Culture Machine, Reviews


Steve Dixon (2007) Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation.

Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press. ISBN: 978-0-262-04235-2.

Ashley Smith

Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation is a critical history of performance studies in relation to technological development. It is part of the MIT Press' series Leonardo, which focuses on 'art-science-technology interactions' (Cubitt, 2007). The volume charts three parallel stories that run throughout the course of the work. The first is the story of technological development within performance. The second is the narrative about the development of performance theories and their relationship to digital performance. The final interweaves the stories of innovative practice with specific examples of performance dotted throughout the book. These performances have used a wide range of new technologies - from experiments in virtual reality, to software packages employed for set design or dance performance, to live streaming webcast performances, to performance collaborations online. They derive from the fields of theatre, performance art, dance and gallery installation.

Dixon opens his history with a careful definition of what he means by 'digital performance', reflecting that both terms have developed a range of independent meanings. He borrows the definition of the phrase from the online journal, Digital Performance (Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre, 2002). This defines the 'digital' as an instrumental or 'more purely technical concept'. It is 'an enabling concept', which 'includes multimedia and interactivity' to offer users 'a huge and constantly expanding toolbox of theatrical effects that each has their own intelligence, sensitivity and subjectivity, that in a sense become characters on stage', ultimately producing 'potentially a new paradigm in the theatre and performance' (Dixon, 2007: xi-xii, quoting Digital Performance). 'Performance', argues Dixon, especially as it is used in academic circles, has become a woolly term of various application, but this project explores the influence of digital technologies on stage, screen, gallery installation and site specific performances. However, it notably excludes any discussion of the impact of digital technology on the composition or performance of music. This is a significant exclusion and users of the book should be aware of the stated limits of Dixon's project.

The work is divided up into twenty-six chapters, arranged into six themed sections: 'Histories', 'Theories and Contexts', 'The Body', 'Space', 'Time' and 'Interactivity'. In the first section, 'Histories', Dixon invites us to place digital performance into a theoretical trajectory which begins with Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk in the mid-late 19th century, moves through into the early 20th century avant-garde, with a special focus on futurism but including Bauhaus, constructivism, Dadaism and surrealism, and ultimately links to mid-late 20th century modernism. Dixon charts practice built upon these theoretical foundations via a history of performances' incorporation of, and fascination with, first mechanical and then digital technologies.

Section II, 'Theories and Contexts', begins with a discussion of 'liveness': an issue which any account of performance studies and critical theory cannot avoid. Dixon contrasts two dialectical arguments, one insisting on the necessity of liveness 'valorising the unique aura and presence of the live body' (123) versus one which, depending on your theorist of choice, valorises or merely accepts the mediated (photographic, cinematic, televisual, digital) as a valid re-presentation of the 'real'. The question of whether technology has destabilised how (or if) we can know reality is one which applies beyond the boundaries of performance studies. Dixon argues for a similarity of signs across art forms, suggesting that to over-value liveness is to 'fetishize ephemeral forms of expression', and that 'presence is about interest and command of attention, not space or liveness' (132). The next chapter argues against postmodern theory, identifying key figures 'Baudrillard, Barthes, Virilio, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Guattari' as nihilists who 'characterize technology in terms of a cynical power that oppresses and possesses the individual' (140). Dixon treats posthumanism more gently, linking it to cybernetics and cyborg theory, the logical extension of which creates a challenge to liberal humanism. He argues that posthuman performers are not examples of postmodern practice but instead are engaged in a search for universal meanings and truth. Leaving theory, Dixon moves on to a discussion of digital technologies, reminding readers that 'the digital revolution' was neither politically revolutionary nor genuinely global. It remains massively over-represented in the first world, especially those parts which are English speaking. Thus, the borderlands of cyberspace are politically charged locations and within this realm the notion of 'code' becomes a powerful metaphor. This book follows the advent of the critical mass in uptake of digital technology and charts ebb of this enthusiasm into a taken-for-grantedness which can use digital technologies as tools to enrich performance rather than for their own sake. The final chapter in this section charts software developments in the tools used by arts practitioners, many of which have taken place within dance. Early dance software worked via motion capture and created virtual dancers that could be projected onto the stage with live ones, while other software packages operated in both the visual and the aural realm.

