Critical Essay—Performing Technodrama: Towards a Technocultural Aesthetic in the Age of Digital Anxiety
Stephen Fernandez, The University of Waterloo
The late-Twentieth century witnessed the emergence of Technodrama, a new theatrical form that fuses mixed media elements with playacting and dramatic narrative. In contrast to earlier attempts at integrating technology into drama (such as Richard Wagner’s and Bertolt Brecht’s incorporation of various mixed media technologies into their theatrical works), the Technodramatic stage is a liminal space in which a reconfiguration of creativity and experimentation takes place by way of the interaction between ‘live’ actors and technological devices (both physical and virtual) on the same performance stage. As such, I argue that the notion of art in Technodrama is complicit with the politics of technoculture (i.e., the problems surrounding the culture of technological dependence in almost all facets of modern society), such that each technological device presented in a Technodrama play is capable of communicating—exclusive of the narrative content—both artistic and cultural meanings. Drawing upon the concept of technoculture and such analytical approaches as aesthetic, literary and cultural theories, this paper explores the aesthetic potential and the cultural implications of integrating technology into dramatic theatre by examining the use of digitally rendered virtual and augmented reality technologies in recent Technodrama productions such as Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity by Singapore’s Interaction and Entertainment Research Centre (IERC) as well as Susan Broadhurst’s The Jeremiah Project (Blue Bloodshot Flowers).
Once the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics and writing exploded the Gutenberg monopoly around 1880, the fabrication of so-called Man became possible. His essence escapes into apparatuses [...] So-called Man is split up into physiology and information technology.
Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999, p.16.
The late-Twentieth century witnessed the emergence of Technodrama, a new theatrical form that fuses elements of digital media with playacting and dramatic narrative. In contrast to earlier attempts at integrating technology into drama (such as Richard Wagner’s and Bertolt Brecht’s incorporation of various mixed media technologies1 into their theatrical works), the Technodramatic stage is a liminal space in which the question of identity is made complicated by the interaction between ‘live’ actors and a myriad of sophisticated technological devices (both physical and virtual ones) on the same performance stage. In light of this juxtaposition between advanced digital technologies and so-called ‘live’ bodies, I argue that the notion of art in Technodrama is complicit with the politics of technoculture (i.e., the problems surrounding the prevalent culture of technological dependence in almost all facets of modern society), such that each technological device presented in a Technodrama play is capable of communicating—exclusive of the narrative content—both artistic and cultural meanings. What this means is that the relationship between theatre and technoculture creates in Technodrama a technocultural aesthetic which further alienates the audience by forcing them to deliberate on the constructivism as well as the artistic and cultural implications of these digitally-enhanced mixed media plays produced in the age of digital anxiety. In turn, the performance space in Technodrama becomes a site of constant tension generated by the juxtaposition of physical bodies and virtual elements on the same stage.
This tension between the physical and the virtual, I would argue, is vital for the development of Technodrama. As British dramatist and scholar Susan Broadhurst suggests in a 2004 essay for The Drama Review, it is within the “tension-filled spaces” which result from the interface of body and technology on the same stage that “opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices” in contemporary theatre (48). Drawing upon the concept of technoculture and such analytical approaches as aesthetic, performance, and cultural theories, this essay explores the aesthetic potential and the cultural implications of integrating digital technology into dramatic theatre by examining the use of virtual and augmented reality technologies in recent Technodrama productions such as theatre scholar Susan Broadhurst’s The Jeremiah Project (Blue Bloodshot Flowers) and NTU-IERC’s2Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity, a theatrical adaptation based on Singaporean writer Gopal Baratham’s short story “Ultimate Commodity”).
