CFP: Theatre Topics Latina/o Performance

Theatre Topics cfp: Special Issue: Latina/o Performance. Deadline July 15. https://www.press.jhu.edu/journals/theatre_topics/calls.html

Waiting for Social Media

I’m very pleased to feature a guest post by Phoebe Thompson, a student in my Theater as Social Media course at Bowdoin College (spring 2016). She wrote this piece as part of the class and I liked her ideas so much that I asked if I could post her response here. I’d like to say that she’s studying theater, but sadly she has some idea about doing research to save the oceans. Go figure.

The term “social media” is an oxymoron that describes a popular form of communication today in which information is transmitted from one receiver to another though the two are not physically together. The term is ironic, because although social media like Facebook allows humans to connect with one another and be “social,” the very act of staring into a screen to check Facebook is antisocial in a physical context. This is evident any time one steps onto a subway car—people are packed into a space, facing each other, but they are all staring down at cellphones, usually checking some form of social media. This effectively destroys the opportunity for physical contact between humans in that car, even though the environment lends itself to conversation. Social media creates presence in one place, but destroys it in another.

In Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, it is possible to see this impact on society in its earliest form. At the time it was written (around 1949), the telephone had become a staple of communication. Beckett had served as a member of the Resistance in World War II, translating and typing information received about German troops. Communication had effectively changed from face-to-face into voice-to-voice. This impersonal, disembodied communication and the feelings it produces are translated in the character of Godot. He never actually appears in the play, but he does send several distorted messages to Vladimir and Estragon by way of a messenger boy. The cyclical quality of the plot created by this ineffective communication, combined with the paralysis of the characters and their feeble attempts to change make Waiting for Godot feel very similar to Twitter.com.

On Twitter, communication also produces seemingly endless cycles, just like the circular plot of Godot. Messages are limited to 140 characters, and sometimes become very distorted in an attempt to fit everything into a single tweet. When a person finds a tweet to be worthy of sharing with their followers, they can retweet it, for which the symbol is: retweet.jpg.

Tweets can go viral, spreading much like a disease, and sometimes can bring fame to the person who thought them up. However, this fame is most often parasitized, because there is nothing stopping other accounts from copying the tweet exactly and using it as their own. This happens so much that specific tweets will “take over” Twitter for a day or two, and then disappear for a while, only to resurface months later once people find them funny again. This is very similar to the kind of humor and behavior seen in Godot, where Gogo and Didi seem to forget their repetitive actions, like looking in their hats or talking about suicide, only to restart them like they were new a little while later. In both Twitter and Godot, memory is short and patterns are cyclical.

There is also an existentialist element to Twitter like the one found in Godot. As Gogo and Didi sit idly and make pointless small talk, they make small attempts at leaving or even changing themselves, but it never results in action. This is very similar to the kind of superficial navel-gazing that occurs on Twitter, where users can build a persona based on their original content and retweets without ever actually following through in real life. Just as we see in Godot, this disembodiment and divide between people gives no motivation for real change.

~Phoebe L. Thompson

On TAP: New Theater Podcast

It’s been too long since I’ve posted here, but in my defense I have not been entirely idle.  Pannill Camp, Harvey Young, and I have launched a new podcast, ON TAP. Released roughly once a month during the academic year (and perhaps during the summer theater conferences), On TAP (Theatre and Performance) aims to replicate the experience of the conference hotel conversation: academically oriented, slightly irreverent, and up-to-date on the current questions facing the field, its programs, and items of interest.

Our first episode introduced the podcast, discussed Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead on its twentieth anniversary, and covered the 2016 job market. Our second episode discussed the critical reaction to the musical phenomenon Hamilton, studio practice in doctoral theater and performance studies programs, and the online site “What is Performance Studies?” by Diana Taylor and Marcos Steuernagel. Every episode finishes with “On Draft,” quick notes on topics that we’re thinking about, reading, or discussing.

Episodes can be downloaded from our website, www.ontappod.com, on SoundCloud, iTunes. Since we’re just starting up, we welcome feedback, suggestions, and criticism from listeners. You can review the podcast on iTunes and elsewhere and post feedback via Facebook and twitter.

Our next episode will release toward the end of April. We’re sketching out the segments now, so please feel free to send us your suggestions and feedback. Join us for the next round. It’s on us.

Walter Benjamin on the 2016 US Presidential Elections

Everything I need to know about the 2016 US presidential election process, I learned from Walter Benjamin:

“The present crisis of the bourgeois democracies comprises a crisis of the conditions which determine the public presentation of the rulers. Democracies exhibit a member of government directly and personally before the nation’s representatives. Parliament is his public. Since the innovations of camera and recording equipment make it possible for the orator to become audible and visible to an unlimited number of persons, the presentation of the man [or woman] of politics before camera and recording equipment becomes paramount. Parliaments, as much as theaters, are deserted [cf. C-SPAN]. Radio and film not only affect the function of the professional actor but likewise the function of those who also exhibit themselves before this mechanical equipment, those who govern. Though their tasks may be different, the change affects equally the actor and the ruler. The trend is toward establishing controllable and transferrable skills under certain social conditions. This results in a new selection, a selection before the equipment from which the star and the dictator emerge victorious.”

