The Elements of Performance: Why are We So Tired of The On-screen World?

The place is Berlin, and the time, the week before spring break. Midterms are almost over! My last assignment to complete before break is the performance project my partner and I prepared for our Intro to Performance Studies course, taught by the awesome Prof. Dr. Nina Tecklenburg. As its title suggests, the first half of the semester has seen us introduced to the broad and interdisciplinary field that is performance studies, investigating theory and practice which allows us to see the world through a performance lens. A large chunk of what we have covered refers to performance in daily life: ritualized and implicitly scripted activities that comprise most of our routines. Situations such as a presidential speech or a business meeting, for instance, would be put under the magnifying glass of performance. By asking performance questions regarding those occurrences – how are they staged? Who are the relevant actors, and why? To what effect are different means used? – we may understand them more fully and critically.

It had proven particularly difficult, with the essence of the course rooted in the possibilities of movement and spontaneity, to engage fruitfully through the online meeting platform Zoom. Because of this, starting from the third week of the Spring semester, the class has been allowed to conduct in-person sessions with masks and social distancing in BCB’s arts building, the Factory. Every session, we have one or more of what we call ‘performative presentations’ about our readings, physical exercises preparing us for the creation of our projects. It hit us as unexpected, then, when the in-person performative projects we had developed with the safety of participants and performers always in mind, had to be altered to better comply with the Covid-19 regulations specific to this kind of event. We were envisioning small events, but, with the prohibition of promoting any kind of gathering in public spaces, we had to rework our projects, now performing for a camera and making our final project digital. Though necessary for the sake of safety, it was heartbreaking how this change of medium affected the interventionist core of our projects. Though the woes of our performance studies midterm projects seem entirely specific, I came to realize that our frustrations regarding the digitalization of our work were entirely relatable and a part of important, current philosophical questions. The change in our midterm posed a question about the differences between live experience and experience mediated by technology.

Our midterm assignment for the course was called Performing Pankow. In the weeks leading up to it, we walked around the district, learning about the rather overlooked GDR history and landmarks that surround our daily lives, conducted research, and discussed our ideas in extensive detail. Performance artist and author Annett Gröschner, a former GDR resident, led us in our initial exploration through Pankow, sharing with us her formidable life experiences with the neighborhood. The idea was that once we were familiar with the pieces of history scattered around us, each of the three groups would develop a site-specific performance project. To use my professor’s specific words, we were asked to ‘critically deal with the social/historical/political implications of the site,’ subversively tapping into the way people think and use our chosen sites.

My partner and I chose the buildings by the entrance of the Schloss Schönhausen gardens, where the East German Central Round Table (Zentraler Runder Tisch) took place in 1989 with the intent of trying to assemble a new, democratic GDR. (If you had no idea, you’re not alone: there’s nearly nothing on the internet and only a little plaque on site.) We recorded BCB students answering the question “If we were to make a new country, what would you make sure was in its constitution?”, compiled the answers into an audio file to play at the site, and planned to write the same question inside a chalk circle in front of the building. Our aim was to draw the attention of passersby to the history of the site as well as awaken their political agency. We wanted to deal with the history in critical and artistic ways, as well as work with people’s common (mis)conception of the site as ordinary.

Two weeks into preparing the project our instructor told us about the changes we would have to make due to Covid regulations. Since we were not a registered event with a police presence, our very project, how we planned to engage participants, was now prohibited. The engagement with Pankow history we hoped to promote through our projects, and which was at the core of the assignment, was now impossible in the current circumstances. Instead, we could do our planned performance with quieter sounds and for the camera, since making a video by ourselves didn’t tell people to gather ‘round. 

Except for the emphasis on the site-specific bit, one might argue that all of this sounds like projects that can take place online. It’s not that we couldn’t change our project to be an online product: a video of us drawing on the ground with the audio in the background is a perfectly possible iteration of the project. It offers us opportunities for storytelling aspects that could enhance the theatricality of the moment, as well as sharpen our intentions through use of cinematographic language. There were, however, many aspects of  the prompt and the very essence of performance art, which made an online project feel like a betrayal of our initial conceptions. Since we were dealing with Pankow history, for instance, it mattered to us that our projects reached Pankow passerbys (which we should not encourage to gather around us as we filmed) instead of a predominantly BCB audience, which would make up the bulk of the viewers if they were digital performances. More importantly, when looking in depth at our goals and concept, it became apparent that a video, seen in different places by different people at different times, does not accomplish the same as a shared experience of intervention and subversion. The video, captured and edited by BCB student Jasmin Hiltunen, looks pretty awesome in my opinion and still encourages reflection, but the experience as a performance involving an audience is artificial, as it is necessarily pre-packaged by the performers and untouched by our audience. The ritualistic and shared nature of a performance (tackled by performance scholars like Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, and Diana Taylor), and, in this case, the way ours breaks the ritual of everyday life that is walking through this section of Pankow without paying mind to its history, is lost along with the spontaneity of the moment. 

