The term “technical difficulties” is such a 21st century notion. I’m not sure when this phrase first appeared, but I have no doubt that this expression will fade anytime soon, due to the number of occurrences daily around the globe. No one talks about what it really means though, we all just smile and nod like we understand. What I like to believe it refers to is the concept of “perfect imperfection:” technology is used when we want something done better than the potential of the human brain, or when we want to do something outside of human capacity; however technology can, and will, let us down.
As technology becomes an increasingly explored topic in dance, I could not help but wonder what happens when this technology fails in live performance. Unlike humans, who have the ability to adapt to sudden, unexpected changes in their environment, technology is yet to become as specialized. One of the most interesting parts of live performance, in my opinion, is watching how the performers handle mistakes which inevitably happen at one time or another during a show. I have seen countless dance and theater productions where someone forgets their lines or choreography, and are tested to improvise or find a plan to compensate for their slip-up. But how does this work with technology? Technology cannot improvise. When technology fails in live performance, can the show go on? And if so, was the technology necessary in the first place? This is what I set out to discover.
But this concept of failing technology during a dance performance is an extremely specific thing even for Google to process. So I had to start more generally, and watched a TEDx talk by Reggie Watts entitled “What Does It Mean When Technology Fails?” In the beginning of the video, he dealt with the microphone not working properly, and briefly remarked on our society’s constant interactions with technology. But for most of the video, he just improvised onstage by playing a keyboard and singing. Although this example is not dance, it think this says a lot about what naturally happens when technology does not go our way, and it can be applied to dance. When technology fails, it forces everyone in the room to improvise: the audience chooses to care or not care, the performers choose how to adapt to the situation, and the technician can choose whether/how to fix the problem or let it be. It becomes a performance in itself, as the choreography of unexpected quick-thinking and problem solving or not solving.
However, different situations are bound to warrant different actions to be taken. For example, the way in which technology is incorporated into the performance has an impact in the outcome. While desperately searching the void of Google to find some information about failing technology, I came across a video of Pixel, a piece by Adrien M and Claire B. These artists, from a French dance company, used a variety of software and sensors to display projections of pixeled light onto the background and floor of the stage. The dancers’ movement causes the light to react and interact with them, creating a surreal, 3D performance. In this piece, technology is just as important as the dancers, if not more so. The dancing itself, while interesting in its own right, would be little if the technology randomly shut down in the middle of performance. How would the dancers handle a technical difficulty? More importantly, can the show go on without the technology? In this particular case, I don’t think so.
Other performances, however, cam continue if/when the technology fails, and these are performances where the technology is not as central. If a show has dancers dancing on a stage while something, separately operated, is projected behind them, the dancing could just continue if the projection failed. Or, in the case of Sophie Sotky’s piece, the failure could only enhance the message further. Stocky, in collaboration with Matt Romein, created a work called Head Munging, which comments on technology’s flaw in capturing movement and our over-consumption of it in daily life. Romein designed digital installations, “to create a feeling that it could all fall apart at any time.” In the first section of the piece, the dancers’ shadows are outlined in rough edges while the actual shadow itself is smooth. I found it intriguing that someone chose this as their inspiration for choreographic investigation, as I had never heard of a piece with that specific intention before.
In my hope to dive deeper in into the world of failing technology, I ended up in a different direction. Part of what fascinates me about failure in live performance is how the audience reacts. Did they notice? Do they care? I ended up reading most of an essay called, Kinesthesia, Empathy, and Related Pleasures: An Inquiry into Audience Experiences of Watching Dance by Matthew Reason and Dee Reynolds. This essay had nothing to do with dance and technology, but it did explore the various ways that audiences engage in dance performances, which I found fascinating. The highlight of the paper for me was the discussion of body-mind connectivity, and how audiences tend to have kinesthetic responses when they watch dance. The paper was mostly centered around a study, in which audience members with varying levels of dance experience watched a performance and then were asked to explain their reactions. Many of the participants made comments like, “it made me want to get up and dance” or “it made me tired just watching them.” I wonder what happens in the body and mind of an audience member when something goes wrong in performance? Also, do these kinds of responses still arise if technology is involved? When installations, such as a projector, is in the background, how do audience members juggle what to watch? If they choose to watch the technological component, are they missing the chance to kinesthetically respond to the real dancers? And finally, if technology happens to slip-up during a performance, does that bring about another kind of bodily response in the brain? So far, I have not found any literature that explains or answers these specific questions, and I don’t know enough about the brain to make any educated guesses.
I conclude this rather openly by saying that audiences play a huge role in performance, just like the performers, and that the issue of failing technology will continue to be a topic of concern the more we utilize technological features in live entertainment. Perhaps the tech enthusiasts of the world will find a way to program certain technology to learn how to improvise. That would certainly solve some problems.
- Header Munging: http://hyperallergic.com/133757/a-dance-of-digital-shadows/
- (top): http://www.fctv.org/v3/content/technical-difficulties-channels-13-and-15
- (middle): http://www.am-cb.net/projets/pixel-cie-kafig/
- (middle 2): http://hyperallergic.com/133757/a-dance-of-digital-shadows/
- (bottom): http://www.artsjournal.com/texas/2011/06/preliminary-data-first-experiments/