Review of DocPerform 3: Postdigital

Thank you to David Bawden for taking notes during the sessions!

Temporary Poster

Over 50 participants took part in the third Documenting Performance symposium, held at City, University of London, on 16th May 2019, hosted by CityLIS, the Department of Library & Information Science. DocPerform is a part of the wider CityLIS project examining The Future of Documents.

The introductory session was opened by Sarah Rubidge, Professor Emerita at the University of Chichester, and long-standing member of the DocPerform team, who set the day into context. From the first symposium which focused mainly on conventional records of performance in libraries and archives, DocPerform has moved to deal more and more with the digital realm. This matches the changes in performance itself, which, from the 1980s onwards, has moved beyond the stage into other spaces, including the digital. In turn this leads to a number of questions;

– how do we document temporal media?
– how do we document improvised performances?
– how do we document performance systems and installations, especially immersive installations?
– how do we document processes?
– how do we document and preserve digital works, which are already disappearing as systems and software become obsolete?

Solving these problems requires research, not just applying existing archival methods.

The keynote presentation, The experience parlour, was given by Lyn Robinson from CityLIS, who reminded participants that the perspective of DocPerform is from that of library and information science, the remit of which is keeping the record of humankind. It is inspired in one way by Bruce Shuman’s vision of thirty years ago of a library as an experience parlour or experiencybrary, which would store immersive experiences which could be accessed by the library’s patrons. Virtual and augmented reality technologies, which now offer the prospect of an unreal reality, seem to offer the prospect of making Shuman’s vision a practical proposition. In order to bring this about, we will need to fully understand the nature of these new forms of documents, in order to be able to describe and use them properly. This will require extensive research, rooted in the concepts of document theory as originally outlined by Paul Otlet and Susanne Briet.

The first full session, devoted to Technologies, had four speakers.

Mark Underwood, an experienced sound designer now undertaking a PhD at the University of Surry, gave a presentation Exploring the extent to which sound design enhances temporal and somatic user experiences in mixed reality environments. This examined how intelligent sound design can help make such experiences as immersive as possible, with immersion understood as a deep mental involvement. Immersion has both psychological and sensory aspects. The former can be attained, for example by reading a book, while the latter is the aspect of immersion enhanced by sound. Mark showed, by playing a film clip with and without sound, that when sound is absent we may notice visual inputs more clearly; more sensory input is not, in itself, an advantage, it has to be carefully designed. By implication, this will influence the impact of documented experiences.

Hansjörg Schmidt and Nick Hunt described their interactive installation Traces, an aspect of their wider Library of Light project at Rose Bruford College, which is developing repository for lighting practices in various creative disciplines. Traces allows light effects to be recorded with a camera or smart phone, enabling an investigation of the relation between the ways we experience light, and the ways we can record and document it. The installation was made available in a separate room for participants to experience during the day.

https://performinglightblog.wordpress.com/schedule/traces/

The presentation by Tom Ensom and Jack McConchie, curators at the Tate galleries, Preserving virtual reality artworks, outlined the potential, and the challenges, of documenting digital installation artworks which employ virtual reality (VR), and which offer immersive and multi-sensory experiences. VR engines such as Unity, Source, Unreal Engine and CryEngine, originally developed for videogame development, can be used for this purpose. There remain considerable practical difficulties, not least cost and effort of collaborating with the VR industry. At a minimum, however, to stand the best chance of preserving such works, we can, and should:

  • start collecting now
  • create and archive a disk image of the running artwork
  • gather and create documentation that shows how to do this
  • create and archive a disk image of the production materials in a software environment in which they can be accessed
  • monitor the evolution of technologies, to identify problems and opportunities.

Joseph Dunne-Howrie, from CityLIS, gave a presentation on Trans-participation in the infosphere. Luciano Floridi’s concept of the infosphere, the contemporary digital information environment, is taken as a framework . The production and dissemination of media acts as the infrastructure of the infosphere, replicating our presence across platforms and communication networks. Audience participation in the infosphere and the condition of onlife, where the physical and virtual worlds fuse seamlessly, provides new forms of interaction and identity, as evidenced by examples from immersive theatre.

