(rule book for) invisible bodies


This paper began with a problem posed as a question: How can one collaborate effectively in the production of creative performance work when not being able to share a space? This problem emerged as a group of performance studies collaborator all moved away from each other, yet maintained a desire to continue to work together on aesthetic and theoretic projects. Thinking of ourselves as an arts collective, we have been experimenting with electronic media for the sharing, staging, producing, and creating performance work. We have a website, a blog, and several performances utilizing webcasting, web actions, audio, video, texts, and images. We decided to keep our focus on the intersections of technology, performance, and politics. The difficulties we’ve had working together all can be traced back to the fact that we are not physically together. Improvisation, movement, and space are not shared. Our bodies are invisible to each other, save for the textual bodies in email messages and blog posts. How can we collaborate from a position of absence?

We wrote this paper as two: one from Florida, one from Massachusetts. One of the curious conditions of this paper is that we put ourselves in a position of having to perform what we are writing about. We had to collaborate at a distance while discovering the rules for our success along the way. We immediately realized that all work, taken in its broadest sense, is already collaborative. There’s really no creation ex nihilio, so it was best to wipe away that myth of the artist before we started.

One of the central issues has to do with the importance of a performance space. In other words, the where of the performance process is part of the structure of the what and the how of that process. One tremendous aspect of this process that provides such a hurdle for us is the co-presence of bodies as people work together to develop ideas. This includes all of those exercises like free writing, role-playing, reading different parts, improvisation games, and warm up drills. The co-presence encourages people to synchronize their ways of thinking and moving and encourages maximum creativity. It is often a matter of laying the foundation for productive accidents to emerge. Chance and contingency are essential to this process—even though it is a studied, anticipated, and nurtured sense of chance and contingency. But it is the space itself that seems to be so important in structuring performance possibilities. This includes the limits of the stage, the type of theatre, the dimensions of the room, the amount and size of rehearsal spaces, lighting, sound, temperature, seating, and even known (or anticipated) audiences. Though we intended to produce a practical application in this paper, it quickly transformed itself into a search for a basic structure of experience. We want to learn how to transform and reproduce these structures in a digital context that poses challenges for both space and memory.

How does the structure of collaboration and creation change when we are dealing with online/virtual spaces? With invisible bodies? By examining the structure and components of effective collaborative performance process, we might be able to suggest ways that these can be re-fostered in a new medium and situation. As geographic distance prevents a shared space of physical co-presence, is there a way to create electronic co-presence or virtual co-presence? Does this kind of co-presence require temporal simultaneity, or is there something even more essential to the process beneath or behind the notion of co-presence? What happens when the bodies of others are missing and effectively rendered invisible? Are others simply reduced to their typed words? Are they reduced to modes of recording (i.e., audio files, video files, emails, answering machine messages, blog posts and comments, or chat room transcripts)? Modes of recording always enforce a kind of permanency and linearity that can be the enemy of process, which leads to the other big issue for process: memory.

First, memory is crucial for the constitution of specific places and even for the structure of space. Second, forgetting seems to be necessary for a successful performance process. During all those improv games, discussions, and collaborative processes, most of everything that happens passes into the dustbin of the forgotten. This isn’t to say that it disappears; it just becomes inactive memory, retained in a very passive and ephemeral way—like a suggestion or a deja vu. Body motions and speech inflections linger and get taken up later, usually without anyone consciously remembering where they came from. Turns of phrase pop up in the script, especially those funny things that people often say as a mistake, or those seemingly accidental associations and connections that people make (“that reminds me of . . . this is this sort of like . . .”). Memory lingers beneath surfaces and within styles of speech and movement. Gestures and accents—a group comportment—develop in shows, as if the cast is constituted as a temporary organism of its own.

Another way memory and place influence performance is across productions. It is not surprising, for example, that there are distinct styles associated with specific programs or companies. Sometimes it is a telltale vocal cadence, going from voice to body to text, constituting the overall style of performance. Other times the style is in the lighting and props, movements, images, additional media, postures of aggressiveness or vulnerability, modes of humor, and even sounds from the audience. As performance memories, these styles linger in the places they are developed. They often attach themselves to other performance processes—as contagion, infection, emulation, radiation, or any host of other positive or negative ways of describing this transference and lingering processual presence.

Why do you think that the figure of “theatre people” as flamboyant, loud, singing, dancing, obnoxious, and attention-starved is so common across college, community, and professional theatre cultures? I think it’s because there is such a struggle against forgetting. Everyone has to be “huge” if they are to be memorable. Everyone in the theatre seems to be clamoring to break through the cacophony of sound and clutter of movement. Yet, everyone feeds off of the others’ energy, so the struggle for memory becomes somewhat collective in its own way. How similar is this situation as the medium of the space changes? You can’t really hog the floor electronically the same way you can in physical co-presence. Sure, you can write and write your heart’s content, but that doesn’t mean anyone will read it or pay attention. Similarly, you can’t colonize a virtual space with your bigness like you can in a theatre setting. You can’t drown out murmurs with a booming voice or a spontaneous song and dance. There have to be other ways to attract attention, to encourage invention, to develop a style or a voice and to leave a mark of memory. The way to do this with “invisible bodies” may have to be much more of a collective endeavor than in a traditional performance setting. Or maybe it will be more of a visual endeavor?

