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Mediating Weeping Woman: A live/screen performance study

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This paper documents my response to viewing war images of human suffering in the news media. The paper discusses my research project in performance studies consisting of a performance in April 2012, and a written thesis. My artistic intention was to explore the encounter between a viewer and mediatised images using a live performer and video projection, including the projection of the performer's life-size pre-recorded double. Aims of this research fell into three categories – presence, dominance and interaction of the live and the mediatised performers – and were evaluated by a survey. This paper seeks to answer the question: What are the perceived effects when incorporating a live performer with a projected image? One significant finding was that presence generally was heightened when the performer interacted with her projected self. Given the nature of the work's content, the paper concludes that this synergistic interaction was key to achieving artistic integrity.
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Mediating Weeping Woman: A live/screen performance study
K Maguire-Rosier
Department of Media, Music, Critical & Cultural Studies, Macquarie University
Abstract
This paper documents my response to viewing war images of human suffering in the news
media. The paper discusses my research project in performance studies consisting of a
performance in April 2012, and a written thesis. My artistic intention was to explore the
encounter between a viewer and mediatised images using a live performer and video
projection, including the projection of the performer’s life-size pre-recorded double. Aims of
this research fell into three categories presence, dominance and interaction of the live and
the mediatised performers and were evaluated by a survey. This paper seeks to answer the
question: What are the perceived effects when incorporating a live performer with a
projected image? One significant finding was that presence generally was heightened when
the performer interacted with her projected self. Given the nature of the work’s content, the
paper concludes that this synergistic interaction was key to achieving artistic integrity.
Keywords
Audience perception, live performance, mediatised, presence, video projection
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Introduction
Overview
This paper uses my performance experiment, Mediating Weeping Woman, to illustrate
theoretical arguments in performance studies literature, specifically in live/screen
performance. The visual and movement-based performance took place at Macquarie
University in April 2012 and incorporated a solo performer, video projection, a musical score
and lighting design. Created in the tradition of anti-war art, the work was my response to
viewing news media images of suffering in war.
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The experiment sought to test current theories in live/screen performance regarding
presence, dominance and interaction of live and mediatised performers. Specifically, the
project examined the following questions:
1. Did mediatised images heighten presence of the live performer?
2. Did mediatised images dominate the live performer?
3. What effects emerged from the live performer’s interaction with mediatised images?
An audience feedback survey was used to evaluate these questions.
Findings confirmed current theories in debates on live/screen performance; the
presence of the live performer was found to be heightened when she appeared alongside
mediatised images; these mediatised images did not dominate but rather complemented
the live performer; and the interaction between the live performer and the mediatised
images created a synergy that was key to the concept, integrity and rigour of the artwork.
Background
Introducing screen interfaces to the stage is in fact an overt manifestation of the context in
which many people in developed countries now live. Auslander argues that “mediatisation is
now explicitly and implicitly embedded within the live experience” (1999, pp. 31-32). Jensen
suggests that media has become “the lens through which we see the world” (2007, p. 1).
Both Jensen and Auslander are referring to the constant presence of digital information.
Rapid advancements in technology especially communications and visual technologies, have
led to a screen culture in which many people experience their lives today. Screen
environments, like the computer, the mobile phone and the television, have collapsed
classical definitions of time and space. Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The news automatically
becomes the real world for the TV user and is not a substitute for reality, but is itself an
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immediate reality” (quoted in McLuhan & Zingrone, 1997, p. 272). Across many disciplines,
there is a surge of scholarship investigating new technologies.
General excitement for technology accompanying that in other fields has pushed
research forward to the extent that live/screen performance practice in particular, is
technologically-focussed rather than content-driven. In live/screen performance, much
research has adopted “high-tech” approaches of which Steve Dixon is critical: “…style and
medium should never subsume content and message, and computer technology should be
seen merely as a means to an end, not an end in itself” (2007, p.6). Dixon’s concern reflects
a larger tension regarding our increasingly technological future. Cooper perceptively states:
A certain kind of posthuman future offers to propel us into a world which offers some hope in
transcending natural and biological limits, but at the cost of outstripping our ethical reference
points, based in embodied presence, mutuality, and generational responsibility. Whether as a
culture we are able to accommodate this cost remains a question that has to be asked on
broader terms than it is at present (2005, p. 8).
