Monday, 18 November 2013

Literary Review: Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture

Literary Review: Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture

Philip Auslander | Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture
Auslander, Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2008)

Auslander’s text explores the role of liveness in contemporary culture by addressing the arguably unsettled perceptions and definitions attached to the term. He initially asserts that by incorporating mediatization into ‘live’ performances (such as the addition of projections) can often render such reactions as shock and may even appall some audience members[1] this suggests that the spectators’ perceptions of a performance are rooted in an historical construction of performative ideals. His research is undertaken from a phenomenological perspective, which explores the changing and redefining the concept of liveness. This concept has changed over time in relation to technological conditions; suggesting that what determines liveness is unsettled and is subject to change over time (and will continue to do so). The characteristics associated with the term aren’t necessarily concrete. Auslander additionally claims that live performance only exists from the advent of it’s other: mediatization. This would then indicate that the cultivation of liveness occurred by default- to impose on it’s other. The idea that performance should be settled and fail to be considered as ‘valid’ or authentic when interacting with forms of mediatization seems problematic (especially considering the nature of simulcasts). The use of microphones and projections are, after all considered to be part of the seams of live performance; their presence is justified and has been employed into the performative narrative of theatre and opera performances. The inclusion of these forms of media are not acknowledged to be a hindrance to live performance, therefore capturing a contradictory set of rules. Auslander’s interdisciplinary approach incorporates media studies, media theory and performance studies, amongst others. His research also consults theorists such as Baudrillard and Walter Benjamin, applying their theories of mediatization to his research in the efforts of dissecting and exploring the characterization and means of preservation of live performance by liveness-enthusiasts. Amongst the most important stances Auslander takes is his exploration of the role of television and cinema with theatre studies. He investigates how each medium arguably feeds off the other for performative characteristics, whilst also considering and connecting these theories with western contemporary social and cultural contexts. We are presented with the argument that television has become embedded into our cultural environment and is no longer to be seen as a novelty medium; it has transcended its primary role to ‘become’ society’s cultural context[2]. Therefore, contributing in portraying the idealized representations of mass identity and consciousness. If a performance is only real when it is live, then what are we experiencing and how is one’s attitude to mediatization and hybrid art forms to be explored? Furthermore, he questions the historical interpretations and cultivations of liveness and mediatization, while acknowledging the imposed competition set between both modes; whilst also exploring: the audience, performer’s and western society’s attitude towards these performative modals from an ontological perspective- in particular focusing on an authenticity complex and the role that ‘aura’ plays when idealizing certain modes of performance.
                                                           A substantial portion of the text is devoted to exploring the problematic categorization of liveness and mediatization. Auslander notes that: ‘It is absolutely clear that our current cultural formation is saturated with, and dominated by, mass media representations’[3]: how this effects reception and audience participation is certainly a key issue to explore alongside acknowledging the importance and obvious dominance of mediatization in western contemporary cultural structures. Those attempting to justify the superiority of live performance initially raise issues of aura and of the energy that is supposedly created between the performers and spectators at a given performance[4]. Furthermore, Auslander suggests that the contemporary definition of liveness seems to indicate that audience members and performers should be both temporally and spatially co-present and also suggests that mediatization (its binary) fails to offer the same conditions- this is mediatization’s fundamental difference. The mediation of performance through recording, pre-recording and live recording offer different experiences and many times the advertisements and buzz words used to entice spectators may take characteristics from the other mediums to justify their contribution or to connect to a greater audience. Simulcasts or Livecasts may be considered here. Is there really a sense of co-presence and community between performers and spectators and furthermore, is the actual performance shaped by the (physical) presence of the audience? Auslander challenges traditional thinking of both forms of mediation by critiquing the terminology that has become standardized and applied to these mediums. Therefore implying that by deconstructing the terms applied this exposes the theory that one is defined by the other’s absence. The characterization of mediatization in western culture is predominantly based on televisual studies and it could be said that as it is such an accessible medium it can be considered the default mode of cultural reference and thus the most ‘authentic’ form of the representation of reality. Auslander analyses what those committed to live performance do to propagate their medium, like stating that certain performances aren’t available on video therefore substantiating the polarization[5]. Taking this example into consideration we note that the importance of the performance being an ocular experience is sold (disregarding the importance of ‘aura’). The experience of liveness therefore is sold as something with a best-before date whilst also confirming its position as an exclusive and fleeting experience. The contradiction of the rules and definitions of liveness (and it’s ‘other’… mediatization) are also broached:

‘From ball games that incorporate instant replay screens, to rock concerts that recreate the images of music videos, to live stage versions of television shows and movies, to dance and performance art’s incorporation of video, evidence of the incursion of mediatization into the live event is available across the entire spectrum of performance genres’[6]:

