Digital Performance Case Study

Photos case study Digital Performance

The Centre for Contemporary and Digital Performance (CCDP), Brunel University, has an inter-disciplinary vision that combines artistic performance, theatre, live art, and new media technologies. Its research explores body-centered research at these disciplinary boundaries to create innovative and experimental performance work using new technologies. The centre provides access to a range of digital performance technologies that are embedded in a tradition of physical theatre including telematic performance, interactive wearable designs, bio-art and bio-technologies, and real-time audio-visual performance/installations, among others. The centre includes the MA in Contemporary Performance Making, with Digital performance as a strand, and training at all levels combines practice-based work, and a strong grounding in performance theory.

Key participants included: 2 MA Digital Performance students, a Lecturer, and a Professor in Performance.

Research and Methods in Digital Performance

Research at CCDP is located within performance practice-based methods, formulated as ‘Practice As Research (PAR)’. There is a strong focus on situating research and performance within theories of performance, the body, culture and social theory, and theories of the digital, as well as locating them historically. The intention of digital performance is to explore and comment on the relationships between the social and political and the technological: ‘It is both a critique, but also a reflection’ [fieldnote excerpt]. Susan Broadhurst, writes:

Digital practices as experimental artworks and performances both serve as critique and have an indirect effect on the social and political (…). The digital does what all avant-garde art does: it is an experimental extension of the socio-political and cultural of an epoch. [Broadhurst 2013, p. 137]

The methods that are used across this site, outlined in Table 1, draw on specialized established methods from performance: it is interesting to note that the site is not methodologically eclectic or inter-disciplinary. The theoretical base for the work is, however, drawn from a wider range of disciplines working on the body as summarized in Table 1. The combination of disciplinary focused methods and open theories creates a performance related space for methodological innovation.

Case Study Theory Method
Performance Interdisciplinary
Broad range:
Performance, Philosophy, Queer and feminist theory, Political, Post-Colonialism, Installation art, Cultural/media studies, Cultural Geography, Bio and Neurological
Performance focused
Custom made & individual
Performance methods: Experimental, re-enactment, devising, physical techniques, workshops, reflection, Critical perspectives
Table 1: Summary of the main theories and methods observed in the Digital Performance case study

Theory has a central place in teaching and discussion in this site; theories and experimentation are seen as key to digital performance and are a core component of teaching, discussions, and student project work. A broad and eclectic range of theories are used to interrogate the nature of the body and digital, these are drawn from a variety of fields and disciplines across the arts, sciences, and social sciences including from within performance and installation art, as well as philosophy, cultural studies, critical technology studies, queer and feminist theories. Theory is also used to ground and connect the ideas and actions of the performer and their performance(s) to the histories of performance, social and cultural conceptualizations of the body within performance, and the uses of the digital.

My primary focus is on the wider cultural connotations and meanings of the body and the artifacts I use. I like to see my art practice as a sort of practical cultural study (Lecturer Interview)

There is a strong sense of contemporary practices being connected to performance histories. CCDP connects out to other realms of theory that think about the body and the digital in material and spatial ways notably geographies, anthropology, and medical. The need to make connections and locate performance in a broader social frame is highly valued and seen as supportive of innovation in performance. CCDP combines theoretical concepts with performer(s)’s bodily responses to ideas, leading to personalized narratives that extend or operationalize theories in ways that provide performative spaces that can lead to new conceptualizations of the digital body.

