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.

ACLS Grant – Digital Extension Grants

New funding opportunity for research in digital humanities.

The ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) has announced a new grant program:The Digital Extension Grant Program. This program builds on the existing Digital Innovation Fellowship Program and is available for collaborative teams, not just individual scholars. More details from their announcement:

ACLS Digital Extension Grants may:

  • Extend existing digital projects and resources with content that adds diversity or interdisciplinary reach;
  • Develop new systems of making existing digital resources available to broader audiences and/or scholars from diverse institutions;
  • Foster new team-based work or collaborations that allow scholars from institutions with limited cyberinfrastructure to exploit digital resources; or
  • Create new forms and sites for scholarly engagement with the digital humanities and new ways to document and recognize participant engagement.

ACLS will award up to six Digital Extension Grants in this competition year. Each grant provides up to $150,000 in funding, supporting a range of project costs, for terms of 12-18 months.

Proposals must be submitted through ACLS’s online application system, which will begin accepting applications October 15. Further information about the program and eligibility criteria is available online at http://www.acls.org/programs/digitalextension/. The application deadline for the inaugural competition of the Digital Extension Grant program is February 2, 2016.

CFP: Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada

As a member of the editorial board for Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada, I’m pleased to share the latest call for submissions to the special issue: “Defying Stage Monoligualism:
 Bi- and Multilingual Theatre Practices in Canada.” The issue will be edited by Nicole Nolette and Art Babayant, forthcoming in fall 2017. The full call is below in French, then English.

Bien des choses à tous!

***

CALL FOR PAPERS/APPEL À CONTRIBUTIONS

Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada

Bousculer la scène unilingue :
Pratiques théâtrales bi- et plurilingues au Canada
Rédacteur invités : Nicole Nolette et Art Babayant

(English version follows)

La conjoncture entre langue(s) et théâtre a fait coulé beaucoup d’encre au Québec et au Canada francophone, souvent sans distinction du référent sociopolitique. Au Québec, des numéros récents d’Études françaises et de Jeu : revue de théâtre ont posé la question différemment. D’une part, les contributeurs à Études françaises ne s’intéressent « pas tant à la manière dont la langue investit la dramaturgie, qu’à celle dont la dramaturgie investit la langue » (Bovet 6). D’autre part, ceux qui, soit à partir de la position du spectateur ou de celle du praticien, écrivent dans Jeu : revue de théâtre répondent à un appel à penser cet investissement dramaturgique des langues au pluriel, à « franchir le mur des langues » entre communautés théâtrales pour permettre la « cohabitation des langues sur les scènes de théâtre » (Saint-Pierre et Couture).

Du côté anglophone, on a peu donné suite à l’ouvrage panoramique de l’Américain Marvin Carlson, Speaking in Tongues: Languages at Play in the Theatre, pour enquêter les lieux où se joue le plurilinguisme théâtral canadien. De plus, la mise en valeur de l’interculturalisme comme pratique et comme méthode d’analyse a occulté un discours plus spécifique sur la place du plurilinguisme dans le théâtre canadien.

Ce numéro thématique bilingue (français et anglais) propose de mettre côte à côte des praticiens et des chercheurs qui s’intéressent à différentes combinaisons linguistiques du théâtre au Canada. L’idée est de dépasser l’étude des langues du théâtre au Québec et au Canada francophone, et même celle du bilinguisme au Canada, pour traiter plus globalement des multiples formes des langues et du théâtre au Canada. Il s’agit avant tout d’une proposition d’ordre méthodologique et comparatiste, qui offre un aperçu horizontal des différentes combinaisons plurilingues au théâtre au Canada, des différentes communautés théâtrales qu’elles visent et des méthodes qui servent à les analyser.

Axes de réflexion possibles suggérés aux auteurs (liste non exhaustive) :

•    Méthodes de la pratique du théâtre plurilingue au Canada (surtitrage, traduction, traduction ludique, non-traduction,
etc.) et méthodes d’analyse de cette pratique;
•    Théories du plurilinguisme et de l’hétéroglossie (Bakhtine) et leur importance pour 
la pratique et la réflexion théâtrales au Canada;
•    Plurilinguisme et théâtre exilique, diasporique, autochtone, postcolonial, 
postdramatique et environnemental au Canada;
•    Dramaturgie canadienne et effacement du plurilinguisme, stratégies d’évocation du 
plurilinguisme (par ex. jeu des accents);
•    L’acteur plurilingue : formation, développement et reconnaissance;
•    Publics de théâtre et compétences linguistiques au Canada.

