Brad Troemel, an artist perhaps best known for his work with the Jogging collective, claimed in a 2009 interview with the Counterfeit-Mess Blog that,
A couple years ago when I became a Photographer-hater, I realized that you can’t possibly explain the world through a single tool. I feel that way now in regard to The Art Project, that 10 projects can’t explain everything or anything either. All you can do is have a constant engagement with art, trying to find meaning. On Jogging, we, the creators, are the art and artists…Creating this way makes assessing/accessing our work on the whole difficult. There’s no fitting “grading rubric” for everything at once because the intent of the art is multiple. So, you can either assess every single work individually, or, you can assess us, ourselves, as the work.
The artist Duncan Alexander recently wrote a blog post which made a similar point regarding certain artists working on the Internet. Before making that point, though, he divides current net art practices into two (admittedly) very broadly sketched camps—on the one hand, those artists making work on the Internet in conversation with art history and, on the other hand, those artists making work on the Internet in conversation with the cultural history of the Internet itself. He, then, claims that for the “net historical” camp,
What matters…is not so much the individual artwork as the artist’s oeuvre and net presence. This is one reason why these artists don’t receive as much coverage – you can’t pin a work down as easily. Where most camp one works are one-way in terms of links (and this appears to be a strategic move), camp two relishes hypertext and cross-platform performance. Their work spills across the social networks that the artists inhabit.
Alexander’s division of the current net art paradigm into two broadly sketched camps is perceptive and works well as a shorthand. To my mind, though, the work of both camps is most potently experienced in terms of what he calls ongoing “net presence” as opposed to through an individual work. For example, Ryder Ripps, who (if we are going to follow Alexander’s “two camps” framework) is a member of the “net historical” camp, has created important work which explicitly embraces a plurality of production occurring in time; but the work of Jon Rafman, who is a member of the “art historical” camp, is also, for me, anyway, more meaningfully experienced when considered in terms of ongoing presence—even if this presence is less pronounced. Google Street Views and Brand New Paint Job, for example,are memes he’s actively improvising with in time; they are knowingly performed and are responsive to the demands placed on them by both general Internet culture and the history of art.
In the two previous posts on this blog, I’ve tried to work through a similar idea; namely, that the “aura” of an individual work of art in the age of the digital media network is, for better or for worse, not eliminated, but rather relocated. Instead of associating cult value with an artifact, one associates it with the live performance of the artist as he or she creates individual works of art and uploads them to the data cloud in sequential order. Following this publicly viewable sequence as it happens live is where meaningful artistic experiences are happening on the Internet. There are, of course, interesting individual works of art on the Internet, but that’s all they can be—“interesting.” Each individual work of art in the context of the incomprehensible amounts of artistic media on the Internet is leveled out in value to right around zero. For example, both the avant-garde music of Arnold Schoenberg and humorous videos of cats playing the piano are equally “interesting”—one no more qualitatively valuable than the other when viewed through a computer in the context of all of the other media one is able to consume on the Internet. The result of this is that those invested in reflecting on works of art in the context of the Internet are nudged towards following the artist’s live “presence” as he or she disseminates work in time. These live performances are where one is able to draw qualitative distinctions.
That said, there are a number of clear objections to this idea. One of those objections is that the use of the terms “performance” and, especially, “live performance” are problematic.
For example, for the performance theorist Peggy Phelan, the ontology of live performance is divorced from image reproductions and involves the co-presence of a limited number of bodies in the same space. Likewise, in the performance historian Chris Salter’s book Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance, Salter refuses to include a discussion of performance on the Internet even though he does so for many other “entanglements” of performativity and technology. For Salter, performance is necessarily “situated” meaning that, even if the stage is filled with technological gadgetry and television monitors intermingling with live bodies, the audience and performers need both be situated in the same physical space for the same amount of shared co-present time. The disembodied quality of Internet experience is beyond the pale of what one could call “performance.”
Before going any further, I should say that this aggressive line-drawing between what is real performance and what is not real performance makes a great deal of sense to me. There’s always going to be something more visceral about the sharing of physical space that needs to be preserved and honored. For example, jumping up and down and slamming into other sweaty bodies for an hour and a half while listening to loud, deliriously pounding rock music would be more exhilarating than the experience of watching the same music through a live stream on the Web. Similarly, physical contact during sex is not something that you could hope to reproduce on the Internet. I’m not interested in arguing against these obvious facts or diminishing the value of these experiences.
