface of the screen, as an image and a shadow. (fig. 3) The projected figure becomes the dancer's mirror image and they dance together.
This simple plot frames the development of an unusual relationship through the familiar model of attraction and repulsion. It is unusual because the two dancers are located about 200 kilometers away from each other; they communicate via their video images, being transmitted over optical fiber networks in approximately realtime (there is a short delay of about three seconds).
At the end of the performance, seemingly accidentally the connection is broken and when reestablished, the public is invited to come within reach of the camera to applaud and chat with the telepresent dancer, Caroline Dokter, in Amsterdam.
The two spaces have merged - through lighting and the size of the screen - but most of all through the interaction between the dancers. This is carefully rehearsed; the cues of who follows who regarding the time lag, markers on the wall as focal points for the absent dancer's gaze, stickers on the floor marking the range of the camera and the spot for closeups.
Rehearsing soft mirror was a challenge in itself. Communication had to be simple and direct, as the information took time to travel. Long sequences got mixed up or cut off by feedback, crossed signals created misunderstandings. Astonishingly, although these circumstances were annoying, they resulted in a strong feeling of responsibility and care towards the absent performer, who was exposed as being very vulnerable. Dancers are used to not always being able to see their partner or to have video monitors to orient themselves. This situation was different. Physical intuition was impossible. Knowing and dancing with each other for years, Caroline and Beppie eventually managed to extend their sensitivity for each other, to get used to their shared performance space and thus to overcome the distance.
II.2 two questions
Regarding the use of live videoconferencing situations in theater two questions come up:
--How does the public know that what they see is live?
--Can the public feel the distance (between the dancers) and does it matter?
To my great relief, these questions were not asked by people who had witnessed soft mirror in person, which indicates to me, that our attempts to encourage live interaction and thus emphasize the live event had been successful. The simple plot in soft mirror gives the performers room for incidental progression and improvisation and makes it clear to the audience that they are not witnessing a clever and well rehearsed trick. Additionally, providing the public with the possibility to experience on-to-one interaction with the absent dancer erases any doubt. Distance wasn't depicted by an exotic setting nor by a time difference. But you could feel it in a special tenderness that developed towards the absent Caroline - emerging in the rehearsal period and sweeping over the audience during the show, finding an outlet in the many personal thanks and wishes that were addressed towards her at the end of it.
The low frame rate, lagging and delay (because of poor and instable transmission rates) clearly indicate the material has become marked by its journey through time and space. On the internet, one is usually unaware of distances, but the distorted video images let us again feel the urgency of remoteness. 10
Scott deLahunta, founder of the online forum Dance & Technology Zone, writes on the mailing list in a discussion about connected performances:
"I found myself thinking about the nature of live broadcast and which are the live telecast events which normally get our adrenaline rushing and why.... "11
To which I replied:
"We travel in our mind, we are not only *there*, but there *now*!" 12
It is this effect that Paul Virilio describes as 'the loss of the horizon' :
"If the loss of the inaccessible far reaches is accompanied by a media proximity that owes everything to the speed of light, we shall also pretty soon have to get used to the distortion of appearances caused by the real-time perspective of telecommunications, a perspective in which the old line of the horizon curls itself inside the frame of the screen (...)"13
I DO FLY was a daily series of five hour long videoconferencing performances that took place over the course of five weeks in summer 1997 in the museum space De Paviljoens, Almere. Here I handled the matter of distance in a more metaphorical way.
I DO FLY was part of a group exhibition called Storm after Shakespeare's The Tempest. Intrigued by the figure of Ariel, an airy spirit who transforms out of the air when summoned by Prospero, I invented a telepresent character, played by myself, that visitors of the museum, connecting as Prospero's guest, could interact with. Curtains around the site created an intimate space where the simple videoconferencing setup was placed. My actions, costume and the use of poetic bits of text and language initiated a fantastic world for the visitors to join - built and decorated through words and gestures and our imagination.
