Philip Bither is William and Nadine McGuire Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
To a layperson, and even to many performing-arts professionals, the definition of live can seem so obvious as to barely merit comment: a live performance means real people performing in real time, all of it happening in one’s physical presence. Yet in today’s multiplatformed media landscape, artists are testing boundaries at every turn, and what constitutes live is now wide open to question.
Performance theorists tend to locate themselves at one of two opposing “liveness” poles. Defending live performance’s distinction, Peggy Phelan argues for its unreproducibility, asserting that it contains a kind of energy (for lack of a better term) created by the audience-artist relationship and thousands of other intangibles that constitute the live experience. “Performance’s only life is in the present,” she writes. Moreover, “Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies.”1 Rejecting this belief is Philip Auslander and his followers, who question the unique status of liveness in a culture dominated by mass media and digital culture. Auslander actively rails against the “reductive binary opposition of the live and the mediatized.”2
I have long placed myself more in Phelan’s camp, having witnessed (and produced) many performances that held that sense of singularity, a unique alchemy of audience, performance, place, and time. Yet the explosion of new hybrid media/performance work aggressively contests the separation between the live and the artificial, deepening the uncertainty of what live performance is and what it is not. Examples abound: the performance artist Claude Wampler’s -PERFORMANCE- (career ender) (2003), a holographic trio of rock musicians (conjured through simple smoke and projections) rehearsing a seductive three-chord rock song over and over, felt very live indeed despite the absence of “live” performers on stage. This was achieved in part by Wampler mischievously planting a dozen “fake” audience members amid the real ones, cheering on the “band.” The work resituated liveness from the spectator-performer relationship fully into the “audience” realm. Wampler further complicated matters by having the real human trio burst onstage to blast through the song one last time as audiences were leaving the theater. -PERFORMANCE- (career ender) effectively questioned the power of the live-versus-mediated binary, while raising issues of crowd mentality and the limits of audience tolerance in the face of authorial manipulation.
In Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) (2007), the British/German performance collective Gob Squad “re-created” Warhol’s films Kitchen, Kiss, and Screen Tests in real time, filtering its own theatrical presence through live video feeds, forcing viewers to continually navigate the cinematic, the real, and the participatory (Gob Squad performers ultimately replaced themselves on stage with audience members who were fed their lines through earphones). Kitchen contrasted in real time the live and the live moment mediated, effectively blurring audience and performer roles along the way.
Other intriguing “live” investigations include the writer-director Annie Dorsen’s Hello Hi There (2010), whose only stage activity consisted of two artificial intelligence–programmed chatbots that re-source a famous 1971 argument between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky and create new “improvised dialogue” between the two philosophers. The holographic portraits in Richard Maxwell’s Ads (2010) raise the question of whether a playwright can create “humane, affecting works of theater without the literal presence of human beings.”3 And in 2012 Japan's Seinendan Theater Company toured the United States with a form of “robot theater,” turning over standard theatrical drama to a mix of android and human actors. Other liveness inquisitors include the Belgian collective Berlin, which creates films theatricalized by activated scenic elements (but not usually live actors), and the German documentary theater creators Rimini Protokoll, whose Call Cutta in a Box (2008) forged one-on-one theater utilizing Skype-like technology to build a real-time relationship between an Indian call center worker and a single audience member, combining relational art, documentary theater, and mediated performance, with the only “live” performer in the room being oneself, functioning as both performer and audience member.
With different goals but similar strategies, commercial theater and music have traversed parallel pathways but over a longer period, beginning to replace live musical performance with electronic and sampled elements in the 1970s, live singers with lip-synching performers in the 1980s, and augmenting mega-concerts with giant LED screens in the 1990s. At the 2012 Coachella festival, elaborate digital technology created a holographic presence of the hip-hop star Tupac Shakur (dead since 1996) to sing a “live” duet onstage with Snoop Dogg, raising a host of provocative issues extending far beyond the question of liveness.
I would expect performance and theater artists to continue to actively redefine “liveness” as they have these past few decades. Cultural commentators, theorists, and curators, not to mention audience members, will just need to rush to keep up.
Claude Wampler, -PERFORMANCE- (career ender), 2003.
Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007.
Annie Dorsen, Hello Hi There, 2010.
Richard Maxwell, Ads, 2010.
Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University Robot Theater Project, Sayonara and I, Worker, 2013.
Rimini Protokoll, Call Cutta in a Box, 2008.