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The Intersection of Digital Technology and Live Performance

Observations from HowlRound and SpiderWebShow’s Digital + Performance Convening

In the morning introductions at the Digital + Performance Convening, produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons and SpiderWebShow Performance, every participant was asked to answer the prompt “Digital makes me think ____.” A wide range of responses came from the nearly fifty or so American and Canadian theatremakers in attendance. Some were obvious, like “connection” and “interaction,” while others were more abstract, like “unbridled fear,” “an open door,” and “adventure.” One person said “magic.” Someone else said “fragility.” These thoughts helped set the tone of the day, opening our minds to the possibilities of digital in ways we hadn’t considered and giving us a glimpse into what the sessions would hold.

The convening took place on 12 June 2019 at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Co-produced by HowlRound and SpiderWebShow, a Kingston-based performance company that creates and curates digital integration with live performance, the convening aimed to interrogate where digital technology is in the performance landscape, demonstrate the value of digital, and exchange information, perspectives, and tools. As a way to enhance knowledge-sharing, the day-long gathering, which kicked off SpiderWebShow’s foldA festival, was livestreamed and watched by nearly six hundred people from eighteen countries.

As HowlRound’s content editor and the only Canadian on the team (I live in and work from Toronto, Ontario), I was asked to attend the convening and document the events of the day. Fitting that my first HowlRound convening was their first in Canada! More than that, though, this convening was also the first HowlRound has produced outside the United States at all. It came about because of the close partnership between the organization and SpiderWebShow—many people from both staffs saw it as a natural next step in their relationship. The two organizations are deeply aligned in terms of values, interests, inquiries, and aims—to some, they could even be seen as competitors. Rejecting that notion and choosing instead to be collaborators informed the day.

a group sitting in three concentric circles inside a large windowed space

Digital + Performance Convening. Kingston, Ontario. 12 June 2019.

Acknowledging the Land

In the Isabel Bader Centre’s large lobby—complete with wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto Lake Ontario—theatremakers and scholars from across the United States and Canada gathered. After mingling over coffee and breakfast, they were asked to take a seat in a large circle for the opening remarks.

SpiderWebShow’s artistic producer, Adrienne Wong, began with a land acknowledgement, asking participants to not only reflect on the history of the lands and waterways we were privileged to gather on, but to also reflect on the legacies of colonization embedded within the technologies we use—how some pieces of technology are not available in all of Canada’s Indigenous communities, and how many of them leave a carbon footprint that disproportionally affects Indigenous communities. She encouraged us all to consider our roles in reconciliation and decolonization and allyship. While land acknowledgements can sometimes feel prescribed, actionless, and ultimately only for show, Wong’s thoughts were tied specifically to the event, which allowed attendees to think more deeply about our lands and the histories they hold.

Diving into Digital

The first session of the day, Digital + Performance in the Here and Now, aimed to look at the state of the field, specifically at the intersection of digital and performance. The format chosen was dubbed the “breathing circle.” It was created by the organizers specifically for this convening, though it was adapted from an inner-circle/outer-circle format that HowlRound has used at other gatherings, with an added element similar to a Long Table discussion. Twelve chairs, doubled up, were brought into an inner circle, making space for six people, and there was an outer circle where the remaining participants could sit. The people in the inner circle were kind of like panelists—they were chosen by the organizers to begin the discussion, while everyone else was to listen. One participant later mentioned to me how nice it was that the first six speakers weren’t facing the rest of the group and were instead facing each other; it made the conversation feel “opt-inable,” like the invitation was there to join in when the circle opened up.

 “What are we disrupting and why?”—Sage Crump, Complex Movements

HowlRound director Jamie Gahlon moderated the session, and each of the five artists sitting in the inner circle had a minute to give an opening statement related to the opportunities and challenges at the intersection of digital and performance. A lot of ideas came up in this section, some of which were explored more deeply throughout the day. Kristin Marting, artistic director of HERE Arts Center, talked about the positive elements of using game theory for creating interactive spaces that people are willing to participate in, while Cynthia Ling Lee, an interdisciplinary choreographer and writer, brought up the power of technology to galvanize resistance and use it to connect marginalized communities and artists. Remy Siu, co-artistic director of Hong Kong Exile, mentioned he is worried technology is just a fresh coat of paint for something that’s rotten at the bottom.

close up of a group sitting in a circle talking

Digital + Performance Convening. Kingston, Ontario. 12 June 2019.

