What can the theories of Postdigital and the New Aesthetic reveal about contemporary performance?

Living in the 21st century it is hard to ignore the presence of technology, but some argue that we are starting to do just that. Mobile phones, laptops, online shopping and on demand television services are all becoming (if not already a part of) everyday life. The mere presence of technology is arguably no longer as fascinating as it once was. As humans, we are more accustomed to using, seeing and being around technology. Our relationship with digital technology is changing, what was once fascinating could now be considered banal. When emails first became mobile it was exciting, convenient and extremely efficient. However mobile emails have quickly become annoying, interfering and inconvenient, even though we do still find them useful.

 

Postdigital and New Aesthetic theories offer us a way to look at our relationship with technology. They are not concerned with the fascinating spectacle of technology, but rather how we are behaving and reacting to the digital technology that exists in our lives. In this response I want to start to identify what these theories can offer us in relation to performance. Has ‘thinking digitally’ changed the way performance is constructed, and does our awareness of the digital network change our behaviour or perception? I will look at some of the overarching theories and debates that surround this topic, and then apply these theories to an analysis of a Blast Theory performance and finally look at it in relation to my own work.

 

Florian Cramer (2015) helps us define the term postdigital and starts his chapter by stating that the term “can be used to describe either a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical”. It is important to note the distinction here, this is not an outright rejection of technology, but rather a observation that we are less captivated with technology then we previously were. Cramer (2015) goes on to argue that this increases the popularity of older technologies such as vinyl records, typewriters, analogue synthesisers etc. Another important distinction to note is that the prefix ‘post’ should be read in the same way as in ‘post punk’ as Cramer (2015) explains ‘a continuation of punk culture in ways which are somehow still punk, yet also beyond punk’. We must then understand that postdigital in no way marks an end to digital culture, but rather a continuation of digital culture, evolving from our previous relationship with digital technology.

 

Cramer goes on to argue that the very distinction on ‘old media’ vs ‘new media’ is in fact no longer relevant in a postdigital age. The breakdown of this binary, along with the breakdown of ‘analogue vs. digital’ are at the heart of his argument. For Cramer the postdigital world is one where these forms coexist and no longer need distinction. For example, when I use my mobile phone to message a friend, I do not proclaim ‘I am going to digitally message my friend’ I would just say ‘I’m going to message’. I find this particularly relevant when talking about performance, which in its simplistic, raw sate (bodies in a space) could be described as analogue. The use of technology within performance for some can be considered as ‘digital performance’ or ‘digital theatre’. However, this distinction may be outdated, as we are starting to see technology appear in a variety of performances from experimental/contemporary work (e.g. Blast Theory) all the way into commercially popular and successful theatre (The National Theatre’s 2012 production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). The mere presence of technology no longer qualifies a performance to be ‘digital performance’. However, the fact that technology has a presence in performance, along with the performers and scenography is what Cramer describes as postdigital. The marrying up of analogue/digital and new/old media that is so evident in many examples of performance and is where I want to focus.

Alongside the breaking down of these binaries, another strong aspect of the postdigital is that, regardless of whether we are fascinated with technology, we all have an increased awareness of it, and an increased awareness of the networks which exist around us. Cramer (2015) argues that Edward Snowden’s “disclosures of the NSA’s all-pervasive digital surveillance systems” increased our awareness of the extent of these technologies. This increased awareness will no doubt begin to affect the way we behave as humans, particularly our relationship with technology, and Cramer uses the Snowden scandal as the reasoning for a resistance to some new technologies and the way we use them.

 

James Bridle’s theories of the New Aesthetic also look at our relationship and behaviour with technology and how this affects the way we are making and viewing different forms of art. Similar to Cramer, Bridle also believes we have an increased knowledge of the network, but decreased ‘fascination’ with technology. Bridle himself states ‘We live in a world shaped and defined by computation, and it is one of the jobs of the critic and the artist to draw attention to the world as it truly is’ (Bridle, J. 2013). In his 2011 video talk, Bridle identifies a trend showing the effect of digital technology on visual art. Many examples include the physical representation of pixels (a soley digital object), how our perception has changed thanks to the use of satellites and google maps, and how human behaviour has changed (e.g. the way our fingers now move to accommodate a touch screen, is vastly different from our finger movements 20 years ago). Bruce Sterling perhaps best summarises Bridle’s New Aesthetic by describing it as ‘an eruption of the digital into the physical’ (2012)

 