Usually, one of the first questions, along with "who are you?" was "where are you?". My answer was ambiguous: "The time difference is nine hours." We had a very bad connection, even text took a few seconds to travel, the video coming in at one frame per second, which made it very believable to my visitors that indeed I was acting from very far away, when I was actually situated in another town in the Netherlands, about 150 kilometers in actual geographical distance. Sometimes this would develop into a quiz game; in naming all possible locations in that time zone around the globe, the search for a space soon became absurd. It became apparent that within a shared virtual reality the unity of time is essential, not the unity of space.
Whereas soft mirror had a linear plot development with a resolute ending, in I DO FLY a story would evolve along prepared linguistic building blocks in completely unpredictable ways: A fun trip through the air and over Prospero's island could suddenly end with my guest walking away in the middle of an exchange. Or the conversation wouldn't go further than my prepared introduction but then the good-bye could drag out ten minutes. Sometimes we didn't "talk" at all, but only mimic or play hide and seek - and most of all we enjoyed flying! ( fig.4) Conversation could become very cryptic or personal at times - essentially though, both the telepresent characters in I DO FLY and soft mirror remained unreachable. (see III.2.2 )
excerpts from Chat Window; I DO FLY on September 19, 1997 (fig.5)
are you shy
ariel: -we share here a moment of intimacy-
prospero's guest: it's difficult to look into each others eyes
prospero's guest: look into my eyes
ariel: it's impossible
ariel: we're in the looking glass
prospero's guest: looking glass?
ariel: alice's mirror?
ariel: we're on two different sides of the mirror
prospero's guest: i am a man, i am sorry
prospero's guest: are you what i think you are
ariel: same for you, BE WHAT YOU WONNA BE
ariel: I TOLD YOU I AM AN AIRY SPIRIT
ariel: i am what i think i am
prospero's guest: i become what i can not be
prospero's guest: ik begin wel erg filosofisch en kryptisch te worden, is dat de invloed van de airy
spirit, van onze intimiteit, wat doe je met mij?
ariel: LET"S PLAY GAMES THEN
ariel: WONNA JOIN ME?
prospero's guest: yep
ariel: you know hide and seek?
ariel: YOU GOT OI!!!!
ariel: YOU GOT IT!!!
prospero's guest: ik denk het wel, misschien
ariel: I found you though
ariel: you were in the upper space
prospero's guest: you'are wrong i am always in the kitchen at parties,
ariel: I SEE
prospero's guest: now!
ariel: CROSSROAD CONVERSATION
ariel: now is flauw
prospero's guest: now is how?
ariel: the watch dog barks bow-wow
prospero's guest: i feel i'm losing you
ariel: I GO I GO
ariel: on the bat's back I do fly
prospero's guest: do not leave me this way
ariel: YOU CAN ALWAYS CALL ON ME
ariel: ANY DESIRES?
prospero's guest: total ecstacy, the sky is the limit
prospero's guest: can a normal human being embrace an airy spirit like you
prospero's guest: wow you are fast
ariel: faster than the eye
ariel: light light
ariel: real time overcomes matter ----HAHAAAAA!
III. the telepresent figure as a new dramatis personae
III.1.1 the photographic double
What rests when the physical body is taken away from the human being? Merleau-Ponty describes the double existence of the body, as on the one hand the human body being a physical object in the world, on the other hand it is an experienced body, or a consciousness.14 I would like to suggest, that what rests on a material level, is an image. As souvenir the image becomes a carrier of emotion attached to a person, place and time. Even if it depicts somebody unknown, an image of a human body is more than a snapshot of an exterior, you read a personality into it, it draws you in.
In the early days of photography, people were struck by the awareness of a perspective so similar and at the same time so different from the human eye. The age old wish to hold onto time seemed to become reality, which spread enthusiasm and horror. The common fear, that the photograph could take a person's soul away, was paralleled by the development of images that were materializations of spirits. Through for example double exposure of photographic plates the apparition of a dead husband would appear next to his wife still alive. (fig.6) Spirit photography mockingly answers the ancient questions about human existence: is there a soul or consciousness, does it survive death and if so what does it look like?
