Friday, 23 August 2013

Autopoiesis in Live Intermedial Performance: Loops and Systems by Jo Scott

This paper works from Maturana and Varela’s theories of the autopoietic nature of living systems and Erika Fischer-Lichte’s application of this theory to performance in order to interrogate the ‘living system’ which operates within live intermedial performance. The paper focuses in particular on the ‘system’ used to generate forms of live media performance, where the performer is also the present activator of onstage elements and, in turn, interrogates the function of the performer and  ‘experiencer’ (Nelson: 2010) in such a system. In doing so, it posits the notion that the performer operates as a component within the system, whereas the positioning of the experiencer is a contradictory one; simultaneously immersed within the intermedial space generated, but external to and excluded from its system of construction.

Live intermedial performance is a mode of performance developed through my own practice as research and can be defined as that where the solo performer is also the activator of a range of ‘technical mediums’ (Elleström 2010: 17) present in the space, which enable her to mix sound, image, object and text live and in the presence of the experiencers. It can be related in its form to VJ-ing, live cinema and other modes of live media practices, where predetermined elements are activated and mixed live through onstage media, though in style and content it differs from much of this work (see Clip 1 below).

    Clip 1: Live intermedial performance in action. 
Footage taken from re-cite (2012)

The ‘system’ of performance operational within this mode of performance therefore centres on the solo performer/activator interacting with technical mediums and a range of material, including text, sound, video and objects, to activate this material in a number of simultaneous ‘modalities’ (Elleström 2010: 15) in order to produce an intermedial space of merged sound and image, in which the construction of that space is also a present and vital component. (see Figure 1 below)

Figure 1: The live intermedial space, with the means of constructing intermediality 
clearly visible. Image taken by Matt Taylor from re-cite (2012) 

The practice operates as an installation, with experiencers free to come and go from the performance space and to occupy it as they wish. Through the presence of the performer/activator and the technical mediums within this space, they are encouraged to encounter both the activation of the intermediality and the space generated as a result of this activation (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: the activation in relation to the space of intermediality. Image taken from Cover (2011)

In addition, the intermediality generated emerges from and in response to each moment of performance. There is no structure, line or trajectory in place prior to each iteration and within the creation of the work, I as performer/activator often invite ‘offers’ from the experiencers to act as prompts for generating intermediality with the materials and technical mediums available in the space. For instance, a box may be present on stage into which experiencers place song suggestions written on envelopes, to be picked up by me during the course of the work. Alternatively, they may be asked to place slips of paper with words or images in the technical area of the stage to act as prompts for the generation of intermediality. In all such cases, the promise is the same; that in some way the contribution offered by the experiencer alters the developing experience in a way that would not or could not have been possible without their particular intervention. They are part of shaping the work; co-creators of the experience.

Despite the offer of a co-authored space through these conditions and mechanisms, in this paper, I will argue that though live intermedial practice in its form seems to represent an open and interactive space for the experiencer, that the system at the heart of this mode of performance, which is predicated on a looping and continuous interaction between performer/activator, technical mediums and the intermediality generated, is ultimately autonomous and self generating. It is therefore one which interrupts the ‘mutual exchange of perceiving and being-perceived’ (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 73) within the performance space. I will also argue, in relation to theories of autopoiesis, that with regard to this self-generating system, the experiencer represents part of the environment which ‘triggers’ changes from the exterior, rather than ‘determining’ such changes from within the system and ultimately that the system and the performance itself is determined not by such triggers but ‘by its own structural properties’ (Hayles 1999: 11).

Maturana and Varela define the ‘autopoietic organization’ of living systems as ‘continually self-producing’ (1987: 43). They argue that the components of such a system ‘must be dynamically related in a network of ongoing interactions’ (43-44) and crucially ‘the system produces components which make up the network of transformation that produced them’ (44). In this way, they posit, living systems are self-producing or self-generating; ‘their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between producer and product’ (48-49). Also, as referenced above, N.Katherine Hayles adds in her analysis of autopoietic theory that in this conception of an autopoietic system, ‘the environment’ in which the system is placed ‘merely triggers changes determined by the system’s own structural properties’ (1999: 11). Finally, Frijtof Capra notes that autopoietic systems are ‘autonomous’, meaning that the ‘environment only triggers the structural changes; it does not specify or direct them’ (2003: 31).

