Reflections on the Cities, Embodiments and Technologies Conference

A brief account of my attendance at the University of Malta’s annual performing arts conference in March 2018.

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The University of Malta’s fifth annual School of Performing Arts Conference was held on 7th-9th March. The title of this year’s conference was Cities, Embodiments and Technologies. The conference sought to generate debate on the how the relationship between performance (in its broadest sense) and culture can be articulated. Cities, Embodiments and Technologies were treated as frames through which speakers were invited to reflect and debate on how identities can manifest in the context of globalisation, and what impact our interconnected world has on the ways we understand history to intersect with the politics of the present.

I was part of the Performance Documentation and Intertextuality panel and presented a paper on the DocPerform Project. My goal was to explain the origins of the project and its goal to address the language barrier that exists between information professionals and performance scholar practitioners. I couched my paper in the context of digital culture, with its attendant themes of participation, technological connectivity, and open-ended art works. I also discussed the opportunities for knowledge innovation and models of practice research my role as artist in residence at CityLIS presents.

The other speakers on my panel were Marc Kosciejew and Marta Botana. Marc argued that performance and documentation enjoyed a symbiotic relationship whereby documentation can constitute a performance, a process creates a continuum of reality. Marta discussed her dance practice in the context of training one to feel connected to a site by treating the body as an intertextual phenomenon.

I couldn’t hope to try and precis all of the papers I heard, but I’d like to focus on a few key ideas and moments that really stood out for me.

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Professor Maria Delgado opened the conference with her keynote paper ‘Performing Barcelona: Cultural Tourism, Geography and Identity’. Arguing that the iconography of Barcelona is bound up with theatricality, Professor Delgado cited the 1992 Olympic Games as an event that allowed the city to perform its identity on a world stage. The 1990s saw an unprecedented vogue for street art, a phenomena that was redolent of Barcelona’s strong traditional of performing outside of established arts venues in illegitimate spaces. This gives the city a porous identity. Tourists become readers when they visit Barcelona by inserting themselves in the topographical performance. Barcelona, in a sense, is a hypertext city that remains perpetually open to new formations.

The mutability of contested space was a theme picked up by Sophie Van der Bergh who addressed the tension between locationality and non-place in relation to the Iranian-Belgian artist Sachli Gholamalizad’s piece (Not) My Paradise. The performance concerns her grandparent’s migration rom Iran and the inability of any ethnic diaspora to completely leave behind the connection they feel with their home soil. Home becomes a fluid concept, one not necessarily rooted to a location but more akin to the preservation of memory and stories.

Babel Re-Play is a large scale practice research project based in cities across South Africa and Switzerland. The tower of the mythical Babel acts as a metaphor for the investigators to explore how the nomad, the figure who is forever wandering without a home, disrupts to hegemony of the cityscape by resisting becoming part of its textuality, which is to say it’s formal construction. In this sense, the nomad stands opposed to modernity by retaining their links with ancient myth. Using WhatsApp, Georges Pfruender, Cynthia Kros and David Peimar exchange images and films of the built environment in order to bring “the periphery to the centre”. The project uses WhatsApp as a cyberspuare, a digital environment that fulfils the function of a town square by allowing multiple actors to convene and share stories and experiences. The algorithm controls how much nomadic thinking can occur.

The final keynote was given by Professor Ann Cooper Albright who shared her research into the epistemologies of falling and its links with images and memories of 9/11. During her presentation, Ann showed us images of those who fell from the Twin Towers and reflected on the ways these pictures had come to symbolise a moment of global disorientation. The memorials erected in the days after the attacks can be read as an attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible atrocity the world witnessed that day.

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I selected these moments because they have some resonance with the concerns and interests of those who work in the LIS field.

The gentrification Barcelona has undergone, for instance, has a powerful effect on how visitors and residents read the city. Delineating between legitimate and illegitimate forms of art runs the risk of making those artists who don’t fall within the former category invisible to the wider public. Documenting their practice becomes a necessity if they are to carve out spaces for themselves from where their art work can be encountered and experienced as part of Barcelona’s heterodox identity.

Proffering the city as text has wider implications for the ways non-text documents can be made to construct national identities for a public who may want to resist the conformity of the topography they traverse in their everyday lives. The figure of the nomad carries their home inside of them. Drifting through cyberspace makes nomads of all of us; we all create temporary homes and identities that possess a presence not contingent on the presence of the body to effectuate change in the environment we inhabit. The digital nomad can disrupt the homogeneity of cyberspace by giving the outside world a temporary home in the highly ordered and regulated environment. The outside brings new readings and knowledge to bear on how the web constitutes a home and a site where futures of our global future can be imagined and brought into being.

The commentary that an event with such a global scale as 9/11 possesses can sometimes obfuscate the experience of the individuals who experience such events first hand. The unofficial memorials that follow episodes of trauma and grief give a voice to the personal, which when erected in public spaces act as an attempt to keep living memory in a dialogue with official narratives and pronouncements. As documents, they function as the first attempt to formalise memories of the dead using public spaces as a site of collective contemplation.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science. He teaches at several universities including City, Rose Bruford College, and UEL. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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