Over the past decade, the plurality of elements on the contemporary performance stage had generated a desire among dramatists to experiment with the combination of theatre performance and other art and media forms (for example, the use of augmented reality technology to create virtual face masks in Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity). The extensive use of digital media and computer technologies that include mixed reality presentations has morphologically altered the landscape of the performance stage, which had for over two and a half millennia, only been able to incorporate traditional mechanized and analogue technologies that simply serve to complement the play’s thematic concerns. In fact, mixed media performances have become so prominent that the numerous ways in which “live performance now endeavors to replicate television, video and film” is indicative of theatre’s remediation of new media technologies, further legitimating its position within the increasingly mediatized field of cultural production in the twenty-first century (Auslander 24). A recent example of such remediation of new media technologies in the theatre is Robert Lepage’s integration of ‘live’ and virtual realities through the use of 3-D projections in the Metropolitan’s production of Siegfried. Even though Lepage is well-known for his mixed media approach towards the operatic stage, his employment of motion-capture cameras and high-resolution projectors to create a three-dimensional world in which the singers interact with the 3-D images projected on a ring of tilted screens surrounding the performance space is undoubtedly an artistic innovation. However, it is worth noting that the production of mixed media performances is not confined only to the developed West.
Take for example Huzir Sulaiman’s 2007 production of Cogito at the Singapore Arts Festival. The play features the projection of a human head on a specially-designed wire mesh which renders a three-dimensional illusion of the image. As the dramatic action unfolds, the head interacts with the actors in real-time and plays the role of a commentator that criticizes the goings-on of the performance. Interestingly, just as Asia discovers the aesthetic potential of integrating ‘live’ and virtual realities in the theatre, Broadway is also witnessing a surge in the number of mixed media productions. Sam Buntrock’s 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park with George and Jorge Cousineau’s 2011 production of the same musical with the Philadelphia-based Arden Theatre are just two examples. In Buntrock’s production of Sunday, 3-D animation is used to fashion a ‘live’ multimedia conceptual painting alongside dramatic playacting, while in Cousineau’s version, animated copies of the lead character, Georges Seurat, are projected by way of ‘live’ video technology on vertical screens positioned throughout the stage. Indeed, such innovative uses of digital technology in the theatre do attest to Technodrama’s potential in augmenting its own aesthetic qualities through the interface between ‘live’ performance and the computer-generated virtual environment. But then again, the emergence of Technodrama in the late-Twentieth century is by no means a chance occurrence, as its evolution is built upon earlier attempts at integrating technology into dramatic performance. Given that Richard Wagner and Bertolt Brecht were already incorporating technology into their own productions before the late-Twentieth century, I hold that an exploration of these early experiments with technological drama would allow us to better appreciate the unique aesthetic qualities of Technodrama.
Wagner and Brecht: Early Experiments with Technological Drama
Although Technodrama is very much a recent theatrical movement, it is still plausible to assume that many of its morphological traits (e.g., the use of augmented reality technology) might have been influenced by earlier experiments with the creation of technological drama, in particular, Richard Wagner’s and Bertolt Brecht’s incorporation of mixed media technologies into their own productions. However, in contrast to the mechanical technology employed by Wagner and Brecht in their works, wherein the distinction between the physical reality of the actors and the material artificiality of the technological devices is obvious, I would argue that the use of digital technology in Technodrama creates a liminal performance space in which the physical presence of the actors on the stage and the virtuality of the digital devices used in the production exist in constant tension with one another. Furthermore, given the ability of digital devices to accurately reproduce the human body in the virtual realm (be it entirely or in its constituent parts), it would appear that the demarcation between the real and the virtual in Technodrama is increasingly porous. As such, it is imperative that I should explore the ways in which the stages in Wagner’s and Brecht’s early experiments with technological drama were not liminal spaces.
