Jester in the Router: Rupturing aesthetic in telematic performance

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Nov 30, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)



Jester in the Router: The Aesthetics of Rupture in Telematic Performance

Bob Giges and Edward C. Warburton


“If technology and bodies are seen …in terms of flows of energy or
intensity or as fluid dynamics, then there is ground for collaboration.”

Susan Kozel (Birringer 380)

In 1966, Roy Ascott articulated a cybernetic vision in the arts that began with the
premise that interactive art must free itself from the modernist ideal of the "perfect
He proposed that the artwork be respo
nsive to the viewer, rather than fixed and
static, suggesting that the “l’esprit cybernétique” offered the most effective means for
achieving a two
way exchange between the artwork and its audience (1967). Ascott’s
notion of what he came to call “telematic

art” is paradoxical in a theatrical context.

vision of
networking as a shared activity that is “both dance and an
embrace” would seem to have direct relevance to live performance (especially in dance),
but the question remains whether

performers on stage experience the interplay with their
remote counterparts in any kind of meaningful way, whether the “embrace” is mutually
felt or merely a theoretical construct. Of equal importance is whether
Ascott’s embrace
extends to the audience in

telematic performance. Does it stop at the edge of the stage
ecause the audience member is in some ways like her counterpart at a traditional
theatrical event or does it afford her a kind of participatory role that bridges the gap
between front row and p

Over the past several years, these tensions have been examined in a series of
experiments in multi
site distributed performance. What follows is a first
description of creative discoveries in the theory and practice of live telematic
ormance as creative director/theorist
(Edward C. Warburton)

videographer/theorist (Bob Giges) of an experiment in transcontinental dance over
Lubricious Transfer


ECW: The first time I saw a live, multi
site distributed performan
it not only appeared chaotic, it seemed canned. Watching live
performers framed by projected images on a large screen, I saw an
alternating pattern in fixed syncopation that quickly became
monotonous. One person on one side spoke, sang, moved. Then

other person on the other side spoke, sang, moved. The
audience might as well have been watching performers in front of a
video projection of a pre
recorded performance. On the whole, it
was stilted, awkward and not at all aesthetically interesting.

I ca
away with a pressing question: is simultaneous distributed


performance any different than dancers performing in front of pre
recorded images? In other words, does it matter that the images an
audience sees correspond to

remote performers? If multi
performance is to transcend, aesthetically and historically
the technocrat’s answer (“because we can”) the director must
define remote presence as central to what one might call the
telematic way of world
making. Like a long
distance love af
fair (cf.
Ascott’s “telematic embrace”), one needs to know not if one can,
but if one

insert space into the relationship…

Traversing Disconnected Spaces

Telematic performance posits an obstacle in order to change the nature of
performer relationship
s, inventing a new language that would be superfluous and
unnatural in proximity. The artwork harnesses remoteness, forcing artists, performers,
and audiences alike to confront an “absence” and to engage in the act of bridging a
physical divide. Ascott (19
90) suggests that pursuit of the elusive (i.e. the remote) fuels
the emotional energy or “love” in the “telematic embrace.” The bridged relationship
works with different kinds of tension than are apparent in traditional performance. The
challenge is to wo
rk with the embodied presence of the performers on stage, while still
incorporating the newly accessible qualities of the images and sounds (of live performers)
imported from the remote locale. But the notion of place in “cyberspace” is itself an

Speaking to internet searches/surfing, Michael Dertouzos said, “We’re not going
anywhere … but the world of information is coming to us” (Knott 11). If cyberspace is
itself a metaphor, telematic art conjures up a related metaphor, that of movement across

the space (Donati and Prado 437). This so
called movement in telematic work does not
require moving bodies; rather it is the illusion that collaborators have been transported to
another (remote) place.