Let’s be clear what we are talking about in terms of floor hogging and memory. Certainly there are ways to dominate a virtual space. In IM or chat, as inflections become highly specialized, communication becomes both clearer and more complicated; that is, the opportunity to communicate more clearly is available but so is the opportunity to misinterpret someone’s intentions. Yet, with electronic media, hogging the space cannot be done in the same way as a practice of rehearsal and collaboration (as opposed to the quasi-public sphere shoutfests of most chatrooms and listserves). There is a physical and sensory difference that really matters here. In a co-inhabited performance space, the performance of hugeness is multi-sensory and inescapable (unless you leave the space): the bigness is auditory, visual, haptic, and sometimes olfactory: theatrical hugeness fills the space. Certainly, one can do this analogically with electronic communication: spam, all cap flaming in chatrooms or listserves, simply posting continusously to listserves (my God, there’s really only about 5 people who produce most of the words on CRTNET!), etc. But the difference is the amount of control we have from our position in front of our own screens to filter this stuff out and to simply and quickly delete messages. The real problem with the electronic collaboration is the potential for nothing to be forgotten. Everything is text, and text has physical presence that changes our relationship to memory. It’s the fundamental ephemerality of collaboration and rehearsal that requires the bigness for the chance at memory. The relative stasis and physicality of textual electronic communication opens up a new interpretive psychosis of ambiguity-in-permanence. Almost every recent example of headache-inducing conflict in my life has resulted from mis-interpreted (or overinterpreted) email messages.

Yet, how can we start to think of our online and collaborative work in terms of space? Is the website our stage? Is it our main stage? Where is our rehearsal space? What are its limits? Is it the computer architecture and the software design? Do notions like set and design become more, or less, important? What is the role of style? What becomes of rehearsal?

One place that memory, rehearsal, and collaboration come together is in images. Here is one I would like to consider:

This image is of three Underscore members one intoxicated evening last winter in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was a happy evening, a very snowy evening—a blizzard, actually—and we had ventured out to a bar down the block to have a beer. I took the photo with my left hand (you can kind of see my arm stretching out) and thus we had to crunch together to fit in the frame. Timing is difficult in these situations, so we are all at different points of engaging with the camera, which is certainly one element of an enjoyable photo.

It is an important image because it speaks to the issues of memory and collaboration. This photo wasn’t taken in an actual moment of rehearsal, but my frequent presence in this apartment in Brooklyn over the last year helped to create a substantial memory base that influenced my participation in Amanda’s “Inertia 30” project this summer. During my many trips there, many possible Underscore projects were conceptualized, contemplated, discussed, and dismissed. These moments of mundane “rehearsal,” then, are essential if sometimes invisible—or at least highly peripheral—to the virtual community of our collective.

But, am I suggesting that such physical rehearsals are necessary for virtual collaboration? Not exactly, but it makes me reconsider the importance of making “huge” mundane performances in order to create a collective memory that sticks. It is this memory, then, that we draw from when we engage our virtual rehearsals. So while I wouldn’t say that these moments of gathering away from the computer are absolutely necessary to the virtual life of a performance collective, I would say that they have an enormous and positive affect on shaping the life of that collective. Perhaps a fruitful way to approach the notion of collaboration is to work from the structures of everyday interactions with (groups of) friends. Everyday communication and interaction patterns really are aesthetic collaborations of the first order. And they account for most of our experience: From these encounters we imagine others; from our rituals and conversations new (or at least combinatory) ideas emerge.

From this reconfigured topos of rehearsal, we’ve found another way into the issue of collaboration. It takes an orientational shift to consider that mundane performances can be huge in their own way. The mundane is the stuff that sticks with us and enables us to patch together a collective memory and imagination. From this perspective we can start to think through the notion of virtual rehearsal. “Virtual” here is much more than “in the mysterious computer and internet space.”

Think of Peggy Phelan’s claim that performance is a rehearsal for death. Maybe we should be suggesting instead that mundane communication, interaction, and comportment are rehearsals for any sort of creativity. Perhaps rehearsal is constitutive of life as an aesthetic life, which, ultimately is about creating an ethic. This isn’t far from Seneca’s suggestion that we need to rehearse death, which I think means that living is a rehearsal for death, which means that life is a performance, i.e., a work of art. In an interview about Foucault’s notion of life as a work of art, Deleuze writes that:

[E]stablishing ways of existing or styles of life isn’t just an aesthetic matter, it’s what Foucault called ethics, as opposed to morality. The difference is that morality presents us with a set of constraining rules of a special sort, ones that judge actions and intentions by considering them in relation to transcendent values (this is good, that’s bad . . .); ethics is a set of optional rules that assess what we do, what we say, in relation to the ways of existing involved. We say this, do that: what way of existing does it involve? (100).
Obviously, it’s this second sense of rules—optional rules that assess what we do and say—that we have in mind for a Rulebook for Invisible Bodies. Further along in this same paragraph Deleuze adds, “It’s the styles of life involved in everything that makes us this or that. [. . .] Style, in a great writer, is always a style of life too, not anything at all personal, but inventing a possibility of life, a way of existing” (100.) That we do this jointly, together, should not be forgotten. We carry our styles with us—forged in rehearsals with each other—as we disperse geographically. And this is what is tapped into in memory, what is recorded in images and texts, and what is at the root of our collective efforts.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.
Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

(<-- back to underscore works)