CityLIS Reflections and Research: Immersion: A New(ish) Way to Experience Art and the World

This post explores the potential links between immersive theatre and online interactivity.

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Immersive theatre has become a popular term in the UK over the past decade. It encompasses quite a broad range of performance practices, but at it’s most basic immersive theatre denotes performances that occur around the audience, who unlike in conventional theatre spaces experience the piece by moving inside a fictional world. But immersion does not just denote spatial characteristics. Participation is also a common trope, where artists aim to give audiences some agency over how they experience the story they are immersed inside of.

When I was an undergraduate student studying drama in the mid-2000s, what is now called immersive theatre was more commonly referred to as promenade theatre. Moving inside a performance was closely aligned to the concept of total theatre – a theatre that activates all of the senses and emotions to take the audience on a cathartic journey through a drama, thereby leaving them spiritually transformed. Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and It’s Double contains an early description of this theatre:

We intend to do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind and this will become the very scene of the action. Direct contact will be established between the audience and the show, between actors and audience, from the very fact that the audience is seated in the centre of the action and is encircled by it. This encirclement comes from the shape of the house itself. Abandoning the architecture of present-day theatres, we will rent some kind of barn or hangar rebuilt along lines of certain Tibetan temples (2001, p.74).

A good example of the kind of space Artaud describes was Area 10. This former steel mill in Peckham, South East London was used as an art space in the late 2000s. It had no seating or any defined performance space. In 2009, I performed in Living Structures’ devised show Biosphere. The show began with the audience sat in a circle watching performers fertilising a plant with their excrement. Then, to a burst of choral singing, a different group of performers  – which I was a part of –  emerged from a plume of smoke, wearing nothing but white underpants and reindeer masks. Once the audience were ushered from the space, a large hessian tent was erected, which they were then free to explore. The inside of the tent was designed like a maze, with a series of installations located at certain nodes. The audience were given reindeer masks and hessian robes to wear. The costume was an attempt to deepen their immersion in the drama by making them part of the aesthetic environment and so become embedded in the narrative unfolding around them.

Whilst Biosphere conforms to many of the conventions of immersive theatre in terms of environmental envelopment and physical proximity between actors and audience, it is more closely aligned with promenade theatre through it’s absence of audience participation. Save for the final third act when the audience explored the maze, much of the audience’s time was taken up with watching dramatic action unfold before and around them rather than taking part in it. This “taking part” can manifest on a number of levels, from direct and improvisational contact with characters, to making choices that determine how a performance unfolds for the individual and for the audience as a whole.

A common characteristic of much immersive theatre is the fragmentation of dramatic narrative, which enables spectators to create their own version of the story. Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (2014) is the most elaborate piece of immersive theatre I have seen to date, both in terms of it’s scale and sheer detail. The world of The Drowned Man was one that could have been plucked from David Lynch’s imagination. Part abandoned movie set, part Americana dreamscape, part Frankensteinian nightmare, this was a world that I could never fully grasp. Yet it was the very impossibility of experiencing the drama in it’s entirety that drove my movement through it. This impulse is noted as a key characteristic of immersion in theatre by Josephine Machon, who frames it in terms of exploration: “Rediscovery is central to the experience: of space, narrative, character, theme, and sometimes even of unknown depths, or hidden emotions and memories specific to that individual participant”​ (2013, p.28). The version of The Drowned Man I experienced was not the same as my partner’s nor, indeed, anyone else who saw it. True, we inevitably saw some of the same scenes, but the order in which we experienced them in relation to what we had seen previously informed our interpretation of the overall narrative. The relationships between the characters was experienced out of sync or, rather, experienced as pieces of a puzzle we could not hope to assemble as a cohesive whole in a few hours.

We can see, here, links between immersive theatre and the genre of open world games. Games like Skyrim (2011) and the Fallout series (1997-) allow players to explore highly elaborate worlds with far fewer limitations imposed on them than games that have a linear story structure. The lack of definite goal or quest in these games and The Drowned Man creates a far more tangible reality for the spectator or the player because they are not required to follow one path. Instead, they are given a choice of routes inside a virtual reality. Open worlds create many potential experiences for players compared with those that are available in linear game narratives. The ostensive freedom this structure affords audiences and players more closely aligns it with the experience of everyday life.

The links between theatre and gaming can be developed further to address how immersive worlds are built as a collaborative partnership between actors and audiences. ZU-UK’s executive director Jorge Ramos discusses participation in the context of the “experience economy” where audiences, or “players”, act as co-authors of art live art works (2015, p.8). This was evident in ZU-UK’s six hour, overnight epic Hotel Medea (2009-2012). During this re-telling of the Medea myth, players frequently interacted with characters improvisationally. Ramos uses the term “micro-events” to describe these interactions to proffer an approach to immersive theatre that he expresses as “the dramaturgy of participation” (ibid, p.3). The degree of participation increased over the course of the performance in a way that allowed the audience to gradually become part of the story rather than as invertentionist elements.