The place of methods within CCDP is more fixed than that of theory. While methods are led by the idea for the performance and the interests (and skill set) of the performer, as one MA student said, ‘I take every project as it comes’ [fieldnote excerpt], the research methods used in this site are directly from, and firmly located in, performance. Working ideas are developed using video, audio-visual tools, sketchbooks, as well as intensive discussion, test-runs, and engagement with a range of digital technologies. The research methods can loosely be described as either practice-based methods, theory-led, or design and making led. Practice-based methods involved bodily interactions and learning by doing, by practicing including test-runs, workshops, re-enacting performances, simulated interactivity, devising methods, reflection tools, using audiovisual tools, using video. Recording the evolution of the idea toward performance is an essential research practice in CCDP. A video camera is commonly set up at internal workshops and public seminars for capturing the group activity, students video record their ‘tests’ and exploratory work, devising sessions etc, and all final shows are video recorded. This indicates the importance of documenting and reflecting as critical research practices for digital performance, together with the need to be familiar with seeing oneself from an ‘audience’ perspective and self-critique processes. A key theme is the embedding of a performance in the body via repeated rehearsal.

Theory-based methods grounded in discussions of concepts (e.g. seminars, lectures, tutorials) are central to the work of all, and provide a starting point for much of the work we observed. Making is central to the research process at CCDP, and the iteration across the digital and the physical is strongly related to the body, including the body of the performer/researcher/maker, and to the generation of ideas/designs. There is a strong culture of DIY digital making among the practitioners of this site. For example, one MA student built the screens as part of her installation for her final show performance where she could project her digitally augmented imagery, and another adapted and reassembled the voice box of a teddy bear. Experienced performers at the site also tend to build their own technologies (e.g. software, wearable, hardware), often in collaboration with expert technicians. During the fieldwork we observed participants moving between these sets of methods, each placed different emphasis on them, and used them in different sequences. These relatively stable methods provide a counter-balance to the very open character of research and performance as a process.

Some of the participants in this site worked collaboratively, with other students, performers, or technicians, and this was seen by some as a way to both learn and compensate for lack of skills in some aspects of performance or digital competence. The primary focus is on a performance, creativity and originality not on research per se and methods and research were rarely an explicit topic of discussion. Against this backdrop the ethos is one of either ‘no method’ or ‘individual method as personal process’ – with attention to the person, their interests, skills, goals, and resources. In this context research methods are spoken of as problematic and irrelevant; there is considerable distancing and discomfort with the idea of research methods, in some incidences this extends to disinterest, irritation or rejection of research methods.

During the fieldwork visit, we explained the project to a professor who told us, ‘I am not interested in P-A-R!’ (Performance As Research), saying that they have no time for methods and finds them ‘tedious’ and that ‘Research methods as a term aggravates me’. They said ‘I work from the person, what they are interested in, what their resources are.’ (Fieldnote excerpt)

An MA student echoed this ethos when talking about her method during a fieldwork interview:

This is kind of difficult for me. As far as I am concerned, I just do the thing. I don’t really think about how I am doing the thing because as far as I am concerned it is the most obvious way of doing the thing that there is – because it’s just what I do.

As these excerpts suggest, methods were seen as having the potential to interrupt or distort digital performance and to offer an unhelpful starting point. This suggests that in this site, for some, there is a clear division between performance/artistic work, and research. There is also no sense of an external research participant or subject, as was the case in the other Digital Arts sites. Methodological explicitness, or lack of it was a key difference between the Digital Arts and Social Science Case Studies. Tacit knowledge pervaded the DACS, the processes were less explicit, and the structures looser.

Digital Body in Performance

In general, I don’t work with the body as a character, I work more with the body as a place: I am seeing the body as aesthetic [MA student, fieldwork interview]

To be embodied you need to be also embedded in a world; you have to be in some kind of complex environment [Stelarc, at CCDP symposium]

Case Study Digital Body
Performance Digital a creative tool as essential as the body
Focus on innovation
Motion capture, bio-sensors, appropriated technologies (e.g. medical, toys), telematic technologies, 3D digital environments, Robotics
Technological body
Intimacy & emotion
Metaphors, body as: resource – interaction, movement, machinik, obsolete, kinetics for narrating experience
Table 2: Summary of key digital technologies and concepts of body observed in Digital Performance case study

In this site, the digital is seen as being as essential as the body and we observed the two to be intimately entwined throughout our fieldwork. There is no common denominator on how or what technology is used, or how the body is researched: the focus is on unique and often personal narratives. The place of technology in relation to the body varies depending on the performer.

