The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed the strange experience of watching a live theatrical performance play out from multiple angles and perspectives just a metre or two away from me, without even being seated in the audience.
I was in the same venue as the performance but, seated in a small room to the side of the performance area, I was watching it through the screen of a laptop. The play was Lindiwe Matshikiza’s Desert, a piece created for Season 3 of the Centre for the Less Good Idea, which took place on the bottom floor as well as on a second-floor platform overlooking the audience. I was helping out with a multi-channelled live-stream of the performance – a series of standing mini-cameras situated throughout the venue were being used to stream the performance to those tuned in online.
From behind the screen in that small side room, I could see striking, close-cropped frames of a single performer, I could see a split-screen image of both the upper and lower levels of the performance area, and I could even see the audience watching on if I chose. My favourite view was of the videographer’s own screen – a collage of neat, digital blocks, each one alive with a different aspect of the performance happening right next to us. The only time I saw the performance with my own eyes, without the intervention of a screen, was when Matshikiza herself danced off stage and into our little side room, bringing the performance to a close.
The increasing convergence of art and technology has long been a point of fascination, speculation, and even outrage. Arguments that technology will be the death of art sit alongside arguments that art, as a medium and an institution, will surely die out if it fails to embrace technology. But even these hot takes aren’t too hot. Back in the 1840s, when photography became more popularised, cries about the supposed ‘death of painting’ sounded out across the world. Painting, of course, didn’t die at all. We got Realism instead.
And technology continues to influence the way we view, engage with, and even conceptualise art, today. Virtual Reality (VR) exhibitions have been popular talking points in South Africa’s arts scene of late, with Mary Sibande’s A Crescendo of Ecstasy exhibition being a brilliant example of how VR can work hand in hand with sculptural and visual art mediums to enhance or even create entire worlds. During the National Arts Festival this year, I also witnessed a group of children having a spirited chat with a cartoon character on a television screen which, by way of a well-placed video camera and someone sitting out of sight, but not too far off, was able to respond and interact with these kids in real-time. On this occasion, I happily set my reservations for surveillance-based tech aside – seeing a kid talk and laugh with a cartoon character of their own making is really frikkin’ cute.
Then there are the more bizarre (to me, at least) instances of art and tech colliding. In October 2018, a painting created entirely from artificial intelligence technology went up for auction. The painting was the result of Obvious, a Paris-based collective consisting of Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier, who commit themselves to exploring the interface between art and artificial intelligence. After the AI ‘analysed’ over 15 000 paintings by real people, a brand-new work was created and titled Portrait of Edmond Belamy. The portrait was eventually auctioned off by Christie’s for $432 500.
2018 also saw social media being populated with selfies of a different nature – Google’s Art Selfie. Part of their Arts & Culture app and in collaboration with a number of museums across the globe, the Art Selfie prompted users to take a snap of themselves in order to discover their painted, photographed or drawn doppelgänger. Naturally, the app relied on facial recognition technology and the resultant algorithms that would reunite you with your long-lost art twin. As the app became more widely used, some critics praised its ability to educate people on historical moments of art and culture in a smart and engaging manner, while others highlighted how facial recognition technology is inherently skewed towards whiteness as a result of those who built the tech: white folk. Google has also denied using these selfies for any sort of surveillance or targeted ad-based schemes, but I’ll forever remain on the sceptical side. In his piece The Google Arts & Culture App and the Rise of the ‘Coded Gaze’ in The New Yorker, writer Adrian Chen asks: ‘What does it mean that our cultural history, like everything else, is increasingly under the watchful eye of a giant corporation whose business model rests on data mining?’ And what are the effects of that watchful eye becoming the primary lens through which we view our cultural history?
Back when writing about art had me seated in an office from nine-to-five, I remember having to produce exhibition overviews and descriptions based solely on a set of hi-res images sent by the gallery. A week or so later, when the exhibition would be open, I’d view the works in person and gain a level of understanding about them that I found myself unable to via a set of images clumped together in a Dropbox folder. And while galleries and museums the world over are beginning to embrace technology and the internet as a means of reaching, educating, and engaging with new audiences, or even old audiences in new ways, I wonder how much meaning and detail is lost or skipped over when you view an exhibition walkabout through Instagram live? I’m not exactly fearing the fall of the world’s galleries in place of VR exhibitions (they’re all still making way too much money to go away anytime soon), but I am interested in how we navigate and experience the intimacies and intricacies of mediums such as sculpture, painting, and performance through a million little pixels as opposed to taking them in as they exist right in front of us. And in the near or distant future when art begins to find more of a home online than it does in the material world, how much other ‘content’ will we have to sift through before we get to what we’re looking for?
Dystopian cynicism aside, 2019 is already promising a fascinating experience by way of art and public engagement via the internet. Earlier this year, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum announced a live (in the old and new sense of the word) restoration project set to take place in July 2019. Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1642 artwork The Night Watch will undergo a live restoration, which will be live-streamed across the world. The Night Watch, which has been stabbed, slashed, hidden in a cave in the Netherlands, and sprayed with acid over the many years it’s been in existence, will now be restored in a manner that sees performance, art, and technology coming together.
‘This research and restoration will be carried out with the world watching,’ explains a video put out by the museum. ‘Both here in The Night Watch hall in the Rijksmuseum and online… Because The Night Watch belongs to all of us.’
Part of me thinks that snarky YouTube comments and failing WiFi connections may ruin the whole experience, but mostly, I’m quite excited to see how the whole thing unfolds, as a large portion of my (mis)education on art restoration comes from that Mr Bean film where he destroys Whistler’s Mother and draws her face back onto the canvas with a koki.
Whatever your take is on the advent of Instagram exhibitions, paintings created by robots, or theatre productions that reach you through the screen of your phone, it’s clear that we’re living through a truly interesting and uncertain time in the worlds of art and technology. But then art, for the most part, always seems to keep things equally interesting and uncertain. So perhaps these sorts of things don’t change that much at all – maybe they just take different shapes over the years.