Expanded Performance Category
by Tanuja Amarasuriya
I’ve never been an artform purist, and I always feel queasy when the live art and theatre police get on their high horse about “liveness” as something that is inherent to form. In the same way as the word “immersive” has been hijacked as a descriptor of form rather than an expression of the quality of an experience; the notion of “liveness” as a quality or sensation is often taken to be a default output of live performance.
As part of my Fellowship research, I’ve been asking myself what “liveness” actually means in relation to art. I’ve seen loads of live performances which, to be honest, just felt completely dead to me. I’ve also listened to albums and looked at paintings which have felt vividly present and alive to me in the moment of encounter.
Or maybe it’s not those artworks that are present and alive in that moment – maybe it’s that they made me feel present and alive in that moment.
Form and liveness
As I discussed in my recent Lunchtime Talk, I’m a theatre director who works in different artforms. That’s come about as a result of the work I do in Sleepdogs, where we tend to start with story and then move to form. And often, we’ll begin developing alternative versions, sister stories, or fragmented remixes alongside the root story – each of which may lend itself to a different form of expression.
This multiple tendency doesn’t come from a strategic impulse to diversify, but because we know that different forms can connect with audiences in different ways. It’s not about scale of reach (if it was, we’d be working solely in broadcast forms) but it’s the idea that different forms can activate stories for people in different ways. Different forms invite different kinds of attention, different ways of being in the moment – so arguably, different types of liveness.
Liveness and presence
Is there a difference between liveness and presence?
Is liveness a characteristic?
Does liveness exist in the work itself or in the experience of the work?
Does liveness require being in a specific place at a specific time?
Does liveness require a performer?
Does liveness need me?
If you want to answer these questions, go ahead. Personally I’m not that interested in working out what liveness is – I have an instinct about it that makes sense to me in a kind of primal or maybe feral way that I don’t want to neuter by defining it. But I am interested in asking: what are the qualities of what you understand to be liveness, that make it valuable or meaningful to you?
Is there a difference between ‘live performance’ and a sense of ‘liveness’?
Is there a difference between liveness and immediacy?
Can liveness be inauthentic?
Are these questions even useful?
What makes liveness valuable or meaningful to you?
Invitations into liveness
As I’m making work, I’m always thinking about the invitations I’m making to audience members throughout the piece: maybe to lean in and listen; or to reflect on a personal experience; or to be a fly on the wall at this family dinner; or to think about sex; or to feel afraid… I’m always thinking about how to invite types of attention.
So, riffing off the idea that different forms can activate stories for people in different ways: I’m wondering what are the different kinds of attention we can invite from audience members as a way of activating the liveness of their experience?
Maybe it’s because I’m not a performer, but I like the idea that it’s the audience member - rather than the work - which activates the liveness of an experience.
Liveness as emotional immersion
I strive to create work that draws people in, that moves, thrills and surprises them; that takes people beyond where their imaginations might venture by themselves. One of the keys to this is making the audience feel involved; making them care about the world I’m inviting them into; making it possible for people to become emotionally immersed (which doesn’t necessarily mean being physically immersed) in the story.
I think this is the liveness that I’m interested in activating. Liveness as a space I invites you to feel something. Liveness as an openness to emotional immersion.
Technology is not a dead thing
The more practical part of my research is around digging deeper into the emotional affordances of different XR technologies. One of the challenges we have in the theatre sector is an industry convention that pushes tech production to the final days before opening a show, which means that technology is often used only functionally, to solve problems. There is no time to explore its expressive potential.
I’ve always considered digital technology as part of my artistic toolkit. Technology is simply one of the elements (alongside words, bodies, light, sound, architecture etc) that we can use to build the instrument that conveys the story. But technology expertise is expensive in relation to theatre finances, and it can be really hard to argue for the resources to build genuine tech R&D into a theatremaking process – especially if you’re an independent artist. It’s hard enough for an artist like Björk to fund and make a VR album, so who is going to fund me to investigate that?
But having experienced the Björk Vulnicura VR last year, I know how emotionally vivid, how alive with feeling that VR experience can be. Not all of it worked seamlessly, but when it did, it was like nothing else.
I think the key thing though, is that not all of it worked seamlessly. There is still so much exploration and discovery to do.
I’m not one of those people who automatically associates digital technology with inauthenticity. I find authenticity a troubling concept at the best of times – especially in relation to status and value. I’m not sure the mediation of a screen is necessarily less immediate than the mediation of 15 rows of seats and a raised stage in front of you. I’m not sure the music I make using soft synths is any less direct than what I compose on a piano. Creating and engaging through digital technology has different qualities, sure, but it’s not necessarily any less profound or true.
I came across the term “emotional immersion” in an early bit of research reading, in an interview with Michael Morris of Artangel where he’s asked about the immersive quality of work by Robert Lepage and Pina Bausch, even though it takes place on a stage: “You couldn’t deny their work is emotionally immersive for the audience, even though the audience is physically separate from it.”
I’m interested in how technology might elicit and enable this “emotional immersion” for audiences in different ways – including where the audience may be physically separate from the live performance. How can different technologies evoke a sense of liveness that isn’t about trying to replicate what a live performer does, but that creates a sense of liveness on its own terms?
Ocean Confessions by Sleepdogs; photo by Brian Hartley