Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Networked Performance

So, I am recently back from the Southern States Communication Association conference in Memphis where I presented a paper on my recent involvements with various art projects on social networking sites.  Principally, these include involvement with @Platea and Inter.Sect.  In the last year, I have participated in several "crowdsourced" happenings sponsored by these organizations.

My paper was on a panel about how folks are using iPhones and other smart phones in performance work.  My paper was mostly about my recent social networking performance work with a nod to how the iPhone makes that more possible, particularly because of its portability and the ways that it allows me to check in on and contribute to projects even when I am away from my desktop.

The presentation was generally well-received, although there was some skepticism from members of the audience less hospitable to virtual performance and social networking. In one case, an audience member had been pretty harsh about Twitter in a previous presentation, and I admit I took the opportunity to speak back to his suspicions.  I am hardly a Twitter-holic.  I think of myself as a "migratory Tweeter," flitting in and out of Twitter as projects, interests, or world events attract me to micro-blog.  But I don't think any of this work with new technology should be met only with disdain.  Moreovr, I grow weary of criticism made from the margins of experience; don't judge something if you haven't spent sufficient time trying and exploring it.

Mostly, the techno-suspicious asked two related questions:  (1) how do you find the time to do this work, and (2) isn't it somehow less authentic for not involving actual human contact?

In answer to the first, I responded that time is always a finite resource, and that all of our interests and activities take time.  We make choices about how to spend our time.  Work demands may limit our availability, but even work involves a certain amount of choice.  How we spend our time -- from reading to watching TV to making a family to participating in on-line communities -- is always a choice.  I find time to do this work (which is also play) because I choose to make time for it.  It engages me enough that I want to spend time at it.  I don't judge others for not making a similar choice; and I welcome those that do.

The second question is a little more difficult to respond to.  I am interested in the intersection of face-to-face encounters with computer mediated encounters.  I am interested in the sustainability issues addressed (and not addressed) by working in a digital, virtual medium rather than a material one.  So, for example, not having canvasses and photo prints cluttering up my studio has freed me to be more experimental in my art; much of my artwork now conveniently is made and stored in digital form. 

But given that we were presenting this work to Performance Studies scholars, this embodied authenticity question takes on additional heft.  Much of Performance Studies inquiry celebrates the body as an epistemological tool, performance as a mode of inquiry, etc.  How, some might ask, is all this social networking stuff an actual performance.  Sure, digital graphics and textual expression, but where is the body?

It's a good point, but I have never been comfortable making the body the ontological essence of performance.  Or, more accurately, making the body clearly on display the center of performance.  Is not this virtual performance an extension of puppetry or the clever mechanism, clear performance traditions predating the computer?  Does a performance stop if a performer works in a mediated environment and leaves the stage while some digital media "takes over"?  Moreover, just because you cannot see me working with these digital interfaces doesn't man that I am not here, making my gestures and leaving traces in a virtual world.  In some ways, doesn't the seemingly absent body of virtual performance more honestly point to the body as a social construct?  Perhaps the anxiety over presence in digital performance does more to reveal absence in so-called "real" physical performance.

By and large, though, my presentation (and others on the panel) were well received by most, in part because what we had to share made the case for us. That, in the end, is the best test for the value of something.  When you show folks what you are doing, do they at least find it interesting?  The work of performance is not a zero-sum game.  We need not force a choice between forms when a choice is not necessary.  There is room (some might even say need) for multiple forms of performance on multiple platforms of display.

For me, I think social networking and the Internet in general would be a dry and boring place if it didn't include and invite opportunities for performance. 

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