Re: [-empyre-] networked_performance

Hi Helen, Michelle and all,

Please forgive my long prose here. I'm justjoining the discussion and
catching up a bit on the different threads so if I repeat things that
have already been said, please bear with me :) In the first posts you
raise a huge amount of questions and I would like to try and address
one of them. First, I appreciate that the definition of "network"
here is more broadly painted than just focusing on the
techno-glossalia of network technology. Having said this, however, it
might be fruitful to examine a bit what we mean by "performance" in a
more critical/philosophical context and how it could be distinguished
from other forms of static, object-based (and here I include
software) creative practice.

Indeed, unlike other uniquely digital forms such as the "database
art" or "code-based art" or software-based art or what have you,
performance in its traditional sense as a "situated" event that takes
place in real time and in physically situated space before a public
(I'll get back to these things in a second), is not solely dependent
on "technology" to constitute itself. Rather, it involves
coordinating and choreographing all sorts of messy, uncontrollable
things like space, time, human beings (both spectators and "players")
as well as electronic-mechanical-material-computational technologies;
things that can't be rendered, represented or reduced to the level of
inscription (or code). In other words, inscriptive systems like
digital computers can't necessarily capture or (re)produce all of the
unpredictable and potentially unstable elements that constitute a
real time event: gestures, noises, rhythmic fluctuations, shifts in
ambient phenomena (light, temperature, amplitude), movement and
dynamism of materials, changes in audience affect, and so on. The
interesting thing is that performance cannot be solely articulated,
let alone "embodied" by the kinds of schemas or modes of inscription
that tend to characterize other digital forms of artistic practice-in
fact, it is resolutely not digital. Of course, this doesn't preclude
the deployment of technologies, including digital systems, into an
event. This is an age-old question, regardless of whether we are
talking about network transfer protocols, sensors, fly rails or the
architecture of seeing that is constructed by the proscenium arch. A
quick glance at theatrical history, for example, reveals centuries of
humans grappling with machines in the context of the stage. The
"technology" of the crane that brought the gods into the scene of 5th
century Athenian drama was called the "machina" by the Greeks. So
already in the West as well as East (to make two big cuts), the
machine was implicit in theatrical performance. The question is
whether or not the deployment of such technologies actually has an
ontological effect on the experience of a performative event. This
question we should bookend for the moment.

But perhaps it could be useful for us to first look at how we define
and interpret performance across different scales-from the micro
level, so to speak, to the macro. First, we usually tend to think
about performance from the macro standpoint of the "performing arts,"
that is as I said earlier, a temporally and physically situated event
that takes place within the presence of a spectator (we'll get to the
live issue in a second). Here we might like to recall the etymology
of the word theater (not just what we think of today as dramatic
performances) which in Greek was theatron-architecturally, the
audience space where seeing could take place in the Greek
ampitheater. So, already the performing arts in this traditional
sense involve a relationship between event and viewer. This is the
specific context which performance is used most of the time, as a
live event.

Since there is already stuff flying on the list about liveness,
please allow me to me add my two cents in as well. There is so much
bruhaha about the concept of "liveness" (in the sense of the
assertion of presence) as the distinguishing factor of the performing
arts. The first is the common argument that if something is live it
is presumed to be happening in the here and now, in front of us-this
is the cornerstone of the old debates about presence. Thus, the
introduction of technical apparatuses into the live event complicates
this pure situation-obviously, that which is pre-recorded is not live
or within the context of distance-based events facilitated over
computer networks, one side is physically present while the other is
subjected to latency. We somehow assume that technical apparatuses of
reproduction (i.e., cameras, computers, etc.,) tend to somehow rob
the live event of presence. This strain of argumentation brings up
impossible to answer questions, for example, like how many
milliseconds of delay does it take before something is deemed as not

