‘New’ technologies: Pandora’s box or Panacea? Rephrasing the question through the work of artists of the performing arts in Greece
‘New’ technologies: Pandora’s box or Panacea?’ A question repeatedly formulated in multiple periods, within different contexts and on the occasion of ‘new’ technologies of each era. In the field of performing arts, similarly, the question is often rephrased by triggering a range of answers ranging from technophobic approaches to extreme techno-utopian ones. The forms and roles that technologies assume as they are embedded in performing art projects vary. This article attempts to examine some of these figures and roles based on the work and perspective of some artists who have been active in the field of performing arts in the domestic art scene.
The field of performing arts has always incorporated multiple media and technologies. However, as ‘the most influential technologies are interwoven with everyday life until they become inseparable from it', no one, when talking about new technologies, refers to writing, clothing, lights, or the support mechanisms of the setting of a performance. Nowadays, digital technology is what attracts interest. Deus ex Machina’s gears turned into digital signals of another machine.
Digital technologies embedded in theatrical works and performances often aim to compose an expanded set design. Digital animations – such as videos and graphics – are projected onto the existing (material) scenery and are dynamically altered. The scenery acquires a layer of digital information that evolves. Often the screenings embrace surfaces or objects through technical projection mapping transforming dynamically individual elements of the stage space.
Artistic groups, active in the field of performing arts, explore ways in which digital technologies – in addition to stage design – emerge as important dramaturgic elements. Jenny Argyriou (amorphy.org group) integrates the digital image in her expressive means and uses it in various ways. The projected images interact with the performers, simultaneously reveal multiple timelines, deconstruct and reconstruct events and memories, put into dialogue different views, and illuminate multiple aspects. In Memoria Obscura (2012) and Memorandum (2014), archival photographic material from the Civil War and World War I is gradually and fragmentedly revealed, creating new correlations between the past and the present. The non-hierarchical viewing of fragments of memory allows a reflection of the past and its relationship with the present. In Dr. Maybe Darling (2010) multiple faces are projected simultaneously on stage and interact by providing multiple perspectives on the functions of the human brain related to decision-making mechanisms. The projection surfaces in Jenny Argyriou’s works also vary. The digital images are displayed in parts and reconstituted on paper strips, like a photographic film that is gradually displayed by the performer-photographer (Memoria Obscura); faces appear floating, projected on balloons; other faces are deconstructed and reconstituted as they are projected on blinking curtains (Dr. Maybe Darling). Balloons, curtains, papers, but also the bodies of performers, public buildings or containers placed in squares, and animated banners carried by the urban crowd on the streets of the city (Stocks: Inventory, 2018) are transformed into projection surfaces, into carriers of content and meaning, and ultimately into elements of dramaturgy.
Projections in public buildings are also incorporated in the ambulatory show E_FYGA Asia Minor by Yolanda Markopoulou which was presented in the streets of Elefsina. The dramaturg of the play, Ioanna Valsamidou, describes how they used the projections on the walls of refugee houses as another ‘keyhole’ that reveals their interior space. The audience ‘penetrates‘ through the projection in the dining room of a house, where they watch the narration of six women. This dimension of the interior space is removed when the same women appear alive to walk with the audience until the end of the journey.
Digital projections add elements of interaction when parameters of digital content are dynamically altered in relation to information collected by performers. In these cases, digital content makes decisions according to the algorithms that create it and interacts with the performers, often in unpredictable ways. This possibility of action (agency) of digital elements blurs the boundary between soulless scenery and animated performers. Full Moon project performer, Irene Tsibragou, who during the project interacted with a projected interactive digital entity, said she had lived an experience similar to interacting with a co-interpreter.
Similarly, Chrysanthi Badeka perceives technological entities as beings with (semi-)autonomous life. The laser light, algorithmically controlled in the project re-FLOW PORTRAITS, moves in space and acquires life, breathes, becomes sea, blood pool, or breaks into smaller entities. In the first project of the series RE-FLOW (Ora Grant) –a long performance with 20 dancers– the technological system influences more structural elements of the project. It is an Artificial Intelligence system that receives spatial data about the position of dancers, but also bio-data about their bodily functions. Based on these data, the system algorithm proposes the dancer’s next sequences of movements.
In this way, new media gradually contribute to decisions that may be related to the choreography or direction of a project, assuming new roles. In the work Echo and Narcissus by Medea Electronique , the algorithms of Alexandros Drymonitis, produce the sound of the opera and the libretto performed by the performers. Through live coding commands (code written and executed in real-time on stage) functions of the Python programming language produce the sound of the performance. Sound parameters are dynamically altered through the interaction of the performers with the algorithm. This interaction not only affects the sound effect but also plays a role in the dramaturgy. For example, in the scene where Narcissus speaks to his idol, the algorithm doubles the voice of Narcissus when it exceeds a tone height. This creates a vocal duet of different tones that conveys the simultaneous presence of Narcissus and his idol. Similar interactions exist in other moments as in the scene of Echo’s lamentation.
Projects that integrate new technologies into performative actions in the public space move in a different direction. Technologies are embedded in physical objects or constructions and contribute to the interaction of performers with environmental information or passing people. In the work of Aphrodite Psara, electronic technologies are incorporated into clothing, expanding the human body. Through electromechanical components, invisible sizes of the environment (such as cosmic radiation in the Cosmic Bitcasting project or electromagnetic fields in the Divergence project) translate into signals – powers, vibrations, light, and sound – that are felt by the human senses. In this way, the body’s abilities are expanded and the human perception of the world around us is shifted. In Costas Daflou’s work, heterogeneous technologies are incorporated into mobile devices that ‘lead’ or ‘follow’ wanderings in public space. CIPO (Cybernetic Intelligent Parasitic Objects) series works take the form of wheeled structures wandering with performers in often unstable public spaces. Technological provisions act as catalysts for interactive actions contributing to the formation of ephemeral communities. They receive audiovisual signals from the urban environment and participants and transcribe them into new digital or analog signals, which act as evidence of the actions. For example, the reel layout Cipo_08<trailer> was included in interactive actions at the borders of the Afghan refugee camp, at the mouth of the Meilicho stream in Patras, activating interactions and conversations, and seeking to critically redefine the relationship of the participants with the place and the ‘others’.
As shown above, technology takes multiple different roles in the context of theatrical plays and performances: it contributes to the composition of an augmented dynamic scene, it comes to life and interacts semi-autonomously as a co-interpreter, and it makes decisions about the choreography, directing, or libretto of an opera. Sometimes it extends the senses of the human body or acts as a catalyst for the formation of ephemeral communities. In any case, human factors give meaning to the above uses by enrolling their intentions in the technological systems, often granting them a part of the ability to act and make decisions. In many cases, the artists themselves create or modify the technologies they use, through open source technologies and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) practices, by enrolling in them their own needs and desires. In any case, the qualities of information communicated through digital media and the poetic appropriation of subtle signals that thrive in intermediate situations are (still?) left to humans.
The author warmly thanks the following artists for their cooperation, discussions, and inspiration: Jenny Argyriou, Ioanna Valsamidou, Alexandros Drymonitis, Chrysanthi Badeka, Costas Daflo, Irene Tsibrago and Aphrodite Psarra.
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Jenny Argyriou at IDENTITY IN BETWEEN RUNONART https://www.runonart.com/projects/identity-in-between