Next week I’m off to a conference in Paris marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I’ll be participating in a seminar on Shakespeare, festivals, and festivity, with my contribution focusing on the place of digital celebration and outreach within Shakespeare festivals. The post below sets out some of the questions I hope to raise concerning the nature of ‘the festival’ and that of ‘the digital’, and how these entities overlap, if at all. Time, synchronicity, boundedness, focus, and togetherness are all key issues in this discussion, I think, and I’m eager to find out where we might get with them as a group.
In his introduction to the 1987 collection Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, the anthropologist Alessandro Falassi writes that festival environments are centrally defined by three factors: ‘time, space, and action’. Time, in the sense of normal, mundane time disrupted and suspended; space, in the sense of either everyday or, conversely, rarely used spaces claimed for collective festival activity; and action, in the sense of the intensification of special activities such as prayers, performances, or feasts not typically a part of daily life. Falassi suggests that when these three things come together, normal life ‘is modified by a gradual or sudden interruption that introduces “time out of time,” a special temporal dimension devoted to special activities’.
My question for this seminar on ‘Shakespearean Festivals in the Twenty-first Century’ is what might such a definition of festivity, and in particular its valuing of ‘time out of time’, mean for the growing use of digital connectivity and communication within Shakespearean festival settings? Do digital initiatives help enhance festive experience by allowing it to be extended in real-time to audiences otherwise cut off from the festival site (a corollary being televised sports events such as the World Cup or music events such as Glastonbury)? Or do they actually undermine festivity by disrupting the specificity and boundedness of time, place, and action upon which festivals depend, producing a more mundane experience of “time within time” – that is, an only partially festive experience mixed into the normal, digitally inflected rhythms of daily life?
How we answer such questions will depend at least in part on our own understanding and experience of digital technology, I think, and the role it plays for us in our day-to-day existence. In his recent book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014) (discussed earlier this year on this blog), the literary scholar Steven E. Jones argues that the entity once known as ‘cyberspace’ has finally ‘everted’, meaning that what was once imagined as an esoterically high-tech, completely immersive otherspace has transitioned into a more integrated, ubiquitous, and layered form of ‘mixed reality’ – or, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson prefers to put it, a kind of ‘augmented reality’. ‘People are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction [between them] is becoming increasingly irrelevant’, Jurgenson writes, and while Jones largely agrees, he also suggests that significant differences between digital and non-digital ways of being still persist, resulting in the increasingly common ‘paradox of living in two worlds at once’.
My interest is in how festival settings, with their unusual emphasis on time and presence – or, to put it another way, on ‘being there’ – have the potential to intensify this paradox of dual-citizenship, and to foreground the questions it raises about physically situated versus digitally mediated ways of being. Can a truly festive atmosphere emerge from a digital performance, or indeed from a digital conversation surrounding a ‘live’ performance? What kind of experience, for instance, is produced by a Twitter exchange around a shared festival hashtag, or the live-broadcasting of a festival performance, and can these kinds of activities be seen as festive in any way?
My working hypothesis is that digital modes of performance and engagement can effectively enhance and extend festivity, but that they don’t naturally do so, mainly because we tend to use them to evade the experience of boundedness and to promote the ability to be in multiple places at once. If, as Roger D. Abrahams suggests, ‘festivals seize on open spots and playfully enclose them,’ digital activity tends to do the opposite, seizing on existing, content-rich spots and fragmenting, layering, disassociating, and dispersing them. The challenge for festival organizers interested in harnessing the power of digital tools, then, is in finding ways of resisting this tendency, and of enabling a more focused, bounded, and ‘present’ form of engagement among digital festival-goers.
There are countless examples of digital activity within Shakespeare festival celebration that we might use to work through such issues, and I’ll be interested to hear about the different digital initiatives other members of the seminar have come into contact with through their own work on Shakespeare festivals around the world. For my own part, my research with Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson on the Shakespearean celebrations that were a part of the London 2012 Olympics (documented in www.yearofshakespeare.com and A Year of Shakespeare: Reliving the World Shakespeare Festival, 2013) has prompted me to pay special attention to the digital activity and experimentation that took place within and around the Shakespearean events planned as a part of that Olympic year. These events included the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Globe’s Globe to Globe Festival, the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and also the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies themselves, since three of them featured Shakespearean material.
Some notable digital initiatives arising from these events (both planned and otherwise) included the making of 36 of the Globe to Globe productions freely available online during the summer of 2012 on the ‘pop-up’ arts site TheSpace.org; the web-streaming of I, Cinna, Tim Crouch’s adaptation of Julius Caesar for the RSC, to schools across the UK; the creation of MyShakespeare (myshakespeare.rsc.org.uk), a gallery of digital work inspired by Shakespeare and hosted by the RSC; the creation of the Hollow Crown Fans Twitter group (@hollowcrownfans), currently 8,000+ members strong and growing; and the many online conversations that took place around all of these events through discussion boards and social media. In our seminar I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few of these examples of Shakespearean digital festivity, both as a way of exploring the nature of the festival itself as well as the relationship of the digital to it.
Abrahams, Roger D. ‘An American Vocabulary of Celebrations.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 175-183.
Falassi, Alessandro. ‘Festival: Definition and Morphology.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 1-10. [PDF currently available online at http://bit.ly/1m02RRR]
Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Jurgenson, Nathan. ‘Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropologist (a critique).’ Cyborgology blog. 10 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/10/amber-case-cyborg-anthropologist-a-critique/
—–. ‘Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.’ Cyborgology blog. 24 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/