Performance is deeply embedded in human life, whether we look at the performing arts, everyday social interactions, religious ritual, or any of the other myriad forms it takes on. Performance is so intrinsic to human existence it has been suggested that it may be a defining characteristic that distinguishes us from other species, that human beings might be described as homo performans. We certainly can—and do—ask whether non-human animals or machines can perform. Even if we answer such questions in the affirmative, as I am inclined to, we realize that when animals or machines perform, they do so at the behest of human beings—there is always a trainer or a programmer somewhere in the mix—and for a human audience. Horse shows do not attract audiences of horses anymore than robots have thus far expressed an interest in seeing other robots play Hamlet. When we ask whether or not non-human entities can perform what we are really asking is whether animals or machines have the capacity to perform in the same ways and for the same reasons we do. The idea of performance is a human invention, and we are the ones who care enough about it to wonder just what it is, who can be said to do it, and under what circumstances, questions that are at the heart of Performance Studies.
Repetition is fundamental to performance: a performer who can do something only once is of little value.
Because performance is so deeply imbricated with human existence and consciousness, it is impossible to extricate the study of performance from humanistic inquiry. Looking at our technological world through the lens of Performance Studies is thus a deeply humanistic endeavor, whether we study the performance of identity via social media, the nature of performance in Massively Multiplayer Online Games, the potential of robots as performers, or any of the other phenomena our technologized environment offers up to the curious. For me, looking at technology from a perspective informed by Performance Studies initiated a hermeneutic circle, for I found myself interrogating the concept of performance I started with by testing its application to technological artifacts and phenomena. For example, considering whether robots could be considered performers led me to think about the function of repetition in performance generally. Repetition is fundamental to performance: a performer who can do something only once is of little value. In my work as a film actor, I am called upon to repeat the same actions and lines many times in succession, usually identically. As humanists, we may prefer to emphasize the art in performance, its interpretive and expressive dimensions. But the fact remains that a great deal of what we ask performers to do involves repetition that borders on the mechanical. Since robots are much better at repeating themselves exactly than we are, they arguably are the better performers, at least in this limited sense.
Since robots are much better at repeating themselves exactly than we are, they arguably are the better performers, at least in this limited sense.
Performance Studies as a field traditionally has taken live performances and other kinds of face-to-face encounters as its default models for what performance is and has shown itself institutionally to be somewhat resistant to thinking about kinds of performance that do not take such forms. Even if we restrict our discussion to the performing arts, however, we quickly realize that audiences consume performances primarily in forms other than face-to-face events: we watch videos or listen to mp3s far more than we go to the theater or even concerts. What I have chosen to call our mediatized culture, in which cultural expression and consumption take place largely through media technologies, is the primary context in which performance takes place today, a context that influences not only the way performance is accessed and perceived by audiences but also the very nature of performing itself. There is a long and ongoing history of kinds of performing that would not have been possible save for the development of specific technologies. Without the microphone, the style of singing known as crooning that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s and became a staple of early radio would not have been possible. CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has made it possible for actors to embody entities physically very different from themselves with great illusionistic detail. It has also seen the emergence of a new type of performer, the motion-capture specialist who understands how to perform for this technology the way earlier actors had to learn to perform for the microphone, the camera, television, and so on. I am interested in the ways performance engages with and is caught up in our mediatized cultural environment. I look at performers’ uses of technology and how media technologies provide contexts within which performances happen.