The second session, entitled Transcience, also featured four presentations.

Clarice Hilton, giving a presentation of behalf of herself and her fellow VR researcher Shivani Hassard, discussed Frictional forces in creating the effect of presence in immersive experiences. Presence in virtual reality is promoted by the effective illusions of place (creating the belief that we are somewhere we are not) and of plausibility (creating the belief that was is happening is natural and sensible). A contribution to plausibility is given by providing the sense of friction in VR experiences, making such experiences involve actual physical effort, so reinforcing the physicality of the actual body.

Piotr Woycicki from Aberystwyth University presented AR remediation/documentation of Our Lady of Shadows, an example of an augmented reality space which is at the same time enclosed but also open to the outside world. The work is an AR adaption of a radio play, giving a reimagining of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott. The discussion of this presentation led to the idea that, although we may think of audience interaction as a feature of modern and novel formats, it may be that radio drama allows audiences to be active participants [Tim Crook, Radio Drama, London: Routledge, 1999].

Harry Robert Wilson, Digital Thinker in Residence, for the National Theatre of Scotland, gave a presentation on Immersive media and the multi-modal document in PaR. This reflected on the documentation of immersive media in light of the definitions of document and documentation given by Angela Piccini and Caroline Rye [Of fevered archives and the quest for total documentation, in L. Allegue et al. (eds.) Practice-as-Research in performance and screen. London: Palgrave Macmillam, 2009), 34-39]. There are two distinctive features of VR documentation of performance. It puts the audience, in a sense, inside the document; and it integrates other forms of document, such as video, photographs, text, sound, and set design. However, it would wise not to claim uncritical and absolute “immersion” or “presence” from any currently feasible VR documents.

Sarah Rubidge presented an interactive artwork of which she was co-creator, Sensuous Geographies, a performative sound and video installation. Now that artwork itself is no longer active, would it be feasible to recreate the experience in VR? The presentation raised many questions about how to translate an experience in physical reality into virtual reality, while capturing sufficient of the essence of the experience to say that the VR version was, in some sense, the same. These questions are fundamental to the documentation of any interactive performance of artwork, and more broadly to new forms of digital document. See: Sensuous Geographies

The closing session was devoted to Structures and Interfaces.

A third CityLIS speaker, Deborah Lee, discussed Documenting interactivity and post-digital performances: exploring the application of data models and standards for augmented reality performance. This presentation examined the limitations of the standard library metadata models for describing performance documentation. The essential problem is that performance does not fit well into the bibliographic world described by standards such as the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) and the Library Reference Model (LRM). These models assume that there is a single creator of a work, and hence cannot adequately describe interactive or participatory works. Indeed, they do not cope well with works defined in space and time; they are fine for recording the text of a play, for example, but not a single performance. Nor do they recognise AR and VR among their defined media types. These problems had been noted a while ago, before experience had been gained in the used for FRBR and its associated standards [D. Miller and P. Le Boeuf, “Such stuff as dreams are made on”: how does FRBR fit performing arts? Cataloguing and Classification Quarterly, 39(3-4), 151-178]. Discussion of this presentation suggested that these were philosophical issues, of fundamental importance in keeping records of performance documentation. In turn, documenting performance is a good test bed for examining the issues which will arise with other new forms of document.

To close the day, the True Heart theatre company presented The Genie is out of the bottle: who’s got a story to tell? Taking comments from members of the audience on their impressions and experiences of the day, they presented them as Playback Theatre – short improvised performances interpreting and representing experiences – without any of the digital or technological means discussed throughout the day.

Installations and performances were available to the participants throughout the day. Apart from Traces, already mentioned, the Itinerant Poetry Library opened, and Rebecca McCutcheon’s virtual reality performances Affective bodies in dynamic spaces: documenting site-specific theatre practice were made available for participants to experience.

Further information about the symposium is available on the website. The full papers will appear in a special issue of Proceedings from the Document Academy.

 

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