Section III, 'The Body', opens with a discussion of the Cartesian dualism - the mind/body split, which Dixon argues is at odds with performance because performers strive to transcend not the body itself but the split between an intellectual or emotional idea and the enactment of it. According to Dixon, digital technologies help do this by creating a virtual realm in which one may experience the real while transcending its physical limitations (212-20). Dixon demonstrates this with examples of both the use of virtual bodies in performance and the virtualization of real bodies in performance. Taking his cue from Artaud's The Theatre and Its Double (1977), which links the double to the uncanny, Dixon argues that digital technology has made a range of effects possible, which in turn have allowed for a range of performance doubles. In addition to the uncanny or spiritual double, digital technologies may also be used to create other doubles: the narcissistic/reflected double, the alter ego, or the avatar/'manipulable mannequin'. From here, Dixon moves into a discussion of robots and cyborgs, which opens with an analysis of the cyborg, humanoid machines and mechanized humans all theorized under the general rubric of 'metal performance' (272). In performance both the robot and the cyborg can be read as camp because they perform their artifice in imperfect, unnatural, calculated motion and in their brittle surface so unlike flesh yielding, in Dixon's terms, 'metal camp'. Robot camp tends to perform the mechanical body by sexualizing the machine; its otherness marked by the mechanical. Dixon recommends a reading of robot performance in terms of metal camp and offers a brief history of robotic development and use: in the military, on the stage, in the gallery, in mass market products in the home and on television. A cyborg, however, may suppose an evolutionary trajectory of progress beyond the imperfections of the human body so that the integration of machine and flesh moves the human body closer to perfection and immortality. In the alternate, dystopian model the strength and computational power of the machine may instead lead to humanity's downfall. Dixon argues that while robots are often used to perform a return to nature, cyborg performances frequently enact alienation from it (321).

Section IV, 'Space', opens with a discussion of digital technology's impact on scenic design and its use of screened and projected images. Dixon follows this with a technological history of VR, from early experiments with goggles and gloves into early efforts to create art in and of virtual landscapes. VR is also used as a tool in theatre research and practice, as in the use of VR technologies to recreate Greek and Roman theatres, to design sets and to create immersive sets for live actors or dancers. The next chapters explore the use of technologies to make spaces that are performative, responsive and interactive, and the history of using new technologies to allow geographically distant performers to connect in real time. Performance practitioners often conceive of the internet as a collaborative space to connect in live performance, in rehearsal and in improvisation. Necessary for such telematic experiments are lens-based technologies, including surveillance technologies, which Dixon theorizes in relationship to the model of the panopticon and the incorporation of such notions into art and performance. Dixon contrasts these disciplining surveillance technologies, such as CCTV, with the webcam, stating that 'the webcam is characterized by a generally opposite impulse toward openness, sharing, and freedom of expression' (443). Webcam footage suggests documentary realness as well as real-time liveness, and these assumptions are often employed in online performance, most famously in the long-running site Jennicam. This leads to a more general consideration of the history of the internet and its use by performance practitioners. Dixon engages with the internet not as a place but as an 'imaginary space' (463-6, per Andrea Zapp's conception). Much of its economic and technological development has been driven by the profits of online pornography. In such a context, online performance may be seen to have a strong relationship to gendered and sexual performance. It allows performers to adopt fluid subjectivities unconnected to their physical selves. The internet has also hosted a range of online experiments with non-linear narratives, adaptations of 'classic' scripts, non-human performers and generating performance content from online 'audience' members' participation. All these bring performance theory and new media together again in relation to questions of the 'liveness' of performance in spaces such as chat rooms and the potential for audiences' 'live' interactivity.

Section V, 'Time', discusses theatre's relationship to the pliability of time in terms of performance (that is it can set the time in the performance as other than now), time's compression since globalization, and the large question of linearity in terms of both narrative and digital technologies. Art may also engage with personal and collective memories, and in terms of memory a key question for digital performance comes in the juxtaposition of the precise memory of the machine and the fallible memory of the individual.

The final section is on 'Interactivity'. Dixon outlines a hierarchy of interactivity, '(1) Navigation, (2) Participation, (3) Conversation, (4) Collaboration' (563) which new media technologies may help to engender and suggests that the notion of play unites all four categories and is necessary to interactivity. >From the notion of play Dixon moves on to a consideration of videogames, suggesting that they are constructed within the well-known parameters of theatre and including a brief history of popular as well as rare games. The final chapter follows the rise and fall of CD-ROMs, which enjoyed a brief flowering of interest and use in both educational and artistic projects. They were popular for their ability to include sound, moving images and text before other technologies stepped up to take their place.

