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live artist, poet, and general doer of things

Web Scribbling

(crossposted)

I’ve been writing some things down recently in e-mails and blog replies, helping to clarify what I think this “open source theatre” idea really means, and what online art is about. I’m just going to copy/paste some things of interest.

James Higgs of Made by Many was blogging from SXSW about the internet and art, asking  “Can there ever be an online masterpiece?” Something about his ideas bothered me — about the application of older categories of art to new artistic forms — and so i wrote this series of half-formed responses. The whole thread developed into a lively discussion, so do have a look.

The processes of social interaction and artistic creation which are emerging in the internet age — characterised by fluidity, ephemerality, deconstruction, participation, uncertainty, subjectivity — are themselves antithetical to the antiquated concept of a “masterpiece”.

In order to have “masterpieces” it is necessary to have audience who wish to create them. The nearest thing web culture offers is a proliferation of diverse “top ten” lists. The polyvocality of the web also opposes the creation of “masterpieces”, which, more often than not, rely on established critical authority in order to gain cultural momentum.

The “masterpiece” belongs to a past age. We don’t need them any more.

It is no coincidence that all the auteurs of your chosen “masterpieces” are male. If I were being facetious, and maybe I am, I’d point out that it’s in the very name.

What singles the web out as a medium is its ability to facilitate and make transparent the processes of collective authorship. The idea of what a “masterpiece” can be — currently still hampered by the concept of the single (male) auteur — would have to be substantially revised if you want to create one online.

It took at least 200 years before Hamlet was considered a masterpiece, after decades in which Shakespeare was considered largely to be a skilled but insubstantial populist. The [d/r]eification of Shakespeare began in C18th, gained more and more momentum over the next century, until by the Romantic era we have Thomas Carlyle reaching the heights of criticual absurdity: “does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying signs; indestructible”.

Nothing is indestructible. Not even Wikipedia (surely the best candidate for a masterpiece of the web age?)

This is not to say that the web age cannot produce great art, or that great art isn’t important. But we are here, online, alive, to celebrate the transitory, the processual — the changeability and multiplicity of life — the moving forward — the excitement of the new — optimism. We are not here to calcify works and kill them through critical consensus. We are here to move.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to tie some of this approach to the web down to an approach to interactive theatre. A few people have been e-mailing me about the OST concept — often research students! — which is gratifying, showing there’s some energy around the idea. here’s a conversation I’ve been having with one of them, a chap called Matthew:

> From reading your blog, I get the impression that the first entry
> is a sort of manifesto for the concept of open source theatre making,
> but I was wondering if you had yet had any opportunities to experiment
> beyond the ideas stage, or had any ideas about what it is that you may
> be specifically interested in doing with the open source concept.

The idea for OST has come out of various concepts I’ve been working with as a theatre director and writer for the last few years, and I’m using it as an umbrella for moving forward with a few artistic principles of theatre creation: creative collaboration, audience interactivity, and web 2.0 as a means for documentation and evaluation. We’re working on two main projects at the moment: one is “Israel/Palestine”, which I’ve blogged a little about, and which is a devised performance combining texts, physical work, and interaction and discussion with the audience; the other is “STEAL THIS PLAY”, which is a piece of installation theatre — we’re creating a series of dream-like environments which the audience can navigate in their own time, exploring concepts of property and theft, and which also have physical performers interacting with the public. Both of these projects are in the early stages, though Israel/Palestine is now rehearsing and will be performing in London, Southend, Edinburgh and St Andrews in April. So I guess you could say that OST is now at the point of putting theory into practise. My own feelings about the theory/practise divide is that one must always be practising theory and theorising practise — so when working in OST we’re always talking at a theoretical level about what we’re doing, and trying to put into practise what we talk about. Process is as important as results. But, as I said, it is early stages. We’re trying to figure out where it’s going.

> I think my main curiosity lies in how you might use the internet as a
> space for creative collaboration, leading to performance – and whether
> or not that is an intention of yours.

Yes and no.

Partly, “Open Source” is just a metaphor that I’ve applied to theatre. To me, Open Source as a concept means making the tools of production available to the user — so that the user becomes part of the production process. It also means that production is a collaborative process. The “users” of theatre are both the performers/crew and the audience, so in this case what OST means is a non-hierarchical and collaborative approach to creating performances, producing theatre in which the audience interact meaningfully with the performance and the performers, and at every stage trying to talk with our audiences (and interested people) about the processes we’re using. Involving users in the production, and making the means of production available.

But partly, OST is also about using the internet, and especially web 2.0 (and beyond) as a means of creative collaboration, as you say. Currently, OST is a disparate and fluid group of people who meet in the flesh to make theatre happen, although in the future we do want to explore ways of collaborating across physical geographies through the internet. (An occasional collaborator once used Skype in a production of The Trojan Queen, with Hecuba’s performance transmitted from a different continent and projected onto the stage. All rehearsals took place via Skype.) But right now what we’re developing is using the internet as a means of documenting and evaluating our work: we’re blogging to talk about what we’re doing, and when we’re a little further along with the project we’ll be explicitly soliciting feedback from audiences and interested observers. We’ll also be asking people who attend performances to provide feedback online. In all this, it’s about finding ways of exposing and sharing the means of production, and inviting others’ input.

There are all sorts of other directions we could take this as we expand. A collaborative blog to talk about the theory of interactive theatre, mainly. Performances which take place online. Scripts which are produced via wiki-style editing. I don’t know. We’ll see.

> I am aware of live internet performance projects (second life
> performance etc.) and will be aiming to look at your ideas
> alongside an online project that I have come across called ‘the
> bridge project’, whilst also making reference to ‘live internet
> performances’. What really interests me about the open source
> theatre concept is that it seems to be about using the internet
> as the thing that it is – a massive network of information and
> collaborative potential – rather than something which it is not,
> i.e. a television, or a theatre space. (or have I missed the point
> a bit?!)

I think you’ve hit the point directly there. When a new medium comes along (and the internet still feels new, and is constantly reinventing its potential) people get awfully excited about using it, and putting old media content in new media forms. The problem is that form changes content, and the way content is produced — so what worked in an old form may look silly in a new one. The risk in “online performance” is that much of what is great about live performance (immediacy, corporeality, &c) gets lost, without much new work being added. On the other hand, the internet does offer us new performance forms, especially in the realm of interactivity and improvised collaboration. One could even see a lot of what goes on in World of Warcraft as a piece of interactive, collaborative theatre! So there are interesting ways of doing it, and I’m interested in exploring them. But at the moment, yes, it is about networks of information and communication for me. But there’s a lot of future.

I like conversations. They help us work some of this stuff through. Join in!

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