Sunday, September 26, 2010

dispositif / mise en scène VII

("Memory Table")

In Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, Goffman outlines in several essays approaches to human interaction from a dramaturgical perspective. To Goffman, all forms of interaction are kinds of “performances.” These performances may fall under the structure of rituals, socially acceptable formalized interactions. One of Goffman’s goals is to outline the units of these interactions so that they may be studied in a symbolic manner.

Having introduced this sociological interaction theory, perhaps it is helpful in this context to create an even larger theoretical framework, pointing back to western philosophical history and the discourse that valued epistemology (knowledge/knowing) over the technical crafts (techne). In his lucid summary in the essay “Environments, Interactions and Beings: The Ecology of Performativity and Technics” (in: Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzchristodolou , Janis Jefferis, and Rachel Zerihan, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 27-42), Chris Salter refers back to Plato (the criticism of the crafty illusion machine in the Cave allegory) and Aristotle’s Physics, noting that Aristotle distrusted “technical beings” and prioritized the episteme over the techne, claiming that artificial products do not harbor inside them the source of their own production compared to the “natural” or the organic that harbors within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness, in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration.

Salter borrows from Bernard Stiegler’s recent writings on the theory of technics, suggesting that according to the Aristotelian philosophy of causation, technical beings are always seen to lack the possibility of autonomy or internal causes of movement, therefore remaining constrained to inanimate form and isolated from both the human that produces them and the world they find themselves in.

Salter then bypasses a few centuries of philosophical thought (e.g. Spinoza and the baroque era, Descartes, Newton, etc., recently moved to the foreground by philosophers of the digital) and connects up with Heidegger’s ambiguous stance towards “technical being.” In contemporary life, according to Heidegger, technology becomes separated from techne and is also instrumentalized. Torn from its origins in poiesis, the art of revealing or making the world present, technology ends up as a “frenzy of ordering… and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth” (Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik/ The Question Concerning Technology”, 1953). Modern technology, Heidegger argues, “enframes” the world, rationalizing the natural order and rupturing the potential of existence to come full force to us through its transformations of nature into “inventories” and “stocks” to be used up by humans. In the guise of machines, structures and devices, modern technics overcomes human judgement through calculation and rationalization.

In the overview offered by Chris Salter, this Heideggerian unease with “technological life” is then placed in relationship to artistic techne, where the theatre, for example, has to admit, even if it promotes its live-ness and its primary emphasis on human performance (the actor-audience relationship), that it always used machines of illusion-making. Throughout recent decades, the theatre also used electronic-digitally constructed images and sound. What is new in the recent collaborations between performance arts, media arts, and science is the emphasis on material and generative processes, the effects caused by the merger of mechanical, computational, biotechnological, and ecological forces. Salter wishes to foreground designers, scenographers and directors who have imagined new contexts for performance where transformative material processes – “technical presences” – are in full operation creating temporal-spatial events for audiences and participants.

Such events may not necessarily be placed inside a theatre stage, of course. But interactive installations or performances, along with other kinds of exhibitions or techno-scientific displays, harbor theatrical dimensions or address behaviors in situations designed to elicit perceptions of what a living system, or “technical being,” does or becomes, how actions and dynamic exchanges are understood or known, to what extent technical ensembles or environments influence the social conventions of performativity (the enactments of the performer-spectator), and to what extent responsive hybrid media environments can respond to participant behaviors or be perceived to have their own agency or autonomy.

If we now follow this conceptual outline, and observe the experiments of the Live.Media +Performance Lab, it must be said that none of the works in progress were created, strictly speaking, as theatre or dance or music compositions to be staged on a theatre or concert hall stage. This – as an aside – throws an interesting light on the fundamental base-line assumptions still apparently governing the architecture of EMPAC (which houses an opera or concert hall auditorium, a theatre auditorium, and two sound studios along with video editing and artist-residency suites). The building does not seem to have an installation gallery or, say, an interface space that might also allow flexible telematic or multi-user play environments, unless the sound studios were built with such usage in mind; but their rigging is theatrical and thus follows the logic of laboratory mise en scène.

