Tag Archives: performance

The human mic: a live extension of Twitter?

From yesterday’s refreshingly clear-sighted and supportive report on #OccupyWallStreet in the Globe and Mail:

Perhaps the most cogent symbol of this raw democratic process is the “human microphone,” a natural form of call-and-response voice amplification that the occupiers use to overcome the police ban on speakers and megaphones. At their general assemblies, a large group of occupiers repeat the words of a single speaker, allowing the power of multiple voices to resonate through the crowd. The result is both moving and arresting. The speaker must slow down, choose his or her words carefully, and then listen as the crowd repeats those words back. Likewise, members of the crowd move from passive listeners to active participants.

Agreed. The human microphone system being used by #OccupyWallStreet is proving an effective performative tactic to work around the imposed ban on technological amplification at the Occupation’s public gatherings. And as even this short quotation suggests, the tactic offers lots to think about, especially for studies of performance, media, and culture; it readily lends itself to poststructuralist reading. Check out the people’s acoustic sound system in action as Slavoj Žižek addresses #OccupyWallStreet:

Slowness, attention, delay, repetition, and the liveness of the moment: structured around these features, the human mic system might seem a direct revolt against the proliferation of new media technologies that are now so often cited as responsible for accelerating, diffusing, and hyper-mediating contemporary communications. But it seems to me that the human mic system would have been unthinkable before Twitter. The parceling out of brief statements, and their echoing repetition by those in attendance at the time, strike me as eminently Twitter-based practices. To say nothing of the statements that then get actually tweeted and re-tweeted by the crowd.

Rather than a revolt against new media, the human mic looks more like an embodied extension of them, a corporeal remediation of social network technology — technology that is widely held responsible for “doing [bad] things to our brains” — in the service of cultivating attentive listening, dialogic socializing, and above all critical thinking. (I’d like to think there’s something anti-proprietary about the system too; its formal focus on sharing and dissemination can be read as a critique of tightening copyright laws that are entirely of a piece with the kleptocracy against which the Occupation stands.)

I could be wrong; I’m venturing an impression here, and I haven’t researched the human mic phenomenon. If it predates Twitter, I’d love to learn about where it came from, and how it developed. (I certainly don’t mean to discredit anyone with my hypothesis — or to credit Twitter too much, as happened a lot amidst discussions of the Arab Spring.) In any case, the Occupation’s critical mass (which is at the same time, paradoxically, a global dispersion) of converged new media and embodied assembly producing some new kind of body politic?

Time of the sign; or, détournement as nuclear criticism

Photograph by takomabibelot, from http://www.thewip.net

Once upon a summertime in a certain southwestern Ontario town, an unknown group of youths encountered, on the town’s outskirts, a sign that welcomed visitors with assurances that this town was a “nuclear weapons free zone.” This pacifistic allure the town shares with other towns around the world, towns that — without such helpful signs — would otherwise surely be presumed to possess silo-sunk stockpiles of ICBMs. Towns like Vancouver, for example. The sign that boasted this town’s lack of an atomic arsenal depicted a dove in flight, as do many such signs, like this one at right, from somewhere in the United States of America.

An architectural peculiarity of the town’s central square had inspired the designer of the sign in question to frame the dove, an olive branch in its beak, winging its way out of an octagon, and over watery waves. Some of these details may be observed in the photograph at left.

Possibly inspired by mind-altering influences like French literary theory, or perhaps by the penchant of engineering students for situationist mischief, the youths relieved it from its post. However, clearly not content to leave their vandalism of the cliché, kleptomanic kind, the youths decided — upon making certain discoveries about the physical properties of the sign, and in particular its paint — to put the sign back.

Evidently, the town liked the edited version so much, it stayed up well into the winter. The youths’ motive in producing this gentle guerrilla art installation remains as profoundly unknown as do their present whereabouts. This critic’s best guess — beyond chalking it up to young people’s natural fondness for pushing the public’s buttons — is that the installation implies no place on Earth can yet claim freedom from nuclear weapons, while their buttons still exist to be pushed.