What I am interested in thinking through, though, is that there may be multiple ways to talk about a body which include both the experience of the body in a dance club in “natural time” as well as the body online, surfing through the Internet in “Internet time.” Again, I am not in favor of one conception of the body in time over the other; I do think, however, that it’s possible for one to seriously conceive of their bodies as being in two (or more) places at once.
In what follows, I’ll discuss several theories of performance working around these issues.
What is liveness? One way to approach that question is to ask, first, “what is not liveness?” For example, if one views video documentation of a live performance, is what one views really “live”? I personally don’t think that it is. Here’s an example:
Joy Division, the British post-punk band best known for its sparse sound and vocalist Ian Curtis’s baritone renderings of his own moody lyrics, was, for me, a band whose sound I liked, but had to be in a very particular head space if I was to be infected by it. That changed, though, after I viewed live concert footage of the band performing and, in particular, after I saw Ian Curtis performing.
As individual records, the songs are so dark and hermetic that they could easily lull one to sleep late at night; however, as live performances, they take on an opposed set of attributes—they’re charged and vital. For example, in a performance of “Transmission” broadcast from a BBC television studio, one views Curtis begin the song in a deep focus—he stands awkwardly, his eyes are almost closed, and he grips the microphone, holding it next to his mouth–as the tempo escalates and Curtis’s vocals follow suit, though, he moves the mic stand out of the way and begins making spastic movements—choppy running in place, circular motions with the index finger he’s pointing to his head, pushing the finger away as if pushing something out of his mind, and swinging his forearms in semi-circles. He goes deeper and deeper, doing what he can to get the words out the way he means them to sound, ending up in positions resembling Christian revivalists or the seizures of an epileptic (as a matter of fact, Curtis would occasionally go into epileptic seizures while performing).
There’s something unsettling about watching these performances as they go beyond irony—it’s not as if he’s joking. In a 1979 interview with the Northern Lights Cassette Magazine, Curtis spoke about this seriousness of intention in his performances, claiming, “Instead of just singing about something you could show it as well, put it over in the way that it is, if you were totally involved in what you were doing.”
If one is to view thedepictions of Curtis by actors in the films 24 Hour Party Peopleand Closer, and, then, compare those depictions to the mania in Curtis’ eyes when he’s in the grips of his performance, there’s really no comparison; it only makes sense if the artist is present, totally involved in what he’s doing.
But, all that said, is the video footage I viewed of Curtis on the Internet really what one would call a “live” performance? Despite all my enthusiasm for the liveness of the band, did I even witness anything “live”?
The OED defines “live” as, “Of a performance, heard or watched at the time of its occurrence, as distinguished from one recorded on film, tape, etc.” Similarly, Peggy Phelan claims that the ontological character of live performance demands that it disappears as it is enacted, that it only exists in the “now” of its performance. She writes,
Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction, it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.
Phelan’s argument around this ontology of liveness is complex and astutely weaves through dense theoretical terrain involving Lacanian psychoanalysis, speech act theory, and feminist critiques of representation. She takes a polemical stance not as an angry conservative reactionary to the forces of technological reproduction, but as a believer in the possibility of cultural experiences which resist commodification, simulation and the male gaze. For Phelan, live performance’s “promise” is its automatic tragedy, the fact that as one views the work, the work slips from one’s grasp, resisting representation and unable to be accurately reproduced, commodified, or otherwise “marked.” The video of the live Joy Division performance, then, would be missing the point of the performance as it tries to preserve what, by definition, cannot be preserved.
Perhaps what the video affords is the idea of the performance–the idea that the band was doing something other than playing music on well-produced albums; the idea that the band only makes sense when viewed “live.” With this idea in mind, I was able to appreciate Joy Division–an intellectual response rather than a bodily one. To actually be in a pub in the north of England in the late 1970s watching Ian Curtis perform would be powerful for precisely the reasons which Phelan suggests—it would be un-reproducible, demanding my bodily engagement in the moment. I’ll never be able to watch Joy Division perform live which is precisely what makes the live performance valuable for those who did view it—its mortality, its preciousness not as an object but as a stretch of unique time. Nothing like that occurs when I view the video—again, it’s the intellectual idea that Curtis did perform this way which I respond to in the video, not the performance itself.
