The Meaning of Liveby Sarah Maxfield
What makes a performance live? Is it a shared energy in a single space at the same time? Is it the smell of sweat? Is it simply an agreement between performer and audience?
As a maker of live performance who spends considerable time online, I am increasingly curious about questions of live-ness. By “live-ness,” I mean the sense that audience and performer(s) are present together in an exchange of energy. Traditionally, this energy-exchange takes place in a shared physical space, but is such an arrangement a requirement of live-ness? Do performers and audience have to be connected in space and time in order for live-ness to be felt? Can performance be entirely mediated by technology and still be live performance?
To investigate these questions, I began curating and producing a solo performance relay for the Internet called One-Shot. For the pilot year of the series, 11 dance artists each created a solo performance specifically for online presentation, and another nine artists will continue the series this spring. Each piece is created in one day at the Gibney Dance Center (co-producer of the series) and recorded in one take from a fixed camera angle. The consistent studio location and fixed camera angle create a sense of relay between the artists and also provide a certain “control” for the experiment, which is designed to aim the focus on the solo artists themselves—each artist’s unique interpretation of a consistent framework, highlighting creative individuality in a manner mirroring our cultural, creative use of other fixed online forms like Twitter and Tumblr.
That the performances in the One-Shot series are each recorded in one take is crucial because it serves to maintain a certain element of live-ness in the recorded performances. But is that element enough to evoke a feeling of live-ness in an audience? Film and video artists have explored a space/time-shifted relationship with audiences for years. But primarily, with the exception of attendance at specific opening events or very particular films (Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! with live narration and Foley sound comes to mind), one does not have a sense of live-ness in a film audience. By contrast, watching a film often feels like “escape.” This is also a fascinating experience, but it is different from the feeling of a two-sided exchange of energy that I mean by “live-ness.” (Though, even at the movies, where escapism has sold popcorn for generations, live-ness is growing, notably with the increasing popularity of the Metropolitan Opera’s live performance simulcasts.)
Television has offered us a hybrid relationship to live-ness for years. While watching television, it is possible to be connected to the screening of a show—the performance—in time, without being connected in space. This connection in time gives us a sense of being “with” others for “live” broadcasts such as sporting events and award shows, but also for pre-recorded “must-see” events like Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
The Internet goes even further with this live/non-live hybridization. Like television, the Internet allows for audiences to be connected in time without being connected in space. Unlike television, however, the Internet also allows for response to be registered in real time.
This ability to gather immediate responses—in the form of “likes,” “views,” “tags,” “comments,” etc.—makes the online space much closer to live performance than film or television. It is nearly live, connecting us so closely in time and facilitating such easy communication from “both sides of the screen,” that we almost feel as if we are in the same space. In the early days of chat rooms, there was an illusion of shared physical space. As we grow to be more adept users, the Internet begins to blur the need for shared physical space entirely.The Internet’s nature as a real-time, constantly shared space creates a feeling of live-ness, even when we interact with content and commentary that is not changing. There is always the sense that it could be live again—any minute now.
In addition to potential re-animation at any moment, content on the Internet is practically permanent. Even content that is deleted or removed can generally be recovered through all sorts of entertaining and terrifying tactics, giving an online performance a disproportionate primacy over a traditional live performance work. This imbalance mirrors a certain primacy that is emerging out of online life activity over offline life activity—or, if not primacy, at least a growing desire to chronicle one’s every move in a public and permanent forum. Many of us now spend much of our lives “performing” our identities online. We create and edit our personas, constantly checking for responses. The body language of a live audience has mutated to communicate through the mediation of technology. Applause has a new form.
I am intrigued by this new interpretation of live-ness. I am also fascinated by the current widespread phenomena of performing identities, and the publicizing of that which is personal. This is a primary reason that One-Shot is a series of solos. So much of our current cultural interaction takes place when we are physically alone, yet connected to a crowd of friends and strangers through technology. This adds a heightened element of voyeurism to our viewing of content, which affects the power dynamic between the performer and the viewer in online performance, as compared to traditional live performance.
The power to control time is also shifted to the viewer when performance moves online. In a traditional live performance, an audience member may either choose to stay or choose to walk out, but generally, the performers/creators determine the length of the performance. In an online performance, the audience may choose to fast-forward, rewind, skip, or pause, in addition to the choices of stop and play. This adjustment creates different considerations for artists, but does it preclude live-ness? Logically, the answer seems to be “yes,” but my experience of watching performance online is not so straightforward. My sense of time, space, and my physical self change when I’m online. Perhaps we are discovering time-travel after all.
I am still passionately interested in live performance that occurs in shared physical space and time, and the dance artists I select for One-Shot all work primarily in this kind of space. Yet it seems to me that, increasingly, live space includes online space. One-Shot is an expedition into an increasingly settled frontier.
The second season of One-Shot begins of April 5, when the first performance will be posted online at www.vimeo.com/channels/1shot. The series will continue with a new online performance each week through May 2012.
SARAH MAXFIELD (www.sarahmaxfield.wordpress.com) investigates contemporary performance and its history through practice, discussion, and critical theory. Maxfields performance and curatorial work has been presented by numerous venues in New York City and beyond. Maxfield contributed Context Notes for the Dance Theater Workshops final season (2010 - 2011). She serves on the New York Dance and Performance Bessies Awards committee. Among numerous other projects, she currently curates two ongoing performance series, and she is conducting an oral history of experimental dance and performance in New York, which will be compiled into a book titled Nonlinear Lineage.