In case anyone asks what you can do with a degree in theater or performance, you can answer that you are acquiring the controllable and transferrable skills needed to rule the world. 🙂

~”The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (1968), p. 247, n.12.

Museums as Play

Museums as Play” or why theater studies is essential to understanding contemporary historiography and museums as they intersect with digital technologies and culture.

The full title of this piece from the data praxis series of the “dh+lib” site is “Museum as Play: Iteration, Interactivity, and the Human Experience.” It’s a conversation between Thomas Padilla and Sebastian Chan about museums and their use of digital technologies in creating interactive experiences in museum and historical collections. This is a frequently recurring topic among museum curators. As I’ve written previously, the 2015 meeting of Museum Next last April prompted observations of the museum as theater last spring.

This conversation extends this nexus of history, digital technology, and interactive experiences (performances?) among museum guests. It’s well worth the read.

“Deep Space Theater”

I’ve been writing and talking (ok, mostly talking) about theater as an over-arching concept in digital history. My current book project tracks this influence both through the history of theater and performance, as well as in museums, galleries, and alternative forms of historiography such as historically oriented games. [I have been very interested in historical video games such as “Total War: Empire,” among others.]

Now, there’s a new development not in history, bdeepspace_singapore_2_169ut space. Ars Electronica just posted about the creation of “Deep Space Theater” for the The Science Centre Singapore’s new exhibition “E3 – Emmersive Experimental Environments”.

I’m intrigued.

This seems to follow a logical progression from previous science stagings, including most obviously planetariums and other forms of science demonstrations from the not-so-real occult performances to spirit photography to contemporary science theater. [I’m thinking here of examples cited in Kurt Vanhoutte’s projects in Media Archaeology at the Research Centre for Visual Poetics at the University of Antwerp, Sue-Ellen Case’s Performing Science and the Virtual (2006), and Ciara Murphy’s essay, “Participatory Electrical Performances in the Enlightenment Period – Shocks and Sparks” in Kara Reilly’s Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology (2013).]

But, it also seems related to emerging issue in museums of all kinds, where the dominant mode of presentation is increasingly digital media deployed in and as theatrical experiences. It’s significant, I think, that these environments are cast as theater and not cinema. The theater, for all its creaky, antiquated techniques is still linked (at least in these iterations) with presence, immersion, and (dare I say it?) liveness. That the rivalry between theater and media should now wrap around such that digital technology is deployed in the creation of explicitly theatrical events…well, it makes me think I need to write another chapter in the book.

Google’s 360° Theater

As if the world of performance history and technology weren’t already interesting enough, Google is announcing 360° performance recordings through the Google Cultural Institute. Functioning much like Google street views, these recordings seem to be the next stage in performance recordings and add a new wrinkle to performance history and historiography.

I’ve only just started playing around with the recordings, but aside from consuming a lot of bandwidth (at least as it seems on my current wifi setup–no hard analytics yet), it seems promising.

One weird feature: in at least some of the performances, the audiences are vast and empty.

Farewell Utrecht and Digital History

I’m both excited (and a bit melancholic) to announce that on 17 December, I will deliver the Christmas lecture on “Why Theatre?” at Het Huis. I’m honored to be a part of this great series at Het Huis, one of my favorite performance venues in Utrecht. Het Huis has sponsored a number of excellent talks and performances over the years, so it’s a real pleasure to participate especially as part of the Christmas-time celebration. I’ll be speaking about my current research project on digital historiography and performance.

But, it will also be bittersweet as my final presentation during my time in Utrecht. On Wednesday, I’ll meet with the Performance and Media seminar for the last time and by the end of the month, I’ll be headed back to the US. My time in Europe has been both stimulating and restorative and I’m very grateful to the excellent staff at the Fulbright Center in Amsterdam for facilitating my fellowship and to my wonderful colleagues at Utrecht University, who have been so generous and welcoming. I’ve also been lucky to have been able to visit with artists, colleagues, and friends at other institutions and, predictably, the time has gone by quickly.

Hopefully, I can deliver a good-bye talk that is worthy of the generosity I have received here.

New Book on Performance and Media

I’m delighted to announce that my book, Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field, is now available from the University of Michigan Press. Co-authored with Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and David Z. Saltz, the book suggests new ways for understanding the relations among theatre, media, and performance both in contemporary practices and historically. It was a pleasure to collaborate on this project with Jen and David. Stay tuned for the interactive, digital companion to the book coming later in 2016.

