Media and Performance
University of California, Los Angeles
Overload || Babel
“Overload || Babel” investigates what virtual sensory overload might look, sound, and feel like. A collaboration among mixed media artists (Peter Kalish, Chris Gibson, and Kayla Tange), a performance scholar (Linzi Juliano), and a game programmer (Chad Wyszynski), the video seeks to layer multiple dimensions: bodies, language, and visual and aural stimulation, as well as overt and subliminal sexual perception. The video begins with an anonymous nude female body lit against the dark background by projected language. The commands projected onto her skin reflect processes from performance and media theorists. The video moves from passive to active as her movement suggests agency within the command structure. Is she a subject, an object, both, or neither? The splicing of random stimuli suggests a larger framework at play, one that doesn’t belong to a theme beyond digital distraction. Her nude body, her sexuality, and the language branding her skin fight for attention amid the distraction; inversely, the chaotic hyper-visuality becomes its own character. Tange eventually takes the camera and confronts the viewer, shifting her focus to the otherwise “transparent” hardware of the camera. As soon as her gaze locks, the screen cuts to an iconic image: the “blue screen of death,” reporting a “fatal” hardware error.
This course will explore the topics raised in “Overload || Babel,” including spatiality, sexuality, gender, language, and surveillance. As both media and performance studies are transdisciplinary inquiries, discourse overlaps. Digitizing archives, replicating and predicting affect, and preserving native and indigenous languages and cultures are all important instances of congruency. Here, we will investigate how other artists and scholars have successfully paired media and performance studies. Of prime importance is an inquiry into the role of users or consumers of media. What responsibility do they have in shaping the material and virtual landscape? How might they do so?
As it becomes plain that digital media will not only be a means to socialize, but also the key to relevance, performance scholars must learn to navigate digital cultures for practical and academic reasons. This module emphasizes two overlapping agendas: first, to translate performance theory to media studies; second, to acknowledge how media are integral to contemporary performance. The first agenda rests on the premise that digital interfaces serve as edifices within which users interact, micro-transact, and build archives through their movement. Using the analogy of space, we can understand how such media represent and quantify user behavior and affiliation.
Our first unit will cover different theories of spatialization. As virtual architecture is becoming further entwined with “real space,” it would be useful to use a lens of analysis that sees multiple layers of space, rather than a single, hegemonic, plane. Michel Foucault was among the first to point out the possibility of multiple layers of space, notably ones that demarcate a sense of social otherness. Similarly, scholars like Sandy Stone have also argued that in virtual environments subjectivity is split between realms. Grappling with the concept of a habitable virtual reality, scholars have argued, users are split into two: one occupying the digital realm, the other in the material world. Artists such as Blast Theory have extensively worked through this idea. Others have praised the capacity for the differently-abled to live vicariously through avatars. The stubborn insist on a single body, occupying a single, material, space. Is subjectivity split, or is space somehow mutable, vulnerable to digitality?
Technologies that influence behavior, relationships, and emotional health have induced tectonic shifts with how people meet each other, socialize, and date. Here, one shared object of analysis between media and performance studies becomes clear: the act of doing. Software does not run without felicitous language, an Austinian concept, while Butler has argued that bodies reiteratively process social forms like gender. Some performance scholars point out that our bodies are a kind of hardware, capable of modification or physical alteration to more appropriately reflect the self. Micha Cardenás, in her book Becoming Transreal, frees bodies to act and engage, rather than be objectified by more agential algorithms.
Meanwhile, hardware carries material significance. Robots programmed to care, life-extending ventilators in a hospital, or cyborgian modifications blur the boundaries of “life” and “performance.” The boundaries between life and hardware are mutually transgressed. The blue screen of death (BSOD) at the end of “Overload ||Babel” nods towards a history of failure and, in this sense, alludes to what happens to our media when they “die.” Here, we are reminded of the materiality of hardware: the copies of the failed game, E.T., buried in the New Mexico desert; the planned obsolescence of our devices as they slow; or the e-carcasses shipped to sites in Ghana or China where they accumulate and create localized health risks. In this respect, environmental justice will need to be a transnational undertaking. On a bodily level, Tiffany Trenda’s performances, particularly “Body Code,” offer connections among digitality, mortality, and embodiment.
While the hardware provides physical structure, the languages build relationships between movement and meaning. Grammar monitors, permits, and encourages this, as the program latently mines the users’ browsing, email, and location. The majority of code refers to commands, categorization, and definition — all technical Austinian speech acts. When they function, the code — and the users — are felicitous. Critical code studies and other groups of scholars working with code poetry, for example, consider the linguistic elements of code and how they influence culture. The Torist, an electronic journal accessible only through Tor (incidentally, the gateway to the unregulated “Dark Net”), features such poetry, as well as literature and scholarship on surveillance, networked media, and figures such as Edward Snowden. The Torist suggests restrictive use of architecture (e.g. firewalls and censorship) affects creative, critical output in relation to digital media. Meanwhile, performances such as Jos McKain’s “Grindr Ballet: More Pics Bro” express the anxiety, lust, and disappointment attached to using smartphones as cruising tools.
The objective of this course is to introduce diverse ways of understanding how media and performance overlap materially and semiotically. This course aims to provide scholars from both media and performance studies common ground and new scholars with a strong foundation to participate in future discourse.
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Cárdenas, Micha. “The Transreal: Our Networked Bodies.” TEDxDelMar, 2012. https://youtu.be/3dRZGIsRhQY. Accessed on 13 December 2017.
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Ruberg, Bonnie, and Adrienne Shaw. Queer Game Studies. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Stone, Sandy. “Split Subjects, Not Atoms; Or, How I Fell In Love With My Prosthesis.” The Cyborg Handbook. Edited by Chris Hables Gray. Routledge, 1995, pp. 393-407.
Turkle, Sherry. “Connected, but Alone?” TED Talk. TED.com, 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together. Accessed 13 December 2017.