These micro-events can be understood as private or secret dramas known only to those who experience them.  Participation in the context of immersion includes the building of imaginary worlds through interactivity. In this way, immersive performance  “aims to provide, in everyday activities at the moment of the encounter, modest but pervasive communication, provisional social consensus and micro-utopias”​ (Harvie, 2013, p.7). Describing it in these terms might appear to exaggerate the impact immersive performance can potentially have on the real world until we remember that utopias are non-places of the imagination. The physical immersion in these fictional worlds allows audiences to temporarily inhabit societies that we may celebrate or fear.

The popularity of immersive theatre is partly a product of our contemporary media ecology, which places interaction at it’s centre. Technologically mediated communication has become a significant part of everyday experience. Social media enables these interactions to stretch over time, distance, place and device, thus making the locus of communicative exchanges highly diffuse. Patrick Longeran argues that Facebook, Twitter and the like act as stages where we perform identities to a “network of followers”. When analysed in the context of theatre, online communication produces a distributed mode of performance which “can extend a production both temporally and spatially, pushing [performances] beyond the boundaries of the stage, and beyond the performance of the action in real time” (2015, pp.2-4). Moreover, interaction is not just a feature of the event, but constitutes the event itself:“What makes social media distinctive from other forms of digital performance is the extent to which interactivity is not just a context for reception, but a core element of the overall composition” (ibid, p.21).

Blast Theory’s 2097: We Made Ourselves Over (2017) pushes the envelope of immersive theatre by spreading the immersive world in live and recorded iterations. 2097 presents a dystopian vision of Hull and the Danish city Aarhus following an ecological catastrophe. On 1st October 2017, every public telephone rang in Hull at 2pm. The audience listened to a voice from the future, Hessa, who invited them to record a message to send to her community about what they think is the most important thing to preserve from the present. The piece also consists of five short sci-fi films and one interactive film for smartphones. All of these different iterations act as portals into a fictional world that is embedded in reality through technology, and is therefore not confined to the spatial-temporal zone of live theatre.2097 is neither live or non-live (if we consider ‘live’ to denote physical proximity and ephemerality). It inhabits a temporal plane inbetween or outside of this binary.

Charlie Gere argues that technology has become so embedded into reality that the term digital culture “risks becoming a tautology” (2008, p.7). Whilst the importance of maintaining body-to-body contact in theatre continues to be debated, it is undeniable that performance-makers are embracing the affordances of online communication to find new ways of engaging with audiences. Matt Adams argues that the “most significant characteristic of the ‘digital revolution’ is an explosive new amount of interaction and participation from what has gone before”​ (Adams in Blake, 2014, p.ix). The link he makes between interaction and participation is important to understand when discussing the kinds of activity immersive experiences engender in audiences. Immersion in theatre is an expanding term that is now encompassing communication networks. No single event exists in this form of immersion because it is composed of individual experiences that occur over time and distance.

The immersive spaces of the performance are created by the participation of the audience. This idea resonates with Floridi’s notion of “onlife” – the merging of the digital and offline worlds to create the “infosphere” (2014). The immersive qualities of technology are beginning to be utilised by theatre and performance artists as a way of enriching how audiences can participate in their aesthetic experiences. Immersion in art could constitute a revolution in how theatre is not just experienced but also produced in collaboration with audiences. Moreover, it might allow us the opportunity to rehearse how we can live in a hyper-connected environment without becoming subsumed into a digital fugue of voices and images by providing temporary spaces for genuine intimacy and dialogue.

Adams, M. (2014) Foreword. In: B. Blake, Theatre & the Digital. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.viii-xi

Artaud, A. (2001) The Theatre and Its Double. London: Calder

Floridi, L. (2014) The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gere, C. (2008) Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London: Reaktion

Harvie, J. (2013) Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Longeran, P. (2015) Theatre & Social Media. London: Palgrave

Machon. J. (2013) Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan

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#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Falsifying Data: Then and Now

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

In this post, Mariola Marsh looks at the extensive censoring of historical documents that took place in the Soviet Union.

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A few weeks from now the world will mark the centenary of the October Revolution. In 1997 the print-designer and artist David King published a book entitled The Commissar Vanishes, which tells the story of the Soviet practice of falsifying the historical record, particularly by changing photographs. King gives us, for example, a 1919 photograph, showing a large group of Bolsheviks with Lenin seated in the centre (pp. 52-53 in the Russian edition). After the expert attentions of a professional falsifier the original is reduced, firstly, to a threesome consisting of Stalin, Lenin and President Kalinin; then to a two-shot of Stalin and his teacher Lenin; and lastly to a solo portrait of the General Secretary alone.