A wide-range of technologies are available within the centre, see Table 2, and there is considerable re-appropriation (via tinkering and putting to different use) of everyday technologies and digital objects. The use of technology in this site is often made visible – the devices, computers, wires, etc – as part of the performance although the mechanism or algorithm for activating the technology is not always clear. Thus, both technical and creative skills are considered relevant in this site. Students are taught the basics of real-time software used for performance, supported by expert technicians. The technicians play a key role here providing one-to-one training, creative process advice, and performance technical support. Being technically skillful is considered a part of creative practice (DIY and making) and conceptual thinking. Technologies are approached from both a critical perspective – using technology as a tool or object of critique, and from a less critical utilitarian perspective – technology as a toolset. The digital is used as an important creative tool for exploring the body. The limits of a technology are understood as being creative opportunities and there is encouragement to include explorations with technology in work produced by students and lecturers.

The body is the primary unit of analysis for research and for practice within Digital Performance. As noted above, the body is theorized drawing on a range of performance, social and cultural theories. The body is understood in conjunction with space, light, and technology: it is seen, as suggested by the two quotes above, to make sense within a context, a space, an environment. That is, the body is seen within a world, not necessarily a physical one, but a world in which the spatiality and materiality of the body is fore-grounded. Within CCDP the body is usually explored critically. In this site, the use of bodily movements and kinetics are important features with which to narrate the body. The body serves as a ‘language’ through which to experience and tackle ideas of being in the world, notions of intimacy and emotion, embodiment and embedded, the sculptural body, ideas of bodily performativity (e.g. masculinity), and the notion of the physical and technological body.

The body is treated in an integrated manner without designated zones as this allows the ‘holistic’ body to be brought into focus. The digital tools used in performance are less defined or mapped onto specific aspects or parts of the body. This holistic approach is essential for investigating emotion and affect within the discipline of performance. We observed some examples of performers focusing in on the body, using the digital as a ‘magnifying lens’ to amplify the sensory in ways that re-imagine the body: e.g. the use of HD video to project a micro-view of the skin as an abstracted ‘landscape’, as the student wrote in the MA Dissertation Performance program:

This is an installation exploring the reframing of the body. Skin and hair become a landscape to travel across and explore. The focus not being a silhouette but the intricate nuances of the intimate body.

There is a long tradition and varied ways of thinking about the body and ‘being in the world’ in digital performance, a number of them are influenced by the use of technology. The boundaries between the virtual and the physical appear blurred. For some, the physical body is obsolete, and the term ‘embodied’ is used in order to describe new possibilities of body manifestations, which include physical and digital spaces that extend the body, with attention to cyborg, human-machine, and post-human discourses. For others, it is a physiological and utilitarian entity that can be used as an instrument for research in which the body becomes the instrument and the object of study and the performer uses different lenses for examining it. While others think of the body as a biological entity: an MA student/performer explores the understanding of the human body by comparison with other living creatures through a series of performances involving dead animals:

In one performance she lies on a table, naked in the same position as the trussed up frozen turkey she is holding. She wears a contact microphone that amplifies the sound of her breathing. ‘I guess I have some interest with this link between art, kind of biological physical bodies, and how we think ourselves as similar to them” (Interview excerpt). With a frozen turkey the student explores the symbiosis and ‘transference’ between live and dead bodies, and what it means to experience closeness and the dead. She classifies her turkey performance as a ‘sculptural piece’, a body-based piece where nonverbal communication is used such as physical movement with the body, gaze, and gestures. She is inspired by Mary Douglas’s notion of the ‘abject’, and how dead is sanitized in the Western culture: ‘With that piece I was trying to establish that closeness with this frozen turkey, frozen to me it’s like this is dead, there’s no warmth left, so there’s no life left’ (fieldwork notes)

The digital is seen as having a role in accessing and expressing sensory experience, as well as disturbing them. The sensory is also used to critique the digital and the body, for example by exploring how the digital augments and enhances the senses of the physical body. The digital and body are embedded in real time interaction. There is a process of amalgamation or collaboration between the physical and the digital in space and time, rather than a focus on trajectories/crossings between the physical and the digital. Technology is seen as helping people to think differently (as a constructive destructive force or to amplify the body and the senses) about the body, and informing unexpected creative decisions.

