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A short history of networked performance art
by Sara Diamond
Special thanks to Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre - they inspired this issue, and are in general inspiring!
The first inventors of communications technologies sought cultural expressions for these new technologies, centuries before the Internet. Philip Reis, who built the first telephone, produced telepoetry events as well as networked music performances. Bell duplicated public demonstrations such as these while finessing the technology. Both inventors saw themselves as artists as well as engineers.
In the MUD
From its beginning, the Internet was characterized by performance activity. Participants could own alternate identities. Role-playing was present, first in MUDs (Multi-User Domains) and MOOS (Multi-User Object Oriented systems), then in IRC (Internet Relay Chat), avatar chat worlds, and games where first person players build and control worlds, interacting with computer agents (AI-controlled characters) or each other. In shooters like Quake one is laminated onto one's character - one trades skins.
Historic preoccupations in performance art resonate in Internet works: What
is the body in space? What is the process of discovery? How can technologies
be inverted? Bruce Barber proposes performance as an engaged and committed task
of acting on culture: "The task becomes restorative and critical."1 This notion
of everyday task would be a perfect take-up for Internet performance. The Internet
wired and wireless are spaces where use peaks during working hours and where
multi-tasking characterizes the use of the medium.
Content follows form
For many years, telematic performance faced the challenge of getting the technology
to work. If (miraculously) it did, the simple recognition of human presence
was all that could be mustered. In the mid-1960s, Allen Kaprow, the father of
the "Happenings", linked five sites in a television event appropriately titled
Hello, Hello. In 1980's Terminal Art, Roy Ascott mailed portable
terminals to artists in California, New York, and Wales so they could participate
in collectively generating ideas from their own studios or public spaces.2
Hole in Space, created and produced by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz
in 1980, connected malls in New York and Los Angeles over three evenings: Life-sized
head-to-toe television images of the people on the opposite coast appeared -
they could see, hear, and speak with each other as if on the same sidewalk.
Later, in 1984, Nam June Paik, one of the initiators of video art, hosted Good
Morning, Mr. Orwell, a collaborative global telecast.
Creative content followed form. In Canada, the Western Front organized fax events: artists all over the world contributed part of a drawing, or the next bit of a story, creating an exquisite corpse. Pirate Radio forums began at the Western Front in the mid-1980s, led by Hank Bull and Eric Metcalfe, dovetailing later into Internet Radio and the hot international DJ scene. The Nowhere Men with Sylvia Scott et al created Speaking Pieces in 1988 using videophone technology and telephony to accumulate contributions from international artists. The World Tea Party (1993 to the present) celebrated the rituals of tea with tea ceremonies and tea drinking, linking Tea Parties in remote locations.3 Collective forms of performance flourished in relation to technology despite the tendency towards individual creative acts in live events.4 Digital media are now a core part of many performances - on stage, in public spaces, and linked to online and mobile media. The Digital Performance Archive provides a comprehensive online overview of the impact of digital media on English speaking performance practice.5
Improvisational, fringe, and cabaret theatre were other influences upon online
performance, as were (as they are to this day) the lacey weavings of improvised
music, spoken word poetry, and dance. I propose the notion of "mirror, mirror"
as another stage of online activity - matching a signal from one place with
the bit rate of another, enabling dancers to appear to contact improvise together,
or musicians to play in synch. Artists hope to defy both the speed of light
and packet rates. The research associated with real time transmission has long
been of interest to communications scientists and engineers, who have found
value in the attempt to synch precise cultural forms. The National Research
Council of Canada, Nortel Networks, CANARIE (Canada's broadband research network),
and Stanford University are still current players in this equation.
In 1977 NASA developed the Satellite Arts Project: A Space with No Geographical Boundaries. Mitsuko Mitsueda danced at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Keija Kimura and Soto Hoffman responded in Menlo Park, California. Their electronically composited satellite image appeared on monitors at each location. There is a thrilling moment when bodies, sounds, and images synch over geographic distance.