While Bridle makes a compelling argument, he only uses examples from visual and internet generated art. Using his philosophies of the New Aesthetic can teach us a lot about performance, as the trends that Bridle identifies are not just happening in visual art, they are happening in performance and in the theatre as well. Alongside the changes in human behaviour which Bridle explores, an understanding of the network seems to be at the heart of his argument: “Where many seem to read only incoherence and illegibility, the New Aesthetic articulates the deep coherence and multiplicity of connections and influences of the network itself.” (2013). The rise in popularity of old media forms (vinyl, cassette etc.) is where the New Aesthetic differs to Cramer’s arguments. Bridle argues that the rise in older media stems from a place of technical illiteracy: “This wilful anti-technicalism, which is a form of anti-intellectualism, mirrors the present cultural obsession with nostalgia, retro and vintage” (Bridle, 2013) He goes on to argue that this technical illiteracy is particularly prevalent in the arts. Indeed Cramer (2015) does note that almost all digital design courses have moved from art academies over to engineering schools. Perhaps then we have to see another binary broken down, that of the artist vs. scientist. The marrying up of these two positions can be found in Blast Theory who often use artists, computer scientists and engineers to create their work.

 

Matthew Causey’s 2016 article ‘Postdigital Performance’ has some obvious resonance with this topic and will be used along with the previous two theories to underpin my performance analysis. Causey’s exploration of postdigital culture is done so with explicit reference to performance. Similar to Cramer, Causey looks to break down the binaries surrounding digital technology, particularly in the theatre. He states “ it is unimportant to worry over what technology is used onstage […] the question resides not in the type or aesthetic use of technology, but in learning to think like a machine, digitally, or risk obsolescence’ (2016, p.440)

 

As we’ve seen in the other two theories, the presence of technology is not what is being interrogated here. The awareness of the network, the ability to think digitally and create art ‘in the language and discourse of the digital’ (Causey, 2016 p.433) is what the postdigital addresses. What Causey offers us, which the other two theories do not, in a set of structural elements, and significant components of postdigital performance. I will be drawing on these elements throughout this paper to see how they adhere to two examples of performance.

We can use these theories to analyse Can You See Me Now? (2005) a performance and game by Blast Theory. In CYSMN? Blast Theory performers (or ‘runners’) ran around the streets of a city, armed with a handheld computer, a GPS tracker and a walkie talkie. Online players would log in via a PC and control an avatar of themselves through a digital map of the same city.  Using their technology, the runners would chase and locate the online players. Once located the game would end for the player. Players could view the runners on the virtual map, listen in to their walkie talkie feed, and talk to other players via instant message. Runners could see a birds eye view of all other players and runners. It’s obvious that the piece can only exist with use of the network and advances in technologies, but looking at this with a postdigitial mindset helps us to discover the intricacies of the relationship of the physical and digital.

 

When looking at this piece I was immediately reminded of the New Aesthetic notion of “an eruption of the digital into the physical” (Sterling, 2012). Most notably because when we consider the ‘place’ where this performance takes place, we immediately have to consider both the digital city, and the physical one – this piece was simultaneously physical and digital. To ignore one aspect of this performance, or even to look at the physical and digital elements separately would not do justice to the work. Just like Cramer (2015) suggests, the binary of analogue vs. digital does not help us here. The relationship between these two coexisting is what makes this an interesting performance. Blast Theory themselves describe this collision of the digital and physical:

 

The experience was perhaps most successful when online players realized that their actions in the online world could affect events in the physical world, for example that the simple act of crossing a virtual line could cause someone to dodge real traffic. (Benford et al. 2006, p.108)

 

To be confronted with the physical consequences of our digital actions so immediately is unusual. I’m reminded of services like Amazon Prime where we can get next-day or even same-day delivery, but in CYSM? the players actions had immediate consequences for the runners. If nothing else, this allows us to reflect on the reality of our online actions and even allows us to have a glimpse of a converged world where our the response to our digital actions is much faster than we are used to.

 

Similarly to Cramer, Causey states that one aspect of postdigital performance is ‘the reality of the virtual’ (2016 p.434) this concept also subscribes to the fact that a binary of virtual vs. real is no longer useful in conceptualizing and performing within the postdigital age. The convergent space where the virtual and real coexist can be described as a ‘cellspace’ (Manovic in Barker, 2011, p.102) which is a “type of convergent space that exists when an invisible layer of information space, and what we traditionally think of as physical space, augment one another”. (Barker 2011, p.102) In this space, which we see in CYSMN? information is exchanged between the virtual and physical, and what we do in one space has an effect in the other space. This is not just the immediate consequence that I described above, but can have an effect anywhere in the global network. This is particularly true of CYSMN? as players logged on, not just from the location the game was being played, but from all over the world. It’s not just the place and space that become important in the cellspace, but also time. Causey (2016) suggests that asynchronous time registers were a notable aspect of postdigital performance, but in CYSMN? It’s arguably the synchronicity of time which makes it so compelling. There’s no recorded information here, the focus is on the present and the ‘now’ and the fact that our decisions can have immediate ramifications (whether in front of us, or further afield) is precisely what makes this particular peace thrilling. Although I will revisit asynchronous time registers later on in this paper.