In contrast to telematic “transportation” suggested
by a display screen (whether a
monitor or a reflective surface on a stage) , in a choreographic work like
, performers are in fact going somewhere, moving about the stage. In so doing,
they provide an embodied contrast to the electronic
bridging of distance suggested by
telematic technology, thus creating a tension between the body in motion and the static
body disassembled and reassembled across a network. The active body in motion
dialogues with the passive and immobile images of bodie
s transported. It is in the
intersection between the illusion and the embodied that the telematic performance work


ECW: The stage manager’s control booth looks like Mission Control
ready for launch. Research assistants, board operators,
network technicians stare intently at cameras, computers, and
television monitors. I check the status of our network connection. It
has been unusually slow all week, weighed down by heavy traffic.
As the assembled cast and crew of fifty suggest, what w
e are about


to an attempt is not an everyday event, not a normal transmission
over the usual network, and certainly not the time for a stalled

BG: Tonight, performers in New York City and Santa Cruz,
California are preparing for
Lubricious Tran
, a collaborative
work specifically developed for simultaneous live performance at
two sites. This unusual dance performance is connected by a

performance communication link called the
bilene Network

Lubricious Transfer

requires continuous two
way streaming of 6
channels of video and 12 channels of audio between New York
University and the University of California, Santa Cruz (i.e. three
video streams and six audio channels in each dir
ection). For our
performance to work, we need guaranteed, uninterrupted
connectivity of approximately
100 megabits per second (Mbps), 50
100 times faster than a typical consumer grade DSL connection
and much, much more reliable.

While high
speed transmissi
on is
absolutely indispensable in joining remote, simultaneous
choreographies, it is nevertheless invisible to the audience. The
transfer of lyrical choreographic passages as high
speed data fuses
the fast and the slow, though the human observer fails to p
the velocity of transmission, instead focusing only on the form
transmitted. The suture of high
speed and low
speed goes on
virtually undetected

Polysemic Performance

In a telematic performance, the audience is in two places at once. Lacking the
eye view to the event in its entirety, viewers sit in one theater (e.g. New York or
California) and see one group perform live and the other as light thrown on a screen via
camera, codec, switcher, and projector. The human form exists simultaneously i
n the
immediate three
dimensional space and also as a dematerialized flicker of lights
projected onto a flat screen, and the audience is required to sustain a split consciousness
that bridges the two. The live performers in the theater are clearly “here,”

while the
screened images are “there” (but also live) and the audience is asked to make sense of
this juxtaposition of the remote and the proximate coupled in real time.

Audience members at each site have a point
view that is necessarily
incomplete if t
he totality of the telematic work is considered to be the composite of its
distributed component parts occurring simultaneously in multiple loci. Due to the varied
relationships of distributed audiences, each performed gesture finds multiple iterations

therefore multiple meanings. There is no singular “right” relationship, no absolute
center from which to view the work in contrast, for example, to the optical naturalism of
perspectivally constructed artwork with embedded image distortions that are made
appear “right” to the frontal observer. The multiplicity of viewpoints in a telematic work
denaturalizes any one observer’s perspective; while all observers’ views are interrelated
and connected, they are nevertheless distinct. If audience members becom
e aware of the


partiality of their site
specific view, they then have a sense of something bigger and more
complex in the shadows. Each a synecdoche, the view at each site comes to stand in for
the whole. The partial alongside the whole is at the very hear
t of telematic art praxis: to
“coexist/operate in several ‘worlds,’ to be ‘at home’ and at the same time itinerant and
‘distributed’” (Donati 438). The meaning of the work comes out of holding these two
worlds together.


BG: On the videographer
’s deck, I listen through my headset to the
technical director confirming
live feeds from local and remote sites.
My camera view provides a window through which our counterparts
in New York see our part of the bicoastal duet. I’m one node in the
network th
at connects “our” stage with “their” stage. My musings
are cut short by the technical director barking “PLACES!” into my
headset. Fifty cast and crew coast
coast are set into motion.
Lights, cameras and computers set. Cue 1: GO. The stages glow
as that
familiar “Connecting…” symbol projects onto 16’ tall screens
encircling the stages, illuminating the performers. A squawking
‘handshake’ sound
file plays the archaic noise of interacting
telephone modems. “Connecting…” It tickles us to use this sound
as a stand
in for the super
charged Internet2, a sound symbol
that is readily understood by the savvy audiences on both coasts
who laugh at the gesture. On our headsets, we hear the surreal
soundscape of laughter bouncing from California to New York and
ck again. It’s a validating moment, confirming the actual
connection, promising that we will in fact be able to do what we
have come to do. But promises are made to be broken. Three, two,
one. Nothing. I look on
stage where the ellipse following
g” flashes mockingly…where’s New York? Nothing. No
connection. Then it gets worse. The California musicians think
we’re starting, and the piece takes off