Inevitably, because of the speed at which such technology moves, a book project will never be able to keep pace with current developments. Though each chapter includes valuable historical information and context, which enriches the reader's understanding of the current moment, the various discussions cannot keep up-to-date with the speed of change. For example, Dixon's discussion of gaming (Chapter 24, 'Videogames') does not incorporate the most recent technologies such as mobile gaming or the media convergence of devices, which seems like a significant omission. Questions of online performance too feel a little dated, as its discussion (Chapter 19, 'Online Performance: "Live" From Cyberspace') includes a rich history of MUDs (multi-user dungeons/dimensions) and MOOs (object oriented MUDs), which were early sites for online gaming as well as interpersonal connection. These sites offered a place for virtual performance by individual users 'within the proscenium arch of the computer monitor' (4), while the anonymity of the technology allowed participants a vast range of fluid and multiple identities. However, Dixon leaves it to the reader to link these online collectivities to their more mainstream next-generation counterparts, such as Second Life, or social networking sites, such as Bebo, Facebook, MySpace or YouTube.

The notion that new and digital technologies have the potential to offer performance practitioners a 'new paradigm' is at the core of Dixon's project. Though he takes care to describe key theoretical paradigms within performance studies, the most significant and consistent theoretical argument in the book is Dixon's denunciation of postmodernism, especially in relation to the use of postmodern theory in the analysis of digital performance. He sustains a critique of postmodern theory throughout the course of the book. Dixon links the postmodern to cynicism and ultimately nihilism. He argues for 'a new optimism about the potentials of media' and states: 'we consider it [digital performance] as an emergent avant-garde, rather than merely a manifestation of a wider, all-consuming postmodernism' (7). The strength of this insistence occasionally distracts from a straightforward account of the history of the developments in digital performance, demanding that readers understand the history that he presents in a specific context -- that of modernism. Dixon argues explicitly against readers who would try and place such performances into the context of postmodern theory, arguing that incorporating technological innovations into the performing arts is intrinsically related to a connection with the new and against the splintered reiterations of postmodernism. He undertakes this effort with an air of taking digital performance back from the school of critical theory he seems to fear readers have assumed to be its logical home. At its least compelling, this project leads him into sweeping statements that attempt to account for and speak on behalf of all digital performers and performances. For example, Dixon expresses a concern that the application of such theories is inappropriate to performers and performances that celebrate technology, though in this version it appears he wants us to believe that they all do. 'The moods, attitudes, and subject positions of digital performance artists predominantly concur not with the postmodern, but the modern; they encompass an acute, overriding awareness of new technologies as instruments of temporal change and future creative forms' (656). At its most compelling, however, and in relationship to specific projects, Dixon's call to remember modernism can ring convincing. 'Digital artists and performers around the turn of the millennium created something that had not been seen before, something still highly experimental, not fully formed, but nonetheless new' (661). While it may not be a fashionable position, Dixon indicates that a modernist ontology may be at the core of many digital performance projects and may be a good critical fit. The problem may be neither modernism nor postmodernism, but instead the inflexibility of some critics, demonstrated by their willingness to attempt to shoehorn projects into one or the other theoretical framework.

In addition to the theoretical and technological histories included in the volume, Dixon includes a generous amount of discussion and description of specific works and performers. This is a major strength of the book, as these descriptions are tremendously helpful. Dixon is both a theorist and a performance practitioner himself (with the Chameleons Group). He brings his experiential knowledge of staging theatrical, digital performances. This enriches his discussion of practical aspects of digital or interactive performance as Dixon brings the eye of a fellow practitioner to bear on the work he has seen. He reports the first-hand experiences of an enthusiast as well as that of a critical audience member, participant or technology user. These accounts include in-depth descriptions covering iconic historical works and some of their less well-known counterparts. Though the majority of the pieces under discussion are from the 1990s, Dixon points out that this was an historical moment of enthusiasm for incorporating new media technologies into art, a fashion which has since died down.

