Why do artists like to present their work to an audience? Isn’t it more time efficient to just film oneself dancing, singing, acting, or playing and then upload it to a platform in which people can watch? Why do artists want their work to be seen at all? These may sound like silly questions with obvious answers, but I think it’s more complicated once you start thinking about it. What is the role of an audience, and how does an audience impact a performance? How does that role change once technology is involved? Before getting too caught up in these bigger questions, I wanted to look first at performance in general. What characterizes a performance and what is the relationship between the audience and the performers?
I found an article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism written be David Saltz, called The Art of Interaction (1997). The article mostly discusses interactivity in computer art, but it also talks about performance in general. What is a performance? Saltz explains how, “one could say that an encounter with an artwork of any kind is a “performance” in that very generous sense. Reading books, watching films, and attending art exhibits are complex activities that transpire in real-time and involve living human beings. Books do not leap off bookshelves, open their bindings, and read themselves…” In his opinion, then, art, influenced by a human being’s actions, is considered a performance. Ok, I thought, but what distinguishes the word “audience” from “performer” if both can engage in some kind of performance? Saltz says, “The simple answer is: performers perform for an audience, while audiences “perform” only for themselves.” I would argue that oneself is a sort of audience, but perhaps I’m focusing too much on the details. The, according to Saltz, the presence of an audience is what makes a performance something beyond simply reading a book. I think this is an important and clearly defined distinction. So does this make the performers somehow better than the audience? Susan Kozel, author of Closer : Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology, addressed this for me. In her book she looks at, well, performance, technology, and phenomenology, and does this in an overly technical way. Before I went on, I had to look up phenomenology, which is, “the science of phenomena as distinct from that of the nature of being. An approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience.” Anyway, Kozel unveils that, “There inevitably occurs a tension between performance as construed through the arts and performance as it is relevant to the social sciences. This is unfortunate, not just because in the eyes of non-theater people performance is frequently deemed to be brittle or false, but also because in the eyes of many actors and dancers performance is seen to espouse movement that is somehow better, more skilled or more meaningful than everyday actions.” Is performing for an audience about showing something as ideal? Is this the reason for performance at all? She called this tension a sort of “snobbery” that exists in the minds of some performers, that the “betterness” of their work justifies the performance of it. I had never really thought about this, partly because I have never found the need to think about it, but the stage really is a place of utopia. Similar to films, performances in front of audiences are fake realities in which the audience can take something from or not, and then return home to bed without physically altering their own lives. Would the addition of more technological components make the stage more of an ideal? Or does it make the performance more relatable? I have yet to find the answer.
Stepping away from philosophy, I moved on to look at a contemporary dance piece called Being There by Clare Dyson (2007). This piece intended to look at how an audience interacts with dancers, especially when the dancers are presenting a personal, “real-life” kind of performance. I found a long clip of this performance, and it really was unlike
anything I had ever seen. The audience was arranged in a large square, with an area of white flooring in the middle that constituted the “stage.” The dancer alternated between dancing, talking, and sharing the stage with another dancer. At one point, she stopped dancing and asked the audience questions like, “how is everyone doing?” then, “what is she doing?” and finally, “what are you looking at?” To me, this last question was the most interesting: what is an audience looking at in a performance? What engages them? The piece continued, and several times a voice came over the sound system speakers and narrated a story, mostly talking about hardships a certain woman was facing. The presentation was riveting, personal, and almost uncomfortable, and I was just watching it from my computer screen! In parts of the piece, a spotlight was used to highlight the dancer, but other than that there was nothing unusal or interesting about the technology in the performance. However, the use of the spotlight did have a particular effect, for when the spotlight was used, the audience lighting went to black, which disconnected them from the performance. It made me think about the times I have performed and the times I have been an audience member, and the feeling of comfort when you cannot see the other side. As a performer, seeing audience members shifting in their seats feels distracting and nerve wracking, while being an audience member sitting in a space that is well lit can feel uncomfortable and almost invasive. So here, the use of light was used to connect and disconnect audience and performer.
From this insight, it seems to me that interacting with technology, whether interactive art, light, digital projections, etc., is easier and more comfortable, while interacting with a human performer can be more intimidating and personal. Why is this? I think it has to do with the “realness” of a live performance of human beings, and how we can relate to their movements, gestures, or speech in a way that connects us back to our own lives. This can be scary. Technology, however, does not always, at least for me, give off this effect. It is easier to approach a computer screen and stare into the pixels of light, but have you gone up to a person and stared for a time directly into their eyes? The experience is totally different, and often someone breaks eye contact out of shear discomfort.
So it seems that there certainly is a relationship between audience and performer, a chemistry of engagement. It is still unclear to me if technology enhances or hinders this connection, but I can see two different arguments. I think someone could argue that technology would disconnect the audience-performer relationship by adding another layer of distraction and area of interpretation. When viewing a piece like Merce Cunningham’s BIPED, the audience has to choose where to focus their attention at a given moment, so sometimes their attention will focus away from the performers. In addition, the technology in performances usually doesn’t come with a translator, for sometimes technology can be ambiguous and therefor requires interpretation that can distract the audience from the human performers. However, I can also see the argument that technology helps link the performer and audience member by using a medium that is so common and easily understood in everyday life. Most of us like visual stimuli as part of understanding and enjoying a concept, and when the audience sees a camera or something similar being used, it can be comforting because even if we are not sure how to interpret dancing, we know exactly how a camera works. Overall this concept of performer and audience connections is fascinating to me, and I hope to continue my investigation of it.
- Being There: https://vimeo.com/107222462
- (top): http://listentoyourmothershow.com/dc/audience-rapt/
- (bottom): http://ausdance.org.au/articles/details/the-authentic-dancer-as-a-tool-for-audience-engagement