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Performing Presence: Between the live and the simulated

Performing Presence: Between the Live and the Simulated

by Gabriella Giannachi and Nick Kaye
Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK, 2011
240 pp., illus. 82 b/w.  Trade, £55.0
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8004-3.

Reviewed by Elizabeth McCardell, PhD
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia


Presence: gift, being here-now, charged, fraught with tension, is a concept rich with layers of meaning – yet somehow always elusive, especially when embedded in simulated and live practices of multimedia theatre, video installation, mixed reality performance, and locative arts as questions about its nature are thrown into relief, like the shadows in Plato’s cave. Presence is not held static in a snapshot of present time being there, but is embodied relationally in actual active viewers, participants and performers; it is thrown between selves.  As such it is a difficult concept to contemplate unless we think in process terms as this book attempts to do. The authors, in unrelenting examination, successfully, I believe, unearths questions, murmurings, articulations and well described philosophies (especially in critique of Husserl) that are useful in bringing understanding to this phenomenon.

Part of a major research project led by Giannachi and Kaye and funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, this hardback book will be of particular interest to students, researchers, and practitioners of theatre and performance, contemporary art, media, the new media, and technology. It explores the edge of art, science, technology, and philosophy through case studies, specifically the work of Lynn Hershman Leeson, Paul Sermon, Gary Hill, and Tony Oursler, The Builders Association and Blast Theory, as well as through the analyses of related environments created for CAVE (an immersive virtual reality environment). Clearly describing each of these projects, the authors give the reader clear entré, through analysis and interviews with practitioners, to understanding some of the most exciting art and media projects being produced today.

Plato’s cave analogy is a very useful place to start to think about the questions explored in this book. He wrote of  Socrates’ description of prisoners who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. They watch shadows projected on to the wall by entities passing in front of a fire behind them and understand the images as reality. Philosophers, Socrates claimed, are like these prisoners freed from their cave. Now, instead of shadows, they can perceive reality. Is virtual reality (the shadows on the walls of a cave) really virtual, or does it augment real reality, whatever that is? Is there actual reality or is all experience endlessly mediated by simulacra (words, included), as Baudrillard claimed in the days before computer generated environments? Is reality a construct? Plato thought there were perfect forms, in places beyond shadows; we, of the modern era, have a different stance: We play with our thoughts as shadows on the wall, observing them dance in difference and fusion. It is certainly interesting stuff, especially when the human element of presence (or telepresence) is added.

Virtual reality, as the authors of this book note (p. 119), are ‘technologies or environments that provide realistic cues to some or all the senses, sufficient to engender in the participant a willing suspension of disbelief’. We are used to thinking of virtual reality as computer generated – and this book reinforces that. The authors note that virtual reality can be presented in three ways: immersive or inclusive, via goggles, gloves or data suits; a desktop virtual reality 3-D  technology observed through a window or screen; and ‘third person VR’ where you steer and view an image of yourself interacting in a virtual world. The image has a prosthetic quality and leads to a sense of having a double existence where the difference between presence and absence doesn’t matter any more.  Any technology, however, has this capacity to ‘provide realistic cues to some or all the senses, sufficient to engender in the participant a willing suspension of disbelief.’ The written word is a prime example.  We are trained to read shapes on a page or screen and make meaning through the lens of our social group, our history, and our personal experiences. Thus, while the virtual technologies and the art forms that describe and are generated from them have become very sophisticated, the basic entwining and understanding of that chiasm remains somewhat mysterious. What is presented here in this book, Performing presence: Between the Live and Simulated is a thought-provoking and provocative account and analysis, but the work, in my view, has just begun.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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