Across all disciplines, our technologically driven world indeed needs careful consideration.
In performance studies, theorists believe in the value of exploring technologies on
the stage, or in other theatrical scenarios. Chapple & Kattenbelt assert:
…there is a need to assess how the incorporation of digital technologies and the presence of
other media within the theatrical and performance space is creating new modes of
representation; new dramaturgical strategies; new ways of structuring and staging words,
images and sounds; new ways of positioning bodies in time and space; new ways of creating
temporal and spatial interrelations (2006, p.11).
Giesekam identifies a similar gap in literature concerned with live/screen performance:
“…there has been little systematic exploration of the variety of ways in which the
introduction of film or video into theatre may radically alter approaches to mise-en-scène,
dramaturgy, performance, modes of production and spectatorship” (2007, p.7). Dixon notes
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a “fuzzy logic” as well as extensive hyperbole that permeate debates in the field (2007, p.5).
This need for taxonomic investigation into live/screen performance led me to create an
experiment, evaluated on the basis of audience perception, with the aim of testing
contemporary theories regarding presence, dominance and interaction of a live performer
and mediatised images.
In particular, my performance culminated in a duet executed by the live performer
and her pre-recorded projected image. Matthew Causey contends such an encounter is
pivotal in live/screen performance. He states there is “a critical moment in new media
performance works and digital culture in general, when the presence of the Double is
presented through mediated duplication, the simple moment when a live actor confronts
her mediated other through technologies of reproduction” (1999, p.385). Causey’s
statement may be likened to Chapple & Kattenbelt’s description of performance that
incorporates new media as “a powerful and potentially radical force” (2006, p.12). This
paper argues that Causey’s “critical moment” and Chapple & Kattenbelt’s “potentially radical
force” are both valid assertions given that in my performance experiment, the merging of
the live with the screened proved to be powerfully effective.
Presence
Presence is a potent concept in performance studies where three predominant types inform
current debates; stage presence or aura; immediate physical presence; and fictive or
symbolic presence (Power, 2008, p.11-13). “Liveness”, a contested term in performance
studies, is arguably the same as immediate physical presence and the two words are often
used interchangeably. With the advent of new media in theatre, Auslander argues that “live
performance cannot be shown to be… immune from contamination by, and ontologically
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different from mediatized forms” (1999, p.7). Conversely, live/screen performance theorists
argue that mediatised images enhance “liveness” in contexts of live performance. Giesekam
claims that the screen is not an invasion of “liveness” but rather often, its enhancement
(2007, p.249). Lavender proposes that “[t]he actuality of the actor’s presence is heightened
by the co-presence of his or her mediatized selves” (2006, p. 62). Giesekam and Lavender’s
positions on presence were affirmed in my performance experiment, as this paper will show.
Dominance
Performance scholars are contesting another issue, namely the presupposition that the
technological is dominant. For Auslander, there is a “dominant experience of mediatization”
(1999, p. 6). While he is referring to larger economic and social spheres, his resistant attitude
towards the introduction of new media to the stage is relevant. Merx concludes that
“[v]ideo, or whatever medium, does not necessarily take over the live performance when it
is used, as Auslander seems to suggest…” (2006, p. 79). Merx and other performance
theorists have disputed the case regarding the loss of “liveness” in live/screen performance
(see Boenisch, 2006; Causey, 1999; Jensen, 2007; Merx, 2006). Boenisch observes further
that dominance might well shift from one moment to the next within the same performance
(2006, p. 109). If a digital image can dominate at one moment, a live body at another, then
the dominance of any medium over another is dynamic. This paper clarifies Merx and
Boenisch’s argument. In my performance experiment, audience reactions demonstrated that
overall, both the live performer and mediatised images were equally dominant, indeed
interdependent.
