The Involved Audience or: The People Formerly Known as the AudienceA guest contribution by Katja Grawinkel-Claassen, FFT Düsseldorf
22.06.2021What comes after the pandemic? - What was before?
There is no audience any more! The theatres were shocked to discover this in the spring of 2020. And they have had to deal with this fact since the beginning of the Corona pandemic. Coming together in large halls or small studios, discussing in foyers, the shared attention of a group for each other and for a performance - all this has not been possible for so long. The theatre quickly found formats to enable encounters in purely digital ways: Live streams with chat function, video chat productions, messenger games, virtual stage spaces and apps that make stage and performance digitally mobile. Neither these possibilities of media liveness nor the digital remote communities in which we keep ourselves socially afloat make up for the loss of public coming together. It goes far beyond theatre and the events industry. It becomes a historical task to re-practice being together in public. That's why I don't want to talk about genuinely pandemic, digital theatre forms here. I want to think about a changed togetherness as a basic condition of contemporary performing arts.
A digital audience will exist after the pandemic because it existed before the pandemic. It may be that the isolation of the pandemic has made it even more difficult to ignore this audience. The fact is that many theatre-makers have had it firmly in their sights for a long time, also because they themselves belong to it. This audience can and should serve as a starting point for a future understanding of theatre (just as it is a good idea to think of theatre from the audience anyway). Theatres do not necessarily have to found digital stages. Rather, the places where theatre is made and experienced must be living places within a digitalised world. When we talk about the activity of the audience in these places in the following, we are talking about changed narratives, shared spaces and dramaturgies of shared responsibility. It is about nothing less than new ways of coming together."Internet state of mind"
In 2019, eight out of ten people aged 14 and over in Germany used a smartphone. This means that digitalisation enters the theatre quite automatically. An "internet state of mind" (Carson Chan) is increasingly shaping the perception of the people who meet here. The term digital natives, coined by John Perry Barlow in 1996, sums up this way of being in the world. Piotr Czerski described it in 2012 as follows: "The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it... We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it." Of course, there are still moments when we consciously go online, but numerous everyday activities from listening to music to navigating through traffic are already based on being online without thinking about it. Friendships, work, travel - long unimaginable without the net. The knowledge of our own media visibility and the digital traces we leave behind has seeped deep into our actions.
These digital everyday practices have also arrived in theatre and determine the perception and design of the spaces of art. I am explicitly not only talking about theatre for children and young people here. When I described the "theatre of the digital natives" with Kathrin Tiedemann and Irina-Simona Bârcă, I meant the perspective on a younger generation that is perhaps still conspicuous by its absence in some theatres. But we are not excluding anyone because we assume that the "internet state of mind" has long since shaped large sections of society in one way or another and is stimulating a new generational relationship. It is therefore suitable for the kind of discussion and negotiation that I would like to see in a contemporary theatre that participates in the digital transformation of society through discourse and technology.The art of togetherness
There is no longer an audience - and no actors. For some decades now, this separation and distribution of roles has been replaced in theatre and the visual arts by an invitation to encounter and the sharing of responsibility. Florian Malzacher writes in his book "Gesellschaftsspiele. Political Theatre Today": "Participation in the arts can serve to investigate or develop models with which power and responsibility can be shared differently - and in this way to explore new forms of participation for larger social contexts. On the contrary, it can also be about consciously problematising participation, playing with the abuse of power in order to enable or force insights through discomfort". In theatre, this artistic development went hand in hand with spatial changes: From the light in the auditorium during the performance, to the removal of the "fourth wall" and the democratisation of the gaze, to site-specific works that leave the theatre with its architectures of separation altogether. The use of technical media also has a long tradition in such participatory or relational forms of theatre. Groups and artists such as She She Pop, Rimini Protokoll, Lukas Matthaei, Schauplatz International and many others used the possibilities of digitalisation in their works early on. These often complicate the spatial arrangement and at the same time reflect digital discourses of acceleration, globalisation or control.
One development that has strongly influenced theatre in the last ten years is oriented towards computer games. Here, the amalgamation of materials, technologies and participation, which lead to a new activity of the audience, can be seen particularly vividly. Numerous groups are developing game formats for small and larger groups, for theatre spaces and site-specific performances. The games are often designed to resemble digital games, which is why digital natives can often "operate" them intuitively. This is not a form of theatre explicitly aimed at children and young people, because the games that artist groups such as machina eX, Anna Kpokoder Prinzip Gonzo model themselves on are rather stored in the memory of an older generation of "digital natives". Nevertheless, they turn the generational relationship and the distribution of knowledge in theatre on its head in a productive way.
In the successful examples, digitisation is not only the subject or only the technology of the performance. Rather, it offers a holistic breeding ground on which narration, technology and the type of encounter complement each other in a new way in order to do justice to pressing social issues. Participatory elements play a crucial role in this. Not only because the use of digital media abolishes the separation between actor and recipient, as early net utopias promised. Precisely because the current development of the digital sphere favours powerful players and platforms and limits the agency of individuals, theatre can also offer a space to practise the distinction between pseudo participation and real involvement.What do we do when we are not watching?
There is no audience any more. But the people who love theatre are still there. We noticed that again and again during the pandemic: They still exist, the people who watch performances on screen, chat and control artistic avatars in virtual spaces. Just as there are people who go on walks with individual artists or go on audio walks alone in a Lockdown-like manner. These are perhaps the same people who, even before the pandemic, were prepared not to know exactly what the evening would bring before buying their tickets. Who were willing to sit in circles of chairs with us, look for clues on stage for the story to progress or listen to each other when there was a group decision to be made. I don't think it makes much sense to speculate about whether their attention span is getting shorter or how many parallel tabs they have open on their screen. On the other hand, it is great fun to look for new descriptions for the activity of those we once called "spectators": Players, users, avatars, multitaskers...
As early as 2006, journalist Jay Rosen spoke of "People Formerly Known as the Audience", alluding not only to a change in media use that turns consumers into producers. In this view, the audience is conceived as a networked one that is always already active, already involved. It does not ask itself whether it is involved in an activity, but it certainly registers the way in which its involvement is demanded. When the "People Formerly Known as the Audience" visit the theatre - be it digitally or on site - it is up to us to make the forms of participation artistically sophisticated. It is not about participation for participation's sake. Our audiences have never been passive and they have a fine sensor for how we meet them and whether we are willing to truly share responsibility with them.The public sphere between agency and manipulation
Realising participatory theatre during and after the pandemic is a special challenge. After all, it requires and favours a special closeness and connection between those involved. "A theatre does not simply move", writes Ulrike Haß in reference to the upcoming move of the FFT Düsseldorf to a new house. She is alluding to the special relationship between theatre and city. The statement is of course transferable to the move of a digital, pandemic theatre "back" to the deserted city centres. Particularly interesting in order to shape this "move" - or shall we call it a new beginning? - I find the playful formats of digitally savvy artists with an eye for current events particularly interesting.
PATROL" by machina eX is a hybrid theatre game in urban space that sends each player on a mission via her own smartphone. As agents of a security company, we monitor the public space and, similar to the courier cyclists of supply chains, are repeatedly provided with new orders and evaluated after completion. A suspenseful game of fictional story and real observations, agency and manipulation quickly unfolds. In the pandemic-proof single-player mode, the participants bring themselves back into play publicly. Both the required activity and the hybrid character of perception oscillate between fun and discomfort, visibility, power and abuse. Hybrid, future theatre in urban space - without an audience at all.
Published in Das Magazin von Kultur Management Network – Ausgabe Mai/Juni 2021