Contribution to Researching Embodiment

The ideas and findings discussed above informed the development of exploratory themes for researching embodiment across the arts and social sciences. These are briefly discussed here, and developed more fully through cross-case study analysis.

The Digital Performance case study points to the need for interdisciplinary research on the digital body to take account of the extent to which the body is situated in a disciplinary history and ecology of practices. This lead MIDAS to examine how the disciplinary practices of performance shape digital technologies, and the role that other performers, as well as technicians play in this process. In particular, the holistic approach to the body in this site is central to the kinds of questions, agendas and experiences that performance can consider, and this stands in stark difference to the fragmenting practices with technologies across the other sites studied. Understanding the purpose of conceptualizing the digital body is significant for interdisciplinary working: while social science research tends to represent embodied practices, performance works to express bodily experiences, to challenge, ‘re-think’ and ‘re-invent’ the body and its boundaries with space, time, and the digital. The new boundaries that Digital Performance establishes between the body and technology and its notion of the body as intimately connected to space and light – to the environment, could provide useful thought experiments for the social sciences.

The extent to which researchers integrate or incorporate the digital technologies they use in their research process differs across the arts and social sciences in ways that are significant for conceptualizing the digital body and research. This includes the degree of power and agency attributed to the digital and/or the researcher, the amount of control that the researcher is trying to exert over the technology (control, adapt or redesign), and whether or not they use the technology ‘off-the-shelf’, employ a bespoke external designer, or are able (via programing, tinkering, etc.) to extend/amend the technology themselves. In the context of Digital Performance, ideas of the body and the digital are intimately connected and the digital is fully integrated into the research process, with a high degree of control of the technology, and considerable adaptation of the technology. It is interesting to consider how this stance and integration could support research in the social sciences as well as the potential use of insights on specific technologies that the critical stance of digital performance could provide.

The body is deeply embedded in theory within Digital Performance, and how the body is worked on within Digital Performance enables it to physically explore these bodily discourses and theoretical concepts of social sciences. This is a productive point of connection for MIDAS to look across the arts and social sciences. Notably Digital Performance makes extensive use of cultural theory concepts as research tools and has the potential to extend these ideas via strongly articulating them via bodily-based performance, and indeed to generate new ideas for further collaborative theorization. Ideas of the technological body, the cyborg, the human-machine, can be physically experimented with and investigated in space of performance (e.g. the work of Stelarc, Orlan), as can the ideas of technology and control, the performative body (e.g. masculinity), the idea of the post-human as well as ideas of navigation, perception and so on. Digital Performance can, as one participant noted be a ‘practical cultural studies’.

Placing the practices of performance at the center of research on embodiment, as Digital Performance does, positions theory, method, spatiality and materiality in an iterative relationship. Investigating this relationship, notably the level of stability across method, theories, and materiality, and the ways in which these are balanced differently across the arts and social sciences, gives a way to understand how arts and social science achieve disciplinary relevance and innovation differently. ‘Where’ innovation is located within a disciplinary context is a key question raised for MIDAS, and understanding this can support interdisciplinary work across the arts and social sciences. For instance, there is, as noted above, intensive conceptual and theoretical innovation in digital Performance while many of the methods remain relatively stable. How innovation is conceptualized, valued and thought to be achieved in different contexts is significant.