Those were different times

I dig this Youtube documentary about the Party People Project’s iDance rally in 2000. Takes me back.

Related viewing: a New Music story on rave flyers…

…amateur footage from the 2001 iDance…

…and an inspiring speech that for some reason needs to be made time and again:

Speaking in tones

I’m a million different people from one day to the next. –The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”

Between drafting a paper for Congress and giving one, last Friday, to a remote audience in Marburg, I’ve been reflecting on the different voices I adopt in different media and genres (to say nothing of the million different performative personae that “I” go through on any given day).

As genres, the conference paper and research essay demand different kinds of tone, rhythm, and vocabulary. These basically boil down to keeping things simpler, more direct, and more repetitive (as well as much more concise) in a conference paper, to help a listening audience follow along. I’ve tried drafting conference papers with speaking in mind, but every time I read or speak draft work back to myself, it always needs more paring down and smoothing out.

Which got me thinking about blogging: what kind of voice do I take on in blogging? Is there even any single voice that emerges among posts — or do different posts themselves speak in different tones? My general sense is that the tone of most of my posts tends to be less formal and more conversational than that of either a conference paper or an essay.

Anyway, the upshot is that it might be worth trying to compose conference papers not as simplified research essays, as I’ve been doing, but rather as extended blog posts. It might be worth the thought experiment, if only to find out whether the paper would need fewer re-writes afterward.

Say goodbye to a self crystallized around a matrix of consistency. – Christine Tamblyn (150)

Further to the development of different voices in different apps, I don’t think there’s any point trying to discern any consistent tone for someone’s Twitter messages. The extreme brevity of the form, its preponderance of links, and its compulsive re-tweets all seem to work against establishing any consistent voice. It might be more accurate to think in terms of brand, not voice, for Twitter — with all the commodity fetishism that entails. But I think there is something to identifying one’s Facebook voice. It might be the parallax produced by me in my circle of “friends,” but Facebook seems to be where facetiousness and sarcasm reign; anytime anyone posts something serious, heartfelt, or otherwise real, it always seems jarring and inappropriate to me.

In admitting this, I think I’m admitting to a symptom of what Tobias van Veen calls “the cryptofascism of corporate perception”; in other words, the modes of communication that are structured and limited by corporate social media (to which the Elgg that supports the Landing is, I think, a notable open-source exception): “the technics of perception in which uncitizens engage with the social network aligns desire with socially networked consumerism. Desire is directed toward a ceaseless flow of objects and data (either LIKED or absented in response).” In other words, you can’t “dislike” something on Facebook; you can only disappear it by refraining to like or comment on it. On the implications of “corporate perception” like this for “the youth vote” in the recent federal election, van Veen writes:

There is no rebellion not because youth don’t care; there is no rebellion because youth live in a world created and catered through info-filtering mechanisms tailored so precisely to predict and provide for their consumer and erotic impulses that the practice of democratic choice has no place within it. One can LIKE but one cannot not like; there is no choice per se, only the metrics of one-way desire. […] Youth—a category no longer of age but of consumer uncitizenry, which is to say, humans who only participate in collective processes through consumption and discourse with corporatized social networks—feel that with social networks and mobile communications that they, each and every one, are the centre of all attention. Uncitizens command and demand—not from their nation-states, but from their corporations, and what they demand is the short-term satisfaction of their pleasures.

van Veen’s point is that social networks erase the nation-state and thus cripple democratic participation in it: since, in social networks, the nation-state “does not exist as such—which is to say as a metric of consumer desire,” its virtual nonexistence helps expedite its material dismantling by the right-wing powers that be. (BTW, van Veen’s blog exemplifies a very different tone for scholarly blogging.)

I’m likewise preoccupied by the message of social media, as McLuhan might say: how social network technologies make specific kinds of environments, how they allow only certain, limited kinds of discourse and communication. And, in the process, how they privilege certain kinds of voices, and construct certain kinds of subjects.