But the second assumption inherent in the word liveness is a bit more
buried-one that is layered with a strong anthropocentric bias. Now,
if we use liveness as the distinguishing factor it most of the time
refers to humans (and sometimes, animals) performing (which are live)
in real time and real space, here and now, but not to machines (which
are not human and thus dead-i.e., their animism is banished). This
is, of course, a nod to people like Latour who believe that the
animism of non-human systems has been patently ignored by social
theories of knowledge. Yet, if we use liveness in its other sense, as
something which is "alive" then this also assumes that we have the
ability to state what is not "live," which again in the context of
most discussions around the "live" performing arts focuses on that
which is not human. But, in the case of technical systems, then, how
do we describe the presence of a crane, or a mechanical or kinetic
device that exhibits motion and that is embedded into a theatrical
performance or, more to our context, a "network" (meaning here, an ad
hoc assembly of devices that through communication protocols can send
packets of encoded data back and forth between each other) of
wireless remote sensors picking up motions in a defined space,
shipping those numbers to another machine and having them ultimately
rendered into some sort of audio/visual output or "response." Are
these not live systems? So I it would be good to leave this well
trodden territory (performance studies has been grappling with this
over the last 30 years) as well as whether performance is now more
"mediated" than before or less live and sidestep these origin
questions in light of perhaps more provocative things that pull us
back towards the co-entanglements that occur between us humans and
machinic systems in artistic-aesthetic contexts.

Here I would like to examine a more nuanced notion of performance
that might be more useful for the discussion here; one that isn't
necessarily related to the performing arts at first site but that
might give us some clues on how to understand what role and affect
such "machines" (not just mechanical devices) have in the context of
performance as an art form. First, I'd like to use machinic in the
sense that Felix Guattari used it: not just referring to technical
systems (although they obviously play a big role) but all kinds of
apparatuses that have a kind of enunciative power-that is, they have
ability to force change or make marks in the world. What are examples
of such apparatuses? Well, language is one. This takes us to people
like J.L. Austin and the notion of speech acts; what he labeled
"performatives." Performatives are expressions or "utterances" that
don't just describe or represent an action in language, they actually
perform or activate something?like when one person in marriage says
"I do." This doesn't just indicate something, it acts as a material
force to change something. Language thus has a material quality but
what about other kinds of machines?

Another way this enuciative ability can be seen involves the idea of
agency-that things can "speak" (not just linguistically) and thus
catalyze a shift because they literally act as a force in the world.
This is what the sociologist of knowledge Andrew Pickering labels as
"material agency" - that things in the world exert material influence
and force: scientific instruments, for example, or the weather or
digital computers or whatever. There is something inherently powerful
and concrete about this notion of materiality of agencies and how
this materiality is enunciated through physical forces that mark the
world. Such "performances" are inherently embodied (yet another
distinguishing factor)-that is, they deal with something that is
experienced or, to borrow a phrase from Natalie Depraz and Francisco
Varela, "unfolds in an operative or immanent mode." Depraz and
Varela's notion aims to define what we mean by the word experience.
The idea of something that is immanent suggests that it unfolds
before us (like experience), in the "specious present" as William
James called it. Unfolding implies temporality but in the case of
materials exerting forces, such force also implies temporality, due
to dynamism and motion. So, perhaps performance might be
characterized by the immanent, real time expression of material
agency or better still, material utterances. Again, we don't
necessarily have to restrict the discussion to physical matter;
language, economic systems, etc., are not just composed of physical
material. This immanent quality potentially suggests an interesting
way of thinking about the ways in which performance grapples with
present experience that unfolds in an a posteriori way (but not
necessarily "presence" or the live). For our purposes, maybe we can
begin to imagine performance not only as an artificially constructed
event (all of the performances described in the blanket notion of
"networked performance") but also the context and act by and in which
different kinds of human and non-human material forces are
co-entangled with each other (Pickering calls is a dance of agencies)
and, in a sense, "co-produce" each other.

So, out of this context, the question I would like to pose for the
purposes of this discussion is what kinds of performances (and, by
fiat, experiences) are taking place in the various examples of work
that you both bring up as being representative of "network" (or
machinic) performance? What kinds of entanglements are occurring
between the different human and non-human forces? How do the machines
deployed generate affect, both on the side of the creators and the
public?  How and why does that affect matter?


Christopher Salter, Ph.D.

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