These frustrations extend beyond the world of a performance studies class because their relation to the shortcomings of the virtual environments we inhabit during Covid is intrinsic. After a year of remote learning, we all know how exhausting online classrooms are, and how they simply fall short of the experience that is being in a physical room with our educators and peers. This account is encouragement to think deeper into the issue. Like a video format for our project, Zoom and other platforms offer plenty of tools and options for learning. Some of these tools are innovative, and opportunities for more connection (shout-out to the talk with a Venezuelan professor held in February by the Latin(x) Club and attended by members of OSUN around the globe!). Many others are tech tools that complement an in person classroom regardless of the necessity of the virtual component, like the online shared experience that is Padlet. The dissatisfaction caused by remote learning, I believe, has the same roots as the frustrations we had in transposing our project to video format. To make this more apparent, let me borrow another concept from my performance studies class: that of looking at things as performance. Richard Schechner, who is perhaps the most important scholar in the field, proposes we can find a dichotomy in life between what is performance and what can be looked at as performance. According to his book Performance Studies: An Introduction, something is performance when “historical-social context, convention, usage, and tradition say it is,” much like our midterm project. However, there is no limit to what can be looked at as performance and, thus, explored through performance questions. The same analysis we used in thinking up a project for our midterm can be applied to the social scripts and conventions of a classroom space. In a space for learning, we rely on bodily, visual and auditory cues that indicate approval, objection, and so many other things vital for healthy academic discussion, which, under closed microphones and behind computer screens, don’t reach us as we would like. The agreement to enter the ritualistic space of a classroom, too, is important, as opposed to each being in our own spaces, which greatly diminishes the sense of communion in a class. The issues we had transposing our performance to a virtual space can be paralleled to the woes of virtual learning, which have now become routine. Classes and a performative project like ours rely on some ritualized aspects strongly rooted in presence and embodied engagement with a situation.

The perfect anecdote to exemplify this came from Nina herself in the first week we managed to hold in-person meetings. She told us about how, in the first semester of Zoom classes and performances, instructors and students alike were interested in the dynamics. For performance scholars specifically, who might study the staging of a classroom space, the transition to one that was defined by cameras and positioning designed by each of the participants was somewhat exciting; and online pieces meant exploring new possibilities. As time passed, however, the promise of a new performative space seemed to get progressively less relevant, to the point where this semester, Nina worked hard to guarantee we could meet in-person. Online classes presented possibilities: there were new means of staging and new frontiers to reach in a virtual and connective environment. What being online also did, however, was precluding rituals and dynamics vital to any classroom space. The presentations that frequently take place in our classes, for example, in which we are encouraged to subvert the regular workings of a classroom, didn’t work without the component of spontaneity that we benefit from in a live classroom. Many theatre classes also explore physicality at certain points, and the literal physical possibilities visible in a room of performers. Though online tools continue to be exciting as a whole, the new social scripts of online classrooms are unable to substitute the human contact on which we are dependent. For performance, being in-person and being online have their strong suits and weaknesses; it is expecting only one to do the job of both which leads to the frustration we currently experience.

My final takeaway from this reflection is the opinion that the nature of our frustrations with online learning as opposed to the more naturalized flow of in-person classes is somewhat parallel to the fundamental difference between film and live arts. I mean no harm to film (which I myself have chosen to study, time and time again, over theatre) in saying that it can never, no matter how dire the circumstances, replace live art and performance. Filmmaking is full of wonders and creative opportunities. Over the past century, it has created tools and narrative devices that could never exist without a camera lens. Some film students take this to mean that live art, and most specifically theatre, has limits because of its physicality; limits that film avoids by the mobility of a camera, the infinite possibilities of pre- and post-production, the ability to take audiences wherever they want, however they want. For me, however, not all the tools in the world can replace our often-accessed codes of experience grounded in physical presence and the spontaneity of unplanned and unpredictable life. The communion offered by live arts is nourishing as well as productive: in it, we find space for possibilities that are different to those of film, but still worth exploring to discover the boundaries of live human interaction, between audience and actor. The technological world may have much to offer, but it is pre-made and prepared in a different way than that of the social scripts that permeate our live interactions. Surely the codes presented on-screen are familiar and interpretable to us, and there is possibility for engagement once the experience is done, but, as a product, it is not changed by the coming and goings of wholly different audiences. I rejoice of its existence, but it cannot fulfill the shared experience of live performance, as it never should; just as a Zoom classroom can never replicate the experience of a live one.

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