Works Cited

Tamblyn, Christine. “Grafting Tentacles on the Octopussy.” Vulvamorphia: Lusitania 6 (1994): 147-52.

van Veen, Tobias. “Technics and Decrepit Democracy.” Fugitive Philosophy [blog]. 3 May 2011 http://fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org/2011/05/technics-decrepit-democracy/

The Verve. “Bittersweet Symphony.” Urban Hymns. Hut, 1997.

Cross-blogged from the Athabasca U Landing

Lady Gaga, copyfighter?

Google search results for “Lady Gaga infringement”: 630,000
For “Lady Gaga copyright”: 270,000,000

That’s a lot of Intertubes about Lady Gaga and copyright. Sifting the results, though, turns up little by way of actual actions. She threatened to sue the maker of a “Lady Gag Gag” sex doll, for instance; and action against her has been threatened by an alleged co-writer.

(If anyone knows of other actions, please comment — I just haven’t time to sift all two hundred and seventy million results!)

Rather more of the results have to do instead with Gaga’s perceived lack of originality, pointing out rather obvious similarities between her image and music and those of Madonna, or, say, between her meat dress and Canadian sculptor Jana Sterbak’s 1987 meat dress.

I had bristled at first that Lady Gaga so nakedly plagiarized the meat dress. But it now occurs to me that what she’s doing in music and fashion combined is oddly representative of today’s remix culture, in a political climate of ever more restrictive IP regulation. Lady Gaga, a major presence in both fashion and music now, is, in a way, bringing something of the copyright-indifferent business practices of the former — in which “there’s very little intellectual property protection” — to bear on the copyright-mad business practices of the latter.

Maybe not intentionally, maybe just inadvertently.

In any case, the various productions and performances of Lady Gaga stand open to some very suggestive interpretation, as critical statements on the present state of tensions and negotiations between the corporate-backed hegemony of “originality” and the creativity of open appropriation.

Update: I’ll take this story about Lady GaGa’s endorsement of a little Canadian girl who covered “Born this way” on Youtube as some solid evidence supporting my hunch here.
The Youtube vid in question is pretty excellent.

UPDATE 2.0! TorrentFreak confirms that “Lady Gaga Is a BitTorrent Loving Pirate.”
Apparently “she asked her fans to send a torrent (or YouTube) link of the Top Chef Just Desserts finale.”
Now, about that thing with the photographers

A Romeo & Juliet mix. Happy Love Day!

In a grad class on Shakespearean adaptations, I presented a DJ mix as my seminar on Lorca’s El Publico: a Surrealist adaptation of a seminar seemed appropriate for Lorca’s Surrealist adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. (The seminar was a success: everybody danced.) In time for Happy Love Day* I’ve posted the set online, in two “acts.” (Seminar details and annotated playlist are housed at the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 1) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 2) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

* “Happy Love Day” is a spoof of “Valentine’s Day” in an episode of The Simpsons (“Trash of the Titans” [S9E22]. Fox, 26 Apr. 1998):

“Come on, Mom, The stores just invented this holiday to make money.”

Canada’s digital doppelgängers: a footnote

As I argue in a 2009 SFFTV article, it’s symptomatic of US-Canadian border tensions over copyright (as Wikileaked cables confirm) that the US-produced Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004-09) was shot in B.C., and that its leading Cylon villains are played by Canadian actors (Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Callum Keith Rennie…I almost expected Bob and Doug MacKenzie to rise from one of those tubs of replicant goo). The Cylons are evil robots, indistinguishable from humans except for their copying practices: they “upload” their personalities to databases when they die, and “download” them into new bodies. Embodied by Canadian actors not necessarily recognized as such, the Cylons thus act out some of the cross-border differences in copyright law that keep Canada on the USTD’s blacklist of “pirate haven” nations.