(This discussion might lead us into a different area, addressing curatorial matters of spatial arrangements for new media arts, generative art, sci-art or robotic or architectural exhibition.)

All the works in progress are dynamic system environments/installations or “interface performances” that could be enacted anywhere, in public and private spaces, galleries, foyers, rooms, corridors, cafes and such like. Of course some of the aspects of the environmental design require studio or laboratory conditions, the availability of a grid, lighting, camera and projection equipment, network, computers, extensive cabling, screens and material objects, but the context for the creation/presentation of the responsive system is, primarily, a modestly controllable space. Our workshop examples also reveal that some installations require only a very modest, small area, while others take up the main open space (ca. 50’ x 65’ or 15,2m x 20m).

The spatial context for our “installations / technical beings” then returns us to the sociological interaction paradigm mentioned earlier in reference to Goffman. It is pertinent here that Goffman’s theories appeared around the same time when the field of performance studies (with Richard Schechner [New York University] and his influential journal, The Drama Review spearheading the shift) slowly began to change, in the late 1960s, turning its anthropological attention to ritual (e.g. in Victor Turner and Schechner’s work) rather than the technical formalism and artifice of the experimental avant-garde, then on to the broader spectrum of “cultural performance.” Ethnography and sociology became critical methodologies for examining performance practices in everyday culture, in public space, in festivities, clubs or particular local and community contexts, in the media and in corporate or other organizational structures, thus mostly shifting attention to a non-artistic/non-high cultural paradigm.

One outcome of this shift (against which theatre studies and art theory might defend their aesthetic terrain and art-making techne) is not only a preoccupation with “performativities” – following speech act theory, de Certeau’s theory of spatial practices and Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, expanded into a conceptual “tool” for interdisciplinary cultural analysis of the theatricalised (re)actualisation of socio-symbolic systems that render cultures visible to themselves and to others – but a turn to the manner, materiality, media, instruments, institutions, etc. that influence the episteme, the production of knowledge. This turning towards in-forming assemblages, machinic or other, implies a much greater awareness of material actions of technical presences in contemporary global culture, and here Salter is quite right in proposing that an interest in understanding “performance” today, in a world in which technical processes not only constitute our environments but – as Guattari and Deleuze predicted – produce newly evolving forms of hybrid human and machine subjectivities, requires a new analysis of “interaction rituals,” if indeed we were to extend Goffman here for a moment.

We mentioned the “technical beings” or the systems environment that have been created in our workshop, and the concluding presentations of “installations” (the fine line between installation and performance crossed all the time but not clearly articulated yet in our reflections) were offered to (human) participant-spectators. My own descriptive interpretations are those of a human participant. But an analysis of “performative installations” then might indeed require a partial abandonment of the anthropocentric focus, based on (Goffmanian) anthropological, sociological, cultural or linguistic frameworks, and instead require attention to system behavior, phase shifts, modulations of the states and behaviors, actions and reactions of a machining architecture of non-human enunciations (cf. Salter, pp. 29-30).

(a visitor lies down next to an image-body)

How do we then address the interaction that takes place between the visitors and the "Lying Bodies/Outside In" environment, if we take the projected environment to a technical being or, if you prefer, an ensemble of materials, or a programmed/responsive system? Between the visitor and an image?

Can or should we speak of a ritual, in the sense in which Goffman describes "face work" (e.g. the processes of saving face in the displays of self to others during social interactions and encounters which clearly can be delineated according to conventionalized options available, and responses that are taken through obligational patterns, assertions, threats, defenses, etc.), or the nature of "deference and demeanor," "embarrassment and social (re)organization" of the ritual system or script? Or in the sense in which Goffman addresses "action"? For the sociologist, action is of the dramatic sort, implying the idea of important and meaningful acts or events which are performed or are participated in by people. Action is a vehicle to reveal deeper qualities of character, and Goffman's writing on action is a prolonged journey, offering many insights, for example into "games," and their quality of chance and risk. From there Goffman moves to the larger sense of consequentiality in moments: one can kill time, and that killed time is inconsequential. Yet there is an apparent axis of actions, consequential versus inconsequential, apart from this there is the question of whether actions are problematic, when one is at odds to figure out what to do (Goffman, p.164).

