Forced Entertainment, durational performance and the web / by Sarah Wishart

Tonight, one of my favourite theatre companies will revisit one of their first durational shows 12 am and looking down and they will stream it live here. I wrote about that show in 2004, when my review on a number of performances I saw during a series of exhibitions, shows, performances and talks on Live Art at the Tate Modern in 2003, was published by the Theatre Journal.

Its interesting to me looking back, how cross I was with that event how much I loved Forced Entertainments 12am and looking down, and how the restrictions of the physical site hemmed in the experience for me. I need to be honest and say that from the get go, I was a bit pre-disposed to resist the Tate staging so many performances at once in an art space.  Galleries are good blank spaces but the culture of moving on to the next show in the room next door, without a backward glance, seemed to be inherent as a way of experiencing the gallery even with performance going on in it. Doors swung noisily, Sound bled from one room to the next.  Your ticket had a time on it, you were fairly unlikely ever to be given the opportunity to experience the full duration even if youd wanted to.  All this stuff was a bit problematic in relation to durational work. And I was cross about it. And it showed in the review.

I've loved watching Forced Entertainments long pieces, I think mostly about the ones I've experienced at the Southbank in one or another of those spaces.  I think about the process of the experience as a series of waves. Waves of giddy excitement, of enjoyment, of connection and engagement.  Waves of sinking into seats in the QEH, of boredom, of sleep, of being ultra-awake.  Then there are the periods of leaving the space, to go into a different space, of going out to stretch my legs, to talk to friends who were passing by after clubs, to go have a drink, to go have a smoke and then crucially, to go back in.

After a twelve hour performance, I still remember how I felt, walking home at dawn, through Londons deserted riverside streets. I was utterly sated, full to the brim with stories and ideas.

I'm looking forward to watching 12am and looking down tonight on a live stream at home, as I do some writing, fiddle on twitter with the relevant hashtags, carry my laptop into the kitchen as I cook, talk to friends on the phone maybe, have a drink and go back in.  What will this different site offer though? What will those different kinds of waves mean to the experience of the show? My attention rather than my body will be the thing that goes back in.

I work at the RSA as the media-manager, and part of that role is focussed on working closely with our film crew and video producer for our live streaming. We've found that our live audiences are small. When Ive talked to other organisations who run live talks like we do at the RSA, they agree with that finding. Live audiences are small audiences. At times tiny audiences. However, we then create a watch-again facility so audiences can watch our talks after the event, whenever they like. These audiences are big, sometimes huge.  Sometimes they are bigger than the audiences we have for our edited videos. Sometimes these figures stretch to the tens of thousands. Our unabridged talks are usually under an hour though, and the live experience is not crucial to their reception.  I am not used to big live streaming audiences and Im wondering what it'll feel like, not to be engaging with my producer on a video caster but sitting at home watching the show sent to me, for once, the audience.  Imagining the other audience members, not crashing through the space, but being visible, through a different kind of engagement through the internet, through for example Twitter.

On Twitter this week, Ive had discussions about the experience of watching durational theatre streamed live; weve discussed whether an audience will pay less attention as they do other things, that they will be on other browsers listening to the theatre, like a radio, not watching the theatre, that the theatre will be on in the background. Yet is this so different to sitting for seven hours in a seat, being so conscious of my own body that I am distracted away from the theatre?  Are my legs needing a stretch, do I want a glass of wine more than I want to listen to this story, do I want to talk to my friend, out there, over cake more than I want to listen to this voice, or is this particular story, this one right now, all that I want in my vision and my head? Will this keep me in my seat just a story longer?

Theatre is coming into my space tonight. This reminds me of listening to Philip Auslander, talking in New Zealand in 2008 at the ASDA conference about experiencing and not experiencing the live.  Auslander at that conference was talking around Walter Benjamins suggestion that "technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or phonograph record".*  Auslander returned specifically to the significance of the word halfway, "one word that commands my attention in this passage is “halfway.” What could Benjamin mean when he says that reproduction “enables the original to meet the beholder halfway”? In one sense, it would seem that the original has met the beholder much more than halfway in Benjamin’s scenario: the cathedral or the concert has left its locale to join the beholder in his".*

Tim Etchells this morning wrote about the folding down of time in thinking about the first performance of this show, and the one tonight. About the show acting as echo. About the gaps between the stories being the space that creates stories, I’d be drawn back by the strange never-ending energy of subjects who both implicitly resist the forces of closure and narrative, and, in resisting it, also generate more. I can’t wait to see the machine kicked back into life again, to see what it brings in its particular dance of the imaginable and the concrete, the creative, the improvised, the accidental.

I cant wait either.