In researching a forthcoming essay on new media and identity, I realized that Battlestar — as a Hollywood science fiction TV series casting Canadian actors in digital doppelganger roles — echoes an earlier show, Max Headroom (1987-88).

In that short-lived but fascinating experiment in “cyberpunk” TV, the main character, Edison Carter, was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. Carter is a videocam-wielding reporter for Network 23, in a near-future world styled after the McLuhanesque cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Cronenberg’s Videodrome: in the show’s “20-minutes-into-the-future” world, it’s illegal to turn off a TV, the state distributes sets to the poor, and a genre of hyper-condensed commercials, the “blipvert,” is killing viewers. “Max Headroom” is the name assumed by Carter’s electronic double, a strictly screen-embodied personality (like Videodrome‘s Brian O’Blivion). Presumed dead after a traffic accident, Carter unwittingly donates his body to an experiment to produce a virtual television personality, a kind of artificial intelligence “dubbed” from Carter’s own mind, an AI calling itself “Max Headroom” (one of the earliest deployments of CGI on prime time television, rendered by Commodore Amiga computers). Carter lives (of course), and Headroom, flitting from screen to screen, tags along to help him on adventures through the corporate-dominated, polluted, hyper-mediated world of the series: a talking-head ghost running amok in a toxic media ecology that, from the vantage point of 2010, looks sometimes uncannily familiar, other times a quaint paleofuture. Headroom’s signature stutter and replay turn his lines into a kind of spoken-word dub, which also doubles, in the script, the mise en scene’s mediatized doubling of a corporeal, corporate reporter and his pixelated doppelgänger, the signal-jamming saboteur.

Headroom isn’t the villainous machine that the Cylons are; he’s more of a high-tech jester and trickster. But then again, the decade in which Battlestar got re-made wasn’t the same decade that gave us Headroom. We were more worried about the Cold War than global warming; “free trade” with the USA had yet to prove itself as a vehicle for neo-colonial annexation (which the current government now wants to extend to Europe?); and the Internet was still just a military-academic experiment, not the front in a total war on copying, of all things.

Like Lou Reed sings, you know, those were different times. (How much do I owe his label, now, for quoting him?)

What’s wrong with “reality TV”: scripting crapitalism as democrazy

In the graduate course on theory I’m now teaching, we are discussing the performance theory of Erving Goffman. A question has come up about reality TV shows as examples of Goffman’s theory. The specific question is whether reality TV shows “reflect” the reality of North Americans’ everyday social roles.

In participating in this discussion, I kind of got into a critical rant. But it’s helped me identify something I profoundly dislike about the “reality” genre.

Every “reality” program is cast to generate as much character drama as possible. This is as true of talent competition shows as of more game-oriented shows: contestants aren’t chosen just for talent; that may be part of their selection, but I think they’re chosen as much if not more for the drama they bring to their roles (and thus the ratings they’ll be expected to command). And then every show is meticulously edited to exaggerate as much character drama as possible.

And while character drama is common to reality TV and classical theatre alike, there seems to be an exceptionally specific kind of character produced by reality TV programs, and I actually worry about the implications of this kind of character becoming naturalized as a “role model” for viewers — a naturalization nurtured, in part, because of the presumed (but entirely artificial) “realism” of the “reality” genre.

I worry, because the character that seems to dominate reality TV is something of a villain: a selfish schemer, a cunning manipulator. The kind of character who’s always issuing some vapid, vicious threat like “Bring it” or “Game on” or “Don’t hate the player.”

And I worry because of the peculiar kind of game that this character excels at. I’m thinking here of some of the longest-running and most popular shows, like Survivor or American Idol or any number of Bachelor-type shows.

Take Survivor.