Problems arise with fateful actions, those that have consequences. Here Goffman addresses corporeality and embodiment, terms that have become so crucial in current debates on sensory environments, technical systems/material enunciations, interfaces and agency; for Goffman a body is a piece of consequential equipment.

How do we compare this, how do we understand this face-to-face with images, for example the "tiling" operations in Ian Winters' installation? how does the hand James puts forward to touch the bowl of water and then slowly pushes backwards, towards the camera lens, interact with the Isadora patch environment and its actions? What would it mean to ask this question, and what observations do we derive of we concentrated on the behavior of the projected images of the "tiled" hand or filtered, multiplied serialized moving image-hand? Would our attention to the technical being not also yield fascinating insights into the technical object, the manifestations acted out, produced, and engendered by the meeting of hand movement, camera-vision and computer software (with its projected image outputs)? Of course.

In other words, can we use Goffman's terminology in regard to a technical presence or an avatar? Is a digitally projected image inconsequential, but may become consequential via enactment? Goffman discusses body in consequential encounters: in perilous roles, the body is the object of practical gambles (p.172). When one acts consequentially (he calls consequential action a "fateful action") when the gamble is less practical, then one must cope somehow. A possible solution is to deny the effect of consequence, if that were possible. Then nothing can really go wrong.

An alternative to coping is what Goffman calls "defense," which is a ritualized defense of action. When actions are uncertain and of high consequence, a defensive ritual is performed to save culpability of the individual. Goffman then adds that all games reduce behavior to fateful action, in the world of the game. A social game functions similarly. The result of interactions, we can assume therefore, according to the Goffmanian scheme, is either "making it" or "blowing it." Action is the quality of sustained fateful behavior, revealing qualities of character.

As this brief account of Goffman's observations on face-to-face interaction shows, they may not easily translate into interface behaviors between human participants and technical systems, but at the same time, it could be argued that responsive systems provoke actions (enactments), and in most cases of installations, there is not just one visitor encountering the installation, but several, and thus we obtain a social scenario, people encountering a technical being and other people watching and responding to the "rituals" that are performed. In this case, one can certainly think of psychological and emotional dimensions in the behaviors that result, without necessarily searching for a wider range of cultural, political or spiritual dimensions of the ritual interaction. We are not talking about ritual in a religious sense here, although it ought not to be ruled out either. We shall perhaps try, at the end, to come back to the question of what kinds of complex or reduced form of rituals the interactional installation art produces.

Let us continue, first of all, to add some observations on the distinctions between the installations described so far, in regard to the behaviors of the technical being in the encounter with the human spectator-participant.

("Bubble Playground")

We also add two images here (at the beginning and above) refering to the "Memory Table" installation, the second piece by Ian Winters, and "Bubble Playround" by Byul Shin. "Memory Table" was installed in the opposite corner of the "Table" installation, an interesting juxtaposition of "tables" that presented, in Jennifer Woodin and Tommy deFrantz's case, an interactive performance dialogue enacted for the audience (the gestural behavior of the real "actors" affecting the image-objects in the projected "table"), while Ian Winters's table, also covered with real objects to play and interact with, had no presentational action. The table is there for visitors to sit down at, and engage, and the camera-vision takes in this information and informs the technical system which deals with a growing data base of "memory" (video and audio input) which it processes and replays at later stages, cumulatively. Byul's "playground" is an interactional surface, a space which we can enter, as we see the colorful bubbles percolate there, and we join the bubbles and play with their movement and changes, as they respond to human presences and motions in the region that the camera sees. The playground is intuitively obvious and clear, a simple arena to have fun, to play, to track motion of color, and enjoy the "dance." Some of participants tried rolling over the floor, jumping over each other, one person enacted a curious and funny hopscotch repeating some words over and over, others simply played, seemingly entranced by the mesmerizing pools of light and the joyful, twinkling sound that Victoria had composed. Whether the technical system enjoyed the performances of the visitors, I cannot tell.

(a visitor hopping in the "bubble playground")

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