Initiated by Galloway and Rabinowitz, Electronic Café International6 began
as an artist network during the 1984 Olympics in L.A. It continues to this day,
with thirty affiliated international franchises. ECI uses the performing arts, creating "contexts" to support the emergence of new forms and content. Technologies
such as analogue telephone lines, digital ISDN lines, and video and Internet networking have been combined to link performers who act simultaneously in various
locations around the world. The ECI has described their practice as "conversation",
two-way or multi-point - a way of thinking that resonates to this day in the
ways that artists use the Internet as a space of elaborate dialogical performance.
ECI networked diverse cultural groups who were otherwise uncomfortable communicating,
or held false assumptions about each other. "In designing such spaces, we look
not only at their qualities and aesthetics, but how people interact when they
are disembodied and their image is their ambassador... Virtual space diminishes
our fears of interaction."7 Ulysses Jenkins, an African-American musician
and performance artist, created poetry and music conversations between communities
in Oakland and Los Angeles. White women poets from Beverly Hills and male African-American
spoken word artists became online artistic collaborators and then, finally,
face to face colleagues meeting over dinner. Jenkins came to The Banff Centre
as part of the Nomad project (1993-4), which included a series of early
Internet exchanges and online events using text and video phones.
In 1965 critic Dick Higgins described a sea change in his essay Boredom and
Danger: "Performing a task versus performing a show" characterized the new
field of performance art.8 Daily life rituals, and examining artists' conditions
in society and the art world, became the objective of art making, rather than
making the object itself. Artists used endurance, reenactment, or intervention.
At the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1978, Paul Wong built an eight-foot ceiling
cube with videos in the center and padding around the interior. He entered the
cube, dedicating the event to Kenneth Fletcher, a recent suicide. A grieving
Wong threw himself against the walls, encouraged by audience members who could
only see the video streams - other audience members entered the cube with him
and stopped his actions.
This demanding relationship with audience and mediated technology has carried
over into Internet performances. Coco Fusco and Ricardo Domingues's Dolores
from 10am to 22h (2001) is the story of a woman worker in the free trade
zones who stands accused of troublemaking at her job. Her boss locked her in
an office without food or water or a phone, and tried to force her to sign a
letter of resignation. She refused and sued the company. The boss and fellow
workers insisted to the judge that the events had not happened. Fusco notes
that some audiences for the online performances did not identify with the woman
victim, but rather encouraged her abuse, while live audiences were empathetic.
This led to Fusco's next play, The Incredible Disappearing Woman (2003),
"about art, sex, and death at the US-Mexico border. It is also about how and
why we relate to political violence via technological mediation." Fusco "put
radically divergent archetypes together in the confined space of a 'live chat'
room connected to the Internet" and then invited a live theater audience to
"watch a drama unfold that is produced in response to instructions from four
off-stage characters who appear to be transmitting them via the Internet to
three characters on stage."9
The Web can feed the flipsides of surveillance/voyeurism and narcissism/performance. Amateur Web cam performances such as Jennifer Ringley's Jennicam (1996-2003) dwelt upon the everyday of erotic life and became a popular phenomenon.10 For many years Canadian performance artists used live performance, video, and installation to provoke discourse about desire. Artists explored the ways that technologies mediate sexuality. Rodney Werden's Call Roger (1975) refers to 1-800 phone sex. Joey Morgan's 1987 piece nO fiXeD aDdrESs unfolded over a seven-week period as a series of telephone messages that suggest the ways that communications media dislodge us from locality to more global notions of home and identity.11
Artists have equally engaged in a rigorous critique of surveillance technology. The Surveillance Camera Players abide by a philosophy of being "completely distrustful of all governments".12 Since 1995 they have produced plays such as Denis Beaubois's In Case of Amnesia the City will Recall for surveillance cameras in New York City and international locations. Originally performing for the security guards and police responsible for viewing these cameras, they now gather larger Web publics.
The Desktop Theatre group is based at the University of California, San Diego's
Centre for Computing and the Arts, and led by Adrian Jenik.13 They create
desktop events, holding interventions in ThePalace.com and other chat
sites, and combining live performance with online theatre. "Desktop Theatre
is at its core a live, immersive, and often unexpected encounter," they explain,
and their poetry, condensed plays, and interventions into games and online spaces
create "transmissive friction" and allow "concentrated creative play".14 Desktop
performed Waiting for Godot in The Palace in 1997 during The Digital
Story Telling Association's Third Annual Digital Storytelling Festival.
