Tag Archives: Affect

Martin Barker and ‘the remarkable rise of livecasting’

The summer reading continues on, and next on the list is Martin Barker’s Live to Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). This is the first – and as far as I know still the only – book-length work on the growing phenomenon of live theatre broadcasting, and although it is a short one it still manages to cover considerable ground in its 93 pages. Barker is a media studies specialist, with particular expertise in the study of film audiences, and one of the biggest contributions of his book makes is to orient the many questions surrounding theatre broadcasting towards those audiences and their experiences in the cinema. He does so through the collection and analysis of nearly 650 audience questionnaires, completed by attendees at theatre broadcasts at the Picturehouse cinema chain in 2009. In the process he also surveys some of the most relevant research on liveness and mediation in the performing arts, and he raises a series of pertinent (though as yet unanswered) questions about where theatre broadcasting is headed and what this might mean for audience experience.

live to

For a reader like myself, one of the most interesting things about Barker’s perspective is its orientation towards film rather than theatre studies. Much of the conversation I’ve been a part of so far focuses almost entirely on how live broadcasting is changing theatre and theatre-going, but Barker’s work shows us how it is significantly affecting cinema culture as well. His first chapter offers a brief history of the rise of digital cinema in the early 2000s and then ‘alternative content’ – aka ‘event cinema’ – shortly thereafter, leading to assertions by the end of the decade that ‘Cinema is fast becoming a multi-arts venue’ (8). In Chapter 2 he continues with a look at the emerging aesthetics of theatre and opera broadcasting, one genre in the growing range of event cinema offerings, and he illustrates, with a faint whiff of disappointment, how approaches to filming and editing tend to be ‘cautious’ (21) and geared towards showing cinema audiences that ‘we are watching a stage’ (16). Although what he calls ‘cinematic flourishes’ or ‘bravura moments’ do appear in most broadcasts, they are used sparingly to punctuate what is on the whole a ‘transparent, unobtrusive, and invisible’ style (15-17). For me, some of Barker’s observations came as a useful surprise; I typically find myself longing for the (very) wide-shot and getting frustrated with what I consider constraining close ups, while he notes that the very idea of ‘close ups’ in theatre broadcasting should remain in quote marks since such shots ‘will almost always include torso and arms. Extreme close-ups are unknown here’ (18). Not all close ups are made equally, I’ve learned.

How close is close?

From Chapter 3 onwards Barker gets down to the nitty gritty of analysing audience data and thinking through which aspects of live broadcasts cinema audiences respond to most strongly. While some work has already been done on the demographics and perceptions of broadcast audiences, most notably by NESTA, Barker rightly points out that such research has been more focused on the economic viability of live broadcasting and has tended to overlook the question of audience ‘experiences per se’ (25). Barker’s own research attempts to remedy this lack: after attending briefly to demographics (above all, theatre broadcast audiences tend to be older than typical cinema audiences, he tells us), he goes on to consider what he calls ‘audience pleasures and meanings’, namely ‘the value of localness’ and the ‘powerful sense of participating in the occasion’ (30-2). This emphasis on locality, eventness, and immediacy prompts him to survey, in Chapter 4, the ways in which academics from theatre, television, music, film, comedy, and sports studies conceive of liveness  and live experience (to put it briefly: as with the close up, we are not united). While pretty much everyone puts a premium on ‘simultaneity’ (aside from music studies, to a certain extent), Barker suggests that the value of other factors such as ‘bodily co-presence’, ‘experienced risk’, ‘immediacy/spectatorial control’, and ‘sense of place’ vary across the disciplines. His quick summary doesn’t always convince or satisfy me (I don’t agree, for instance, that ‘a sense of place and locality … is largely ignored in theatre thinking’) (57-8), but still the survey is very helpful in challenging readers to look at these thorny issues across different artistic and entertainment forms, rather than always sticking to home territory. And his concluding remarks about what he calls ‘virtual performance studies’, i.e. varieties of digital art and performance, really struck me as important. Here he identifies how ‘liveness’ functions ‘not [as] a descriptive or normative concept, but [as] a tool and a goal. Its question appears to be not whether liveness is present, but how can we make people feel that it is?’ (58).