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Audience perception
If a theatre production is to provoke discussion and lead to political, cultural or social
change, audience thus plays an integral role. With regards to dominance, Boenisch believes
the “hierarchic account… does not necessarily translate into an equal hierarchy for the
observers when they experience it” (2006, p.109-110). In Theatre & Audience (2009),
Freshwater asks a timely question:
…why, when there is so much to suggest that the responses of theatre audiences are rarely
unified or stable, do theatre scholars seem to be more comfortable making strong assertions
about theatre’s unique influence and impact upon audiences than gathering and assessing the
evidence which might support these claims? (pp. 3-4).
Interestingly, the role of the audience appears particularly pertinent in the area of
live/screen performance. Chapple & Kattenbelt assert that performance that incorporates
new media is distinct from other live performance subgenres, as it involves “intermediality”,
an effect that includes the audience. “Intermediality”, they argue, is an effect of the
interrelations, in-betweenness and self-reflexivity of all stage media and spectators (2006,
p. 20). In order to better assess effects and impact on spectators, my performance
experiment was evaluated on the basis of an audience feedback survey.
Interaction
Interaction should be understood as a process where two separate stage elements
complement and seemingly react to one another, as opposed to interactivity where an
audience may actually interact spontaneously with a performer. Boenisch explains that live
bodies on stage become enveloped in processes of “remediation” – a process whereby
meaning, subject matter or content is presented in another medium: “…[A]ny body
presented on a stage ultimately becomes absorbed in the working of theatrical remediation”
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(2006, p. 155). When digital media remediate live bodies on stage, bodies do tend to appear
deeply immersed in the media. Boenisch’s view was illuminated in my performance.
Artistic intention
My work used dance, in what may be called a “performance intervention”, to make an anti-
war statement. Reflecting on McLuhan’s statement regarding the spectator’s perception of
televised news as an immediate reality, my intention was to explore processes of viewing
mediatised images of human suffering in war. When we view a mediatised image, we are
effectively posited “in-between” two realities – an immediate physical “here and now” and a
distant elusive screened “there and now”. In their seminal book on “intermediality”, Chapple
& Kattenbelt discuss
…understandings about realities and the place that creativity in theatre and performance plays
in creating those realities. Reality, and inhabiting the spaces in-between realities is the proper
subject for a philosophical approach to intermedial performance, which may help us also
perceive who we are in the real world (2006, p.24).
The authors are advocating for artistic research into live/screen performance because
theatre provides “a staging space for the performance of intermediality” (Chapple &
Kattenbelt, 2006, p. 12). My performance highlighted these “in-between” spaces and
realities of which Chapple and Kattenbelt speak. A mediatised image in everyday life exists
always “in-between two realities. My performance therefore served as an anti-war
statement, an instance of social theatre and perhaps an insight into human relationships
with mediatised images.
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Performance experiment: Mediating Weeping Woman
Analysis
To contextualise the arguments of this essay, I will give a brief critical analysis of my
performance experiment. Divided into five scenes Woman, Guernica, Slow Motion, Mirror
and Weeping Body Parts the work opened with a movement sequence where the live solo
female performer danced with a wooden chair.
Figure 1 Scene 1 Woman
To long reverberating acoustic guitar notes, the character Woman, wakes up, warmed by the
sun streaming in through square windows. Stretching, breathing in the new day, she strokes
her hands (see Figure 1), rocks to and fro and strokes the chair, as if it is her baby or her
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lover. This scene, Woman, served to introduce the character, a white, blond young woman,
as a quintessential Western woman in a domestic setting.
Woman sits down centre-front and a glow begins to flicker in her face she is
apparently watching television. In the same way voiceovers in previous dance dramas like
Jamieson’s Honour Bound (2006) contextualise the on-stage action, a sophisticated
American female voice reports:
Of course, in modern warfare, civilians are… are, are intentionally targeted. Ah… at the turn of
the century, 90% of casualties were military, and now 90% of the casualties are civilian, and a
huge number of those are women and girls, who are not, ah, killed, they are raped… It is a
strategy of the war. It’s cheaper than bullets (Jackson, 2008).
Unsettling music accompanying the voiceover, suddenly explodes into military drum beats
and Woman flees the stage only to reappear seconds later spot-lit by a projected image. A
black figure within the image seems to be strangling her. She is beaten, struck and thrown.