Documentary Media: Contradiction in Terms?

By coincidence I happened to see the new Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia, 2015), the same weekend that I finally got around to watching Noah Baumbach’s 2014 While We’re Young. It’s an interesting pairing with regard to contemporary documentary media. Most interestingingly, Baumbach’s film points to what might become of documentary filmmaking in the wake of everyone documenting themselves all the time. It’s a door opened, and Kapadia seems to walk right through it. Taken together, they got me thinking about what we mean by documentary media today (no longer only films) and the larger social and cultural implications of these changing media and representational practices.

Like much of his work, Baumbach’s film positions (traps?) a mildly unlikable Gen-Xer (Ben Stiller as Josh) between the superiority of his more successful Baby-Boomer father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin) and the freedom of a millennial hipster, Jamie (played by perhaps the iconic ultra-cool millennial, Adam Driver from Lena Dunham’s “Girls”). The women in the film are relevant, if not really important and certainly not essential to the film’s main ideas. The film primarily focuses on the relationships among the three men, each standing in as a generational everyman for his peers. These are roles that Grodin (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby – 1968, Heaven Can Wait – 1978, and Midnight Run – 1988) and Stiller (e.g., Reality Bites – 1994, The Cable Guy – 1996, There’s Something About Mary 1998, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – 2013) have played often and effectively throughout their careers, and one that Driver is developing in his own distinctive way (Girls – 2012, Inside Llewyn Davis – 2013, This Is Where I Leave You – 2014). All three actors occupy a category of the inwardly quirky, socially awkward, yet familiar and ordinary character actor.

In Baumbach’s film, all three men are documentary filmmakers, roles that define them as individuals, their respective generational situations, and more importantly, their status with regard to each other. As one might expect from Baumbach’s other representations of generational (in)equality (e.g., The Squid and the Whale 2005), Stiller’s middle-aged Josh does not fare well in the trio. He’s been trying for more than a decade to finish a documentary film (shown to us as rambling, incoherent interview excerpts with a Noam Chomsky-esque intellectual who is not remotely compelling), and now finds himself reinvigorated by a developing friendship with Jamie, a young aspiring filmmaker. Josh moves from trying to imitate Leslie to an attempt to imitate Jamie, humorous, yet pathetic gestures  including a misguided evening with hallucinogens and his adoption of the unfortunate fedora trend. Unfortunately for Josh, it is Jamie who emerges as Grodin’s artistic successor. Although the film’s intergenerational power struggles are compelling, more interesting to me is Baumbach’s not-so-subtle critique of documentary filmmaking, interlaid among the generational anxieties.

In the film’s climactic scene, Josh confronts Jamie about his manipulation and lack of ethics in his fabricated construction of Jamie’s documentary project. Tellingly, their dispute occurs backstage during Leslie’s acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award in documentary films.  Echoing the major points on cinematic authenticity that comprise most of Leslie’s speech, Josh challenges Jamie’s approach as undermining the very meaning of documentary cinema in language that quickly reveals the generational tensions underpinning their relationship.

Josh: If everyone is filming everything, what’s a documentary anymore? It has no meaning, it’s just some shit you recorded!

Is that old man talk?

Maybe it is. You kids have been told you can do anything. You think everything
is out there for you to have. It’s not.

Jamie: Nobody owns anything. If I hear a song I like, or a story, it’s mine. It’s mine to use. It’s everybody’s.

Josh: No, it isn’t! That’s not sharing, Jamie, that’s stealing.

Jamie: That’s old man talk.

Josh: I am an old man!

The bitter irony, of course, is that the position Josh so passionately espouses is precisely that for which Leslie is being rewarded. Yet when Josh presents Jamie’s ethical manipulations to Leslie, the older main praises Jamie and admits he doesn’t care about the parts that were manipulated. Such is the fate of Generation X.

Baumbach’s film was released in September 2014 at the Toronto Film Festival. Eight months later, Kapadia’s documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, Amy, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the Winehouse documentary was in process before the release of Baumbach’s film, the fictional take on the future of documentaries feels prescient in Kapadia’s film.

Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Winehouse’s film, although she was never able to finish it herself.

Most of the material in Kapadia’s film was generated by Winehouse herself. The documentary follows the rise and downfall of the singer from her beginnings in London to global fame, drug addiction and alcoholism, eating disorders, and untimely death. However sad and unfortunate (and, as the film seems to argue, preventable), Winehouse’s narrative is not unusual, particularly not for an international music celebrity. What makes this depiction most compelling is not the details of her short, troubled career, but that it is a documentary rendered overwhelming through social media recordings and private documents. Whereas past documentarians dug through archives of written and sometime photographic records (filmmaker Ken Burns has his own named photographic effect in Apple’s video program, iMovie), here Kapadia combs through Winehouse’s own collection of self recordings. These aren’t just home movies that have found their way into a documentaries since recording equipment became accessible to a wider population of consumers (Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation from 2003 is a particularly relevant example). These are recordings (most on video cameras and mobile phones) as a kind of running documentary of the self and often deliberately pointing to the future when these images will be part of a famous professional personae.