Such a proposition – that liveness may in fact be as much a kind of feeling as a particular geographical or temporal relationship – took me back to Philip Auslander’s categories of ‘liveness’ in his landmark book, and my own musings whether or not the power of liveness is down to its ability to make us feel ‘a-live’, and vividly part of something. One very effective way of doing this is through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with the event itself, but can the feeling be just as strong through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with other things, namely an audience or community? In his discussion of TV studies, Barker suggests that liveness can be created (or, more cynically, constructed) through the insertion of human reaction into editing sequences (47). Similarly, in his discussion of music studies, he notes how ‘The thing that makes the difference’ is ‘a sense of occasion, of audience collectivity, of ritual’ (53), and in comedy studies how ‘“liveness” can be as much about belonging to a locality and community as about physical presence per se’ (55). His final discussion of sports studies goes furthest of all; reflecting on the common practice of gathering in pubs to watch televised broadcasts of games, Barker observes how audiences may ‘generate a cultural context which they can then own and treat as “live”’ (57). Liveness, in this way, becomes much more about engagement, eventness, and feeling: ‘being there’ might be one powerful way of producing such experience, but what Barker’s survey begins to suggest is that there is more than one ‘there’.

Being there.

Chapter 5 continues in this vein, exploring how cinema audiences at theatre broadcasts characterize liveness themselves, and the conclusion is largely the same: ‘audiences communally produce new ways of “doing liveness”’ (71). Different kinds of audience members might want different things (Barker divides his respondents into what he calls ‘immersives’ and ‘experts’ (67)), but he suggests that for everyone part of the value and enjoyment of the broadcasts is the opportunity to celebrate not only the art on display but also the audience experiencing it together. They are ‘living’ such experiences, he suggests, and he further posits that ‘Thinking about the liveness of such events in this way would entail a wholesale re-theorisation of what we mean and intend by the concept’ (72).

Ultimately, that re-theorisation is not part of the scope of Barker’s study, which he characterizes at the outset as ‘a “come-on” to other researchers’ in the field rather than an exhaustive and definitive response (viii). In his final chapter he outlines a series of possible questions that those researchers might take up, but his invitation always remains an open and exploratory one. In this spirited and lively book he casts his net wide and brings together initial data, possibilities, and questions that should interest anyone working in this field, be they cultural theorists, sociologists, geographers, media specialists, or indeed performance scholars. As this review and response no doubt shows, for me his most exciting points are about the experiential and affective dimensions of liveness. But for others – who knows?


A smile is more than showing teeth

Cover art

It’s been a long time since my last post, and I’m afraid it’s going to be quite awhile until the next one too, due to the need to once-and-for-all finish my first solo-authored book (started in my PhD days…!). But I wanted to write a short something to mark the new year, and also to reflect on a couple of digital things that actually relate to the book I’m finishing. That project is on the history of emotion and specifically sadness in Shakespeare’s time, and in many ways it’s a world apart from the ideas about Shakespeare and digital culture that I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year. It has involved lots of archival work, dusty rare books, histories of medicine, and histories of religion — seemingly very different territory from this blog — but it’s also led me to read and think lots about why and how we feel things, and how different cultural, artistic, and indeed technological influence may shape how that process of feeling works.

Which is where the digital comes in. I haven’t written much at all about emotion and digital culture so far, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time, from watching films like Her to seeing photographs of Banksy’s depiction of modern love to listening to St. Vincent’s most recent album on repeat. To pursue that last one in a bit more depth — like many people, one of my new year’s resolutions has been to get outside and get moving more, and over the past few weeks I’ve gotten back to a bit of running, and a bit of simultaneous music-listening in the process. I had already heard a few songs off St. Vincent on the radio and tv, but listening to an album with headphones on, while you’re doing something you don’t especially enjoy, has a special power to focus the mind.

Love: that special glow.

What I hadn’t realized until recently is how much of the album is about life in a twenty-first-century digital world, and the kinds of emotions it leaves us with — or, as it happens, without. ‘Call the twenty-first century, tell her give us a break’, St. Vincent sings in the penultimate track, ‘Every Tear Disappears’. That song also begins with the title of this post: ‘Oh a smile is more than showing teeth’. It’s a lyric that caught my attention first and foremost because it inadvertently poses a challenge to one of the most influential, and yet contested, methods of studying emotion across different cultures — the recognition of facial expressions. Spearheaded by a man named Paul Ekman in the late 1960s, this method asks people from different parts of the world to identify emotion based on a set of photographs, and the resulting evidence has been used to make a case for what Ekman calls ‘basic’, or universal, emotions across cultures:

Ekman’s ‘basic’ emotions

But without going too deep into the tangly history of the study of emotion, the other thing that this lyric from St. Vincent made me think about was how our experience of technology impacts on our sense of emotional identity and capability. The first single off the album, and as far as I’m aware the most successful track to date, is a song called ‘Digital Witness’. Featuring the repeated, tumbling refrain, ‘People turn the tv on it looks just like a window’, the playfully techno-critical song evokes for me elements of the Buggles’ 1979 hit, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. ‘Pictures came and broke your heart, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far’, that tune tells us over and over again, as it semi-ironically mourns the loss of one form of entertainment technology as a new one swiftly takes over. And even if you don’t remember the words to the song, you may very well recall that the music video for it was used to launch MTV to the world in 1981.

Nearly thirty-five years later, the video for ‘Digital Witness’ tells its own story of digital — and implicitly psychological — change. St. Vincent herself, with her candy floss hair, is the central focus, always drawing our attention despite the fact that she never looks directly at us. Instead, she looks just off and above camera, like someone watching a tv screen at a bar while they half carry on with conversation. The eerie, de Chirico-esque landscape she travels through is colorfully vivid, but weirdly devoid of human agency or vivacity. There’s a gently, if beautifully, lobotomized feel to the aesthetic, and presumably one that’s not incidental to the title and lyrics of the song. And while I should say that I don’t fully agree with the idea that technology turns us into drones, it’s still an argument that’s worth making.

As a historian of emotion there’s no doubt in my mind that technology is changing us, in potentially fundamental ways, but I don’t necessarily see that as intrinsically bad — just something that we need to keep a firm eye on, and not one that’s partly askance while we do something else. If anyone wants to read more about the study of the history of emotion — without which ‘there will be no real history possible’, the great Lucien Febvre suggested — then have a look at a review essay of the field I wrote a couple of years ago. Please wish me luck as I move into the final stage of revisions, and look for more posts here later in the year!

Shakespeare and Emotion — European style

A quick plug for a seminar on Shakespeare and emotion that I’m co-organizing with the excellent Kristine Steenbergh next year. It’s part of the European Shakespeare Research Association’s conference at the University of Worcester, 29 June – 2 July 2015. While the panel isn’t explicitly digital, people interested in the kinds of affective experiences digital Shakespeare produces are very much encouraged to get involved. There is a European focus, but it is broadly construed. Our aim is to have a mix of historical, literary, philosophical, and performance-oriented papers, so whatever your approach to Shakespeare, emotion, and affect please do consider submitting an abstract. More information below.


Shakespeare and European Communities of Emotion

Dr Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, e.sullivan@bham.ac.uk
Dr Kristine Steenbergh, VU University of Amsterdam, k.steenbergh@vu.nl

This seminar focuses on the importance of emotion in Shakespeare’s plays and poems and their significance within various European contexts. Acknowledging that emotion can be both culturally and historically contingent, as well as something shared across different cultures and communities, this seminar is interested in searching out the fault-lines of Shakespeare’s emotional registers and understanding their power to transcend different kinds of European boundaries, as well as reinforce them.

Papers in this seminar might take a historical approach, considering, for instance, how Shakespeare’s works participated in scholastic debates about the relationship between emotion and the body, the rhetoric of emotion, the role of emotion in politics and governance, or the ethics of emotion. They might in turn consider how religious change across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shaped Shakespeare’s representation of emotion and its place within spiritual devotion, personal piety, and holy ritual.

Other participants may choose to take a different approach, using literary readings or performance-based analyses to consider how emotion in Shakespeare has been interpreted more recently by European readers, philosophers, directors, actors, and audiences. Such papers might focus, for instance, on the role emotion has played in the acting styles developed by famous practitioners such as Stanislavski, Brecht, or Laban, and the subsequent effect this has had on Shakespearean performance, or on how particular emotions have been generated within the context of European national theatres, Shakespeare festivals, and other performance venues.

Whatever their preferred approach, participants in the seminar are invited to consider the extent to which emotion is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s literary and dramatic craft, and whether or not it is a constant, or at least translatable, feature across different European cultures and communities. To what extent does emotion in Shakespeare bring European readers, performers, and audiences together, and to what extent does push them apart?

If you’re interested please submit an abstract (200-300 words) and a brief biography (150 words) by 1 December 2014 to both me and Kristine. All participants will be notified about the acceptance of their proposals by 1 March 2015, and the deadline for submitting the completed seminar papers (3,000 words) will be 1 May 2015.