Tag Archives: Philip Auslander

Aura, aliveness, and art

A second post inspired in part by Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and the final one — I think — about my research adventures in the US last month.

So I’ve finished Benjamin’s essay now. At a whopping 10 pages, this perhaps isn’t saying much, but the intelligence, weight, and importance of the ideas presented there are not to be digested hastily. I’m still not sure if I know where Benjamin ultimately stood on the issue of technology’s impact on art: it seems clear that he’s disconcerted, dismayed even, by the way reproduction erases a work’s history and erodes its aura. He compares such a process to prying an oyster from its shell — though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the metaphor is surely one of death. ‘Art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance”‘, he writes, leaving his readers with the lingering question, what happens next?

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The man himself, aura and all.

I’ll come back to that question at the end of this piece, but before that I want to think a bit more about aura, authenticity, aliveness, and digitization. As I mentioned in my last post, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an essay about ‘aliveness’ during theatre broadcasts to cinemas and online. For me, ‘a-liveness’ is the less visible but just as important cousin of ‘liveness’, that ever-present topic in discussions of performance, technology, and mediation. What does it mean for something to be live, especially in a digital age? I won’t go into the details of the debate now, but my own response to Philip Auslander’s game-changing book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, can be found here.

What interests me most in this debate aren’t the details of time and space that have often been taken to constitute different degrees of liveness, but rather the experiential and emotional pull that a work of art elicits when we feel its aliveness — by which I mean its vivacity, immersiveness, and depth, its irresistible demand. While liveness in terms of shared time and space can often enhance and even create a feeling of aliveness, I don’t think that it’s absolutely essential to the experience. In my essay, I’m exploring this idea by looking at how audiences at theatre broadcasts use social media — specifically Twitter — to form online communities of shared experience even when they are located at a distance from one another. In such moments I think we can see audiences ‘doing liveness’, to quote Martin Barker, whose research into live-broadcasting I have blogged about here.

Though my work so far has focused on aliveness as an audience activity and even construction — part of the surrounding context for the work of art — as I’ve been writing I’ve also been thinking more about the aliveness that arises from the work of art itself. This seems to me to be very much akin to Benjamin’s aura: it’s that ineffable substance that draws you in, that makes a work of art present, unignorable, captivating, thrilling. The question of what exactly this substance is is worth a series of blog posts in and of itself, so I’m going to resist attempting to answer it here other than to say that, in my view, it is most certainly about aesthetics (a statement that should seem blindingly obvious, but that has become somewhat marginalized in recent decades). Beyond that, I’ll simply offer an image of a work of art that for me is very much alive, in the spirit of showing rather than telling.

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Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani by Lavinia Fontana, c. 1595, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Those who know me well may recognize this image from the cover of my first solo-authored book; a further few may be aware of the fact that it’s a painting that privately obsesses me. This is partly down to contextual issues: why had I never heard of the artist, Lavinia Fontana, before 2013, and how did this extraordinary woman manage to become such an accomplished and successful painter in seventeenth-century Italy? Even more important though are the aesthetic issues: for me, this is a sumptuously engrossing painting, startling in its power of presence.

Interesting, then, that until a month ago I had never seen it in person. I first encountered it online, during a standard search for free images that I might use in a seminar publicity flyer, and later through the website of the Walters Art Museum, which through the institution’s tremendous generosity makes high-resolution images of most of its collection available to the public for free (authors, take note!). In fact, when I emailed the museum to see if I could reproduce this painting on the cover of my book, the staff there not only agreed, but also sent me a 275MB TIFF file. For those not in the know (like me), it turns out that this is really big — much bigger in fact than the original painting from which it was made.

It also means that you can zoom very, very deeply into the image, examining tiny details like the shimmer on each of Signora Hercolani’s pearls or the absorptive gaze in her eyes. When you do this, whatever part of the painting you are exploring, you also realize how much of it is made up of rich, inky darkness. Zooming into the painting is like venturing into the widow Hercolani’s very being, which fills up the frame with its cavernous, shadowy presence even as the work’s symbolic focal points, the loyal dog and the pure white handkerchief, point to her recently departed husband. In her eyes and in this darkness, the painting — for me — becomes all about her.

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So when I found myself in Washington, DC last month I wasted no time in making arrangements to get up to Baltimore to visit the Walters Art Museum and see this painting in person. Thinking back on the afternoon, I remember being not only full of anticipation, but actually rather nervous. What if the painting wasn’t actually on display, despite the fact that the museum website confirmed that it would be? What if I couldn’t find it? How would it be displayed? But, most importantly of all, how would I feel when I saw it?

After some shuffling between rooms I did at last find her, and I was impressed, though not in the way I expected. There it was, this painting that had not only fascinated me for years, but that also stood synecdochally for my own intellectual ambitions and achievements, made material in a book on a shelf back in England. I instantly fell in love with it again, but for different reasons than before: now, it was the love of recognition, of self-affirmation, of fulfillment. What it really wasn’t, to my surprise, was the love of unmistakable aesthetic power. This is not to say that the painting was and is anything other than extraordinary. Rather, it’s that looking at it and into it in person was not, in fact, as powerful for me as engaging with it digitally.

This might be down to the fact that it was now familiar: the shock of the new was gone. Perhaps more significantly, the museum’s method of displaying the painting veers more towards the decorative than the aesthetically imposing. Positioned above three smaller works, the painting is mounted well above human eye-line, meaning that there is no chance of meeting Signora Hercolani’s gaze straight-on. Perched on high, she is suitably imperious, authoritative, and aloof — all qualities that I had previously seen in the painting — but gone is the intimacy that I now realize was so impactful in my first encounter with this work.