Living in the age of the Industrial Revolution might have inspired Wagner to harness the potential of technology in creating Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Artwork). Gesamtkunstwerke was an inter-media performance where a combination of scenic painting, lighting effects, and acoustical design, served to create a believable ‘virtual’ world on the stage. In fact, Wagner himself had argued that the true and complete artwork consists of the “reciprocal agreement and co-operation of all the branches” and mediums of art (5). What this means is that every theatrical device in a Wagnerian opera, be it the scenery or the actors’ gestures, is in support of the overarching theme of the drama. This structural concept is emblematic of Wagner’s emphasis on harmony in the creation of Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Artwork), whereby, as Patrick Carnegy explains, “[a]ll the constituent elements” in a play “carried equal weight and had to be held in balance” (118). In this sense, Wagner’s employment of mechanical technology serves as a contrived solution that overcomes the physical constraints of a performance stage.
For example in Parsifal, Wagner made the actors pretend to walk while “the scenery, on three huge canvas rolls, moved behind them” (Carnegy 112). Propelled by electric motors, the canvas rolls moved continuously from left to right until the painting of the temple was eventually revealed on the last canvas located at the back of the stage. Such a configuration of the stage set allowed the scenery to change rapidly as the actors pretended to walk through the artificial forest. However, while technology was able to fulfill Wagner’s desire to construct a “stage world that was rooted in myth rather than history,” he could not find the “appropriate visual language” to do so, as the dream-like, illusory world contained symbols that represented aspects of reality from the historical past (Carnegy 131). In this way, the scenery rendered in Wagner’s opera becomes a vortex that sucks the audience into the dreamscape. Perhaps it is this ability of the Wagnerian stage to completely immerse the audience into the virtual world of the opera that sets it apart from the liminality of the Technodramatic stage, wherein the tension between the real and the virtual is reinforced by the ontological ambiguity that pervades the interface between the physical reality of the actors and the virtuality of the digital devices on the same stage. As such, it might be tempting to assume that Technodrama has more in common with the constructivism of Bertolt Brecht’s drama than it does with the dream-like quality of Wagner’s opera.
Brecht made full use of the mechanical technology of the early-Twentieth century (e.g., photographic and filmic projections) in most of his productions. In describing his method as the Verfremdungseffekt, or 'distancing effect'3 Brecht believed that the use of technological devices in performance would prevent the audience from emotionally identifying with the action in the play (as it was the case in dramatic realism). For this reason, Brecht, unlike Wagner, did not seek to immerse his audience into a theatrically rendered virtual world. Instead, by harnessing the power of mechanical technology, he was able to distance them from the dramatic action on the stage, such that they may be compelled to deliberate on the pertinent issues raised in his plays.
For instance in Galileo, Brecht captured the cinematic qualities of “vivid visual images and its combination of fluidity and abruptness” in a theatrical context (Willett 122). The stage designer, Caspar Neher, supplemented the performance with such mixed media tools as the “projections of maps, documents and works of art of the Renaissance,” thereby reinforcing the artificiality of the drama (Esslin 128). Nevertheless, while this Brechtian play may be capable of distancing the audience from the action on the stage by self-consciously exposing the artificiality of the performance, it is not difficult to distinguish between the physical reality of the actors and the material artificiality of the technological devices employed in the drama. As such, the Brechtian stage cannot be considered a liminal performance space, as there is a clear distinction between the real (human) and the artificial (technological) elements presented in the play, whereas the interface between ‘live’ actors and digital technology in Technodrama does not provide the audience with the ability to easily distinguish between the real and the virtual. Therefore, as opposed to the non-liminal stages in Wagner’s and Brecht’s early experiments with technological drama, the Technodramatic stage is, I would argue, a liminal space in which the reality of the actors and the virtuality of the digital devices exist in constant tension with one another and this tension is especially pertinent to the state of the human condition in this age of digital anxiety.