After the initial discussion, the circle opened up: the chairs were unstacked, and the inner circle grew to allow up to twelve people. The six already there kept their places, and anyone from the outer circle could join them. With the opening came a more fruitful dialogue: conversation flowed, people responded to each other, and everyone eased into the discussion format. Tali Hinkis, of the performance duo LoVid, picked up on a thread that had been started earlier by David Saltz, a professor at the University of Georgia, about the history of digital and performance, noting: “Before we had i-everything, artists had to be engineers, producing systems to create work” and that now, as people have laptops with the capabilities to do anything, where is the personal touch? She continued: “We have moved from a utopian place where we saw technology as an extension of humanity to it being a platform for entertainment.”

On the topic of disruption, which came up repeatedly, Sage Crump, a culture strategist and member of the collective Complex Movements, asked, “What are we disrupting and why?” and I heard someone in the outer circle say, “Here here!” Ling Lee picked up this thread and asked the group to think mindfully about the conflicting notions of disruption: the idea of throwing away everything that came before us and the one of building upon and honoring our ancestors. Whit MacLaughlin, artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories, made the point that digital technology is very fragile, and that we have no way of archiving digital experimentation. When the floor opened up to the greater circle, many more conveners joined in, and the conversation continued to shift and evolve, covering topics like access and inclusion, how artists are integrating audiences with care, and tech literacy.

close up of a group sitting in a circle talking

Digital + Performance Convening. Kingston, Ontario. 12 June 2019.

The Potential and Limits of Telepresence

A big screen was brought out for the second session of the day: AR/VR/Mixed Reality. This was to connect, through the video communications tool Zoom, our room to a room of North American artists in Prague: Ian Garrett, Beth Kates, and Andrew Sempere. The plan was to include 360 video of both spaces using a VR headset, but there were, ironically, tech issues and this didn’t work out.

Wong moderated the discussion, which took place between the artists in Prague and two artists in the room with us in Kingston: Janani Balasubramanian, a writer, game designer, and immersive theatremaker who works with astrophysicists, and Gada Jane, a research associate at the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute who collaborates on virtual reality storytelling. Each artist talked about their projects and then asked each other questions, covering topics like the frameworks that allow work to happen across disciplines, patterns in audience demographics, and access to both technology and the art. One thread that stood out to me was the discussion on structuring collaborations. Both Balasubramanian and Jane talked about the importance of spending time—formally and informally—getting to know the different people involved in a project and what each person is interested in, and then building something together with that knowledge in mind.

Adrienne Wong began with a land acknowledgement, asking participants…to reflect on the legacies of colonization embedded within the technologies we use.

Funnily enough, this session—the only one that used technology explicitly as part of the conversation during a digital-focused convening—was the one with the most challenges. It wasn’t the easiest to understand Garrett, Kates, and Sempere and follow along with the work they’re doing because of a choppy connection and because of the simple fact that when people aren’t present in a room, they can feel distant. It became obvious to me how important convening locally is—getting people together in the same room to discuss whatever issue is at hand so they can play off each other’s energy without video lags or voices cutting out or any other tech errors. This made me think, in turn, of the connection between digital technology, theatre, and climate change. When theatremakers talk about reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, one option that often comes up is harnessing technology so artists can cross distances without actually leaving their cities. But, clearly, we have a long way to go before that alternative is a true substitution for people being in the same room together.

Audience and Artist Interactivity

For the third session, From Monologue to Dialogue, moderated by Michael Wheeler, SpiderWebShow’s artistic director, we returned to the breathing circle format. The conversation was fluid and compelling from the get-go. The idea of immersive experiences being different from interactivity came up. Brenda Bakker Harger, a director and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, made the point that immersive experiences can do without asking anything of the audience, while interactivity requires agency on the audience’s part. The questions then became: What does that mean? Do audiences want that? How does that affect the story? JD Derbyshire, an artist, educator, and inclusive designer, mentioned, “How do we get people talking who don’t normally talk?” There was also an interesting thread about whether artists are building walls with technology or evaporating them. MacLaughlin asked, “Is there a way for digital technology to enhance serendipity?” and “Where is the artist in this? Do we need the artist?”

The idea of a utopia—that there’s somewhere to land—is antithetical to artistic practice.

