Going live with Philip Auslander

reading

With the end of the academic term and a few long flights under my belt, I’ve managed to crack on with a bit more of my digital Shakespeare reading list. One of the books that almost always comes up in discussions of live theatre broadcasts is Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, so I was especially excited for the opportunity to sit down and work my way through this text – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. First published in 1999, and then revised and reissued in 2008, Auslander’s book feels alarmingly prescient. He takes as his central premise the idea that ‘liveness’ is an ever-evolving concept, always existing in relation to the art forms and technologies of which it is a part. While theatre critics such as Peggy Phelan have argued that theatre’s unique value is in its live, ephemeral irreproducibility – that its ‘only life is in the present’, and that it ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations’ (qtd p. 44) – Auslander sets out to make a case for how theatre has been shaped, marked, and circulated by media technology since the early twentieth century through to the present day.

This relatively short but forceful book divides into three chapters. The first and longest is a recapitulation of the book’s title and overall focus (‘Live performance in a mediatized culture’) and accordingly it offers the broadest and most theoretically encompassing examination of the study’s central concerns. It is also the chapter most focused on theatre itself, and accordingly the one of greatest interest to people like me thinking about the changing landscape of Shakespearean performance. Auslander begins with a rich history of the beginnings of television, which he evocatively, if questionably, suggests we might take as ‘an allegory’ for the wider relationship between the live and the mediatized (p. 10). In this account he documents how early TV broadcasts took theatre as a model for its own emerging art form, frequently featuring live theatrical performances in its programming. By the 1950s, however, a consensus began to emerge that TV was more akin to cinema than theatre, largely due to its adoption of filmic technologies and techniques, including multiple cameras and angles and denser visual editing.

The attention to editing and the kind of imaginative experience it produces for the audience of course interested me here. In one telling passage Auslander quotes at length from a 1953 TV production textbook, in which the author asks:

Why cannot the television medium transmit a stage play to the home audience, capturing the immediacy of the performance instead of attempting to simulate the motion picture? Perhaps if a play were televised into one continuous long shot with the proscenium arch of the stage constantly visible, the effect of a stage play would be retained. (p. 21)

Of course, theatre stages and technologies have changed alongside televisual and cinematic ones, with so many of the theatre broadcasts we see today coming from stages that are not proscenium arched. But the basic concept of the space needing to reveal itself through the relay as a stage, and perhaps also for the theatrical audience to maintain a visible role in this exchange, is one that I think still stands over 60 years later.

The chapter goes on to consider a series of examples from the late twentieth-century performing arts in which the ‘live’ and the ‘mediated’/‘mediatized’ have found themselves in close dialogue, including: the use of microphones as well as recorded music in many theatrical productions, experimentation with close-up video monitors in some symphony concerts, the inclusion of a laugh track in television sitcoms, the use of video and photo documentary in body and endurance performance art, and the use of ‘nonmatrixed, task-based’ performance styles by some avant-garde theatre companies interested in interpolating live human performance with media content (think the Wooster Group, below). Through each of these examples Auslander builds a case for the reflexive relationship between mediatization and the theatre, a relationship that helps him progressively call into question the ‘ontologically pristine’ nature of performance as beside or even beyond media representation and reproduction (p. 45).

All of this builds to a closing discussion of how our understanding of liveness has changed over the past century, evolving from a ‘classic’ conception encompassing both temporal and geographical co-presence, to more flexible varieties that may accommodate lack of geographical co-presence (such as live arts and sports broadcasts) or even lack of both (such as live recordings that can be viewed or listened to repeatedly at later dates). The rapid expansion of the internet has changed this even further, with Auslander discussing social ‘liveness’ online and the sense of co-presence and connection with others that it involves. Here he also considers what it means for a website to ‘go live’, a phrase and concept that he argues has principally to do with the generation of feedback between technology and user (pp. 59-62).

I found all of this discussion extremely productive and provocative, so much so that Auslander’s illuminating research and analysis ended up prompting me to call into question a few of his smaller points. His characterization of the liveness of websites made me think about the broader ways in which we use and understand the word ‘live’, most centrally in the sense of being a-live. While I can seeing how ‘going live’ with a site makes possible a kind of real-time interaction with site users that is akin to the temporal liveness and exchange involved in many forms of theatre, I also wonder if the phrase actually came about through a sense of the site becoming alive, of being birthed into the wider world of the world-wide web.

Such a sense of ‘live’ points us in the direction of liveness as vitality, of being alive with presence and some sort of emotional agency. Auslander begins to gesture towards this kind of aliveness, albeit somewhat indirectly, when he suggests that today our ‘emerging definition of liveness may be built primarily around the audience’s affective experience.’ (p. 62) Feeling live and alive is perhaps the most important criterion for what we understand by the experience of liveness, with Auslander suggesting that the sensation or even emotion of liveness may derive for the qualities of ‘spontaneity, community, presence, and feedback’ that we associate with many forms of theatrical performance. Though he goes on to systematically deconstruct and demystify these values, I would suggest that they remain core elements of live and alive experience, though that doesn’t mean that I think that they can only be achieved through traditional, face-to-face modes of interpersonal contact. We need to recognize the life that exists in so many forms of communal exchange, and we need to think about ways to cultivate that experience across a wide variety of arts and media. It is in that form of communion, I think, that we find culture.

So in about a thousand words I’ve just about managed to summarize and respond to Auslander’s powerful first chapter, which hopefully gives some sense of just how rich his book is. Though the second two chapters don’t address my particular research question quite so directly, they nonetheless offer compelling and very readable accounts of the constant reiteration of acoustic craft and recorded craft in pop music (‘Tryin’ to make it real: Live performance, simulation, and the discourse of authenticity in rock culture’), and the way in which economic and legal networks fashion seemingly abstract concepts like liveness in very technical, enforceable, and documentable ways (‘Legally live: Law, performance, memory’). They prompted me to ask myself whether I think it’s important if a band sings live or lip-syncs in a show, or if an actor has a right to control the data created when his or her body is digitally mapped for complex CGI effects in films. My immediate answers would be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, but accounting for them in reasoned, logically consistent detail is more of a challenge. These kinds of questions and challenges are characteristic of Auslander’s book from start to finish, and I’ve no doubt that I will be returning to its pages many times again.

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3 thoughts on “Going live with Philip Auslander

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