 

Digital maps and GPS are discussed by James Bridle (2011c) as a reason for our change in perception. Thanks to google maps, we can now all see the world via satellite, something which was only previously available to a collection of scientists. Bridle argues that we never allowed ourselves to be fascinated with this privilege, and immediately used it for banal things such as driving directions. CYSMN? Directly challenges this banality, by allowing us to explore the possibilities of space and time, and illustrate how we can use maps creatively, engagingly and in a way that has a real, physical effect, not just a virtual one. What is perhaps most commendable, is that Blast Theory first performed this in 2001 – 4 years prior to the launch of google maps.

 

No world is perfect, and even digital worlds are subject to bugs, glitches, errors. Causey (2016) mentions ‘bugs and glitches’ as another aspect of postdigital performance. Throughout CYMN? runners were subject to inaccuracies in GPS,  network blackspots, batteries running out and equipment malfunctions. From reading the players message exchanges in Benford et al. (2006 pp. 113-114) these glitches actually appeared to enhance the overall experience. As runners would lose signal, and disappear from the map, players became more suspicious as to the location of the runner. Some players even took advantage of GPS blackspots for themselves, making it harder for the runners to catch them. Some players even thought the runners could control the GPS signal to their advantage, which wasn’t actually true. The bugs and glitches in this piece increased the uncertainty, risk and chance of the experience. The glitches actually enhanced the notion of the ‘present’ and accentuated the temporality of the piece which I discussed above. The glitches seemed to enhance tension and excitement for the players whilst at the same time reminding them that they were playing in real time, with real consequences and really exploited a notion of liveness. Not just being live in the ‘here and now’ but being live in a synchronised real and digital world, being live in the network, this is where this piece really flaunts its postdigital nature.

 

Alongside the work of Blast Theory, I want to look at these theories in relation to my own practice, specifically a recent scratch performance called ‘Subscribe’. In this piece, audience were invited in to a bizarre post-show discussion for a performance piece they had not seen. As the piece progressed, the audience discovered more about the show from the performer, who described a highly technical piece of theatre. Audience were show rehearsal footage via YouTube and found out that the content of the piece (which they never saw) was inspired by the new famous personalities rising from instagram, YouTube and other social media sites.

 

In stark contrast to CYSMN? this piece did not involve state-of-the art technology. In fact there was barely any set at all, only a projector, screen, computer, and a circle of seats for the audience and performer. Even without the technology associated with groups like Blast Theory, we can still look at ‘Subscribe’ in relation to postdigital ideas. As previously discussed, postdigital does not mean flaunting technological advances. Cramer (2015 p.16) actually describes how the simplest definition of postdigital actually “describes a media aesthetics which opposes such digital high-tech and high-fidelity cleanness”. The ‘cleaness’ described here comes from an association of digital perfection, which (as Cramer describes) can be illustrated by the sleek, neat blue tones which arise from a google image search of the word ‘digital’. Subscribe works against this stereotype of digital perfection on many levels, the performer comes on in untidy clothes, wiping his brow with a towel. The technology used is clunky and unprepared, the performer scrolls through pages, carries out YouTube searches and plays videos without going full screen in full view of the audience. As Carmer points out this isn’t necessarily to serve in opposition to the idea that digital technology can improve our life. It serves as an alternative reaction, digital doesn’t always relate to high-calibre, ultra-sleek technologies, and shouldn’t only be used to describe such things.

 

When making Subscribe I wanted to create a dematerialised peace of theatre, similar to the works of Tim Crouch, who best describes this dematerialised practice by stating “I minimize what’s happening on stage so I can maximise what’s happening in the audience” (Crouch,cited in Bottoms, 2009: 69). The idea here is that by reducing whats on stage, you can create a more active spectator by allowing them to imagine events for themselves. This is where we begin to see the ideas of the New Aesthetic and postdigital surface in a much more subtle way than before. In order for the audience to imagine the social networking sites described in subscribe, they need to have an awareness of the network and how it operates. 15/20 years ago, this performance would have been incomprehensible as people could not have imagined such sites or sharing video so quickly. I even tried to challenge the audience, at one point the performer says ‘in that section of the show I was trying to stage instagram’. Trying to stage instagram is a interesting notion, but is also completely subjective. Even this challenging notion wasn’t completely inconceivable, and at this point the audience could imagine for themselves what this would look like. It also was a nod to the New Aesthetic as staging instagram would be a physical representation of a digital form. When describing this moment, the performer mentions that he used polaroids to help stage instagram. This reference to old media is once again not intended as an opposition to digital media, but is suggesting that even the newest technologies are a continuation, an evolution of older technologies. Perhaps when referencing the old media (polaroid) alongside the fairly new medium of instagram, it works to illustrate the relationship between old and new media, and how we can use old media in new way.  Hence again the ‘post’ in postdigital does not signify the end of a digital era, and the relevance of the binary of old vs. new media is brought into question once more.

