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Stelarc, Ear on an Arm 2003, from Interzone Stelarc, Ear on an Arm 2003, from Interzone
photo Polixeni Papapetrou
From the beginning, it’s clear we’re on ‘Yuji-time.’ There was no misprint in the conference program, registration really did open at 0800 on the dot, and the sessions waited for no latecomers. At e-performance and Plug-ins, billed as a “mediatised performance conference”, it’s clear that the primary mediatising force was the coordinator, performance artist Yuji Sone. And his mediatisation was impressive, bringing together a wide variety of hybrid artists and theorists, with the practice/theory line being continually and productively blurred by the presence of so many artist/theorists (including Victoria Spence and Mark Seton discussing the breakdown of technological and biological systems in Spence’s communication/failure (see page 32), and Out-of-Sync’s (Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark) blend of digital networking technology and 19th century mysticism in their ouija board performance Séance: a networked glossalalia on the ISEA2004 ferry. Many of the presentations from PhD candidates were also of ‘practice as research’, meaning that e-performance could be seen as a sign of new media, performance and live art’s growing significance within the academy, especially in Australia and the UK.

The brief of the conference was wide, ranging from “the ontology of liveness to the very technical and logistical questions of performance in a mediatised environment under diverse conditions of actualisation.” These technical and logistical questions were well demonstrated within the conference form itself, with keynote addresses (Philip Auslander on robotics, US curator and critic Michael Rush tracing histories of performance in video art, and Nottingham-based Johannes Birringer’s barely intelligible presentation on performing the intersections of wearable technology and fashion) delivered via different forms of video or audio streaming. While impressively executed by a dedicated technical support team (supervised by Mark Mitchell), each had its own unique and inevitable glitches. Despite Edward Scheer’s quip in the closing remarks (“couldn’t we have watched it on TV?”), this ever-present sense of potential disaster kept all the mediatisation firmly in the realm of the live.

Stelarc

As the only keynote speaker physically present at the conference, performance artist Stelarc’s imaginative and ever-excessive rethinking of the human body was well demonstrated in his discussion of recent practice, including Stomach Sculpture (described as “a site-specific performance for private physiological space”), Blender (a collaboration with Nina Sellars involving the literal removal of subcutaneous tissue from their 2 bodies and blending it repeatedly, reanimating the biomaterial to create ‘new life’), and a range of other performances with networked prosthetics.

In these networked experiments, Stelarc has attempted to remake the body into “an inverse motion-capture system.” Rather than create a template for the movements of an avatar in a virtual world, he makes a surrogate to enable an avatar to perform in the real world. To make this possible, Stelarc aims for an emptying out of the body, allowing it to become a better host. Strangely he refers to his body as if it is not his own, rhetorically performing this ‘emptying out.’

Speaking enthusiastically about his difficulties in obtaining a plastic surgeon to attach a replica of his ear to his arm, his current body modification project, Stelarc clearly demonstrates that there are implications legal and ethical as much as aesthetic to this practice. It seems that here the impersonal is political too, pointing to a post-human artistic politics.

Philip Auslander

This fascination with the ends of the human in live art and performance reached its peak early on with US performance theorist Philip Auslander asking “can robots make performance art?” He cites the example of Max Dean and Rafaello D’Andrea’s The table: childhood (1984-2001) in which a robotic performer (a computer-controlled dining table on wheels) chooses a viewer to attempt to “form a relationship with” by closely approaching them. This semblance of intimacy from a large heavy table can be threatening, its unpredictable and lifelike behaviour uncanny. The artists anthropomorphically frame their performing table, subtitling the piece “childhood” because the table’s programming has it perform actions similar to those of a child trying to relate to adults.

Can it be live art if the performer is an artificial life form? And what is the place of these artistic robots? A metaphor for the human? A substitute for the human? A parody of a human? If the actions of these robot performers are designed to be read as futile does it mean that humans programmed these robots to undertake meaningless tasks? How is this different from instructing humans to perform such pointless tasks? Auslander pointed to the example of Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov’s A Life (Black and White, 1999-2000) in which 2 human painters repeatedly repaint the gallery space black then white for the duration of the exhibition. These painters might as well have been machines.

‘live’

The performance program ‘live’ provided exhilarating live image mixing from John Gillies in Shiver (VJ mix version), UK-based Michaela Reiser’s biofeedback performance Excitations, and Company in Space’s Hellen Sky’s eloquently playful live web stream from Nottingham, Liquid Paper 11. There were no performing robots on the night, and therefore no way to test Auslander’s provocations. The ‘live’ here was strictly ‘alive’, wrapping up with welcome low-tech absurdity from Unreasonable Adults’ The End of Romance. Their deadpan mock competitiveness in obsessively detailed descriptions of technical apparatus (various redundant laptops and a mini-cassette recorder) was a refreshing reminder that the technological is most productively linked to the social context of its use, and there’s no reason to take it all so seriously.

As Sydney video and new media artist Anna Davis pointed out in discussing the social proxemics in her installation In the house of shouters, “audiences respond socially to almost anything, with a minimum of social cues.” No matter what the material and form of the art practice, a common thread demonstrated in the work discussed over the conference was the desire to produce engagement with viewers. As Hellen Sky put it: “We’re trying to make a connection and we make endless phone calls in the foyer.”
Surprising connections were made. And endless phone calls were indeed made in foyers. All the liveness, the networking, and the mediatised presentations conspired to create what Andrew Murphie aptly described as a “complex dynamic system”— the conference itself as an emergent lifeform. What as-yet unimagined ‘new life’ will emerge from this important initiative is much anticipated.


See also the report on the WISP conference.

e-performance and Plug-ins: A Mediatised Performance Conference. Coordinated by Yuji Sone. School of Media, Film and Theatre, University of New South Wales, Dec 1-2, 2005

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 35

© David Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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