Throughout history, the figure of the double appears to be closely connected with these questions, taking on the form of a ghost or guardian angel, the reflection in the mirror, the shadow or the portrait. Otto Rank provides us with a historical breakdown in Der Doppelgänger, nominating the 'immortal' soul as the first 'double' of the body, an 'energetic denial of the power of death'.15
Freud correlates the myth of the double with the sensation of the 'uncanny' feeling that it arouses. The 'uncanny' can be experienced while looking in the mirror or at somebodies painted counterfeit and has been used frequently in literature, especially in the romantic period.16
The greater the likeness of the double and the closer to realtime it's appearance, the stronger we react to it. For example: In Oscar Wilde's The picture of Dorian Gray the horror of the portrait lies in its power to depict Dorian Gray's features more truly than reality; reality is delayed, showing the illusion of a young body, that's actually decaying with age.17
Today's doubles go mostly unnoticed. Maybe there is simply too many of them - on TV, video, on monitors of the shop surveillance system - so that we've become accustomed to their continuous presence in our daily lives.
Still some of the less common specimens do evoke 'uncanny' feelings - the android for example - and raise deep questions about human existence, like the discussion around artificial intelligence. Today's 'uncanny' Doppelgänger imitates our behavior and intellect rather than human appearance.
We've gotten used to our photographic and filmic doubles as well as our bodiless voices on the telephone, but when using a relatively new technique like videoconferencing, the ephemeral and distorted record of the human figure strikes us again.
"... we will see industrial production of a personality split, an instantaneous cloning of living man, the technological recreation of our most ancient myths: the myth of the double, of an electroergonomic double whose presence is spectral - another way of saying a ghost or the living dead."18
In my latest piece klein getijden boek (small book of hours) by Riek Westerhof, performed on the 9th of December 1998 in the Grand Theatre in Groningen, the creation of a double was an important scene. Using live video manipulation software (Imag/ine by STEIM) I captured the live dancer Karen Levi continuously and with a short delay keyed the resulting video material into the live image. This twin sister which we called the afterimage, would follow the live image on foot or stay further behind, depending upon the processor's speed. The resulting choreography was a strange pas de deux, where the live image dances with her reproduction of the recent past; she runs after, bumps into, or while resting, merges with her double, this trace left in time. And although this replica can't do anything independent of it's predecessor, it undoubtedly, as soon as it was born, had a character of it's own. "Oh, she's slow today", Karen would say when there was a longer lag than usual. Or she would run and shout "Where's my twin sister, where is she?", when I had missed my cue to key her in. Definitely her twin sister was a moody, naughty girl, unreliable, unpredictable, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, no sense of timing - what a fine dancer!
During the first public performance, this scene took an interesting turn. We had an open setting, where the public was standing or walking around, focusing their attention on different projections on screens and walls and changing areas of action. For her twin sister to appear, dancer Karen Levi had to move into the reach of a camera, whose angle had been outlined with white tape on the ground. In this space, a group of people had settled, that were neither disturbed by the dancer pushing a few of them aside to begin her part, nor by the appearance of the camera's image on the opposing screen - showing themselves, surrounding the dancer. Karen needed more space to move, and followed by her newborn twin sister she compelled the audience to move aside. But of course, when stepping away, these people were also leaving a double behind, to slowly follow them out of the reach of the camera. This was a great moment of surprise - to us and to our public! (fig.7)
III.2 appearance of the telepresent figure
A telepresent character might literally appear as mirage, shadow, mirror image or apparition; as in a lot of theater pieces, ghosts appear symbolizing the unknown in the human condition, its potentialities and powers. In Nõ theater, spirits appear to warn about the future or to revenge the past, they are about knowledge and omnipresence.
In a contribution to Bruce Sterling's Dead Media Project, delineating the Fisher-Price Pixelvision , 'a lightweight plastic video camera, called the PXL 2000, which retailed at a cost of just under $100 and recorded its endearingly rudimentary black-and-white images, at ultra-high speed on a standard audio cassette' I found a description that perfectly applies to the nature of CU-Seeme imagery, linking it too to the in-between world of ghosts and dreams:
"(...) the camera lends a distinctively hazy, dream-like quality to almost everything it shoots, accentuated by a ghostly optical shimmer when anything passes too quickly across the screen. Contrastingly, the simple fixed-focus lens lets one get uncannily close to people or objects, miraculously registering both detail and depth. Even more strikingly, the images produced reveal an extraordinary sense of intimacy and spontaneity, as well as with a desire to experiment that is no doubt encouraged by the ridiculously small-scale costs."19
A body represented through media has a special attraction and countenance: it is infinitely maneuverable in our fantasy. Placed somewhere between the real and the spiritual world, it lends itself best as projection of our dreams and desires.