In between her falls, she screams silently and desperately struggles to escape. Projected
black and white images reveal staring eyes, sharp horns and dark shadows a nightmare.
This scene, Guernica, served to reference Picasso’s work of the same name (1937) a
symbol of protest against human suffering in contexts of war. At one point, the live
performer, centre-front, close to the audience, lies on the floor and squirms as if trying to
push someone away. Her writhing body is directly in front of the projector creating a large
silhouette on the backdrop beneath a projected looming figure (see Figure 2). As she
silently screams, her face brightly lit in the throw of the projection beam, her silhouette
screams also in the face of a projected screaming figure. The screams are a reaction to what
has just happened rape.
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Figure 2 Scene 2 Guernica
Figure 3 Scene 3 Slow Motion
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Woman walks slowly, numb and in silence through projected white noise (see Figure
3). The image seemingly absorbs the live performer recalling Boenisch’s proposition that
performers become immersed in media and indeed remediated. Upon reaching the wooden
chair that she had dragged there earlier, a projected double of the performer flashes on
screen intermittently. Unperturbed, Woman restores the chair to its upright position and
audibly drags it along wooden floorboards. As she does this, the flickering image replicates
her motions. Many spectators described this scene as “haunting” or “eerie”, and one said it
reminded him/her of the Japanese cult horror film, “the Ring” and a “following/hovering
demon”. This aligns with Freud’s notion of the “uncanny” as discussed by Dixon (2007) and
furthered by Causey who postulates that the uncanny experience of the double is “death
made material” (1999, p.386). This effect indeed served to foreshadow the presence of the
performer’s double.
Eventually the live performer and her digital counterpart sit down mirror-wise on
wooden chairs one live and one virtual. A trembling Swahili female voice, chirping birds,
sounds of children playing and soft piano chords accompany the visual, and a danced duet
between the two “selves” ensues. Their interaction is underpinned by a sense of
melancholia largely conveyed through the nostalgic melody and the distressed tone of the
female voice. Swaying between frustration, curiosity, comfort, desperation and empathy
(see Figure 4), the relationship between the two “selves” is dynamic and left unanswered
just as one might perceive oneself in the mirror or witness oneself in a photograph. This
scene, Mirror, served specifically to explore processes of viewing, that is the encounter with
an individual’s testimonial account and the empathetic act of projecting oneself in the place
of that individual in order to imagine, feel their emotion and deepen understanding. In many
ways, this scene exploited a ubiquitous convention in film where, after a critical event, the
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protagonist scrutinises her reflection in the mirror. Mirror was emotionally charged in order
to emphasise viewing images of suffering as a sensitive, embodied and emotional act.
Figure 4 Scene 4 Mirror
The final scene exposed Woman in a state of trauma. The character of Woman is
ambiguous. We are unsure whether she is still the woman from the Western domestic
space of the first scene who suffered vicarious violence through the viewing of broadcast
accounts of sexual violence or whether she is the woman in those accounts who suffered,
first-hand, the militarised rape. In any case, Woman is visibly traumatised. Her body refuses
to be whole. Instead, to low humming electronic tones, limbs move in isolation.
Reminiscent of French Dancer/Researcher Xavier Le Roy’s Self Unfinished (1998) Woman
appears as an animal, an insect and a jumble of parts. For a moment, she twists splaying her
head backwards, arms outstretched in a fleeting Christ-like pose (see Figure 5) she is a
victim. Like a puppet, her elbow, attached to an imaginary string, vibrates as if being tugged
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in violent bursts. Her body is no longer her own. Her inner self is absent and withdrawn.
This scene, Weeping Body Parts served to portray the psychological struggle that war inflicts
on its victims and witnesses alike. The final image recalls Woman’s position after Guernica:
she sits hugging herself tightly, head sunken, rocking subtly to and fro.