Home movies before digital technology were mostly private creations, made for family and friends. The time and expense required to shoot and develop the film and the need for a projector (to say nothing of the quality of the recordings or their content) meant that people rarely viewed their personal super 8 films outside the home. VHS, Super-8, and other videotape-based systems were a little easier to shoot and circulate, but very difficult and time-consuming to edit and thus even if they could be watched, were rarely viewed by anyone beyond close friends and family. (As anecdotal evidence, let me refer to the large box in my basement containing hours and hours of videotapes of babies doing very little. Without disrespect to the babies or their devoted videographers, these documents are unlikely to be viewed repeatedly by even the most devoted family members.) All of this changes when digital recordings made filming easier and cheaper to record and, subsequently simple to edit and distribute.

Born in 1983, Winehouse was 12 when the first DV tapes appeared and by the time she started her career at age 16 in 1999, social media was emerging first with peer-to-peer music sharing through Napster in 1999 and then penetrating other areas of youth culture: Friendster in 2002, Myspace in 2002-03, Facebook at Harvard in 2004 and widely available in 2005. Thus Winehouse’s career, echoed in the majority of the self-recorded videos used in the film, overlaps this transition from the private home movie to the self-conscious social media recording of mobile phone cameras and social media sites now integrated for frictionless capture and distribution of video images (e.g., Vine, Instagram videos, iCloud sharing, etc.). It’s a growing realization that we see in the evolution of the videos that Winehouse and her friends record.

Watching the two films together raises some intriguing questions about documentary cinema, social media, and their ethics. What Baumbach’s film points to in its climactic confrontation between Josh and Jamie is precisely what Kapadia’s project elides; that is, not just what gets depicted in the film, but who controls the images and their representation. Josh’s complaint with Jamie isn’t that he represents something inaccurate in his film; it’s that he fakes how he makes it. Jamie pretends to randomly find a former friend through Facebook, a set-up for the documentary known to everyone but Josh, who unwittingly provides authentic reactions to the fake set-up. Josh is angry because Jamie seems not to respect his audience, the material, or the process for the representation.

Kapadia creates a film guided by faith in the raw, unpolished authenticity of Winehouse’s talent as compellingly evidenced by her own recordings. Her abilities are clear in even the earliest and roughest recordings and as such, they serve to demonstrate not only Winehouse’s potential as an artist, but also her own authentic personality: what she looked like as a kid, before the make-up, drug use, and stage life that would soon define her publicly and hold her up to ridicule. Strikingly, some of the earliest recording show Winehouse hiding from the camera. She holds up her hands to block the camera’s view, even hiding under a blanket while her friends gleefully record an early morning. Watching these images and knowing the eventual outcome, I was struck by the way in which the scene plays as a child-like dress rehearsal for the paparazzi nightmares to come.

Such images establish the film’s larger theme of Winehouse as the reluctant talent; the vulnerable artist whose insecurities opened up the possibility for her eventual destruction by the fame she (ambivalently) sought. Kapadia’s juxtaposition of Winehouse’s own images with the media representations suggests is that we–the greedy, demanding viewing audience–are responsible for her destruction. This was the reaction most noted in reviews of the film and repeated in the film’s marketing campaign. To wit, the following quotes appear in the first 30 seconds of the film’s trailer:

  • “A case study of celebrity’s crushing onslaught and an indictment of its tabloid apparatus.” Associated Press
  • “Were the page views & ratings worth it? At the cost of destroying a vulnerable young woman?” BET
  • “Reveals the lethal effects of celebrity.” Vulture
  • “A requiem for her but it is also a condemnation of us.” flickfilosopher

But, this perspective ignores an important reality in the film: that most of the recordings are not from paparazzi or hungry media reporters, but from Winehouse herself.

The question of responsibility in this seems less interesting than the echo of Josh’s complaint in While We’re Young: who owns the images? Just because they’re out there, does that mean that they are freely available to us all? At a certain point, it’s clear that Winehouse lost control of her own narrative (assuming that she ever had this control in the first place; certainly a point for contention). But what’s clear is that Kapadia’s manipulation of the images and his relation to them is never revealed by the film. To whom do such images belong and how do we hold his role accountable? In watching the film, aren’t we just repeating the sins of exploitation that the movie rails against?

Seeing both films reminded me that the images we share online as not so different fundamentally than the performances by celebrities and that we may have as little control over their fate (though the size of our audiences may differ greatly). I’m also struck by the fact that in an age of ubiquitous recording and documentation, the documentary film may never be the same again.