With very small quantities of actual data (short sentences, distorted pictures) we are forced to add emotional information to a virtual character - often much more so than in front of a real person with a concrete and defined presence and personality. Players of MUD's or MOO's, text based virtual environments on the internet, are fascinated by this notion of control over their virtual partners.20 It might also be the reason for the heightened sense of responsibility towards the telepresent dancer in soft mirror I described earlier and a subtle sexual attraction that made people want to seduce Ariel in I DO FLY .
Despite a great intimacy and spontaneity that can evolve throughout the interaction between geographically separated partners, physical contact is impossible; the other stays unreachable, as on the other side of a mirrored glass plate. This is most noticeable in the gaze, which remains somewhat empty and unfocused, as you can never look into each others eyes. This adds a certain pathos to the telepresent figure, a natural theatricality, that contradicts the widespread assumption of a lack of emotional impact when communicating bodiless in a virtual space.
On stage we are used to seeing objects that originate from reality as well as from the make-believe world of theater. In the playful abstraction of objects lies a great deal of the attraction of theater and part of the fun originates in the mind of the audience filling in the blanks.
Also when using new media, the question should not be, if what we see is prerecorded or actually live but if the presentation is believable and if it makes sense as a dramatic decision in the context of the piece.
The mediated world is something in between being real and not real, this can be used in theater not only as an attribute to characterize personages but also places, a certain part of the action or a mental state (e.g. a dream, a flash-back). John McCormicks describes the metaphorical function that a telepresent performer can have:
"The influence exerted by Wayne [the performer] was a metaphor for events or powers/circumstances, decisions made that are beyond control, yet may have a profound impact.(...) He was not seen as the 'real' person till the very end and so to me was an ambiguous presence in the work. Perhaps a rationalization, but the idea of a presence entering the work from afar yet having a direct impact on the events at this end seemed appropriate to the work and to the use of the videoconferencing." 21
The use of telepresence in performance opens up a new spectrum in the cast. In Shakespeare's time actor's used to be all male, but there were males playing female roles and males playing females playing males (As You Like It). Since women have become common on stage, added to these possibilities are females playing females, females playing males, females playing males playing females - and now: real or not-real or real-not-real performers, alive/living/live or not!
We experience life as a continuous switching-in-between and multilayering of different realities; theater playfully extracts the psychological effects this has to make a story of greater impact, a new form of storytelling emerges.
POSTSCRIPT: THE FUTURE
Right now, there's a lot of questions being asked about why we're using these new techniques in theater. We have to be aware of the seductive quality of newness and our public has first to overcome an initial skepticism. But with render times getting shorter and improving transmission speed and quality I imagine realtime imaging techniques and telecommunication to be well established in the theater of the future.
Laser beams will project three dimensional objects and figures, that, free from the need of any screen or reflective surface, can appear, disappear and move in space; from a floating head or hand could grow into a life size human body, a giant or dwarf.
"(...)there were ten seconds of complete darkness; then suddenly, dazzling and incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality, there stood the stereoscopic images, locked in one another's arms, of a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female." 22
The partners of these virtual characters - actors and dancers with concrete bodies - cannot transform as elegantly, but their public values this awkwardness as a special privilege.
Virtuality and reality merge seemlessly; performers either physical or virtual share one space - with very different physics and behavior. When a virtual character's image passes by an actor's body it might become half transparent, superimposed, whereas the solid body will block out the reproduction, or walk right through. Other combinations are: telepresence sensing telepresence, corporeal bumping into corporeal - the differences in demeanor and physics as a poetic picture for the richness of human existence and experience?