Erika Fischer-Lichte famously applies the notion of an autopoietic system to performance, specifically defining performance according to its capacity for autopoiesis and placing the ‘autopoietic feedback loop’ at the centre of her delineation of what is ‘live’ performance. She claims that ‘whatever the actors do elicits a response from the spectators, which impacts on the entire performance’ (2004: 38), through creating a ‘self-referential autopoietic system’ or ‘feedback loop’ (39) between the performers and spectators. Fischer-Lichte insists that an autopoietic feedback loop automatically exists within any performance where performers and spectators are ‘bodily co-present’, rendering it for her, a defining factor of live performance.

However, in citing the feedback loop in her analysis and definition of performance, she also specifically connects its application to the ‘performative turn’ as she describes it in the 1960s when ‘a fundamentally open, unpredictable process emerged as the defining principle of theatrical work’ (2004: 39). She goes on to say that ‘a shift in focus occurred from potentially controlling the system to inducing the specific modes of autopoiesis’. Fischer-Lichte cites ‘contingency’ as fundamental to this shift, in that ‘the pivotal role of the audience was not only acknowledged as a pre-condition for performance, but explicitly invoked as such’ (39).

Such terms could be seen to directly map onto live intermedial performance. This is indeed work which seems, in its lack of predetermined form and structure, to be ‘fundamentally open’ and as such, ‘unpredictable’ in its construction and development, fitting the model proposed. In addition, ‘contingency’ is deliberately induced through the mechanisms described above, whereby the experiencers offer prompts which direct the generation of the performance. However, in analysing the operation of the practice, I have come to the conclusion that the notion of the feedback loop between performer and experiencer is troubled and problematised specifically by my role as a component within the present system for generating the performance. Indeed within this analysis, I identify a boundary between the ‘system’ in which I operate as performer/activator and the experiencers, who are part of the ‘environment’, beyond the reaches of this looping and self-sufficient system. Furthermore, I would argue that it is the specific ‘structural properties’ of the system within which I exist as the performer/activator in a live intermedial iteration which determine my operation as component within that system and define the exteriority of the experiencers.

In order to further this point, the structural properties which I identify as particularly influential on my operation as performer/activator within the system are listed below, along with the impact (in red) of this property upon my modes of activation:

I am a solo performer, with a number of different technical mediums to operate and material to manipulate (my focus in performance is and has to be on the choice of material, technical medium and the act of operation/activation)

      Figure 3: the range of technical mediums present within a live intermedial performance

I stand opposite the images I generate in order to construct/mix them effectively (I have to focus attention on the screen in order to see what I am mixing and the effects created, while also simultaneously creating these effects)

      Figure 4: the performer/activator positioned opposite the images she manipulates. Image taken by Matt Taylor from re-cite (2012)

    In generating sound, operating both the loop pedal and the sound sampler requires fixed and focused attention on each technical medium, specifically in terms of timing/rhythm (I need a dual focus on operating the mediums themselves and listening to the sound generated to respond to this)

Clip 2: loop pedal montage

      The technical area I work in is physically fixed in the space of performance (Though I am not tied to this area, it does provide a locus for me within performance, in that I need to be in this area to generate intermediality and indeed to shift and change it – see Figure 4)

      The technical mediums generate looped and repeating images and sounds (the insistent and sometimes mesmeric nature of repeating sound and image impacts on me in my continuing construction of the piece - see Clip 3)

Clip 3: 'trees' sequence from re-cite 2012

      The result of these ‘structural properties’ of the live intermedial system in combination is that the most prevalent influences on my operation in the moment of performance are twofold; the actions and focus required to make this system work, as well as the intermediality I have already generated and which exists in the space, impacting on my further creation. The performance mode is, through this impact on my operation within it, self-generating in that it loops back to itself insistently and influences how and what I construct. Equally, there is something about the web of activation of and response to intermediality which encloses and utterly occupies my attention within the performance.

