Postmedia Performance

Sarah Bay-Cheng

Medium. Media. Mixed Media. Multimedia. Hypermedia. Intermediality.

Postmedia.

You knew this moment was coming. As performance practices increasingly morph and merge with forms of recorded media—television, film, and now digital—performance scholars have been working furiously to keep up with a dynamic field that blends media and performance. The result of their efforts has been a burgeoning body of literature that attempts to document and analyze these changes, noting the differences among the various forms of media as they evolve. But amid the plethora of competing terminologies and analyses, perhaps it is time to acknowledged that we may have entered a moment of “postmedia.”

In his 2012 book review essay, ‘Refined Mechanicals; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Share the Stage’ Christopher Grobe notes that scholarly attention focused on theatre, performance, and the digital has become in a word, “compendious.” He writes, ‘More than any other topic within the critical literature on theatre and performance, this one [theatre and digital culture] seems to have given us all wild visions of totality’.1 Noting the proliferation of what he calls encyclopedias ‘with an agenda’, Grobe calls for ‘more narrow and targeted engagement with the field’.2 For myself, I can only plead guilty to his charge of producing work that attempts to map large swaths of performance and media intersections, or ‘entanglements’, as Chris Salter calls them. I was among the co-editors and numerous authors of Mapping Intermediality in Performance, a book whose very title signals the scope of its intentions, and more recently, I’ve published a book that attempts to navigate the field by multiplying not only the subjects of study, but the very mechanisms by which individual works are considered and categorized.3 I clearly did not get the memo. Mea culpa.

I won’t offer a defense because I can’t really disagree with Grobe’s charge. In so many ways, he’s right. There probably are too many books attempting to cover and contain performance in the wake of the so-called digital revolution. Therefore, rather than justify or condemn the varieties of comprehensive publications, it may be useful to look at why such works emerged and what made (makes?) them feel necessary. Grobe’s critique aptly captures the field of performance as it struggles to come to terms with how digital technology revises existing notions of the theatre. Such sweeping claims and comprehensive studies were (and perhaps still are) attempts to come to terms with changes facilitated by digital media including modes of viewing, interactivity, and production. The very notion of digital performance emerged as such a slippery concept that every new approach seemed compelled to define and redefine key concepts over and over again.

Unlike Grobe, I am not necessarily bothered by these repetitions (perhaps a symptom of my earlier work on Gertrude Stein). Such scholarship highlights a series of negotiations that attempts to understand the role of theatre as a medium among other media. Grobe offers one of many possible perspectives in his final paragraph where he argues that, ‘[h]aving historically been willing and able to be invaded by other media, other technologies, theatre might just do this best’, that is, to engage with other media and machines.4 What Grobe seems to suggest here is the concept of theatre as a hypermedium, what Chiel Kattenbelt defined as a ‘paradigm of the arts’ in which theatre served as a space that could accommodate all the other art forms.5 In his 2006 essay, for example, Kattenbelt argues that because theatre does not transform the media it absorbs it can contain a variety of media as both themselves—i.e., film, video—and simultaneously as theatrical signs, or, as he writes citing Pjotr Bogatyrev, ‘signs of signs’.6 However, digital culture pushes theatre beyond its hypermediacy. For Kattenbelt, the notion of a hypermedium and immediacy itself relies on the existence of a ‘real world’. In a mediatized society, this notion of ‘the real’ becomes itself contested such that the stage no longer functions as simply a hypermedium (a medium that stages other media), but as a site of intermediality where the relations among media are redefined and reconsidered. Theatre as hypermedia allows the theatrical and media objects to remain as they are on stage. Intermediality challenges the very borders that separate one medium from another, operating more along the lines of imbrication or contamination and therefore confusing the definitions and opening up new forms of performance practices and analysis. (Given the almost tangible slipperiness of the verbs that so often come into play, is it any wonder that books continue to be written as attempts to pin down the genre?)