Living in the Age of Digital Anxiety
While it might be tempting to study Technodrama on its own terms without considering the context within which it is produced, the very fact that drama is itself a mode of cultural production in contemporary society clearly suggests that it does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. In this regard, we have to take into account the ways in which the performance of Technodrama is influenced by the socio-cultural contexts from which these plays emerge. As the world continues to evolve into a network of interconnected places due to rapid globalization, any form of knowledge (technological knowledge included) produced in one locality can easily be transferred to another with the help of advanced communication technologies such as the internet. In fact, collaborations between dramatists from different parts of the world have in recent years become a common practice in theatre production; for example, the production team for the Singapore-based Interaction and Entertainment Research Center’s (NTU-IERC) 2007 Technodrama play, Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity, comprises of dramatists from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Spain.
The introduction of digital and high-speed communication technologies into our lives has made us conscious of our position within global space, and for this reason, it is not surprising that we might begin to cast doubts on our ontological status by questioning our own existence. Furthermore, while most Marxist scholars maintain that technological advancement is inextricably tied to capital accumulation, I am inclined to take this notion further by looking beyond the criticism of economic imperatives and at the cultural effects of using technology. In his essay “Time-space Compression and the Postmodern Condition,” David Harvey suggests that time-space compression in the postmodern world radically redefines our perception of time and space, because technological advancements such as the creation of the internet allows for multiple temporalities to exist at the same time over space. In other words, people from different parts of the world can share common experiences and immerse themselves in multiple ‘consciousnesses’ at the same time (albeit virtually) on such high-speed digital communicational platforms as Facebook, Tweeter and Skype.4
According to Harvey, the postmodern condition of such innovations would so undermine the traditional linear correlation between time and space that what we project to be the “future can be discounted into the present” in the same way that “[p]ast experience gets compressed into some overwhelming present,” so that what we are left with is an ephemeral montage of images which is perpetually stuck in the present moment (291). At the same time, technology has become a part of the commodification process, whereby the acceleration in the turnover time of production emphasizes the “values and virtues of instantaneity” and of “disposability,” so much so that the “commodification of images of the most ephemeral sort”—such as those in film and television as well as those on the internet would serve to sustain the accumulative mechanism of capitalism (Harvey 288). It is this ephemerality of information, culture, technological innovations and even our existence that alienates us from any central core of knowledge, such that we become suspicious of our own identity as well as the integrity of our ontological status. As a result of this phenomenon, we begin to live in perpetual doubt and in constant anticipation of the unknown (such as the fear that technology might one day replace us). In turn, the constant redevelopment and redeployment of technology at increasingly rapid rates could only serve to reinforce the asymptotic nature of representation in our postmodern world, as any technological device that is considered new one day might become passé or obsolete the next.
The notion of digital anxiety provides the ideal cultural environment for the creation and development of Technodrama as a new and evolving theatrical paradigm in the postmodern era, whereby the idea of “culture” has become, as Fredric Jameson asserts, “a product in its own right,” especially since the marketplace is “fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself” (Postmodernism 1991, x). Jameson explains that while modernism was somewhat critical of the commodity as an organizing principle in our quotidian lives, postmodernism is in essence “the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (x). In other words, the postmodern condition is governed by a process of producing and consuming commodities at such a rapid rate that a culture of commodity gratification has come to define contemporary social life, thereby contributing to the emergence of a seemingly endless appetite for new goods. In the case of technological products, the ephemeral nature of this culture of commodity gratification is reflected in our constant desire for newer and more sophisticated devices, even if we do not know what we actually need them for. As such, it would appear that our postmodern understanding of technology as an ephemeral and a disposable commodity stands in contrast to the modernist faith in technological innovation as a means by which to improve our lives. As Alan Sikes explains, in the modern era, “[c]hampions of technology argued that advances in industry, transport, and communication would supply new solutions to the most intractable difficulties” in the world (149). However, in light of the tendency of most high-tech corporations to market their technological products as commodities of pleasure, Sikes concedes that despite his longing for technology to change the world, his “Postmodern perspective” compels him to “view such revolutionary promises with suspicion” (149).