Only a small percentage of the public is actually in the theater space itself, the others are connected via sensorical devices attached to as many senses as each individual prefers. There are one-to-one experiences between a telepresent actor and a spectator as described by Neal Stephenson:
"(...)Miranda [the performer] was presented with screens of text to be read, and she read them. But she could tell that this process of probing and focusing was directed by the girl. (...) She knew that on the other end of this connection was a little girl insatiably asking why." 23
We will have a new branch of actors and dancers that specialize in performing in live broadcasting situations - comparable to TV actors today, who usually don't work in theater, as each medium demands different qualifications. To decide on a telepresent state to characterize a dramatic figure will be a normal routine much like selecting the costume today, the why being exchanged for the how.
The telepresent figure, no matter how perfectly represented, will remain discrete and as an intermediator between reality and simulation play an increasingly important role in the theater of the future.
1 Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theater, Addison-Wesley 1993
2 Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen, Simon & Schuster 1995, p.49
3 Although I will discuss primarily the visual components of my work, it is important to note that the sound aspect is always closely connected and can also be influenced by electronic media.
4 Marilyn Ivy on the "taishû engeki", 'small-scale, itinerant variety theater' in contemporary Japan, Discourses of the vanishing: modernity, phantasm, Japan, The University of Chicago Press 1995, p.194
5 motion capture makes it possible to capture and utilize movement data from e.g. a dancer in realtime and to map it onto an animation.
7 the term videoconferencing indicates the leading target of a technique that could better be described as a videophone: also due to high prices it's mainly used to bring business partners from different parts of the world together - in a conference around two half round tables. (fig. 1)
8 Suzan Kozel, MATERIAL MAPPING: Review of Digital Dancing 1997, http://www.art.net/Resources/dtz/kozel2.html
9 Nicholas of Cusa (Nicolas Cusanos), Of Learned Ignorance, trans. Father Germain Heron, New Haven 1954, pp. 78-9
10 An interesting question: would a perfect imitation of a video conferencing situation with all its technical shortcomings, but prerecorded instead of live or in the same building instead of a continent away, have the same effect? Aesthetically it would, but for a performer it makes a big difference to interact with prerecorded material or to engage with a live person. A good pretender acts differently than a real believer. The performer, though trained to make the illusion perfect, misses in his interaction with a proxy the risk human-to-human contact bears (a human being is always an uncontrollable aspect) which gives theater its great impact.
"(...) you have to look at it from both the perspective of the audience/voyeur and that of the performer, though ultimately the two become entwined. The best analogy I can find is that of talking to an answering machine. You engage with a prerecorded proxy for the person you would like to interact with. There is a certain amount of information stored by which you can derive meaning and attempt communication. But this is extremely finite and inflexible. And most importantly your own behavior is extremely different when talking to the proxy than when talking to the person. This then flows on to the audience' experience of the performers and performance."
Quote from dance-tech discussion list posting by John McCormick on 27/10/1998 04:40, subject line: jerwood spaces and telethings. Archives currently kept on DTZ http://www.art.net/~dtz/mailarchive.html
11 Scott deLahunta, Quote from dance-tech discussion list posting on 25/10/1998 12:33, subject line: jerwood spaces and telethings. Archives currently kept on DTZ http://www.art.net/~dtz/mailarchive.html
12 Isabelle Jenniches, Quote from dance-tech discussion list posting on 26/10/1998 14:30, subject line: jerwood spaces and telethings. Archives currently kept on DTZ http://www.art.net/~dtz/mailarchive.html
13 Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose, Verso 1997, p. 3
14 M.Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge 1962
15 Otto Rank, Der Doppelgänger, Leipzig 1925, Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag
16 Sigmund Freud, The 'Uncanny', Standart Edition of the complete Psychological Works of Siegmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919), the Hogarth Press, London
17 Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray, Leipzig 1908, Tauchnitz
18 Paul Virilio, Open Sky, pp. 39-40
19 from a contribution to Bruce Sterling's Dead Media Project, currently on http://www.islandnet.com/~ianc/dm/35/357.html
20 Barbara Becker at the TOUCH Symposium, Amsterdam 15/12/1998
21 John McCormick, Quote from dance-tech discussion list posting on 27/10/1998 04:40, subject line: jerwood spaces and telethings. Archives currently kept on DTZ http://www.art.net/~dtz/mailarchive.html
22 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Blackbirds 1996
23 Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, Penguin Books 1996