This definition of intermediality reminds us of Henry Jenkins’ argument regarding media change in his Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006). As opposed to the previous notion of new media replacing or absorbing old media, Jenkins argued that, ‘the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways’.7 Perhaps the complexity of these relations among old and new media is one reason why recent scholarship has spawned books that feel compelled to account for medial relations in such comprehensive detail. Lars Elleström makes a compelling case for the need to understand the complex relations among media in his essay, ‘The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations’. There he outlines the dimensions of intermediality and argues for the need to account for what he calls the “modalities” of media. His theoretical model offers a detailed taxonomy of media, their modalities, and the distinct modes within each modality, noting the ways in which these dimensions necessarily complicate each other.8 For Elleström,

Intermediality might be described as ‘intermodal relations in media’ or ‘media intermultimodality.’ I do not expect these terrible terms to win general praise but I think there is a point in seeing intermediality as a complex set of relations between media that are always more or less multimodal.9

In his careful analysis of Elleström’s model, Andy Lavender offers another take on the discourse surrounding the term ‘media’ with all its linguistic qualifications and attachments. In a characteristically thorough unpacking of Elleström’s model, Lavender summarizes the concept of intermedial multimodality as ‘a differently thoroughgoing adaptation of attributes within a given medium because of its interrelation with other media. This is not so much remediation as a sort of intermedial contamination that makes for a necessarily interrelated evolution of media function.’10 Lavender’s use of the term contamination makes perfect sense here, and speaks to a critical anxiety that Grobe’s review probes. That is, the notion that the field and its many subsequent manifestations (mutations?) may be getting away from the critic.

What we see in all of these critical examples is the ongoing attempt to make sense of interactions and relations among objects of study that are in constant motion. These also presume the notion of such mediated performances as being composed of discrete elements. I’m rather sympathetic to Elleström when he complains that, ‘I find it unsatisfying to continue talking about “writing”, “film”, “performance”, “music”, and “television” as if they were like different persons that can be married and divorced as to find repose in a belief that media are always fundamentally blended in a hermaphroditical way.’11 Yet, despite Elleström’s attempts to create a model that defies the anthropomorphizing of different media as in “struggle” with one another, clearly such binaries endure. Indeed, even within Elleström’s model, the items to be categorized are multiplied and given multiple valences within assigned categories. Is it any wonder that such detailed catalogues of criticism persist? Within such carefully constructed theoretical apparatuses, the exceptions to the rules established can prove enough to undermine the whole operation. As Elleström himself notes,

The nature of intermedial relations, as they have been described here, is thus only seemingly exact and one must realize that they can be pinned down only to a certain extent. Intermedial analysis cannot live without her twin sister intermedia interpretation. Intermediality is thus certainly about specific intermedial relations but it is also, and perhaps primarily, I would say, about studying all kinds of media with a high level of awareness of the modalities of media and the crucial differences and similarities of media.12

And, yet, reading through the various literatures on medium, hypermedium, and intermediality, it’s clear that such arguments depend upon the stable concept of a medium, a fact well-noted by Elleström, among others.

Returning to theatre and performance in the contemporary context, however, I’m struck by how little such medial distinctions seem to matter. As I’ve written elsewhere, performance on screens and screens on stage are rapidly becoming the norm for many performances. Maaike Bleeker has noted that the current generation of dance-makers has greater access to dance history through YouTube and other digital video repositories than any other generation in history. Even work that bears no tangible trace of media may nevertheless reflect its origins in a digital setting. In her analysis of Daniel Almgren-Recen’s choreography ‘I Live’, Bleeker writes,

Creating images is part of his way of relating to what he encounters, and recorded images are prominently part of how he relates to present and past events. For his generation, relating to recorded material is part of their mode of thinking, including their mode of thinking dance. The creation of covers, one might argue, is an integral part of such modes of thinking.13

We see a similar effect in works such as Anne Washburn’s play, Mr. Burns (2014) and Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2012). These plays operate independently of any specific media and indeed Washburn’s is sub-titled a ‘post-electric play’, making the lack of electronic media explicit as a conceit of the dramatic narrative. Nevertheless, both reflect digital technology and rely on an audience capable of recognizing references to other media in the ostensibly solitary medium of the theatre. In these instances, theatre is not a hypermedium staging other works; nor is it properly intermedial, i.e, staging connections and relations among media. Whether we categorize what we see as multimodal or legible through one of the many lenses that Elleström’s model provides, it’s clear that the question of medium specificity is no longer dominant. In much of contemporary performance, medial specificity has become secondary, whether though production techniques (e.g., screens on stage), viewing practices (e.g., watching performance on video), or as a conceptual critical practice (e.g., what Bleeker calls ‘thinking dance’.) In his essay ‘Post-Media Aesthetics’ (2000), Lev Manovich argued that medial distinctions had already eroded: ‘various cultural and technological developments have together rendered meaningless one of the key concepts of modern art—that of a medium’.14

