Media as mirror
David Rokeby, creator of the pioneering interactive installation Very Nervous System (1986–1990), proclaims that “an interactive technology is a medium through which we communicate with ourselves… a mirror. The medium not only reflects back, but also refracts what it is given; what is returned is ourselves, transformed and processed.”
Media functions as a mirror when it reflects the performer’s actions. The most banal example is the kind of live-feed video used to help spectators see close-ups of musical performances and athletic events in huge stadium venues—though, as the Wooster Group has demonstrated in a series of productions over the past fifty years, such technically straightforward live-feed video can be used to highly sophisticated aesthetic effect.
To function as a media mirror, however, the media need not visually resemble the performer at all. What matters is that the spectators perceive a continuous, reflective connection between the performer and the media object, and as a result can “read” the performer’s actions through the media. Synesthetic media, which translates a performance from one modality to another modality, exemplifies this mode: for example, a music visualization algorithm might automatically generate shapes that grow and shrink as the volume increases and decreases, that fill with warmer colors as the pitch rises and cooler colors as it descends, and/or that become rounder when the notes are sustained and more jagged when the notes are staccato.
A media mirror has no agency of its own, as a media actor does, but simply follows the performer’s actions. It does not merge with the performers, as costume media does, but runs in parallel with them. And it is not subject to the performer’s intentional control, as a media prop is. A media mirror, such as a live-feed video, reflects the performer regardless of the performer’s intentions, desires, or even, in the case of covert surveillance, knowledge. A performer’s relationship to his or her media reflection is fundamentally passive.
There is not and should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to incorporating media into performance.
Media as audience
Finally, the media can function as a virtual audience by responding to the live performance. While media-as-actor engages in a two-way interaction with the performers, media-as-audience engages in a one-way interaction. To adopt a term from film theory, it is non-diegetic, functioning out of the live performer’s frame. A basic example of media-as-audience is musical underscoring in the tradition of nineteenth century melodrama, which has become a ubiquitous convention in film. The same function can be fulfilled visually with washes of color and abstract images that convey mood. These examples of media-as-audience are purely affective, serving to model and manipulate the audience’s emotional responses to the performance.
Media-as-audience, however, can and often does assume a cognitive dimension as well, commenting on the live performance, as Erwin Piscator did in his productions in the 1920s that used analogue media such as documentary film footage. The Almeida Theatre’s 1997 production of The Cenci, with media created by Studio Azzurro, is one of many examples of a production that used digital media primarily as commentary on the live performance, with the projected images acting “as a visual counterpoint that does not attempt to explain the text but rather to open it up to different interpretations and comparisons.”
Digital Media in the Production Process
Distinguishing between these six very different modes of media helps to explain why media is often so difficult to integrate smoothly and effectively into the conventional theatrical production process. Most theatre companies clearly delineate responsibilities and timelines for each member of the production team, including the director and the scenic, costume, lighting, and prop designers. It is often unclear how media should fit into this process. In some cases, media is construed as an aspect of the lighting design. In others, it falls under the purview of the scenic designer, or of a separate projection designer who works in conjunction with the scenic designer. In other cases, media is introduced by the costume designer and has little or no impact on the scenic design.
In all of these instances, the performers typically do not interact with the media until technical rehearsals. Sometimes, however, directors conceive of media as an integral element of the production’s concept and content, and either create the media themselves or work intimately with a media designer throughout the process. In such cases, the director may try to integrate media as early as possible into rehearsals, fashioning and modifying it along with the work of the actors.
There is not and should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to incorporating media into performance. Digital media is protean and dynamic, and to exploit the prodigious and barely tapped potential of its use in performance demands a supple and creative approach—one that is adapted to the artists’ goals and the function of the media in each particular work.