The typical purpose of such activity is to remove from the historical record those no longer favoured by the regime – to erase their memory. In the 1920s and 1930s photographic editing techniques were less advanced than now; therefore the effect can at times be unintentionally comic. An instance can be found on pp. 122-123. To a picture of thirteen Soviet leaders on the roof of the Lenin Mausoleum have been added the heads of several more, as if it were a collage; unfortunately the additional heads are disproportionately large. By the way, other heads, and also one hand, have been removed by the photographer, whose surname (Yavno) happens to be Russian for “blatant”.

Looking through King’s book, one does not know whom to admire more: the author, who spent three decades painstakingly gathering documents – photographs, posters, paintings – from archives in many countries; or the usually anonymous exponents of the falsifier’s art, who worked as best they could with the techniques then available to create their master’s vision of reality. In the end, however, all their efforts were in vain, because those were the “good old days” of analogue information, when it was easy to discover who controlled and manipulated information. Under a dictatorship, there were few sources of information, and one could hope that regime change would lead to, at the least, an improvement in the veracity of public information. The Thaw which followed Stalin’s death did indeed lead very quickly to a less unbalanced view of the Soviet past.

In our day, however, the tools of falsification have been handed to anyone with a computer and without scruples. According to the BBC News website, during the 2016 American presidential election campaign young people in the Macedonian town of Veles issued on-line stories designed to appeal to Trump supporters in the USA. The stories were plagiarised from existing right-wing websites. When picked up by American voters, they brought generous advertising revenue for the perpetrators. Ethics? To Macedonian schoolchildren, the USA is a faraway country of which they know little. Some of them hope to build a career in fake news.

But history offers a warning. In 1919 a White officer in the Russian Civil War “found” a number of planks on which was carved a “book” of pseudo-history glorifying the Slavs.

This important document disappeared during the Second World War. An obvious fake, it is extremely popular on the internet among Russian Nationalists. From its first words, it is known as The Book of Veles (for references see below, Works Cited). So modern media have revived a forgery of crude Stalinist type. There’s no one so gullible as those who want to be fooled.

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#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Who’s Afraid of Data? Dystopic Archives and Libraries

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by current CityLIS student, Anna Gialdini. Anna explores science fiction imaginaries of libraries and archives. She considers the dangers of removing the human from information management systems.

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Over time, we have come to perceive access to information as a staple of human existence in society, or at least as fundamental to the democratic process. Once the privilege of the elites, access to knowledge and information are at unprecedented rates thanks to achievements such as the highest literacy rates in history (86.2%) and improved access to elementary education.
Of course, there are many information-related battles to fight, in areas from freedom of press to access to and affordability of education in all stages of life, but the trend is certainly an upward one.

Skepticism and Information

Many, however, are not as optimistic: dissatisfaction and lack of trust in sources of information are also on the rise. In the current ‘fake news’ debate, this is a hot topic: people seem to have less and less faith in official sources of information (governments, experts, and main information outlets); almost nobody trusts the internet, generally speaking, despite the diversity in the quality of the information that can be found there.

Some of this skepticism is born from a healthy place: a shift in society from acceptance that information and knowledge are a privilege for the few, who then re-distribute bits of it, conveniently, to the lower classes, to a right for everybody; this is very much a political and sociological issue. Some of it is the consequence of cognitive overload (Kirsch 2000) or information anxiety (Kennedy 2001). Another consequence of this mistrust is, however, an increase in the use of ‘alternative’ media outlets, many of them with the sole aim of monetising though clickbaiting, and a rise in phenomena such as anti-vaxx and cancer treatment scams. This is particularly true for individuals with low information literacy, who are less able to judge the quality of their sources. Rejecting ‘traditional’ sources of information, many turn to sources of information that feel less distant, more accessible, and more empathetic (Nichols 2017).

Fictional Libraries and Archives

This is no news in information theory – we already know how in today’s world, information can be associated with feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed (Bawden – Robinson 2008). Something that I find intriguing, however, is the ‘dystopic’ representation of archives and more in general, data are portrayed in fiction, especially in sci-fi movies and games.

In these media, repositories of data such as archives and libraries are often represented as imposing, dark, and impersonal. They are understood to contain huge amounts of knowledge (or all the knowledge: think of Neil Gaiman’s Dream Library, which contains every book that was ever written and every book that was not).

They are also inaccessible to anyone unless through the guidance of their guardians, such as the Chief Librarian in Star Wars’ Jedi Temple Library: a step away from the vision of information professionals ever since Cutter’s day, which puts the user at the centre of information systems. (And yes, I do understand Star Wars takes place “a long, long time ago” – but the dissonance between past and future is a constant theme of the franchise).