New York. California
dancers go for a very long first minute until our technical director
ges to stop the runaway performance. But the dancers are
lost on stage, out of position. M
aybe this was a bad idea. After all,
how much creative control can an artist expect to have, given the
bugs, failures, and latencies that networked systems inevitably


Performance Energetics

The risk of losing network connection is a fact of telematic performance. When
the network connection failed in the opening performance of
Lubricious Transfer
dancers seemed at one level to be unaware of the break; yet the
y also seemed to sense
that their distant collaborators were no longer present, a realization that altered the
energetics of the performative moment. The dance seemed unusually stiff, as if to


compensate for the loss of control implied by our truncated ens
emble, half of the dancers
now out of reach of the collaborative impulse. Some months later, in the performance of
a different telematic choreographic work, we were compelled to substitute video images
when a network connection failed. The performance that

night seemed deflated and lost,
lacking the exuberant energy, the “wide
awakedness” (Greene, 1978) that typified other
performances of the same work when the distant collaborators were online and “on

Like the movement of information across a netw
ork connection, an encoded
transfer of data occurs among performers in any dance ensemble. Dancers transmit the
verbal language of the kinesthetic through movement that is then received via the
visual and kinesthetic senses of fellow dancers and “decod
ed.” When that ensemble
includes distant partners, the performance energetic moves in an expanded circle: among
performers onsite, to those offsite (via data networks), and even from performers to
observers, and back again. A dancer thus senses the telemat
ic connection, accessing the
energetics of bodies on

and off
screen, on

and off
stage. While she may not explicitly
know that the network is down, that the connection has been broken (and that video
replay substitutes for the real thing, for example), he
r “body knowledge” nevertheless
informs the performance. If the “telematic embrace” is broken, Ascott’s “love” is lost,
and this loss can be felt by dancers and audiences alike. Conversely, when the telematic
embrace is intact, the pulses of the data netwo
rk extend beyond the cables and pass
through the bodies of the dancers themselves.


BG: Following the technical director’s cue, the stage manager
feigns casualness as he strolls on stage with a dry mop, as if
sweeping around each of the dancer
s. Imagining that his entrance
is all part of the performance, the audience laughs in approval,
unaware that he is whispering to each performer to reassume the
starting position of the piece.

I am startled to again hear the California audience’s laughter t
to New York and bounce back. Knowing that this means we our
reconnected to New York, I stop holding my breath. How funny that
it is the sound on our headsets of our audience reacting to our
mistake, transmitted to New York and back to California, tha
signals us to begin again. The images of dancers in New York pop
onto the screens in California (and visa versa). The audience takes
a coordinated breath in, a gasp of surprise.

ECW: Our connection with New York has been established, but
now the middle
screen is flashing on, off, on, off. It’s as if someone
is flipping a switch. Is it the network, the computer processor, the
video camera streaming from New York, the projector displaying
the image in California….a ghost in the machine? Some might call
experimental, surreal but to me, it’s just irritating. Later, I am told


that some audience members thought it was an innovative turn,
simulating the flickering signal of a congested network in order to
call attention to the constructed nature of the telema
tic performance
itself. I suppose I am not that clever because as it’s occurring in
performance, I am not amused. I turn to the technical director and
give him a pleading look, as if to say, “Please. Make It Stop.” At
that moment, he reaches down, at last

finding the offending cable
and pushes it the last
nth of an inch. Like magic, we return to a
clear, crisp, non
flickering projection of New Yorkers dancing on the
California stage…