Including such a large number of detailed examples is especially helpful if a reader seeks an understanding of any piece of work in more detail. Some of the practitioners highlighted by Dixon include Blast Theory, Robert LaPage, Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik, Stelarc, Marcel.lí Antúnez Roca, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Troika Ranch, Susan Kozel, the Builder's Association, Eduardo Kac and ZKM. These descriptions and discussions, however, are scattered throughout the book, a structure that assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader. The book's index is necessary to locate the individual discussions of technologies, companies, performances or works within the loosely themed sections and chapters. Such descriptive accounts generally appear in order to demonstrate a specific historical development, technological innovation or theoretical position, but many such performances are relevant to a range of issues raised within the book. The inclusion of a timeline or chart to act as a shorthand guide to the range of media, performers and works discussed might have been a helpful addition. This is not to suggest a linear history of 'progress', but rather a way of collecting and connecting these accounts which are scattered throughout. Such an addition could help lead users not only to works they already know about but possibly also to other pieces of interest and relevance. And yet because of its wide scope and the depth of its information, Dixon's history is likely to be a valuable resource for those uninitiated into the world of digital performance.

There are few complaints to be made about the information included in Dixon's history, but this reader could wish for a few changes in its presentation to make it more user-friendly. The above suggestion is one of these. Additionally, the decision to place all of the chapters' footnotes in the final section of the book is particularly frustrating. These footnotes include supplementary information as well as all of the external citations. As the book is long and hefty the need for constant flicking back and forth soon frustrates. Inevitably too, there will be users with a specific interest who will not read the history from cover to cover but will only focus on selected chapters or sections. Same-page footnotes or notes at each chapter's end would have been preferable and would have greatly aided ease of use. Finally, although ostensibly a monograph, much of Dixon's history includes some previously published material with and by Barry Smith. This may enrich the information covered in the volume but it also yields a book written in the first-person plural. This voice is distracting in a single-authored publication. Although Dixon explains the reason for this in his preface, it remains puzzling for the reader and sounds at times as though the Queen had developed a heretofore-unknown interest in the subject. These, of course, are minor complaints and detract nothing from the content of the book, which is otherwise of a consistently high quality and utility.

Dixon's research into the subject has spanned the past ten years. The work for this book was done in association with his previous large-scale project (again, undertaken with collaborator Smith), the Digital Performance Archive (Smith and Dixon, 1999-2001), which documented 'developments in the creative use of computer technologies in performance, from live theatre and dance productions that incorporate digital media to cyberspace interactive dramas and webcasts. DPA also collates examples of the use of computer technologies to document, discuss, or analyze performance, including specialist websites, e-zines and academic CD-ROMS' (ix). In many ways Dixon's book can be appreciated as an outgrowth of and a companion to the archive, offering a historical and critical context with which to understand many of the innovative performance works deposited. The book is itself generously illustrated, featuring many black and white examples depicting the various works under discussion. These are often very helpful, but understandably one may wish also to see the movement and colour intrinsic to such work, which may be accessible via the Digital Performance Archive's holdings. Alternatively, the book now provides another object through which users of the Digital Performance Archive might move outward from a specific work, to begin contextualising its place in the overall history of digital performance to date.

Dixon's history will provide a useful reference across a range of disciplines. The history of new technologies in the performing arts is one which will likely be of interest to those working in the various fields of cultural theory, especially those within posthumanism, cyborg theory, or modernism; new media, especially digital art, game design, internet/computing history or interactivity; and performance studies, especially live art, installation, dance, and theatre. Its in-depth accounts of performances and projects that have employed digital technology will provide an informative research resource and a valuable teaching tool.


Artaud, Antonin (1977) Theatre and Its Double: Essays. London: John Calder.

Cubitt, Sean (2007) 'Leonardo Series Forward', in Steve Dixon, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Dixon, Steve (2007) Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre (2002) Digital Performance: The Online Magazine for Artists Embracing Technology. Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre., accessed: August 2007.

Smith, Barry & Dixon, Steve (1999-2001) Digital Performance Archive. Nottingham Trent University & Salford University. accessed: August 2007.

Ashley Smith is a doctoral student at the University of Paisley, in Paisley, Scotland, UK. Her current research treats dance as cultural practice and product, through which it is possible to investigate questions of Scottish national identity in the context of post-devolution Scottish cultural policy