Sunday, August 29, 2010

Side Thought Regarding Interactivity in Performance as Fact and Fiction

Performance, which I take to mean "activity carried out in the presence of an audience" is fundamentally an interactive art form. Layers of complex interactivity abound between performer, multi-dimensional space, and audience within any given performance situation. Though clearly there are exist whole highly developed genres of performance that focus on a particular type of interactivity, in which the audience determines, directs or influences the performer or the direction or structure of the piece in some way I will here discuss one aspect of performance interactivity at it's most basic psychological and physical levels. Thus, the term interactivity is here taken to mean the basic interaction between any person and any space or situation whatsoever, and in particular that interactivity present in the special and strange situation that occurs between an audience, a performance space and a person or group of people who present some actions to an audience within such a space.

Actually, I must add the fact that this essay was originally conceived long ago and forgotten about but because of a conversation I just had with Che Chen I decided to recall and publish here the most salient point, and in fact, the one point about this giant subject that I really think bears discussion or needs clarification or all of the above, and that concerns questions of communication and "honesty" in performance, which regards one complex of the dimensionality of the multi-dimensional performance space alluded to above, particularly, the social space.

Often, in the context of music performance and artistic presentations in general a premium is placed on some quality of the work or performance that is called "honesty". Since I am primarily a musician, I will at least start by discussing music. In musical performance, it is often expected that a performer is expected to communicate some information. This information can be emotional, or evocative of an emotional state, or it can be conceptual, fantastic, narrative, purely structural as in various modernist styles, historical (in the sense of the ballad and other forms), coercive (in the case of a political or advertising context) or even simply informative (as might be the case in a public service announcement). Other examples of communicative musical content are sure to exist, and in fact the list of possible contents is likely infinite as is the "list" of possible uses of music. Yet audience members use this information and a comparison of their perceptions of this information and the efficiency, uniqueness, and "honesty" of the presentation of this information as a basis on which to comment on a given performance.

To bring this back to earth simply consider how many times you have heard a musical performance described as "heartfelt". Adjectives of this type, reflexive to the performer, illustrate the belief that the performer in fact portrays the emotional (or other) content represented by the piece from the standpoint of the first person. In other words, the assumption is that the performer is in fact experiencing the emotional (or other) content in question in the actual act of performance of the music. This is the honesty considered to be a virtue of a good performance.

The folksinger illustrates this to a high degree. Though many times presenting music other than their own, or even music borrowed from another culture, the value (often referred to in terms of legitimacy, for some reason) of the performance is many times based on the perceived honesty of the performer. Even with the long term habit of gender crossing in folk narratives (where a female narrative is sung by a man from the female perspective or vice-versa), the honesty of the portrayal is cited often as a determinant of the legitimacy of the performance. Of course, such heartfelt legitimacy, such honesty is entirely theater, or at most the vicarious imagination and summoning of an emotional state on the part of the performer that probably never existed, or at most existed at a former point (but certainly not normally during the actual performance) in their life. Music performance is expected to be engaging but also to be honest, and as such brings to light a key contradiction present in all the theatrical arts of western culture. The audience enjoys imagining that the artist is the character presented in the work as this is the utmost in efficiency in terms of communication, yet to consider again the example of the folksinger most people would prefer to listen to a musician perform these songs than the actual characters present in the narratives...Loretta Lynn can tell us better about being a "coal miner's daughter" than an actual example of the specimen in question, even though clearly the honesty in question is dependent on something else, and this something else is the other major factor by which people seem to judge musical performance and performance in general in western performance art.

Ironically, the other major premium placed on performers is "theatricality". This means that a performer is expected to be engaging, and even to perhaps present "fiction". The prime example of the conflict between these two demands that the audience seems to make on almost every performance is most evident not in music but in theater. Actually, perhaps the funniest examples exist in politics, but then, that seems to be a type of theater in itself.

In theater the two modes of presentational honesty and theatricality are often mixed. Thus a performer is expected to presented the emotional content of a work honestly, even though they perform the same work night after night. In addition, actors and actresses many times are praised for an "honest" portrayal of a character that is completely fictitious, and in the minds of the audience the actor or actresses image becomes fused with this character (as Leonard Nemoy has, to his chagrin, become fused with the personality of Dr. Spock). Yet an actor or actress is a person who has studied and mastered the art of theatrical deception to highest degree. To compliment the honesty presented onstage is not particularly a compliment to someone whose goal is mass deception!

And so there it is. We are all dishonest, but believe us if you want to, after all, we probably in fact did at one point feel something akin to what we are presenting to you on stage. In fact, what is happening on the stage exists as much as anything else exists: what you are actually seeing in theater is an illusion (in most cases) but it certainly is a real illusion. What you hear in music is sound. That certainly is real, honesty and emotions aside for the moment, musical sound is as real as it gets, and thus we are in this together, and interactively.