Unlike CYSMN? which seem hinged on a synchronised time register, Subscribe played much more with the idea of asynchronous time. Causey (2016) cites asynchronous time registers as another structural element of postdigital performance. Subscribe didn’t seek to synchronise the time registers of the physical and digital, but much rather exploit its asynchronicity. Digital technology has allowed us to record and reorder events and allows us to present, or re-simulate these events in any way we choose. Just like the stars of YouTube carefully order their videos into a seamless sequence, my piece was ordered into a reckless sequence. The audience attended the post show discussion, before they saw the show. The audience were then shown pre-show rehearsal footage, which had already been uploaded to YouTube in the middle of the post-show discussion. The screening of rehearsal footage did serve a purpose in this piece. It served as a semiotic sign, to suggest that a show had actually been made, and the audience were indeed at a post show discussion of an actual performance piece. The video (and many other signs) were built in to Subscribe to play with Baudrillard’s (1994) notion of the hyperreal, which I argue is extremely present in many YouTube vlogs. The YouTube video in Subscribe did not exist to flaunt technology, but it is only because of advances in technology that it was able to happen. As Causey states the flexibility of digital technologies allows us to ‘reorder various virtual modes and inhabit and perform our identities and “lived experiences” within those spaces” (2016 p.434). This postdigital rhetoric is not informing us of wider world of possibilities here, but actually giving an explanation and reasoning into the structural elements of a performance, it argues that the very way an artist chooses to communicate with their audience is effected in a postdigital age.

 

In closing this paper I want to reflect on what we have revealed about contemporary performance by using ideas from the New Aesthetic and postgitial theories. The initial theories surrounding this topic all point to the breaking down of binaries. No longer are digital/analogue, old media/new media or real/virtual useful ways of looking at performance. While these binaries may have some logical use, they also look to separate the human relationship with technology, which seems such an established relationship in 2018.

Looking at CYSMN? Was a perfect example of breaking down these binaries, instead of creating a digital city or a real city, the performance created a convergent cellspace where our digital and virtual actions were married up and had genuine consequences. Blast Theory also break down the binary of artist vs. scientist, by having a team of technicians, computer scientists and performance graduates working on any given project. The bugs and glitches throughout CSYMN? Did not appear to hinder the performance, but instead accentuate it’s temporality, uncertainty and liveness.

 

Applying these theories to my own work revealed that even with the absence of high calibre technology, a piece could still be considered postdigital. This resonates with all three of the theories which speak not of a spectacle of technology, but of an awareness of the network having an effect on art  and even human nature. Looking at my own work illustrated that postdigital does not align with the sleek neatness once associated with ‘digital’ and the rise of older technologies, and the DIY movement are just as much a part of postdigital as any state-of-the-art technology.

 

Causey (2016) offered us a set of structural elements which could be applied to both performance examples, and revealed some reasoning as to how the postdigital is affecting the artist’s mode of communication. Alongside Causey who draws similarities between postdigital, and posthuman theories., both Cramer (2012) and Bridle (2013) mention something that it is perhaps the biggest reveal of these theories. It is not just art, or performance that is changing in the postdigital age, human nature itself is changing. As our relationship with technology changes, so does our behaviour. Humans may have designed the digital world, but now we are changing our behaviour to accommodate it. As Bridle (2012) states “we now live in a world that we share with the technology, to some extent that we’re building, but to a huge extent is also shaping the way we behave”.

 

Bibliography

 

Barker, Timothy. 2011. Re-Composing the Digital Present. Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, 1, pp.88–104.

 

Baudrillard, J., 1994. Simulacra and simulation, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.

 

Benford, S. et al., 2006. Can you see me now? ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(1), pp.100–133.

 

Bottoms, S. 2009. Authorising the Audience. Performance Research, 14(1), pp.65-76

 

Bridle, J. 2011. Waving at the Machines. [Online Video]. 5 December 2011. Available from: http://booktwo.org/notebook/waving-at-machines/. [Accessed: 4 January 2018].

 

Bridle, J. 2013. The New Aesthetic and it’s Politics. [ONLINE] Available at: http://booktwo.org/notebook/new-aesthetic-politics/. [Accessed 4 January 2018].

 

Causey, M, 2016. Postdigital Performance. Theatre Journal, 68 (3), 427 – 441

 

Cramer, F. (2015). What is Post-digital? in D. Berry and M. Dieter. (eds.) Postdigital Aesthetics (p.12-26). London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Sterling, B., 2012. An Essay on the New Aesthetic. Wired.  Available at: https://www.wired.com/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/. [Accessed 3 January 2018]

 

University of Nottingham, 2005. Can you see me now?,[DVD] London: Blast Theory.

 

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