The game requires players to “outwit, outplay, outlast” each other. They are required for their own self-interest to co-operate, collaborate (and in the process dissimulate) with each other. Most insidiously, I think, at the end of each episode they are called on to vote — but to vote someone else out. They are called upon to exercise a cruel, inverted parody of the democratic franchise, in which the vote does not help to build the consent of the governed, but rather eliminates the competition. Voting is symbolically transformed from a democratic exercise into a kind of capitalist enterprise. The voting process in Survivor is thus a telling symptom of the disturbing ease with which democracy is confused with capitalism (in the cultural imaginary of the USA in particular, but certainly in Canada and the other overdeveloped nations as well).

The roles promoted by reality TV seem to me, then, to encourage the popular adoption of a very specific kind of ideological disposition. That reality shows represent a now entrenched and increasing sector of the cultural industry, and — moreover — that increasing numbers of applicants and recruits know what reality producers are looking for in contestants (possibly without knowing precisely how or what they know) and can “act the part” of the particular kind of role described above all suggest a particularly insidious colonization of young Westerners’ minds by the norms and values of very narrowly defined and privileged media business interests.

For example, take a look at this promotional sequence for a new Canadian show based on Jersey Shore. Look at the self-aggrandizing, intensely competitive fronting — and the corresponding, bombastic effrontery — with which the participants perform “themselves.” Note, too, the derision with which the hosting website’s commentary describes them. Either nobody recruited for a “reality TV” show realizes they are farce fodder, or everyone does, and plans to leverage it for selfish and commercial ends, like a recording or book or other TV deal to squeeze out of it.

That said, I do like The Amazing Race. It’s the only “reality” show I regularly watch. But why do I enjoy it? Largely, I confess, for the spectacle of North American tourists getting lost in other parts of the world, complaining there about “foreigners” and “how nobody speaks English,” and also, sometimes, reckoning (in however token and insulated a way) with the stark, dire poverty in which most of the world lives. It’s a spectacle that plays all too easily into the increasingly smug and self-assured brand of Canadian nationalism that seems to have started displacing our traditional diffidence.

But that’s a rant for another post.

NASSR 2010: Romantic Mediations (remediated)

This year’s conference for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was co-hosted by UBC, SFU, and the U of Victoria, and held in downtown Vancouver, just blocks from Stanley Park.

View from the top-floor conference rooms of the hotel. Not distracting at all.

This year’s theme, Romantic Mediations, was particularly productive. I say this mostly because of my own research interest in Romanticism’s popular cultural legacies, but also because of the program’s focused and lively discussions, and, in part, because of the increasingly mediated culture of academic conferences.

The theme directed a lot of attention to the diversity of media forms and the materiality of cultural production in the Romantic period. In the first keynote on Thurs., Aug. 18, William Warner and Clifford Siskin advocated a “history of mediation” as a material and concrete alternative to the more traditional but abstract “history of ideas.” Their presentation seemed both coy and provocative: coy, in that their argument seemed to build (albeit productively, imho) on both Marx and McLuhan without acknowledging either; provocative, in that they styled their talk as an exhortation to adopt their approach. The discussion that followed was feisty: some took issue with what seemed a faddish adoption of computing terminology; some grilled them on their sources and precedents; and some felt they were preaching to the converted, advocating a kind of historical materialism already old very old hat to a field transformed thirty years ago by New Historicism. (For my part, I was left curious enough to at least check out their work, like the Re-Enlightenment Project.)

The theme also prompted a lot of contributions on Romantic theatre and performance, leading me to compile a much better bibliography than that which I’d drawn on to draft the talk I was to give on Saturday (in the second of Danny O’Quinn’s two sessions on “media archaeology”). Fred Burwick’s session on Romantic drama included a paper by Melynda Nuss that I initially worried would moot my own, in her claim that “the technology itself was one of the main items on display” in Romantic theatre. But for Nuss this was premise not thesis for an engaging look at the period’s spectacular “aqua-dramas”: plays on nautical themes, with water scenes that drove the invention of some pretty heavy stage machinery. Subsequently, Friday’s keynote gave me the historical puzzle pieces I didn’t know I’d been looking for, as the Welsh science historian Iwan Rhys Morus gave a tour of the theatrical culture of science in Romantic Britain, and how it gave way to the more professional, less sensational practices of Victorian science. (Now I had more than a better bibliography for my work on the first Frankenstein plays–I had to tweak the paper itself, to give a nod to Morus’ work.)

