Traditionally, academic conferences are structured according to very formalistic protocols that constrain access, dialogue, and participation. They tend to be hierarchically organized around speeches, papers, and other one-way modes of delivery and reception. At the same time, they are often exclusive affairs, constraining access to those privileged academics with the time and resources to travel across the world. And like traditional theater, conferences are typically situated in proscenium-style seating, in which a speaker addresses a facing audience in the one-to-many transmission of information. Even the temporal arrangement of the conference demands that the majority of time be allocated to the one-way broadcast, with scant time available for many-to-many, peer-to-peer forms of dialogue and interaction (except perhaps for the coffee breaks and meals) that empower and engage the attendee.
So the question I ask is the following: how can conferences be disrupted, become unconventional? While I have been transforming the social space of the theater for some thirty years to alter the hierarchies of live performance, with the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium, I have attempted to translate radical theater experimentation to the format of the conference in order to open up the potentiality for what I refer to as creative dialogue: discourse that is open, fluid, non-hierarchical, and unfiltered. The Internet has proven to be the ideal theatrical edifice for challenging the norms of a conference gathering, using the third space (the convergence of the local and remote into a shared social space), as a medium for re-energizing and activating live discourse in new, virtual ways.
With the recently held Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium (March 29-31 2018), a collaboration between Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore), and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the power of transmitting information has been shifted from the speaker to the attendee, creating a shared responsibility for communicating ideas. The Symposium has been conceived as a platform for not only exploring and debating concepts relevant to the networked arts, but also as a new medium and platform for its performance. In this sense, there is also a transfer of power from performer to viewer, in which the viewer-as-participant gains agency in the reception and response to a live work of art. Now that the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium has reached its conclusion, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on how the event altered the role of the viewer. One of the key questions we asked with the Symposium theme of Social Broadcasting: An Unfinished Communications Revolution, is the following: how might the third space be used to alter the traditional mode of the broadcast (or in the larger sense the one-way transmission of information), in order to heighten and expand viewer participation in live performance and creative dialogue? How might we transcend distance, geography, and cultural differences – the utopia of networked Internationalism that Maria Chatzichristodoulou questioned in her keynote – to redefine and in fact reinvigorate the performance of live art.
In our current age of the post-real: when truth, fiction, fakery, and deception have co-mingled in the public discourse, we also ask how hybrid third space digital environments – as keynote Matt Adams discussed in the work of Blast Theory – are used to test our ability to critically examine the dissolution of boundaries between the real and the virtual, between free will and hierarchical control. While it may not be possible to answer these difficult questions in any definitive way, it is our hope that the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium for three short days, provided a model for giving voice, and yes… power to the viewer, in the experience and critique of live performance art in the third space.
Our third space concept of social broadcasting begins in the first space, the physical world, with local participants seated at the table in a non-hierarchically configured “theater in the round” as the hub of the event. In the background (Figure 1) you see the projection where remote speakers and audience are situated in the Web-conferencing platform of Adobe Connect. When you combine these real and virtual spaces, where communication transgresses distance and separation, you form a third space environment as a shared, socially-participatory broadcast medium that collapses the local and remote.
The Adobe Connect Web conferencing platform (Figure 2) contains multiple, simultaneously broadcasted channels that include the speaker’s Webcam, Powerpoint presentation, and audience chat. Maria Chatzichristodoulou, delivering her keynote on the history of telematic art from her home in London, in which she detailed the prominent players in networked performance going back to the 1970s, was accompanied by a non-stop flow of online viewer commentary: a simultaneous litany of questions, responses, digressions, and interjections. More than 80 online viewer-participants were distributed across more than twenty-five countries around the world in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. The following is a sampling from the chat:
A close-up reading (Figure 3) reveals a dynamic dialogue, delivered with spontaneous rapidity, typos and off-the-wall commentary, which surprisingly does not disrupt the keynote address, as it would in a traditional conference format. Rather, it complements, enriches, and informs the experience through collective, real-time conversation. The viewer is essentially engaged in an unfolding stream of crowd-sourced interpretation, in which viewers are free to express and annotate the keynote with the immediacy of reactions that might include explanation, context, argument, links, and historical references. Many of the local attendees in Singapore were following on their laptops and mobile devices as well, in order to participate in the third space dialogue where, interestingly enough, the real action was taking place.
Annie Abrahams’s online performance work, Online En-semble – Entanglement Training (Figures 4 and 5), in collaboration with Antye Greie, Helen Varley Jamieson, Soyung Lee, Hương Ngô, Daniel Pinheiro, and Igor Stromajer, was made specifically for the distributed medium of the third space. Seven performers dispersed across Asia, Europe and North America used their Webcams to broadcast objects, body parts, and other visual and audio elements scripted from instructional protocols calling for spontaneously aggregated online actions. These actions questioned and playfully articulated the veracity and quality of the online medium itself, in all of its latencies, errors and momentary lapses: a form of training, perhaps, for navigating our increasingly entangled third space habitats.
It was clear from the performance that the viewer played a key role in this unraveling of entanglements. For without the online audience, the performance might have existed in a broadcast vacuum, like television, a transmission to be watched passively and uni-directionally between the performers and audience. However, the chat-based viewers were co-mingled as many-to-many textual voices in the third space, actively engaging with one another to reshape the experience of the performance, adding their own context, expanding the work with richly layered nuances of dialogue, meaning, play, and interpretation: social broadcasting with many voices, or as Marc Garrett of Furtherfield commented: “real-time DIWO” (Do it With Others). This social broadcast format thus broke down the barrier between performer and viewer, blurring the distinction into shared role-playing, word-play, and social interaction that traversed geographical and temporal boundaries of place and location.