Disrupting Immersion

In showing remote performers on a screen, a telemat
ic work like
Lubricious Transfer

connects the immediate space (the stage on which the screen
sits) with a distant one (that which is shown on the screen). The audience member
sees both within and beyond the border of the screen and so becomes aware of
ontinuous space

that he is in one space and not in the other. This brings to
consciousness the constructed nature of the work: when viewers consider their
relative position to the work in this manner, they become aware of the constitutive
processes in play

that affect what they perceive. Where a single
site work may
invite an audience member to “lose herself” in the performance, dislocated from
the present
time experience of sitting in a darkened theater, telematic performance
continually reminds the viewer

that the stage
space is only a part of the whole. In
the tradition of Brecht’s

(the alienation effect), telematic
performance work by its very nature continually disrupts audience immersion in
the diegesis of the performance space, invi
ting viewers to reflexively consider the
mediation in play. There are

incomplete and context
specific viewpoints,
and as a result, the genre provokes reflexivity, discouraging uncritical
consumption of movement, image, and sound.


BG: An a
ltogether different kind of rupturing occurs ten minutes into
the show. Now by design, the dancers transform into streaks of
color on screen. We’ve complicated the work by explicitly
manipulating the video feeds using
Jitter software
. Like an
expressionist artist, our Jitter designer adds color and special
effects, splashing digital media like paint onto to the projected
images. The audience sees dancers’ bodies outlined in white,
turned electric blue and then saturate
d in a sea of saffron orange.
Movements are shifted in time, repeated and reversed. The dancer
images resize to gigantic proportions then disappear in a burst of
stars. Each effect brings a new surprise. All eyes are riveted on the
scene, shifting between
live and projected dancers, subject to each
audience member’s unique articulation of this interplay

no one’s


experience is quite the same as the next person. Two breaks in the
performance: one accidental, the other by design. In retrospect, it
occurs to me

that they are not all that far apart…

Mediatization, Delay, and the Conviction of Liveness

From the very beginning of telematic artwork, the rupturing of audience/user
immersion has been a defining aesthetic element because of inherent latency in any
ematic configuration. Latency or delay is a consequence of long
distance transmission
of electronic signals and their return, reflecting the fast but ultimately finite speed of data
transfer. In a telematic performance,

when viewers see two iterations of p
erformers that
are not in sync, they are seeing the latency made manifest. For example, the West Coast
audience of


saw its live dancers in two places: a) on stage in front of
them and b) on the screen inside the frame behind the New Yor
k dancers (in the projected
video feed from New York). When California viewers compared the two, they saw that
the live dancers were slightly out of synch with the projected image of these same
dancers. In the moment that the audience sees the frame within

the frame at a perceptible
delay from the live, they in a sense

the liveness of the event, authenticating the
time suturing of the proximate with the remote.

Where latency is an intrinsic aspect of telematic performance, digital

of the (delayed) images received is a matter of deliberate aesthetic design.
Like latency when made visible, the digital transformation of projected images of remote
dancers invites audience members to reflexively consider the construction of the artwork
unfolding before them. In addition, digital manipulation of the projected image blatantly
alters the otherwise naturalized form of the dancers, defamiliarizing the accepted
correspondence between the camera image and the real. In viewing the surreal image
s of,
say, a dancer who appears to be surrounded by fire, the work invites the viewer to
consider the artist who manipulates the images in real time, and viewers are again
beckoned to become conscious of the constitutive process of the performance, the
iatization of the live.

Over and Out…

ECW: Simultaneously, dancers on both coasts move into long
diagonal formations on stage that connect together in space to
create the illusion of a never
ending line disappearing into the
horizon through a trick of net
work design and video projection. In
reality it is a circle, bending from California to New York and back
again. As the lights fade, the piece comes to an end with slow falls,
giving way to one final leap upstage, away from the audience and
through the liq
uid (silver spandex) screen that has displayed the
performers on the other coast, a gesture that suggests the merging
of the live with the projected dancers. As if digitized themselves,
our live dancers disappear into the screen and the projector is

off. The screen image winks out of existence. Connection …


terminated. The performance is at its end, and as the audiences on
both coasts applaud, the bi
coastal ovation bounces from coast to
coast as a kind of a roar coming through my headsets. I take a
deep breath and smile, remembering the first telematic
performance I witnessed….