Dr Morus tells us about the predecessors of Dr Moreau.

This keynote took place at SFU’s Woodward campus, nestled between regular downtown and Vancouver’s downtown east side. Strangely, this would not be the only time the conference found itself adjacent to a zombie parade. Moments before the final keynote on Saturday, I was out on the second-storey hotel terrace overlooking Denman Street, alone except for the keynote speaker, Dr Heather Jackson, composing herself before her talk with a crossword. Shouts from the street drew us to the railing, where a hundreds-strong march soon resolved into a mass zombie walk of the kind so popular now.

What do they want? Brainsss. (Photo credit: Louise)

They staggered down the street. They swarmed a parked bus.

Zombie walk participants swarm a bus. (Photo credit: Goh.)

What a perfect performance of re-mediated Gothic. And there I was, caught for once without my camera to re-remediate it. Of course, what with the ubiquity of cameras and the end of privacy and all, most of the zombies brought along their own cameras, documenting the day in sometimes too much detail.

Surely (as Byron told Banks of vivisection) this is too much. (Photo credit: Christine)

But perhaps I digress. Among the proceedings and festivities, some recurring points of reference that were not zombies also emerged, notably Friedrich Kittler’s history of discourse networks circa 1800 and 1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation: the “contradictory imperative” to resort to hyper-mediation as a means to simulate immediacy, as a perennial response to new and emergent media. For example: describing a printed text as an improvised performance (the topic of Angela Esterhammer’s fascinating seminar); or, for a more contemporary example, tweeting from a conference discussion in progress (i.e. “hyper-mediating” an immediate, “live” experience) to communicate some of the interest and urgency of the moment.

Ironically, however, the growing intensity of digital remediation and back-channel dialogue that have become a much-discussed trend in the digital Humanities–“conference hacking,” if you will–were not much in evidence at NASSR (held at a hotel with free wireless, no less). I could find only one other delegate, Katherine D. Harris, who was tweeting the proceedings. The listserv seemed dormant during the event, although it has circulated some well-deserved kudos to the organizers since (which I enthusiastically echo); similarly quiet during the event was the NASSR grad students’ blog, which now has some post-game commentary. I was alerted to a Facebook page for Romantics scholars, where some delegates have shared remarks and reviews. There may well have been more digital mediating of a conference whose theme so clearly invited it, and maybe I just wasn’t picking up the right channels.

And I could have been doing more, for my own part: I could have posted my suggested hash-tag on the listserv; I could have made time for more than tweeting, which admittedly has its limits for encapsulating conceptual complexity. (After all, it’s only now that I’ve found the time to share my own reflections on the event in detail.) I suppose I was just expecting more of the “remediating,” real-time back channel with which Twitter has become so good at supplying (supplementing?) other conferences like the MLA convention.

I’m not advocating more digital dialogue and mediation because it’s increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere, or just to appear tuned in and wired up (although there is a case to be made that publicly remediating debates over literary history and politics can help to change public perceptions about the stakes–or perceived lack thereof–in such fields). As shown by so many of the talks I attended in Vancouver; as shown by NASSR’s attention to media (from prior conference themes like techne and newness to systems like the listserv itself); and as shown by the wider field’s deep and diverse investments in new media (the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, RaVoN): the discourse networks and media ecologies around 1800 have continued to shape and resonate with our experiences of discourse networks and media ecologies around 2000. So playing more extensively with the interface of hyper-mediated and immediate modes of communication and representation–playing, that is, with remediation in the performance scene of the conference–can shed new light on the ideologies and implications of media (both new and dead), and can transform the shape and tone of the conference as such, which is by no means a new medium, but one that can be not only compromised, but also (and at the same time) enriched and extended by the myriad forms and deployments of remediation.