    Erika Fischer-Lichte argues that the ‘constitutive moment of performance’ is ‘in the bodily presence of the actors’ which ‘sets the autopoietic feedback loop in motion’ (2004: 74). On the contrary, I would argue that within live intermedial practice, the ‘constitutive moment of performance’ lies in my interaction with the technical medium to generate intermediality in the presence of the experiencers. I acknowledge that this presence shifts the operation significantly within that moment, but their responses, unless directly prompted, are not a primary part of the experience for me and rather the intermediality already generated becomes the main influence on the development of the work. In this way, though changes can be ‘triggered’ by the presence of the experiencer and any prompt they offer in the moment of performance, the operation of the system is determined by its own structural properties, outlined above.

      In considering the feedback loop between performer and experiencer therefore, in live intermedial
      practice, I argue it operates as follows:
      Experiencer offers a prompt

     Performer/activator receives the prompt and configures what is written with her own ideas about what she wants to do in the space and how the piece should develop

      This negotiation between performer/activator, prompt, expectations and performance so far results in some kind of response on her part

      The response is played out in her interaction with the material/technical mediums and it is that encounter which determines and specifies the response and the intermediality generated, which has been triggered by the experiencer’s prompt

    Intermediality is generated on my terms as the solo performer/activator, but is also utterly mediated and defined by the system with which it is constructed. In addition, I respond primarily to the intermediality I have generated, rather than focusing on others’ responses – this is almost impossible in the moment of performance in my experience, where I become caught and suspended in the system I have created, subject both to its mechanisms and emergent properties. The nature of this interaction problematises notions of the work introduced above as open to a form of ‘co-authoring’ through the loop between performer/activator and experiencer and rather positions it more productively in relation to aspects of control within and between the different elements of the system described.

 There is therefore something about the operation of live intermediality which troubles without invalidating or severing Erika Fischer-Lichte’s notion of the autopoietic feedback loop in performance. I would argue that the ‘system’ of autopoiesis in this mode of performance is primarily positioned in a loop between performer/activator, material, technical medium and intermediality where the recurrent ‘network of ongoing interactions’ (Maturana and Varela 1987: 43-44) takes place. Such recurrent interactions, as expounded above, effectively exclude experiencers, in that the system is constantly feeding back to and producing itself. They witness the operation of the system and can ‘trigger’ its actions, without being part of how such actions are ‘specified’ and ‘determined’.

     There is also a contradiction here however, as the space of the performance, the availability of the performer/activator and the means of production, the improvisatory mode and the freedom to move and interact promises a heightened form of autopoiesis similar to that identified by Fischer-Lichte, where the role of the experiencer is ‘not only acknowledged as a pre-condition for performance, but explicitly invoked as such’ (2004: 39). In addition, the intermedial space I generate through this practice is one which, particularly through its sonic aspects can enclose and enfold the experiencer; the experiencer shares this experience with me – we are ‘bodily co-present’. However, the system whereby intermediality is generated is still self contained and effectively sealed. The ‘mutual exchange of perceiving and being-perceived’ is disrupted, as though I can apprehend the experiencers in the space and am aware of their positioning and something of their responses to the work through that, my focus is drawn insistently back into the system within which I am operating. As such, the experiencers sit in relation to this operation, conceptually out of the loop of creation.

     In conclusion, the initial characterisation of this practice as a fluid, open and interactive installation, which was indeed a view to which I previously subscribed, is now one which is contradicted by analysis through autopoietic theory of the operation of the system at the centre of it. It is here that the contradictory qualities of the work are revealed; its operation as both an open space and a defined system, an emergent place of becoming and a self-determining organism, which constructs the performance environment to the exclusion of those who experience the work. It is within these tensions that the interest and engagement with the practice lies and they will therefore be aspects of the work that I continue to test and interrogate.

      Capra, F (2003) The Hidden Connections, London, Harper Collins

      Elleström, L  (ed.) (2010), Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan

      Fischer-Lichte, E (2008) The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, (trans. Saskya Iris Jain) London/New York, Routledge

      Hayles, N (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, Chicago/London, University of Chicago Press

      Maturana, H and Varela, J (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston, Shambhala

      Nelson, R (2010) ‘Prospective Mapping’ in Bay-Cheng, S, Kattenbelt, C, Lavender, A, Nelson, R (eds.) Mapping Intermediality in Performance, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press