It is evident that mediums like theatre are more than willing to incorporate some form of mediatization into their performance. Taking opera performances for example- it is rare that we attend these events without singers using some form of digital assistance (microphones); these additions are ‘the norm’. Then, to state that live performances are ‘authentically’ live is incorrect- if attention was drawn on this to live advocates would these (live) performances be seen as contaminated by mediatization or alternatively, are they considered tools in which to heighten the liveness of the experience? Increasingly developing in prominence, live events are thus turning to modeling themselves on their mediatized counterparts; the techniques and aesthetic practices are being adapted for these performances by replacing the medial models with a more acceptable and known infrastructure that western society is most familiar with (televisual and cinematic practices). 
                                         Auslander’s second chapter centers on dissecting the position of live performance in contemporary society, particularly looking at popular culture and televisual studies. He argues against the:
Intrinsic opposition and in favor of a view that both emphasizes the mutual dependence of the live and the mediatized and challenges the traditional assumption that the live precedes the mediatized’[7]:
thus proposing that each medium has somehow been influenced by the other and the merging of certain practices has (possibly) been unconsciously applied to the other and therefore, achieving a state of convergence; this may be applied to theatre, film and televisual mediums for example narrative structures and visual devices that have developed on stage. We could also say that cinema in turn has had an impact on the approach to stage productions (like seamless transitions from editing). Stylistic preferences have become ingrained in western society’s consciousness from the mass exposure to each medium. Each art form has influenced the other, and this is particularly true of simulcasts. Take The Met’s live in HD series; this phenomenon could be seen as complicating the live experience further. After all you’re experiencing a ‘live’ event with cinematic, televisual and obviously theatrical aspects, conditions and conventions. The layering of audience perspectives and the cultivation of temporal and spatial environments reassert the notion that we are experiencing a live event from both a certain ontological and ideological stance. The audience’s chosen medial identity affects interpretations of liveness and what it means in terms of presence (taking into consideration the different temporal and spatial settings). As these events are co-experienced and ‘live’ then disputing the realness in the performance seems somewhat redundant- the mediatized spectator experiences the liveness of the event; additionally they have their own conditions of liveness. At the recent Met simulcast of The Nose, the presenters communicated the importance of the in-house audience’s setting (the cameras also work to show the social diversity in age, sex and race). Both audiences are conscious of their position to their counterparts (virtual and live) yet, the numbers attending these simulcasts far out weigh those in the opera house. Thus posing the question as to whether these supposedly live (with microphones, cameras and surtitles boxes) aptly subscribe to the boundaries of their imposed live identity (and the cultural construction of said identity) or whether they are being used as a platform for the mediatized to experience? Auslander proposes that:
Television’s intimacy was seen as a function of its immediacy- the close proximity of viewer to event that it enables… events from outside… to be transmitted into the viewer’s home’[8].
It is apparent that the global experience (from a promotional and economic sense) is dependent on the interaction and collaboration of both mediums for a hybrid experience of liveness. Historically, a live performance was considered to involve the co-presence of performer and spectator both temporally and physically; however it is now used to define absence. As television is ‘the cultural context’ then the liveness of a television program pinpoints the shift to a temporal epicenter[9] the same can be applied to simulcasts, right? This shift of focus has lead to some ambiguity as to what exactly may be considered live. How audience members perceive liveness and how this in turn encourages or discourages them attending certain performances is the imperative question. This development leads to certain mediums attempting to simulate or promote feelings of inclusivity and exclusivity when attending mediatized performances. For The Met’s simulcasts, the presenters encourage attending the production in person (for the aura/ sense of atmosphere) yet the virtual audience gain (in a sense) exclusive access to the whole production- far exceeding the boundaries of the mise-en-scene which the live audience (although temporally and spatially present) are denied access. The selling of liveness pinpoints issues of participation, accessibility and environmental and social conditioning. For simulcasts, the audience is temporally co-presence but not spatially. Live-recorded productions are neither spatially nor temporally co-present, yet the techniques used to entice audience members center on it’s immediacy and almost inclusivity. This action indicates a shift of attitude towards the concept of liveness and identifies the elusiveness attributed to the current conceptualization of liveness. It is worth considering what are the foundations and infrastructure that facilitate in conveying the ideals (of reception) of a given performance. Auslander notes the sub-genre’s of liveness by compiling a table documenting the proposed categories of liveness, their characteristics and the art forms to which they can be attached to[10]; proposing that liveness can be broken down to: classic liveness, live broadcast, live recording, Internet liveness, and social liveness. The former is mainly what I’ve been focusing on thus far: the physical co-presence of performers and audience members in temporal simultaneity of production and reception[11], he attributes this form if liveness specifically with theatre, concerts, dance and sports.