Liveness: The Spontaneous Performer

In a telematic encounter, the question of liveness inevitably arises. Does it matter
that the images an audience sees correspond to

mote performers? The issues
surrounding the efficacy of a performance’s liveness in comparison to recorded media’s
power are thorny ones. Steve Dixon’s recent volume ably chronicles these concerns in a
section entitled “The Liveness Problem” (115). He poin
ts to Philip Auslander’s theories
arguing against “the reductive binary opposition of the live and the mediatized” (123). In
light of the inclusion of media in live performances such as
Lubricious Transfer
, “there
may be no ‘clear
cut ontological distincti
ons between live forms and mediatized ones.’”

And yet, our experience suggests otherwise. From the audience’s perspective, live
performance involves a sense of risk
taking. As Dixon argues, “recorded media is firmly
contained within its own frame and howev
er shocking or affecting its imagery, can never
break out of that frame and personally confront us. Most live performance never actually
does this, but it always can; there is a potential for the performer to see you, or speak to
you, and break out of the
stage frame to confront you directly” (130). It is this potential
for direct interaction and, equally, the ubiquity of accidents, happenstance, and the
resultant improvisations that invite a different kind of involvement from audience
members. Where every

showing of a film looks very much the same, no two
performances are exactly alike

the live is inherently ephemeral. It is this liveness that
produces an energetics in both performer and audience member that keeps the work on
edge, as if anything could hap

Where the film actor can repeat a sequence until the director is satisfied, the
performer is engaged quite differently in a live work. There is only one pass of each
performance, and it is what it is, complete with missed cues, missteps, and media ga
Although technical problems are a well
known part of the telematic performative
environment, their specifics can’t be anticipated. We can’t know in advance where in the
piece noise will show on screen, for example, or exactly when the network connect
will be dropped, or even if any such thing will happen at all in a particular performance.
Expert performers are precisely those nuanced improvisational artists able to deal with
any occurrence. Performers come to expect the unexpected.

BG: The irony
is that, in the end, what we achieved was
in spite of
not because of
our highly structured score. Some of the most
satisfying moments of
Lubricious Transfer

were the unplanned
ones. Our clean, streamlined choreography became at times
enmeshed in a miasma

of images, bodies, and “flickering signifiers”
(Hayles, 1993) and the unintended artifacts enriched rather than
impoverished the work. In our case, a found aesthetic of rupture


directly addressed some early concerns about the apparent
similarity between l
ive simultaneous dance and choreography with
recorded video. In a way, the pre
recorded was too perfect.

Liveness: The Audience Making

Unplanned events

performers, inviting them to be, in a way, more live in
awakedness” (Greene, 1978).

Such “disruptions” also invite audience members to
participate in a more active way than they otherwise would. More is at stake if things go
less according to plan. When the 16
foot image on screen starts rolling like an old
Zenith, for example, audience

members are afforded a kind of permission to actively
“make do,” to rationalize and justify the event as if occurring by design. For the audience,
then, the director’s nightmare of an unpredictable event in performance becomes just
another color on the ar
tist’s palette, a happy accident that enlarges rather than diminishes
the aesthetic moment.

In response to “mistakes,” the audience becomes increasingly
active and involved.

When an audience sees performers on stage interacting and confronting these so
led mistakes, it takes pleasure in watching their improvised solutions. It is not at all
uncommon for audience members to express appreciation through laughter or
spontaneous applause for impromptu “saves” made in response to such events. In so
doing, view
ers recognize the precarious position of live dancers/actors. The audience
enjoys catching performers in the act of making
do, in part because, in such a moment,
liveness is authenticated
spontaneous and unique events can only occur if the
performance is
truly live as promised. In the

performance, the audience’s
conviction of liveness is absolutely critical. Without it, the screened images might as well
be recorded, and the promise of interconnection to a remote, live space exposed as a ruse.
n these improvised events verify liveness in such a performance, they also serve to
validate the telematic premise. At such moments, the circuit is completed and conducting:
the properties of liveness influence the audience which can in turn be felt on sta
ge by the
performers, informing the performance in progress. In this way, telematic performance is
not only interactive but also emergent.