Figure 5 Scene 5 Weeping Body Parts
Results
Presence
Real presence
Interestingly, at least for some spectators, the projected image indeed appeared “live” or
“real”. One spectator described the projected image as “so realistic”, while another forgot
that the projection was not real. For one participant, “[m]any times it appeared that the
projection was a live being”. For another, his/her reaction to the initial appearance of the
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projected performer was one of incredulity: “[n]ot to believe my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I’d
seen what I’d seen until it came back”. In reference to Mirror, another spectator asserted:
“[i]t felt like a relationship which was real between [the] dancer and projection”. These
comments echo McLuhan’s assertion that televised realities are immediate for spectators.
Surreal presence
Not surprisingly, notions of the surreal, and the spiritual emerged in many audience
responses. One spectator wrote that the first projected imagery in Guernica “[r]eminded
[him/her] of subliminal images”. Another stated that he/she “felt a darkness and horror”
while another wrote that the images “represented a crazy beast in a state of anger or rage”.
In the same scene, another audience member described a silhouette as “tormented”. In
Slow Motion, one audience member detected “a feeling of surrealness [sic]”, another, an
“out of body experience” and another a “subconscious shadow”. These ideas reflect Dixon’s
“digital double as a soul or spiritual emanation” (2007, p. 258).
Dominance
In response to the question, “Did you feel the projected image was more powerful than the
live performer?” the overwhelming majority of participants – out of 23 respondents, 14
answered “No”, two answered “Yes”, one replied, “At times…” and six did not respond. This
clarifies significantly the contention that mediatised content did not dominate my live
performance. Rather, the experiment revealed that mediatised images and the live
performer were in fact interdependent. This finding affirms Chapple & Kattenbelt’s
proposition that live/screen performance is “non-hierarchicial” (2006, p. 23).
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Interaction
One spectator offered a slightly different perspective: “[a]t times [the projected image was
more powerful] when it flashed up unexpectedly”. This comment hints at my suspicion at
the outset that, as Boenisch states, dominance of a live over a projected performer shifts
from one moment to the next in a live performance. If dominance shifts, then a dynamic
exchange must be taking place. Where the live performer walks against a large projection of
white noise, one participant wrote about “…the feeling of [the] dancer being lost in or part
of the projection”. Another reflected that “[s]he seemed like she was in the white noise”
while one response stated “[i]t captured… a sense of a woman being lost”. These figurative
commentaries “being lost”, “part of” and “like she was in” – suggest that the projection
seemingly absorbed the live performer. This resonates, as noted earlier, with Boenisch’s
proposition that a performer “ultimately becomes absorbed in the working of theatrical
remediation” (2006, p. 155). As one spectator aptly observed, the live performer and the
projection “…were both required to achieve the effect”. This effect was the result of the
synergy created by the dynamic integration of the live performer with the projected image.
Heightened presence
Wide-ranging audience responses revealed a proliferation of types of presence evoked by
the live and projected performers. There was general consensus that mediatised images
complemented the live performer and that they did not dominate her. In response to the
question regarding Mirror, “In this scene, what links did you make between the live
performer and the projection?”, various responses emerged. One spectator observed, “one
was comforting the other”. Another wrote the “[l]ive performer was afraid of illusion”.
Another was unsure stating that she was “curious – but that’s not the right word – wary,
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suspicious, sympathetic”. These different perspectives could build a case for a rich, multi-
layered interrelationship between the live and projected performers. However, I would
highlight that these responses indicate strongly that the presence of the live performer was,
in effect, as postulated by Giesekam (2007, p.249) and Lavender (2006, p.62), enhanced and,
I would add, enriched by the presence of her projected double.
Conclusion
In this paper I have outlined an argument for a synthesis of the live and the screened to
create a performance that is more effective than either medium on its own. Results from
audience surveys conducted in relation to my performance experiment confirmed current
theories in performance studies, specifically in live/screen performance. Mediatised images
were not found to be dominant over the live performer, but rather augmented her
presence. Further, interaction between the live performer and mediatised images was
complementary and integral to effectively conveying my artwork’s statement and power.
There is scope to explore the fusion of the live with the screened in performance genres
other than anti-war art. The application of live/screen interaction is really only limited by the
imagination.