When the inner circle opened up to the middle circle, the discussion thrived, and there was a shift to semantics. Jenn Stephenson, a professor at Queen’s University, made the point that “interactive” may not be the right word; she prefers “participation” as it gives audiences—who she refers to as “players”—agency. Their contributions shape the work, and the work could not happen without them. Wong piped in to say that a question she asks herself is: “How am I inviting somebody to bring their whole self into this experience—their three-dimensionality, and their complications, and their contradictions—in a way that they feel like they’re being invited to participate, to problem-solve, to engage.” Derbyshire brought up the idea of true co-design—that if artists are using non-artists to creatively enhance an experience, those people need to be brought in from the start and acknowledged: “This is shared authorship, this is shared creation.”

When the circle expanded fully, the conversation of agency was delved into more, and Bakker Harger posited that not all audiences want it. Anchuli Felicia King, a multidisciplinary artist, mentioned that one thing missing in the conversation was the idea of spectacle—how the new forms of interactivity and participation are helping artists enhance the wonder of the theatre, the element of surprise, which is part of what makes theatre a vibrant art form. While the artists present all had different points of view, it was clear that they each spend time thinking about how to best take care of their audiences in interactive shows.

Fragility, Data, and the Suspicion of “Utopia”

The fourth and final session of the convening, Digital Utopias, covered a lot of ground, and as the conversation got going, it took on a social justice lens. The group followed the breathing circle format again, and the first several thoughts were all about the idea of digital utopias. SpiderWebShow’s creative catalyst, Sarah Garton Stanley, who was moderating, kicked us off with the notion that “utopia” is a suspicious word: technology and the internet, which were originally thought to be equalizers that offered the potential for accessibility, have also been problematic. Kevin Cunningham, artistic director of New York’s 3-Legged Dog, said that a big focus of his work is finding and putting forward technologies and methods that are affordable and usable to everyday artists. Crump mentioned that the idea of a utopia—that there’s somewhere to land—is antithetical to artistic practice, and that she’s more interested in how to build ways in which artists continue to be “iterative, creative, and anti-fragile,” which struck a chord with many in the room.

Nearing the end of the first circle, and as it opened up into the second circle, the topic of data was explored. While some people said the word “data” doesn’t really speak to them, it brought up really interesting thoughts in others. Crump thinks of it as information that shows us our connections and helps build relationships. Chantal Bilodeau, artistic director of the Arctic Cycle, which focuses on climate change theatre, said that, in her experience, data has the potential to move the field forward. Kate Bergstrom, an intermedia director and performer, asked, “How can artists unpack the ways in which our data is already being proliferated on online platforms?”

close up of a group sitting in a circle talking

Digital + Performance Convening. Kingston, Ontario. 12 June 2019.

When we moved into the final circle, Milton Lim, co-artistic director of Hong Kong Exile (alongside Siu), flagged that people kept bringing up a binary of human and digital technology, and that making such divisions is irresponsible in a digital performance festival when, really, “we’re looking at the intersection and the space between.” He also made the point that data is not inherently digital, and much of what the group had been talking about was big data. Actor, writer, and director Alex Bulmer disagreed, mentioning that she thinks there’s a difference in discussing technology in an artistic context and technology in a non-artistic context. Right after her comment the session wrapped up, which was too bad as I think much more could have been explored on the topic.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, while everyone was still sitting in a large circle, we went around the room calling out the word that had stuck with us from the day’s events. A few people said “anti-fragile” and “agency.” Other words noted were “serendipity,” “constellations,” “mediated intimacy,” and “participation.” Each one related to a specific conversation of the day, and I was reminded that everyone would be leaving the convening with different threads on their mind. What stood out to me wasn’t what stood out to someone else, and that’s because we had all come in with our own experiences, our own thought patterns, our own understanding of and embracing of the digital.

four people standing on a deck overlooking lake ontario

Digital + Performance Convening. Kingston, Ontario. 12 June 2019.

Most of the participants stayed on for foldA, which ran for three days after the convening. The festival was filled with shows, talks, and workshops—covering everything from climate change, to Isadora software, to unsettling dramaturgy. On top of that, two large chunks of time—the US/Canada Exchange events—gave space for the conveners from both countries to present their work. We watched videos, saw photos, and heard stories of the art being created, which added another layer to the conversations that had been had in the convening itself. Most people were in agreement that, for next year’s gathering, these exchanges should happen before the day of conversations, which would potentially enrich the dialogue even more. But, even though this wasn’t the setup this time around, most attendees felt that the experiences had at the Digital + Performance Convening and foldA—both separately and together—were valuable. Those who took part walked away with new knowledge, new ideas, and new connections, which is, ultimately, what it was all about.

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