Technology and Performance: From Demonstration to Improvisation

Almost fifty years ago, Gibson Musical Instruments introduced the Les Paul electric guitar, recruiting one of the biggest names in music at the time to promote it. At the time it was a newfangled invention, possibly considered a novelty in an age full of new inventions. Within a few years though the electric guitar became established as an instrument of choice for contemporary guitar players, and the players quickly learned the many features the new device had to offer. Now such guitars are commonplace, and there is widespread interest in guitar playing throughout many cultures.

Video in many ways is still going through this initial phase af familiarization. While players of the video cameras and switchers are getting their chops up, audiences are still trying to figure out what "video art performance" is. How does an audience become immersed in such a technology-based medium in which it is difficult to tell what is going on?

I started out asking some basic questions about the background of performance in video art, not quite knowing what to expect. For many years, video art and performance have had a somewhat ambiguous relationship. It seems almost like an arranged marriage, one of convenience, where technology comes together with the need to present to live audiences. Having had the opportunity recently to talk to people involved in video and performance, from early pioneers to current innovators, I hope to shed some light from the perspective of these pratitioners of video performance.

It is useful to begin with a basic understanding of performance and the role it has played in culture, and eventually how media technology has intervened and transformed the nature of performance.

Music and theater have always enjoyed a rich tradition of live performance. They thrive on a kind of interaction with the audience that has been understood for centuries. It has always been acceptable and even expected for musicians to play out live to bring their music to an audience. In theater, there is no other option but to bring the performance before a live audience, in essence because theater was created as a live spectacle to be presented to the masses. Not that you can't do theater on your own in your home, but it is generally considered "practice", or worse, schizophrenic behavior.

Carol Goss pointed out that early performance was all largely scripted. Historically, theater works from plays which are precise scripts that allow for artistic interpretation, but usually during the rehearsal/pre-production process. Actor must know their lines, stage movements must be memorized, and the timing depends on everyone being in the right place at the right time.

The same goes for music. Beethoven's symphonies couldn't be performed if everyone hadn't learned their part satisfactorily. It isn't until recently in the 60's that we see a trend towards improvisation in theater, and it was really avant garde jazz music that brought in the flavor of improvisation into music in a highly visible way for audiences to enjoy.

This leads me to make some important classifications about performance. On the one hand we a form of historically grounded, script-oriented performance going back to the ancient Greek theatrical tradition, and classical music. But we also have an improvisational mode of performance which has surfaced more recently in which the script doesn't provide the same dynamic. In this type of performance, a live response from the performers to each other and to the audience is critical to form a dialogue which is at the heart of the artistic experience. It is, to use theatrical nomenclature, living in the moment, that immediate experience and response to it.

Somewhere along the way, these classifications blended together in a variety of ways, such that we now have musical groups that may do rehearsed popular songs and also improvise either within those pieces or within the larger concert structure. Also, stand-up comedy represents a form of theatrical improvisation that includes "routine", or "schtick", the comedians tried and true material that always generates a laugh when told in the right way.

In this shift from strictly scripted performance to a more improvisational based is an interesting mediation brought about by the advent of recording technology. It altered immediately perceptions about art, music, and theater by raising consciousness about live and recorded material. If music has been understood forever as a thing that must be played by trained or skilled musicians in such a way, then how does a recording of that same performance enter into the dialogue? In a sense, the technology serve to remove the social element by eliminating the need for having musicians playing a song where you had to be where they were at the time they were doing it. You could just as easily sit at home and listen to them on the radio or go out and buy their recordings and get the effect of their musical performance. Once we have embraced the recording itself as a legitimate art work, we have forever change the complexion of performance and its role in art. We find ourselves now at several interesting crossroads. Most notably, we are situated at the end of a century and poised to move into a a new millennium (literally) and we have seen the effect of technology in the arts and within performance.

The above description comes from a performance piece called "Blink Up," created by Screen, a Canadian-based performance group. I spoke with Screen's Eric Rosenzweig at the Upstate Video History Conference about some of these issues.

Eric believes that there is a problematic relationship for the performer and audience in these new types of performance in that they are modeled on old paradigms but based in new technology and presentation methods. I would throw into this shifting perceptions about the current state of contemporary art and performance and we begin to ask questions about this "problematic" relationship. The piece "Blink Up" embodies some of Eric's concerns with the appropriatenees of technology within performance, that is, addressing directly the role of the technology instead of just using a technology because it is available and it is something that has never been done before in performance. In "Blink Up," the technology used to track the eye movements is new and innovative, yet it also constrains the performers to a very tight place from which they cannot move. In this piece they are critiquing the constraining aspect of a technology that forces you into its pattern of operation, rather you forcing the technology into your pattern.

In the early 70's, while Walter Wright was the artist in residence at the Experimental Television Center, part of his residency involved touring around New York State with the equipment from the center. He would give demonstrations using the gear for all kinds of groups - schools, museums, colleges, community media groups, public access stations to name a few. Two things were accomplished in these intial demonstrations. First, the audience was educated about the nature of video and how it worked. Then they were treated to a short performance that showed the equipment at work. In that setting the audience was given everything they needed to know about video to enjoy the performance aspect. This blurring of the performance and demonstration marks the beginning of a new type of performance in which it was helpful to unveil or demystify the technology.

The question is, now almost 30 years later, do we still need this kind show and tell to be able to understand video in performance? Angie Eng of The Poool thinks it is time to move on. She joked about internet performances where half the show is spent explaining what is going to happen. It just doesn't seem necessary anymore. Perhaps now in the late 90's people understand enough about video to be able to enjoy a live performance of it. Except that the language of video is largely influenced by television - this is the type of education the average audience member gets about video: commercials, talk shows, sports, sit coms, movies, music videos and numerous other genres that have sprung up in the television format revolution. Where does live improvisational video performance fit into people's understanding of video?

Ultimately, this is not a question that can be adequately answered. For the performer, the primary issue is to address the aspects of art they find most interesting - the artist must be engaged whole-heartedly in their work. This may mean paying less attention to the response of the audience and instead focusing on the act of creation and satisfaction of their own artistic interests. For the audience, it means finding something in the work that is being presented that is of interest to them. The artists I interviewed feel that their work needs to be open to interpretation. It is up to the audience to take the next step and interpret based on their own experiences, rather than to try to read into what they think the performer is intending.

Out of this a language must develop. A language of video for live performance which is not based prior single channel video structures, television, or any other format but rather out of the sensibilities of those performing it, and those watching it. The work begun 30 years ago by such pioneers in video performance such as Walter Wright and Carol Goss is being carried forward today by groups such as The Poool and Screen. With this continued interest, there is hope for the future that video will find its place among the other performing arts and establish a significant presence in the arts.