The Association uses various forms, including the theatrical, to tell stories
from across the world on the WWW.15
Metaphors of difference
Gathering artists, thinkers, and audiences in diverse locations with activity occurring both online and in situ is common to Internet events. Beyond Hello, Hello, artists have found diverse cultural metaphors to help understand the bridging of differences, and food has always been one of the first means of hybridization for cultures. In LiveForm (2003-4) Michelle Teran and Jeff Mann created a telekinetic dinner table. They included live video streams, a tele-robotic talking fish, gourmet cooking, wine-pouring machines, a magic show, media mixing on the spot (using Keyworx software), and telematic toasts across the ocean.16
In fact, discourses about gender, sexuality, and cultural identity abound.
Cyberfeminists have engaged in hypertext theatre and performance for many years:
Queen Bees and the Hum of the Hive (1998) by Carolyn Guertin documents
extensive activity by women.17 Elsewhere, Studio XX in Montreal has organized
online theatre, performances, and musical events.18 These include online women's
singing events, and networked performances to commemorate the Montreal Massacre
where female engineering students were gunned down in cold blood. Beginning
in 1990, the French artist Orlan began undertaking a series of plastic surgery
operations as part of The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan.19 She intends
to become a hybrid of Venus, Diana, Europa, Psyche, and Mona Lisa. In 1993,
an online co-production between the George Pomipidou Centre in Paris, the McLuhan
Program in Culture and Technology in Toronto, and The Banff Centre featured
Orlan's operating theatre in New York, networked to other locations. Audiences
debated the nature of femininity and identity alteration as they viewed the
Maurice Benayoun, a French virtual reality and video artist, has also been drawn to the power of Internet communication. Tunnel under the Atlantic (1995) was a televirtual event created with Zone Productions, Montreal.20 It allowed users in Paris and Montreal to meet each other in a virtual tunnel packed with artifacts and sounds that characterized the French in Canada and the Canadian impact upon Paris. Users would build new artifacts as they collaborated in the tunnel. Audience members were asked to add audio - either song, conversation, or texts - to build the depth of the archive as a personal performance.
As the Internet and its many allied technologies mature in capability, networked
performance grows. Wireless technologies have added a new twist to the telematic,
with dispersed theatrical performances, sequential dialogue-driven stories,
and discovery and adventure games being distributed over devices as simple as
the mobile phone. Perhaps the dreams of the telephone's inventors are closer
to realization than they might ever have imagined.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.
1. Alain Martin Richard and Clive Robertson, Performance in Canada 1970-1990, Toronto: Intereditions and Coach House Press, 1991.
2. See Technology and Intuition: A Love Story? Roy Ascott's Telematic Embrace,
an essay by Edward A. Shanken, Department of Art and Art History, Duke University
Shanken states that this was Ascott's contribution to Robert Adrian X's The
World in 24 Hours, an electronic networking event at Ars Electronica 1982.
Also see Roy Ascott's "Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness",
and Robert Adrian X's "Communicating" and "The World in 24 Hours", all in: Art
+ Telecommunication, edited by Heidi Grundmann (Vienna: Shakespeare Co.,
4. Canadian poet laureate bpNichol was part of the Toronto Research Group who
created events exploring The Language of the Performance of Language.
General Idea held the Miss General Idea Pageant to explore the impossible
7. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, "Welcome to Electronic Café International",
in: Cyberarts: Exploring Art and Technology, edited by Linda Jacobson
(San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1992).
8. Dick Higgins, Boredom and Danger, in: Breaking the Sound Barrier.
A Critical Anthology of the New Music, edited by Gregory Battcock (New York:
E.P. Dutton, 1981).
12. You can find the Surveillance Camera Players at www.notbored.org/the-scp.html.
See especially Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment by
Michael Carter (1995), and Programming Note for The First Season by Bill
Brown (1996), both at www.notbored.org/scp-founding.html.
16. See http://interaccess.org/telekinetics and http://ubermatic.org/misha