The next day our traveling Symposium moved to LASALLE College of the Arts (Figure 6) at the invitation of Steve Dixon, LASALLE President. The evening was focused on the work of Matt Adams and his UK-based media collective Blast Theory, well known for their creation of interactive performance works that blend real and virtual environments in socially participatory public and online spaces. The Symposium format was an ideal complement to the work of Blast Theory – as though we were participating in one of their performance realizations – with many of the local attendees in Singapore traveling seamlessly and simultaneously across the local and remote via their laptops, co-mingling and interacting with approximately 60 online attendees who were distributed around the world.
Matt Adams presented a chronology of Blast Theory works (Figure 7), which included Kidnap (1998), Uncle Roy All Around You (2003), I’d Hide You (2012), and My One Demand (2015). Blast Theory has reimagined the possibilities and experience of performance art and its relationship to digital media and viewer participation by avoiding traditional theatrical venues, instead, inserting the work directly into virtual and public spaces. While maintaining a healthy criticism of the utopic potentialities of the Net (as opposed to the telematic optimism shared by many of Maria Chatzichristodoulou’s historical citings), nevertheless, Blast Theory’s work elevates live art in new ways, precisely, by empowering viewers in networked spaces and situations that demand the viewer’s input and participation. In this sense, the work of Blast Theory (though they may not agree) explores the revolutionary implications of social broadcasting by breaking down hierarchical relationships in live broadcasted performance art, activating the viewer’s role by making them central to the narrative and outcome of the work.
Each day of the Symposium concluded with a lengthy, one-hour global roundtable discussion, which opened up the seminar-style seating configuration of the local venue into an expanded, virtual roundtable that was geographically dispersed via the Web conferencing platform of Adobe Connect. In the above screenshot of Adobe Connect (Figure 8), Matt Adams is joined by co-moderators Steve Dixon (Singapore), Maria Chatzichristodoulou (London), local attendees (Singapore), and online attendees in the chat space from around the world. Additionally, online moderators were assigned to the chat, most of them highly prepped professors and PhD students, who helped direct and focus the conversation. Questions were then relayed by local and remote moderators, back and forth, thus creating a dynamic creative dialogue across the third space that engaged both physical and virtual audiences as active players in a distributed conversation. This form of discourse was ideally suited to exploring the hybrid performance environments that are fundamental to the work and social critique of Blast Theory.
For the final day of the Symposium, we moved to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Jon Cates and his collaborators Roberto Sifuentes, Aram Han Sifuentes, Arcángel Constantini, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, 愛真 Janet Lin & Paula Pinho Martins Nacif (XXXtraPrincess), performed a new work entitled igaies: (intimate glitches across internet errors). Unlike Annie Abrahams’s online work, igaies was created specifically for a physical performance/installation, with the exception of Arcángel Constantini, who performed online from his studio in Mexico City, and the social media broadcasts of 愛真 Janet Lin (US) & Paula Pinho Martins Nacif (Figure 9).
The performance installation of igaies was conceived as a projected, walk-through environment coupled with a multi-camera Internet broadcast that sequenced through several individual performances (Figure 10). These included the snapchat-layered and hashtag-infused XXXtraPrincess personae of Paula Pinho Martins Nacif & 愛真 Janet Lin (US); Roberto Sifuentes & Aram Han Sifuentes and Jon Cates performing #exsanguination, a mediational and meditional cleansing ritual of leeches, blood and glitch noise; concluding with Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s bondage apparatus and slow, processional dragging of a display monitor across the performance space (Figure 11).
Given the physical nature of the performance in Chicago, local audience attendees played a more critical role in the work as they were invited to freely explore the space, photograph the performance, and participate in a dramatic ritual closing in on Sifuentes as they hovered and formed a circle around the scene (Figure 12). The viewers added a powerful sense of intimacy and empathy to the performance as Aram Han Sifuentes delicately applied leeches to Sifuentes’ face while wiping away streaming currents of blood. Even in a performance broadcasted online in the third space, there is still ample opportunity for achieving engaging, localized, sensory, face-to-face performer-viewer interaction in an integrated open theater of the first space.
Igaies was perhaps a fitting finale to our experimental Symposium that attempted to break the constraints of what constitutes a keynote, a dialogue, and a live performance: by giving agency to the viewer, empowering the viewer to play a more active, participatory, and influential role in narrative, context, interpretation, and other facets of the performances as they unfolded. Media theorist Pierre Lévy wrote in his book Collective Intelligence (1994):
“Rather than distribute a message to recipients who are outside the process of creation and invited to give meaning to a work belatedly, the artist now attempts to construct an environment, a system of communication and production, a collective event that implies its recipients, transforms interpreters into actors, enables interpretation to enter the loop with collective action.”
As the prevailing techno-culture increasingly encourages migration from physical realities to third space virtual interactions, the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium has demonstrated new possibilities for how artists work, perform and engage in discourse via the medium of the Internet. We have attempted to construct a “temporary autonomous reality zone” in the third space to locate, explore and examine social, participatory phenomena, with the hope of moving the communications revolution forward. Of course, as we all know, every revolution is an unfinished project, but perhaps, we are a little bit closer to a better understanding of the collective power of the viewer brought about by the social broadcast.
See the complete archives of the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium: