Peformance and Technology

What is the relationship between performance, technology, and literature?

At the turn of the century, the Futurists feverishly displayed their ideas about struggle and beauty in performances that involved everything from noisemakers to telegrams. The powerful influence of these experiments is reflected in the Happenings and multimedia performances of the 1960s that evolved into what we now call Performance Art. From performances like Robert Rauschenberg's "Open Score (Bong),” which involved five hundred volunteers gathered in total darkness performing gestures that were recorded by infrared cameras and projected onto three large screens to Bruce Nauman's video performances, including a recent piece created with footage from a camera left running night after night in his empty studio, technology and performance have had a long and endlessly various relationship. “Technology is part of imagination,” notes British publisher Michael Schmidt. “The very textures [of contemporary technologies] are part of the equation” (5).

What role does technology continue to play in performance? Be it a response to surveillance culture by acting out a silent version of a Beckett play before a security camera, an interactive performance over the Internet by Stelarc, a collaborative instrument fashioned from an abandoned grain silo in Canada that anyone with access to a telephone or the Internet can play (Silophone), or a digital version of a traditional verbal performance like storyteller Peggy Yocom's rendition of Walney Road, these performances prompt the question: What are the implications of this digitized work and where will artists go from here?

Paras Kaul (Brain Wave Chick) offers a provisional answer about the direction of her own work. She says that perhaps, as she continues to perform using brain wave/computer interface to create music, she will become practiced enough, over time, to write and perform a score. Or perhaps the spontaneity of the brain reacting to its environment will continue to dominate.

For Reneé Brozic, the question is not only where will we go from here but what do we obscure or leave behind? Does an interactive, web-based dance text, which allows someone at a computer to determine the order of text and choreography, fit into a tradition of dance or is it something else altogether? Can performance be so concurrently intimate AND impersonal? The idea of an audience that consists of one person while simultaneously existing as a wired audience, potentially of millions, may or may not be attractive to performers. Some performers understandably desire to pull audiences out of the box and into the theatre.

Finally there is the web as archive and information delivery system that allows the publication of information about performance and drama for students, and scholars, and artists, information that might remain less accessible in a world before the Internet. Angela Weaver's web site, for example, makes available otherwise hard-to-find information about contemporary African-American women playwrights. As Weaver says in her interview with Lorraine Brown, the web has the power to make small, ephemeral theatrical experiences into performances that audiences around the world could share by accessing the web and an email account.

This issue of English Matters can only provide a snapshot of what the intersection of performance and technology makes possible, but we hope that the verve and energy of performers featured here will press onlookers to rethink their ideas about what performance art is. Artists, writers, and performers will, no doubt, continue to inspire and challenge us as they both respond to emerging technologies and incorporate these technologies into their work.