This ontologically “pure” understanding of liveness has been criticized, though. For example, the performance theorist Philip Auslander has critiqued Phelan’s understanding of liveness, suggesting that there’s really no such thing as what Phelan describes as “live performance” because almost any performance in “mediatized cultures” is a jumble of liveness and media effects. Think of the fans at a baseball game watching the Jumbotron television screen rather than the actual players on the field or even something as simple as a microphone and amplifier which create a layer of technological interpretation of a live performance. Furthermore, think of the “live” television broadcast of the six o’clock news or the multimedia performance art of Laurie Anderson or Ann Liv Young. Don’t these performances involve both “live” and re-producible elements?
It’s not that Auslander is saying that there can be nothing like what Phelan describes, but that the actual condition of live performance as it is practiced in the contemporary moment is endlessly hovering between both pure liveness and a technological mediation of this liveness and, therefore, the idea of defining a fixed definition based on its separation from technological reproducibility is admirable, but ultimately futile. He writes, “Much as I admire Phelan’s commitment to a rigorous conception of an ontology of liveness, I doubt very strongly that any cultural discourse can stand outside the ideologies of capital and reproduction that define a mediatized culture or should be expected to do so, even to assume an oppositional stance.”
I agree with Auslander that the “friend or foe” lines drawn by Phelan in regard to technological reproduction sets up unrealistically high standards given the massive amount of cross-pollination there actually is between live and reproducible elements in a given work of performance. However, I believe that liveness as a disappearance, as Phelan defines it, is, nevertheless, still possible, still, for better or for worse, uncommodifiable, and, in fact, (and probably to the horror of Phelan) occurring on the Internet. What is my experience of, for example, a surf club or a tumblr blog or dump.fm if it’s not the unfolding of a live performance, un-reproducible as itself—a sense of presence to a unique stretch of time?
A point of contention here revolves around the word “body.”
For Phelan, this would be the biological body co-present to its audience in situated space. She writes, “Performance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward.” There is something crucial to performance in that one must go there and be co-present to it in the same “specific time/space frame.”
Similarly, in his book On the Internet, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus discusses the phenomenological differences between live performances and live reproductions of live performances. He contends that live actors “are, at every moment, subtly and largely unconsciously adjusting to the responses of the audience and thereby controlling and intensifying the mood in the theater.” Dreyfus’s dedication to embodied co-presence is not based on a whimsical prejudice against computers, but rather a deeply held belief, following Merleau-Ponty, that the risk and continuous re-adjustment process in which one seeks to get a “grip” on the reality in front of one’s eyeballs, is what gives this reality a sense of meaning. He writes,
Not only is each of us an active body coping with things, but, as embodied, we each experience a constant readiness to cope with things in general that goes beyond our readiness to cope with any specific thing. Merleau-Ponty calls this embodied readiness our Urdoxa or ‘primordial belief’ in the reality of the world. It is what gives us our sense of the direct presence of things. So, for there to be a sense of presence in telepresence, one would not only have to be able to get a grip on things at a distance; one would need to have a sense of the context as soliciting a constant readiness to get a grip on whatever comes along.
Dreyfus is skeptical about the possibilities of ever getting a “grip” on a world in which one is only present to via telepresence. His practical concern actually has less to do with performance than with “distance learning”—say, a simple lecture conducted via videoconferencing or a doctor teaching medical students how to perform surgery via a camera mount attached to his head.
I agree with this. I agree that Shakespeare performed on an empty stage to an audience of computer users is an embarrassing idea. I also agree that doctors cannot responsibly teach surgery to medical students remotely. These are human practices that need to occur in space and need to be preserved and honored.
My interest, rather, is in thinking through the possibility that as people begin to, for better or for worse, spend more and more of their lives on the computer and as certain specific relationships between these computer users and the ocean of cultural media which they consume becomes more and more a part of banal daily life, is there a way to have a new type of live performance, a live performance which creates new types of risks, new types of grips on the world? Is there a type of live performance whose actions are not imitations of those in physical space, but rather live performances of actions which could only be conducted through computing?
Could one perform Internet surfing through Internet surfing?
Or is that just nonsense?
One way to think about this perplexing question is this:
Through the course of one’s day, one moves through all sorts of different moods which define one’s relationship to reality. Sometimes one is anxious, optimistic, sexually aroused, quietly reflective, whatever it may be. None of those moods are absolute, but they each have a devilish power over one which creates the illusion that that one particular mood is, in fact, what is true. So with that in mind, on the one hand, if I’m in a mood in which I picture my body’s boundaries ending where the skin meets the air, then these performances on the Internet are not anything that I would ever be present to; on the other hand, though, if I’m in a mood in which I picture my body’s boundaries extending outside of my skin (say through various online representations), then these performances on the Internet are something that I may be present to.