An exploration of audience participation and agency in performances
and how digital technology influences it
Claire Kwong - Clemence Debaig - Romain Biros
Performances as a research artefact
We staged four different performances where we varied the level of audience participation and use of digital technology. The performances all used the same storyline, which explored relations between the self and others, especially filtered through technology. Afterward, the audience completed questionnaires about their perception and participation. We also conducted video interviews with them.
Defining a performative space
At first, the audience placed themselves around the performance space to simply observe. From surveys, we found that this behaviour came from learned norms from traditional performances. It was sometimes necessary to invite audience members to participate to go beyond their hesitation. As we did, we broke this conventional pattern, opening the space for new behaviour. In one moment, when the performers reconvened to dance behind the frame, an audience member moved to the empty chair in front and started filming – an undirected, emergent behaviour.
We drew on Deborah Newton’s concept that “performance[s]… create liminal experiences which liberates participants from conformity to the general norms of society.” This is related to the magic circle, a foundational concept of game studies defined by Johan Huizinga, where the artificial rules defined by the performance space replace reality.
Agency: audience as subject and co-constructor
Just as we first observed audience fear of engaging and being exposed, we also recognized their will and excitement to interact with the performers. We saw that they switched back and forth from observing to actively participating.
A common aspect from those two behaviours is that spectators enjoyed watching both performers and other audience members participate. We successfully blurred the line between performers and audience, which evoked a phenomenon described by Newton that “both performer and audience go beyond meaning-sharing to re-define their roles as participant co-constructors.”
Technology: distraction or enabler?
We observed an interesting tension between technology being a distraction and an enabler. As Nathaniel Stern says, the audience tends to be more concerned by the technology itself rather than the qualities of the performance, focusing on utility rather than relation.
Technology also brings external concerns to the space. Any technical glitch distracts the performance. One of the laptops we used went into sleep mode, requiring external intervention in the middle of the piece.
Depending on the technology, it can bring another set of concerns that were not part of the narrative. In the context of our performance, because we were using cameras, people became concerned about their privacy.
Our performance revealed the dichotomous nature of technology, as we observed that it can also encourage interaction. Curiosity for the system facilitates that – it invites people to play, interact and so participate.
Overall, the use of digital technology grounded our piece in today’s world. It made us reconsider its role – we had looked at technology as a tool but it became the subject itself. We were wondering how technology could influence or disrupt an existing genre, but it felt like a natural evolution of participatory performances. And it made a lot of sense to use it as a medium into our narrative as we were challenging the role of technology in our social interactions.
Gavin Carver and Colin Beardon, (2004) eds. New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies. Routledge.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou and Janis Jefferies (2016), eds. Interfaces of Performance. Routledge.
Johan Huizinga (1938) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Angelico Press.
Gustave Le Bon (2013) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Collection: Quadrige, PUF.
Kate Mondloch (2010) Screens: Viewing Installation Art. University of Minnesota Press.
Deborah Newton (2014) 'Performativity and the Performer-Audience Relationship: Shifting Perspectives and Collapsing Binaries' in SOAS Journal of Postgraduate Research, Vol 7 (Fall 2014).
Celia Pearce (2006) 'Games AS art: The Aesthetics of Play' in Visible Language. Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design.
Nathaniel Stern (2013) Interactive art and embodiment - The implicit body as performance. Gilphy Limited Book.
Marita Sturken (2000) ‘The Space of Electronic Time: The Memory Machines of Jim Campbell’ in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. University of Minnesota Press.