Les propositions d’articles comportant vos coordonnées institutionnelles sont à remettre à nnolette@fas.harvard.edu, art.babayants@utoronto.ca et tric.rtac@utoronto.ca jusqu’au 15 janvier 2016. Les propositions seront acceptées pour le 1er février 2016 sous condition d’une évaluation subséquente des articles par les pairs. Les articles de 7000 mots seront à remettre le 15 avril 2016.

Defying Stage Monoligualism:
 Bi- and Multilingual Theatre Practices in Canada

Guest editors: Nicole Nolette and Art Babayant

The intersection between theatre and language(s) has been written about extensively in French within Canada, but often without distinguishing Text from its sociopolitical Context. In Quebec, recent issues of Études françaises and Jeu: revue de théâtre have proposed two different frameworks. Contributors to Études françaises seem less interested in how language affects dramatic works than in how dramatic works transform language (Bovet 6). On the other hand, researchers and practitioners contributing to Jeu: revue de theatre have called for more movement across the ‘walls of language’ separating theatre communities and more space for ‘the co-existence of languages on stage’ (Saint-Pierre and Couture).

In English language literature, Marvin Carlson’s Speaking In Tongues: Languages at Play in the Theatre received little follow-up. Overall, in English Canada the development of intercultural theatre practices and theories seem to have overshadowed discussions on multilingualism in theatre.

This bilingual (French and English) special issue gives voice to practitioners and researchers who investigate various combinations of the use of multiple languages in Canadian theatre. The objective is to go beyond the study of multilingual drama in Quebec and francophone Canada as well as to venture past the question of Canadian bilingualism in order to gain a larger comparative and methodological understanding of various forms of multilingual theatre in Canada, of the various theatre communities addressed by such forms and of the methodologies available to analyse them.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of topics:

•    Practical approaches to stage multilingualism in Canada (surtitling, translation, playful translation, non-translation, 
etc.) and methods of analysis of these various approaches;
•    Theories of multilingualism and heteroglossia (Bakhtin) and their impact on 
theatrical practices and research;
•    Multilingualism in exilic, diasporic, indigenous, postcolonial, postdramatic, site-specific theatre in Canada;
•    Strategies of erasure and evocation of multilingualism in Canadian theatre/drama;
•    Multilingual actor training, development and recognition;
•    Canadian theatre audiences and their linguistic competencies.

Article proposals, including institutional affiliation, should be sent to nnolette@fas.harvard.edu, art.babayants@utoronto.ca and tric.rtac@utoronto.ca by January 15th, 2016. Notice of acceptance, conditional to peer review of full-length articles, will be given by February 1st, 2016. Articles of 7,000 words will be submitted by April 15th, 2016.

Works Cited / Bibliographie

Bovet, Jeanne. « Présentation. » Études françaises 43.1 (2007): 5‑7. Print.
Carlson, Marvin A. Speaking in Tongues: Language at Play in the Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Print.
Couture, Philippe, et Christian Saint-Pierre. « À quand un théâtre montréalais bilingue? » Jeu: Revue de théâtre 145 (2012): 6‑8. Print.

Robots and Performance

Next month I’m delighted to present at a special session on “Robots and Performance” sponsored by Robot Culture and Aesthetics (ROCA), a research collaboration among faculty at the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University in Denmark. It’s a privilege to be on the ROCA advisory board, so I’m very excited to present in this venue. And, Copenhagen is one of my favorite cities.

“Machine Vision: Robots, Cinema, and Posthuman Performance”

The presentation with Elizabeth Jochum (Aalborg University) and Gunhild Borggreen (University of Copenhagen) is scheduled for 14.00h on 10 October at Københavns Universitet Amager, lokale 27.0.09, bygning 27, Njalsgade 136, 2300 Khb S. There’s a Facebook event announcement here.

Faculty Position Announcement: Dance

Job Announcement: Assistant Professor of Dance
Bowdoin College
Submission Deadline: September 30, 2015

Dance Colleagues: Join me at Bowdoin College! The Department of Theater and Dance is currently accepting applications for a tenure-track position in Dance to begin July 2016. Great opportunity to work with generous, collaborative colleagues and smart students in a supportive and dynamic artistic and academic environment. Details posted here.

A highly selective liberal arts college on the Maine coast with a diverse student body made up of 29% students of color, 3% International students and approximately 15% first generation college students, Bowdoin College is committed to equality and diversity and is an equal opportunity employer. We encourage inquiries from candidates who will enrich and contribute to the cultural, socio-economic, and ethnic diversity of our college. Bowdoin College does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, creed, color, religion, marital status, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, national origin, or disability status in employment, or in our education programs. For further information about the college and the department, see our website at www.bowdoin.edu.