ECW: I haven’t been completely forthcoming about my first
encounter with telematic performance. As I said,

I thought the
performance was stilted, awkward and not at all aesthetically
interesting. Here’s what I left out in my original description:
I went back the next night

(in the grips of
perhaps?) This second time, I experienced
something wholly different. The cascading images drew my eyes
involuntarily back and forth between video and live performers,
achieving an abstract and impressionistic visuality. I realized that,
while we in the audience didn't interact within the usual pa
afforded users of interactive art

we didn’t push any buttons or
trigger effects

we were nevertheless deeply involved in the work.


In viewing the piece a second time, I was made aware of the
transient, improvisatory elements of each of the perf
ormances, the
idiosyncratic elements of each night’s proceedings. By the end of
this repeat viewing, I found myself intrigued and impressed by the
like spectacle of the event: computers, performers, and
images all straining to reach the “other” (
remote) side, "all of us
looped together in a new and unsettling connectivity" (Lawrence
Alloway, 1992). I felt as if the transfer of information broke down the
sacrosanct boundaries inside which autonomous artworks sit.
These were works talking to each ot
her, in a necessarily new
language, and though only an audience member, I was part of it all.

Towards an Aesthetic of Rupture

The Brazilian telematic artist Eduardo Kac talks about unpredictability in
telematic work. He “asks rhetorically whether the artis
ts who produce [telematic] works
do not ‘restore the same hierarchy they seem to negate by presenting themselves as the
organizers or creators of the events they promote

in other words, as the central figure
from which meaning irradiates.’ Arguing that the
y do not, Kac explains that the telematic
artist creates a context in which networked telecommunications transpire, ‘but without
fully controlling the flux of signs through it’” (Embrace 83).

Our attempt to control the telematic environment

to produce a hi
ghly organized
and disciplined live theatrical event with tightly scripted movement, music, network and
visual design

did not turn out the way we expected. Initially, we related to the machine
as if a disruptive interlocutor on stage, as if a maniacal jest
er in the router. But
experimentation and experience led to our seeing that the telematic performance work
could be a product not simply of unintended accident alongside human intention, but one
of machine and human intelligence distributed across persons,

places, and technologies.
We came to believe that the resultant performance outcome in telematica was both more
imperfect and more interesting than we had originally conceived. The ruptures and noise,
the “jester in the router” illuminated the dark and di
sconnected space between performer
and audience that theater normally allows and consequently leaves no place to hide in the
telematic performance space.


Works Cited

Alloway, Lawrence. ‘The Arts and the Mass Media’ in
Art in Theory 1900
1990: An
ogy of Changing Ideas
, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Oxford: Blackwell,

Ascott, Roy. “The Cybernetic Vision in Art.”
Cybernetica: Journal of the International
Association for Cybernetics, 10,

1967, 25

Ascott, Roy. Is There Love in the Tel
ematic Embrace?
Art Journal, 49
(3), 1990,


Ascott, Roy.

Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and
Consciousness by Roy Ascott.

University of California Press,


Birringer, Johannes. “Contemporary Performance
/Technology.” Theatre Journal 51(4):
381, 1999.

Dixon, Steve.
Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance,
Performance Art, and Installation.

Cambridge, Mass.:

MIT Press, 2007.

Donati, Luisa Paraguai and Gilbertto Prado. “Artistic E
nvironments of Telepresence on
the World Wide Web.”
, 34(5): 437
442, 2001.

Greene, Maxine.
Landscapes of Learning.
New York: Teachers College Press, 1978.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.”

66, Fall 1993


Kac, Eduardo. “The

Internet and the Future of Art.
” 1997


Knott, Laura. “World Wide Sumultaneous Dance.”
, 34(1): 11
16, 2001.