Theater History and Digital Historiography (WWIT?)

About 5 years ago, I started a position as a joint appointment in departments of Theatre and Media Study. My formal training in media was as a more or less traditional film scholar. By contrast, most of my new media colleagues were engaged in more digital-focused projects: virtual reality; robotics; and social media. In conversations with them, I became increasingly aware of and connected to a community that was more than a little technophilic, if not outright utopian. Without being uncritical, this community of scholars (represented by the Institute for Distributed Creativity listserv, to name only one) was exploring and creating new ways to disseminate ideas, connect scholars and artists, and foster social and political engagement. Perhaps I drank too much of the cyber-kool aid, but I was intrigued. From there, I became increasingly interested in the relations among theatre, performance, and media. One recent aspect of this focus has been the discussions surrounding the documentation of digital, which often sounds a lot like the problems with recording performances.

My essay for Theatre Historiography: Critical Interventions is specifically in response to Diana Taylor’s historiographic consideration of the digital. Specifically, Taylor argues that, “writing has paradoxically come to stand in for and against embodiment […]. Now, on the brink of a digital revolution that both utilizes and threatens to displace writing, the body again seems poised to disappear in a virtual space that eludes embodiment” (16). Certainly “the virtual” (as  only one domain of the digital) troubles embodiment, but we must remember that that digital technology is itself an embodied practice. Taylor herself acknowledges the possibility that the digital may offer a different vision of the archive, though she approaches the topic with calculated wariness: “Other systems of transmission—like the digital—complicate any simple binary formulation [between archive and repertoire]. Yet it too readily falls into a binary, with the written and archival constituting hegemonic power and the repertoire providing the anti-hegemonic challenge” (22). My initial position contested Taylor’s framing of the digital within the domain of the archive. While many historians, particularly of contemporary theatre, may consider DVDs and other documents to be part of a more or less permanent record, the view on preservation and documentation among digital media artists, curators, and historians overwhelming takes the opposite perspective. The concern among many on the digital side of historiography regards digital works as ephemeral, not fixed, and buttressed with only fragmentary and temporary documentation. Even the most sophisticated forms of digital documentation are perceived as at risk of disappearance through technological obsolescence. Indeed, the language of digital curators and archivists is almost exactly that of Taylor, or even Peggy Phelan’s influential definition of performance as “that which disappears,” although they are far less sanguine about the political potential of key works disappearing. Such concerns have prompted several hybrid experiments that merge the digital and the performative, such as Eva and Franco Mattes’ (aka 0100101110101101.ORG) synthetic performances: reenactments of iconic live performance events in Second Life. As I argued in my essay, such projects belie any simple distinctions between the digital and performance, and further challenge the necessity of material co-presence in performance itself.

And yet, while reading Christopher Balme’s Introduction to Theatre Studies, I grasped the importance of Taylor’s distinction. Balme all too easily suggests that the problem of performance ephemerality and analysis has been “‘solved’ [his scare quotes] by a combination of technological and academic developments,” including video recording (135). Unfortunately, Balme’s most recent citation in this field is from 1985, significantly before the advent of most digital recording (and editing) and completely separate from the kind of real-time ubiquitous digital communications that saturate industrialized societies today. Although he mentions DVDs and computer editing as potential distortions to the performance event, in Balme’s formulation, the digital recordings emerge as “either production or reception documents. For elements of staging such as movement, proxemics (distances between bodies) and gesture, the video recording is almost essential” (137). In this sense, the digital record becomes an enduring and potentially hegemonic tool in the archive as Taylor describes it. Without negating the potential for digital records to function as documents within such an archive, I felt the need to articulate a more nuanced consideration of the roles that such records play not only in the documentation of performance, but as performative fragments themselves. When does a document become fluid or ephemeral enough to be considered part of a performative repertoire?

This is where Lisa Gitelman becomes, for me, essential reading. In her book, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (1999), she attempted to correct previous historical narratives of technological advancement that failed “to explore technology as plural, decentered, indeterminate, and the reciprocal product of textual practices, rather than just a causal agent of change” (2). In her subsequent book, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data Culture (2006), Gitelman expands upon the pluralist formulation of technology historiography by positing the historiography of media as always and already embedded within a mediated history:

This means that media are reflexive historical subjects. Inscriptive media in particular are so bound up in the operations of history that historicizing them is devilishly difficult. There’s no getting all of the way ‘outside’ them to perform the work of historical description or analysis. Our sense of history–of facticity in relation to the past–is inextricable from our experience of inscription, or writing, print, photography, sound recording, cinema, and now (one must wonder) digital media that save text, image, and sound. (20-21)

So too, I argue, are our notions of theatre, dance, and performance history influenced by our contemporary processes of recording, storing, writing, retrieving, and replaying – in short, performing – historical documents.

This brings me to a new set of questions. When we watch “live” performances, do we view them with a digital eye? How does the reception of documents via computers (searching library databases; viewing digitized documents; scanning photographs, and most significantly, sharing these within digital networks) affect our sense of performance history? And, most significantly, when we re-enact performances in lectures, revivals, retrospectives, or simply within the run of a play, are we not participating in a kind of mediated production? As I was thinking before (and am still thinking now), I am convinced of the need to posit theatre and other performance genre within–not independent from–these categories of media. If we think of performance as a medium then we can subject it to a similar form of scrutiny posed by Gitelman, that is, as a reflexive historical subject. This, I think (and I’m not absolutely convinced just yet), would mean that the tools of analysis and historiography must be located within a larger media-annotated ecology.

But, what do we mean by ecology and how does that relate to history?

My recent thinking in conjunction with colleagues Amy Holzapfel in a forthcoming essay and Martin Harries in an ASTR seminar is that theatre and performance are best understood as the process of connecting systems, not the unified (however briefly constituted) form of those systems. This distinction is significant because such networks can reveal conspicuous constructions, deliberate connections, and explicit divisions among forms, changes, and receptions within those systems.

Approaching theatre as a ecology or network thus allows us to view our theatre and its history as an inanimate and inscrutable, yet constructed and highly mediated system of communication, a web that can bridge, divide or intersect both discrete and overlapping times and spaces. This idea has several advantages; most especially, it requires new methods of historical analysis open up that offer alternatives to canonical studies and are facilitated (even dependent upon) digital exchanges. The perspective of the network allows for a much greater investment and engagement with historicization as a process of mutual exchange. Digital tools certainly can obscure some of these connections and exchanges, but they can also democratize the process of documentation, reception, future appropriation (including parody, imitation, critique, and re-enactment, among others), thereby laying bare digital documentation as a kind of record and simultaneously a performance more or less akin to Taylor’s repertoire. For me, then, digital technology–in mobile devices, personal computing, real-time image-capture, and social media sharing–is the essential method of both theatrical and historical inquiry.

At least, I think so.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Peggy Phelan July 1, 2011 at 10:03 am

This blog essay is wonderful. Thank you!

Brian Herrera July 9, 2011 at 11:22 am

Sarah – Thanks so much for this elegantly formulated instigation. I especially appreciate the metaphor of ecology to describe theatre/performance as “a process of connecting systems.”

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