If, as Elleström proposes, the meaning of intermedial studies is in the process of interpretation, then perhaps the distinctions among media are less significant than previously thought. If theatre is media, as I wrote in my own contribution to the special issue of Theatre on digital dramaturgies, then the focus of intermediality might be a post-media one.15 Perhaps we are now at a point where the very argument in favor of a specific medium possessing unique characteristics and qualities is no longer helpful to the larger project of understanding theatre, television, dance, film, videogames, and performance, among a diverse media eco-culture. If everything is mediated, mediatized, or viewed as if it is, what is the point of media specificity? What happens if we declare ourselves to be postmedia?

To be clear, I am not necessarily advocating for Manovich’s brand of postmedia, which suggests that the principle object of study is ‘how a cultural object organizes data and structures users’ experience of the data.’16 His detailed program for postmedia aesthetics reads much like Elleström’s detailed taxonomy of intermedia multimodality, both of which carefully examine the process of media interaction and interpretation as they seek to transcend the limitations of specific media devices and formats. Both approaches are compelling and I’m rather ecumenical (or is it promiscuous?) in my embrace of media and performance criticism. Manovich’s postmedia aesthetics, Elleström’s intermedial multimodality, Kattenbelt’s hypermedium-cum-intermediality are all valuable, useful approaches and I’ve used one or more in various projects and classrooms.

But if I am to atone for my past totalizing sins, I require a kind of postmedia that does not supplant one critical taxonomy with another, but rather advocates a kind of analysis that does not make great efforts to distinguish, document, and describe cultural objects in light of medial specificity. I’m thinking of a postmedia approach that assumes all media are always already activated in every cultural object and begins a method of analysis from there. My sense is that this might liberate us from the need to debate further the key terminology and perhaps even restrain future attempts to document the many, various manifestations of key theories that Grobe contests. Declaring an all-inclusive postmedia approach seems one possible way to shift the critical lens back from interpretive processes to specific works and their formations within multiple overlapping and perhaps even contested aspects of media. Might this perhaps achieve Grobe’s desire for ‘a more narrow and targeted engagement with the field’, while still accounting for the many diverse media at work within performance both contemporary and historical? Maybe. But, then again, don’t listen to me. I’m part of the problem.

 

Sarah Bay-Cheng, PhD is Professor of Theatre and Dance at Bowdoin College, where she teaches digital media and performance, modern drama, and researches the intersections among technology, literature, theatre, and history. Her most recent book is the co-authored Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field and she currently co-edits the book series, Avant-Gardes in Performance for Palgrave Macmillan. Her current monograph project focuses on digital historiography and performance.

 

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Notes:

  1. Christopher Grobe, ‘Refined Mechanicals; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Share the Stage New Scholarship on Theatre and Media’, Theatre, 42.2 (2012), 139–46 (p. 145).
  2. Grobe, p. 145.
  3. Sarah Bay-Cheng, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and David Z. Saltz, Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).
  4. Grobe, p. 146.
  5. Chiel Kattenbelt, ‘Theatre as the Art of the Performer and the Stage of Intermediality’, in Intermediality in Theatre and Performance, ed. by Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 29–39 (p. 29).
  6. Kattenbelt, p. 37.
  7. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), p. 186.
  8. See Figure 1 in Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, ed. by Lars Elleström, 2010 edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 36.
  9. Elleström, p. 37.
  10. Andy Lavender, ‘Modal Transpositions toward Theatres of Encounter, Or, in Praise of “Media Intermultimodality”’, Theatre Journal, 66.4 (2014), 499–518 (p. 503).
  11. Elleström, pp. 11–12.
  12. Elleström, p. 38.
  13. Maaike A. Bleeker, ‘(Un)Covering Artistic Thought Unfolding’, Dance Research Journal, 44.2 (2012), 13–25 (pp. 19–20).
  14. Lev Manovich, ‘Postmedia Aesthetics’, in Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities, ed. by Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), pp. 34–44 (p. 34).
  15. Sarah Bay-Cheng, ‘Theatre is Media: Some Principles for a Digital Historiography of Performance’, Theatre 42.2 (2012), 27–41.
  16. Manovich, p. 37.

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