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What this is all pointing to, as some might already suspect, is my realization there in the Walters that for me the aura and aliveness of the digital image was much stronger than being physically in the presence of the painting in Baltimore. Some of this is certainly contextual, but a good part of it is also formal. There is simply something about the digital image that I love that is not there in person.

In many ways this personal reflection is positioned as a rejoinder to Benjamin and his belief that aura always sided with the physical, original work. But in another sense, it’s not, because Benjamin himself recognizes in his essay that the ‘mechanically’ produced work comes with its own startling advantages. One is the potential for ‘simultaneous collective experience’, while another is the ‘incomparably more precise’ representation of certain actions. But most significant of all is the way new technologies open up the possibility of new worlds of experience in art: ‘a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’

This has certainly been my experience with Fontana’s portrait of Hercolani — so much so that I was unsettled and even disappointed when those new worlds of formation were suddenly closed off to me in person. But to return to my very first question, where does that leave us? Benjamin doesn’t offer much by way of a definitive answer: in the final pages of his essay, he turns to a dark reflection on the growth of Fascism in his own time, and the way Futurist artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were celebrating technology as an integral part of an aesthetics of destruction. He also talks about the use-value of art, about audiences, and about the way the technological arts cater the distracted masses rather than the focused observer. In many ways, the conversation really hasn’t changed, and as I read it I found myself agreeing with most of his essay. One thing I do know, however, is that my own encounter with the Hercolani portrait in digital form has been all about concentration, absorption, and auratic experience. It is in this form that the painting, for me, has truly come to life.

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.

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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?

Celebrating the digital, part 2 — new directions

Earlier this week I posted a piece about three recent digital Shakespeare anniversaries — the 6-month anniversary of this blog, the 5-year anniversary of NTLive, and the 1-year anniversary of the RSC and Google+’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. Today I want to follow that up with some discussion of the recent re-launch of the digital arts site TheSpace.org, and the possible new avenues it may open up for online creativity and performance.

Originally developed as a pop-up site for the digital side of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, The Space returned last week as a new and more permanent gallery for the digital arts in the UK. While the old Space included a wide range of digital offerings, including the free streaming of recordings of 37  Globe to Globe Shakespeare productions, we are told that the new Space will leave broadcasting initiatives to BBC Arts Online and will instead turn its focus to more radical engagements with creative form. That means content that is more like Midsummer Night’s Dreaming and less like Globe to Globe streaming, as demonstrated by the kind of work generated by the #hackthespace all-night opening event at the Tate Modern last weekend.

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Hackers hacking. #hackthespace

While the new version of the site is still young and content is in the process of being developed, there are a few initial offerings that caught my eye. The most high-profile piece featured in the new Space was an iPad drawing from David Hockney of a lily against a mauve background. I say was because in the process of writing this post I realized that the lily, titled ‘1062’, has been taken down, and all the links to the Telegraph coverage of it are now mysteriously broken (to be fair, The Space responded to my tweet below saying that the Hockney was a a special and time-limited offering just for the launch). At the moment the drawing can still be seen in this Channel 4 story about the new Space, about halfway down the page. A couple of things about the work really interest me — first, the title, which to some extent highlights the potentially mechanized status of digital art (especially considering the fact that Hockney, unlike some artists, doesn’t tend to use numerical titles for his paintings), and second, the fact that the ‘drawing’ is actually an animation that allows you to watch the composition of the flower from start to finish. For me the work was much more interesting for the insight it gave into Hockney’s process, and I’d be interested to know if the 2-minutes’ worth of animation was in real-time or sped up. How long does it take to create a piece of digital art?

Leaving the question of the disappearing Hockney aside, the other work on the new Space that most interests me is a theatre piece called Longitude. Written by Tim Wright, one of the creatives behind the RSC’s 2010 digital experiment, Such Tweet SorrowLongitude uses Google Hangouts (as did Midsummer Night’s Dreaming) to broadcast three 20-minute episodes of a new play about global climate change and water shortage. It’s fashioned as a thriller, set in a near future that sees ocean levels rising, weather patterns intensifying, and clean water disappearing. The action connects actors in Lagos, Barcelona, and London, roughly all on the same longitude line, as they communicate with each other about a dodgy water deal that seems destined to go wrong. There’s still one more episode to go on 23 June at 6pm GMT, with a Q&A to follow, and episodes 1 and 2 can be watched online in the meantime (see ep. 1 below).

I’ll be interested to know more about the logistics of the performance, specifically how the live action and broadcasting is coordinated, since I had initially assumed it was pre-recorded based on cued technical break-ups in some of the video conferencing that were part of the dramatic action. With Auslander fresh in my mind I’m also interested in how the production’s liveness, a feature emphasized in its promotion on Twitter and The Space, might contribute to its status as theatre rather than television, film, or something altogether new. In any case it’s a really interesting example of possible new directions for digital performance, and the fact that it’s also partly commissioned by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) points towards a growing and more widespread interest in what the digital, in all its infinite variety, may have to offer the performing arts today.

So lots to celebrate, I’d say, and much to look forward to. While I think that it’s right that we question the remit and scope of the so-called ‘digital’, and that we push ourselves to define how we’re using it in different contexts (a point discussed in part 1 of this post), I also think it’s important to allow it space to range somewhat wildly across form and platform, and to see what happens. By ‘what happens’ I mean not only what creative artists and producers come up with, but also how audiences of all different  digital competencies engage with and use it. And it looks like we’ll have more opportunity for this in the near future — just yesterday The Space announced a competition for £20,000 of seed money for the UK company that submits the most promising proposal for a new work of digital theatre. So stay tuned.

Image by kind permission of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Core by Kurt Hentschläger, A digital installation commissioned by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, with support from Arts Council England as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
The new face of digital theatre?

Going live with Philip Auslander

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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.