Brief Thoughts on Telematic Art

Last night I was an audience member at the ZeroSpace conference, a conference on “distance and interactions”. From the conference’s webpage:

The events of ZeroSpace explore the theme of distance and interaction, examining how humans interact with one another and with our environment through new technologies.

As far as I can tell, telematic art is performance that utilizes telecommunications (using Skype or a similar service to connect 2 or more performance venues with live video and audio feeds simultaneously, for example) or art that explores presence, distance, and space in general. I was first exposed to telematic art 5 years ago through Scott Deal at Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at New England Conservatory, specifically through a presentation about his ensemble Big Robot, which is a trio that frequently incorporates telecommunications technology into their performances. When I first learned about the phenomenon of telematic performance I was skeptical: what is gained by performing with someone miles away over an audio and/or video feed when the alternative, having all performers in the same space, seems much more satisfying? The ZeroSpace concert made me think deeper about this concept and broadened my definition of telematic art.

In his introduction to the conference, Matthew Burtner mentioned Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, an example of an acoustic work that utilizes an offstage instrument (here are many more). This piece and other such pieces are using distance and specifically the physical removal of instruments from the performance space and the resulting muffled, disembodied sound artistically, an example of historical, “low-tech” telematic performance. Another example of work that redefined telematic art for me was the work presented by Erik Spangler titled Cantata for a Loop Trail. This piece takes place on the length of a looping trail in an outdoor park with Spangler as the guide to a group of audience members. Performers and music-making devices are scattered along the trail, coloring (aiming to enhance) the experience of hiking in the natural setting through sound. While not using telecommunications technology or distance per se, this performance engages with the idea of space and the audience physically moving through space as a compositional tool, the musical content of the piece a function of when and where the audience is at a given time.

Two uses of telecommunications stood out to me in the performance and research forum last night. First, Charles Nichols, a professor at Virginia Tech, was Skyped in from his office during the research forum, and gave a presentation on his work. Although not related to art, this use of telecommunications in the context of the conference caused me to realize how pervasive telematic performance is. The Superbowl Halftime show and other live streaming performances, any musical sounds heard over the telephone, and performance art over live webcams are all examples of telematic performance. If the live performance aspect of telematic art is dropped, all recordings and videos of performances are telematic art (in this case simply mediated by technology, not in realtime). Second, the “Virginia Tech/UVA Handshake Improvisation” on the concert involved 3 instrumentalists in Charlottesville and 2 instrumentalists in Blacksburg improvising with one another. As I was in the back of the room I had a poor line-of-sight to the local performers, so at times I was unable to tell the source of sounds (local or remote), although the local sounds emanated from instruments and the remote sounds came exclusively from the speakers. Because of the local/remote dichotomy of the performers the piece was something more than if it was simply the same 5 instrumentalists in one room creating the same sounds. It was sound and listening spanning miles to create an improvised piece of sonic art.

I am interested in learning more about this emerging and developing form of technology-mediated performance and art-making, and hope to see more successful uses of it in the future.