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Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation

by Steve Dixon
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
808 pp. illus. 235 b/w. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 0-262-04235-2.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Digital Technology and Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


It’s hard to imagine a bolder or more in-depth book on digital performance than Steve Dixon’s Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation.

Exhaustive without being exhausting, Digital Performance includes 800 pages that outline histories as well as theories surrounding digital performance, with large sections of the book paying detailed attention to such topics as the "body," "space," "time," and "interactivity." Along with providing a history of digital performance, Dixon addresses assumptions and critiques views taken by some at face value. Little escapes Dixon’s lens, for it is a book with roots in a long-running research project undertaken, from 1999-2001, by Dixon and Barry Smith that "document[ed] developments in the creative use of computer technologies in performance." Called The Digital Performance Archive (DPA), the webbed-based archive included "live theater and dance productions that incorporate[d] digital media to cyberspace interactive dramas and webcasts. . . [and] collate[d] examples of the use of computers technologies to document, discuss, or analyze performance, including specialist websites, e-zines, and academic CD-ROMs" (ix).

The book begins with a revised perspective of the postmodern take on art, challenging Lev Manovich’s stance on new media art, which Dixon says "fetishizes the technology without regard for artistic vision and content" (5) and views that ignore the importance of Italian Futurism’s (and those movements connected to it) influence on digital performance (47). Section one of the book traces this influence as well as the development of digital performance in three periods, looking first at the avant-garde in the early 20th C, then to multimedia theater from 1911-1959, and finally to technology infused performance work from 1960 onwards.

Section two concerns itself with the "Theories and Contexts" surrounding digital performance, starting with the "liveness problem" (115), then "Postmodernism and Posthumanism," "The Digital Revolution," and "Digital Dancing and Software Developments." Here Dixon critiques postmodern theories that he says "can . . . operate doctrinally to impose specific and sometimes inappropriate ideas onto cultural and artistic works" (135)––and takes on the theorists who propose them. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s "remediation," Dixon says, though not a new idea (re: it is itself repurposed from the "disposal and recycling industries") does shed light on "inherent dialectical tensions at play within computer representations and simulations" (136). George Landow, Dixon tells us, possesses "evangelical zeal typical of the writers at the time" (137). Dixon points to Diane Gromala’s utilization of Lyotard’s language game to talk about new technologies and, then, Deleuze and Guttari’s theories to explain her views of virtual reality and, next, to Gregory Ulmer’s focus on Derrida, Lacan, and Wittgenstein for theories of hypertextuality. A whole section is devoted to Jean Baudrillard, whose nihilistic and cynical view of technology, while "seductive and compelling," is "over the top" and in the end offers a view that is for the most part one-sided and incomplete (140-143). There is a section, also, on Derrida, whose theory of deconstruction (particularly, that the "world [is] constant flux") does not really fit "the liveness of theater," which "conspires to fix time and space" (author’s emphasis, 145).

It would be easy to react to Dixon’s critique of theory as simply as one of a Monday morning quarterback able to make better claims in hindsight than those living in the moment of action, so easy he picks apart past ideas, showing them to be hyperbolic or faulty. When he writes, for example, that "an inescapable fact about the progression of software is that after the initial miracle of new computer ‘life,’ a certain sameness and staleness creeps in through the repetition that replaced the initial awe and wonderment" (208), we have to ask, isn’t this problem true for all new things? Is it just a problem with software? I say this because I remember having to explain to a roomful of college students why Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Blue, Yellow, and Black is, paraphrasing their comments, "a big deal, considering that the painting was just lines and squares that anyone can do with PhotoShop." The fact does remain that postmodernism does (or did, depending on one’s perspective) offer an alternative to ancient Greek philosophy and worldviews that have dominated the Western world for over two thousand years and don’t necessarily work for a contemporary world that is vastly larger and more technologically advanced than that of 5th century Athens. At some point we do get excited about something new and must be able to map new views onto our new world. But the question Dixon forces us to remember is, when and which ones?

But this questioning of Dixon’s perspective on postmodernism does not mean that his insights are off base. Far from the truth: They are right on target for those performers and performance scholars who have long wondered about the wisdom of placing so much importance on theories not born out of performance practice to arrive a performance theory. Dixon’s views will perceived as sensible and be felt as breaths of fresh air.

The next sections, as stated previously, look at the body, space, time, and interactivity. There is a lot to like in the next 600 pages, starting with Dixon’s position that "bodies are not animated cadavers . . . . Bodies embody consciousness" (212), to the dream quality of performance (337), to the notion of "media time" (517), to his definition of and categories for interactivity (563), to cite just a few of the hundreds of pages of ideas and insights he offers.

Readers looking to consult the DPA database introduced at the front of the book will be disappointed that it is not currently available. Some may wonder why Dixon did not cite Mike Phillips’ wry work concerning Shakespeare’s works and monkeys but simply alluded to it (166) or question his spelling of Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer’s work, the "nibble-engine-project" (611) when they themselves write of it as "nybble-engine." Women who have been working with computers for decades may take umbrage at his Dixon’s own assumption that the internet was populated by cowboys, forgetting about us cowgirls (160) or grrls, as many of us called ourselves.

Despite these issues, Dixon’s book possesses both depth and breath that performance theorists and practitioners will find not only useful but also necessary for research and teaching. As such Dixon’s book is not a history of digital performances but rather a book about the whole concept of digital performance.



Updated 1st August 2007

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