Acknowledgements
I wish to thank my supervisor Dr Yuji Sone, performer Sophia Rosier Staines, composer Nic
Alexander, Redmond Reyes, Jasmine Robertson, Rowane Bechara, Emma Anstee, Emma
Rabes, Macquarie University Department of Media, Music, Critical and Cultural Studies
Technical Staff Cleo Mees and David Mitchell, and friends and family, especially Mum and
Dad, for their generous support, contributions and guidance.
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Article
Full-text available
Theatre Journal 51.4 (1999) 383-394 Dr. Brian Oblivion, Videodrome There is nothing in cyberspace and the screened technologies of the virtual that has not been already performed on the stage. The theatre has always been virtual, a space of illusory immediacy. Yet the contemporary discourse surrounding live performance and technological reproduction establishes an essentialized difference between the phenomena. The difference is further concretized in the critical writings of theatre and performance studies that ignore such performative mediated forms as film, television, radio, and multimedia. Slavoj Zizek, in the introduction to Mapping Ideology, writes that it is a commonplace assumption that "virtual or cyber-sex presents a radical break with the past since in it actual sexual contact with a real other is losing ground against masturbatory enjoyment, whose sole support is the virtual other." He dismisses that assumption by suggesting that "Lacan's thesis that there is no sexual relationship means precisely that the structure of the real sexual act (of the act with a flesh and blood partner) is already inherently phantasmic -- the real body of the other serves only as a support for our phantasmic projections." Lacan's argument thus challenges the assumptions inherent in the constructed binary of the live and the virtual, and thereby disputing the claims of immediacy and presence in live performance. But it would be a mistake to imagine that what we experience in the theatre and recorded media is the same experience. It is the same, only different. The debate regarding the ontology of performance and the nature of liveness has been well rehearsed. Peggy Phelan argues that performance is defined through its non-reproducibility. The nature of performance deteriorates as it is enfolded in technological reproduction. Philip Auslander counters that the live is an artifact of recording media. Liveness exists not as a prior condition, but as a result of mediatization. Yet both arguments are problematic. Phelan disregards any effect of technology on performance and draws a non-negotiable, essentialist border between the two media. Auslander draws out a sophisticated legal argument whose dynamic materialism overlooks the most material manner of marking the live, namely death. Disputing the argument of Phelan and amending Auslander's I suggest that the ontology of performance (liveness), which exists before and after mediatization, has been altered within the space of technology. But, how? Three basic arguments comprise the contemporary theory of subject construction in mediatized culture and help shape the aesthetic gestures of contemporary performance: The performance work of the classical postmodernist Wooster Group (US), The Desperate Optimists, an expatriate Irish company working in the UK (Ireland/UK), the altered medical body of Orlan (France), the obsolete body of Stelarc (Australia), and the post-colonial cyber-performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes (Chicano-American) are all in the process of embodying mediated subjectivity and articulating, representing that experience in performance. The developing art forms of web-based performance, interactive installations, and virtual environments are extending the boundaries of the theatre and our notions of what constitutes a performance. How do we understand the processes of performance which converge with mediated technologies of representation and represent and enact mediated subjectivity? I want here to answer my two questions by isolating a critical moment in new media performance works specifically and digital culture in general, when the presence of the Double is presented through mediated duplication, the simple moment when a live actor confronts her mediated other through the technologies...
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Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture addresses what may be the single most important question facing all kinds of performance today. What is the status of live performance in a culture dominated by mass media? Since its first appearance, Philip Auslander's ground-breaking book has helped to reconfigure a new area of study. Looking at specific instances of live performance such as theatre, rock music, sport, and courtroom testimony, Liveness offers penetrating insights into media culture, suggesting that media technology has encroached on live events to the point where many are hardly live at all. In this new edition, the author thoroughly updates his provocative argument to take into account new digital and media technologies, and cultural, social and legal developments. In tackling some of the last great shibboleths surrounding the high cultural status of the live event, this book will continue to shape discussion and to provoke lively debate on a crucial artistic dilemma: what is live performance and what can it mean to us now?
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Aesthetic art to aesthetic act: Theatre, media, intermedial performance
  • P M Boenisch
Boenisch, P. M. (2006). Aesthetic art to aesthetic act: Theatre, media, intermedial performance. In F. Chapple & C. Kattenbelt (Eds.), pp. 103-116.