Placing the practices of performance at the center of research on embodiment, as Digital Performance does, positions theory, method, spatiality and materiality in an iterative relationship. Investigating this relationship, notably the level of stability across method, theories, and materiality, and the ways in which these are balanced differently across the arts and social sciences, gives a way to understand how arts and social science achieve disciplinary relevance and innovation differently. ‘Where’ innovation is located within a disciplinary context is a key question raised for MIDAS, and understanding this can support interdisciplinary work across the arts and social sciences. For instance, there is, as noted above, intensive conceptual and theoretical innovation in digital Performance while many of the methods remain relatively stable. How innovation is conceptualized, valued and thought to be achieved in different contexts is significant.

Digital Performance is itself strongly related to the body, and this case study suggests that interdisciplinary working needs to understand and work with the position of the performer(s)’s body, their subjectivity/objectivity, bodily practices, and how these are made present or absented in the research process across arts and social sciences. The place of making, as well as spatiality, materiality, the senses, and bodily sensation in this process are key aspects of this process that differ greatly across arts and social science methods. When working across the arts and social sciences the gains and losses of different engagements with these aspects of making need to be considered.

The values and assumptions underlying how embodiment is researched in a context need to be excavated. In Digital Performance, a high value was placed on the individual/performer and theory as driving forces for innovative design. Understanding what is valued in an arts site and its compatibility or complementarity with the social sciences is vital to working productively with the challenges and tensions that combining them will throw up within and across sites. There are tensions between notions of research and performance practice and some tensions between the place of the human and the technological within Digital Performance, but otherwise there are few tensions within this disciplinary context, perhaps because this site thrives on the investigation of tension. For instance, according to Broadhurst (Professor in Performance), who argues that there is a continuum in the role of technology:

It depends on the digital performance artist. My approach is that of incorporating technology as an independent layer to the performer (the performance could stand alone), and also there is some indeterminacy (in contrast with everything being in sync). In relation to this indeterminacy, when ‘interacting with technology there are chances that it might not happen’ On the other side of the continuum there is no place for indeterminacy (everything is scripted), and technology is a dependent layer to the performer and here I am thinking of both Johannes’ DAP Lab and the performances of Troika Ranch who have mentioned on several occasions that performance and technology must develop together. (Fieldnote excerpt)

Tensions can be productive or not depending on how they are put into conversation. The anxieties that are expressed in a site are especially useful to help get a grip on these assumptions and rules, and can be, MIDAS argues, necessary to engage with in the process of interdisciplinary working across the arts and social sciences. Finally, this case study points to the need for clarity of how research is understood, as well as the extent to which methods are articulated and remain present during the research process. This differs markedly across the arts and social sciences as we discuss in the cross-case analysis is a significant challenge for interdisciplinary research across the arts and social sciences.

Recommended Readings

Adams, J. (2000). Editorial: some issues in practice-based teaching and research. Journal of Media Practice, 1, 2–4.

Birringer, J. (1991). Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism. Indiana University Press.

Broadhurst, S. (2004). The Jeremiah: Project interaction, reaction, and performance. TDR/The Drama Review, 48(4), 47–57.

Broadhurst, S. (2006). Digital Practices: An aesthetic and neuroesthetic approach to virtuality and embodiment. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 11(4), 137–147.

Broadhurst, S. (2008). Troika Ranch: Making new connections a deleuzian approach to performance and technology. Performance Research, 13(1), 109–117.

Broadhurst, S. (2012). Merleau-Ponty and neuroaesthetics: Two approaches to performance and technology. Digital Creativity, 23(3–4), 225–238.

Broadhurst, S., & Machon, J. (Eds.). (2011). Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity. London/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kennedy, B. (2002). Performative Spaces: The intersticial places of creative practice and research. Review in Journal of Media Practice, 2(2), 126–132.

Mock, R. (Ed.). (2000). Performing Processes: Creating Live Performance. Bristol: Intellect.

Rosenberg, D. (1999). Video Space: A Site for Choreography. Leonardo Online.