                                                   By encouraging the consideration of Internet liveness, he suggests that the imposed importance of audience-performer interaction (or co-presence) is not as important as it may be propagated. There is certainly a sense of connection with other users and if social liveness is also to be considered then the situation is made slightly more complex. Certain opera houses like the Royal Opera House present and maintain a strong presence on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook (especially the former). Their constant interaction with fellow users demonstrates their position as a platform for a global cultural experience (their engagement with simulcast productions and additionally accommodating spectators with pre-performance talks and experiments validates this position). Whether or not people prefer to attend live performances (spatial and temporal co-presence) over mediatized (simulcast) may be difficult to discern, and may be down to the value that an individual places on attending a live event[12] like cost, access, convenience and whether they’re going to see a certain performer or whether, ahem… they’re going as part of educational commitments. What motivates an individual to attend one form of performance over the other is perhaps too subjective to pinpoint, regardless of the amount of empirical studies conducted. Of course a given performance can incorporate both live and mediatized elements like pre-recorded commentary to contextualize the performance; cast interviews and deconstructions of the work’s narrative from collaborators can all feature in televisual, cinematic, theatrical works and arguably to the greatest extent the hybrid form of all of these: simulcast operas.  
                           Harking on Walter Benjamin’s theories, Auslander seeks to illustrate that meaning in performance is conveyed through mediation[13]: like in cinema and television the most successful tools to do so is via technology: camera movement and techniques: framing, angles, zoom- all contribute to create meaning (this is equally true of staged performances and in simulcasts like the NT:Live). Auslander’s interpretation of the positive qualities associated with simulcast productions are listed as thus: spontaneity, community, feedback and presence[14]: all of which can aptly be re-positioned to analyze simulcast productions. Feedback can be enabled by social media- where often, communication on Twitter can be quite prominent and effective. A sense of presence and community is also re-created, with additional perspectives to be considered and glitches are just as likely to occur during these productions as well as their ‘live’ counterparts.  Issues like social prestige and symbolic capitol could also be important to consider, thus the value of physically attending performances can be considered from attendance factors[15]. On the issue of presence from the live vs. mediatized perspective, Auslander poses the question of how valid co-presence exactly is? Audience members that attend a live performance are behaviorally restricted and may feel compelled to behave in a certain manner and mimic fellow audience member’s behavior (booing, cheering, etc.) yet virtual audiences are free to behave in whatever manner they choose (of course certain cinema behaviors are adapted and merged with conventions of both)- ‘disruptive’ behavior in the theatre is not akin to that in the cinema theatre (like eating popcorn, moving seats mid-performance, going to the bathroom when intermission is an hour away) simulcasts are encouraging shifting the paradigm of the landscape of behavior. Operating on the premise that authenticity and otherness are at strife- the audience member decides whether the performance is accurately explored both aesthetically.
                                                                                         Auslander’s exploration of digital media and performance cultivates the justification of media’s presence in performance studies and reception studies from contemporary mediums, thus stressing that: ‘the live event itself is shaped to the demands of mediatization’[16]. Both concepts are interconnected; therefore the definition of one is only aptly understood with its other used as a point of reference. Ideologically speaking liveness and mediatization have been polarized and categorized as ‘others’. He addresses the historicity of the concept of liveness and traces the use of the term from its first noted documentation, when the definition was used in contrast to the incorporation of technology in (or relating to) performance. Meaning that the term liveness developed in opposition of the advance of mediating technology. Many of the counter arguments and apposing theorists that Auslander involves in forming and motivating his theories (like Peggy Phelan) seem to wish to preserve the dichotomy between the live and recorded. However many mediums are making a claim on experiencing events as live and certainly do their best to re-create and re-adapt the conditions, consequently forming the reconfiguration of the concept of the live. It is very much up to the audience to accept this claim to substantiate an event as live, this conscious effort then concretizes complete presence of an active audience. Surely if the primacy of the live is being propagated to western cultural consumers then the seduction strategy placed on audience members (inclusivity, communality, involvement and social co-presence) can be applied to mediatized events like simulcasts. Auslander’s research opens up the question as to how simulcasts ought be received, where do they stand? They seem to occupy this peculiar live/ mediatized intersection by accepting defining elements of both mediums. This hybrid relationship may confirm his theory that the live is unsettled and subject to reconfiguration. His text further prompts investigation of the presentation of contemporaneous performative experiences, like how is the value of presence being established and accepted… is complete presence achieved? The reconfiguration of the means of receiving, accepting and consuming cultural events needs to be re-contextualized to suit a culture dominated by mass media.

[1] Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2008), xii.
[2] Auslander, Liveness, 2.
[3] Auslander, Liveness, 1.
[4] Auslander, Liveness, 2.
[5] Auslander, Liveness, 5.
[6] Auslander, Liveness, 7.

[7] Auslander, Liveness, 11.
[8] Auslander, Liveness, 16.
[9] Auslander, Liveness, 60.
[10] Auslander, Liveness, 61.
[11] Auslander, Liveness, 61.
[12] Auslander, Liveness, 24.
[13] Auslander, Liveness, 32.
[14] Auslander, Liveness, 63.
[15] Auslander, Liveness, 66.
[16] Auslander, Liveness, 184.

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