Forbidden Data

Ever darker are societies where individuals are deprived of information and books are banned, such as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where people memorise books, or Pyre, a game set in a fantastic world where reading is prohibited, and the main character, who is a literate exile, is known as the Reader. In Matrix, access to surviving pockets of historical information is regulated by the ‘ruthless’ Archivists, and restricted to those who purchase a ‘key’ (in the form of a book).
In other worlds, data wrangling takes a more real connotation: in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University Library from Discworld, books are chained, just like in some medieval libraries, although this is to protect readers from books rather than the other way around. Once again, the figure of the Librarian has a sacred connotation: fantasy fiction often plays around with the idea of ‘forbidden’ or ‘dangerous’ knowledge that has to be mediated by individuals with a higher understanding of it. (Incidentally, this also makes information professionals look really cool).

There are fewer examples of archives and libraries were information retrieval is done without human intervention: one I can think of is the library around which the battle in Star Wars: Rogue One takes place (the Scarif Vault)

(And yet this is not too far away from the truth: many large libraries nowadays operate through “robots“. In the British Library Boston Spa building, it’s robots that retrieve old newspapers, too delicate and brittle to be handled by human librarians – they are ephemera after all, not made to be preserved.)

It is also interesting to note how at the same time, once accessed, data seem to be very clean (partly for narrative purposes), as we rarely if ever see someone struggling with the form of the data, only with their location: only access and data retrieval are considered a challenge.

Information Without Us

The TV series Futurama, on the other hand, offers an image of Mars University Library as consisting entirely of two discs: fiction, and non-fiction, with reference to themes that were popular in the early 2000s such as the death of the book.

If libraries without (physical) books are an idea that, all considered, we are not too scared by, libraries with no human beings fully belong to the supernatural. In one episode of Doctor Who (“Silence in the Library”, s4e8), the Doctor and his companion Donna Noble find themselves in the 51st century, in a fully stocked library that is completely devoid of users or librarians, but inhabited by terrifying creatures, including “data ghosts”, i.e. the degraded data pattern of a dead person – an additional reference to the threatening, scary nature of information when out of human control. Another archive with no user appears in a Batman story (Morrison 2010; Jurgens 2010-2011), Batman takes up the role of the robotic Archivist, the custodian of Vanishing Point, an archive created “at the end of time” to preserve all knowledge: and yet, such knowledge is not preserved for the human race, as the archive is located within a black hole, whence it supposedly cannot be removed, as nothing can leave a black hole. (Extra coolness point for information professionals).

The data of the future is dark and out of reach, effectively mirroring the current anxiety towards the perceived unwieldiness of information and our inability to harness it: and indeed the process of mistrust and rejection of information as such, and especially from authority sources, has already started. The information profession has not lost its responsibility as facilitator of access to information: in fact, at a time when the future seems dark, its role is more important than ever.

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Bibliography (accessed 18 November 2017):

David Bawden and Lyn Robinson, ‘The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies,’ Journal of Information Science 35.2 (2008), 180-191

Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

Nicola Davis, ‘Not fade away… how robots are preserving our old newspapers’, The Guardian, 5 July 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/05/british-library-digitising-newspapers-boston-spa

Kate Freeman, ‘98% of Americans Distrust the Internet’, Mashable, 19 July 2012 http://mashable.com/2012/07/19/americans-distrust-the-internet

Rob Johnson, ‘Information Management in the movies’, The National Archives Blog, 7 March 2012 http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/information-management-in-the-movies/

Dan Jurgens, Time Master: Vanishing Points, 2010-2011

Shirley Duglin Kennedy, ‘Finding a cure for information anxiety’, Information Today. Medford 18.5 (2001), 40-41.

David Kirsch, ‘A few thoughts on cognitive overload’, Intellectica 30 (2000), 19–51

Gabriel McKee, ‘Ancient Archives, Modern Libraries, and Star Wars: Rogue One‘, NYU ISAW Blog, 21 December 2016 http://isaw.nyu.edu/library/blog/star-wars-library

Grant Morrison, Batman: The return of Bruce Wayne, 2010

Kyle Neill, ‘An Archivist’s Night at the Movies – Revealing The Power Of Archival Records’, Archives @ PAMA, 30 August 2016 https://peelarchivesblog.com/2016/08/30/an-archivists-night-at-the-movies-revealing-the-power-of-archival-records/

Tom Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017

Ben Rawson-Jones. ‘S04E08: ‘Silence in the Library”. Digital Spy, 31 May 2008 http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/doctor-who/review/a97170/s04e08-silence-in-the-library/

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks to all who suggested examples of dystopic libraries and archives and especially to Pietro and Matteo, who are bigger nerds than I can ever aspire to be.

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