Sikes’ suspicion of the world-changing potential of technology in the postmodern era might indeed be symptomatic of the sense of digital anxiety which permeates almost every facet of contemporary society ranging from our anxiety about the arrival of virtual reality technology, to our desire for automated robots that look, talk and behave exactly like real human beings. As our postmodern lives become increasingly dependent on the ephemeral pleasure of using technological devices that reproduce animated copies of our bodies or body parts in the virtual realm, this sense of digital anxiety is quickly transformed into a deeper sense of ontological anxiety about our existence vis-à-vis our perception of our own identity in a highly mediatized world. Such an idea is most significant in a theatrical context. By using sophisticated technological devices as part of its theatricality, the performance of Technodrama within the boundaries of the stage is able to reflect and even reinforce the more deeply ontological anxieties that results from the rapid penetration of digital technology into our lives. In the same way that the sense of digital anxiety in contemporary society might alienate us from any central core of knowledge, the employment of digital technology in Technodrama could potentially alienate us from the materiality of the human condition, especially when it comes to the fragmentation of human identity as well as the ontological uncertainty over our existence and sense of ‘Being’ as shown in the use of augmented reality technology in Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity and the integration of artificial intelligence into The Jeremiah Project (Blue Bloodshot Flowers).
Towards a Technocultural Aesthetic
>Perhaps it is the relative youth of technoculture as a concept that provides the impetus for students and scholars of the humanities to further explore the potential applications of this theoretical model to different modes of cultural expression in contemporary society. While proponents of technoculture have focused primarily on conceptualizing the positive and negative effects posed by the penetration of advanced media technologies into every facet of contemporary social life, this approach has led most cultural theorists as well as literary and theatre scholars to lapse into a discourse of technological determinism (i.e., a critical perspective that only emphasizes the benefits and dangers of using technology) and in doing so, little or even no attention is being paid to the complex aesthetic and cultural implications which pertain to the employment of digital technology in dramatic theatre. In this sense, anyone who wishes to study Technodrama as both an artistic movement and a cultural phenomenon has to recognize that “cultural technologies,” warn Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, “are far from neutral, and that they are the result of social processes and power relations” (xii). On the one hand, dramatic theatre, like any art form, is a mode of communication. On the other hand, technology is capable of becoming a double-edged sword that delivers both good and evil consequences. As such, Technodrama is intrinsically enmeshed in the complex politics of technoculture, whereby the “disempowering habit of demonizing technology as a satanic mill of domination” is pitched against the “postmodernist celebrations of the technological sublime” (Penley & Ross xii).
In light of the deterministic technocultural politics which problematize the incorporation of mixed media technologies in Technodrama, it has become even more challenging to adopt a more nuanced approach towards the examination of the aesthetic and cultural effects of integrating technology into dramatic performance, one that does not brutally condemn or wholly favor the use of technology within a theatrical context. However, while it may not be easy to adopt a balanced viewpoint when criticizing Technodrama, we ought to remember that this evolving theatrical paradigm is not simply a compilation or collage of various media and artistic forms, but rather, its inclination towards experimentation connotes the dissolution of “a boundary” dividing traditionally disparate disciplines, thereby embracing a spirit of multiplicity in dramatic performance (Shepherd & Wallis 137). Theatre in all its manifestations has always been a social spectacle which can neither exclude humans nor remove articles associated with social life from the stage. “The spectacle,” writes Marxist theorist Guy Debord, “is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” whereby the actors on the stage communicate with the audience by means of action and speech, while the visual and audio elements of a performance communicate their own aesthetic and cultural meanings with or without regard to the dramatic content of the play (4). In this sense, the extensive use of mixed media technologies in Technodrama would provide the ideal platform on which critiques of what Stephen Watt calls “a commodity culture driven by the media and the image” can be expressed (39).
“Technoculture,” as Penley and Ross conceive it, “is located as much in the work of everyday fantasies and actions as at the level of corporate or military decision making” and the only way to react against the dominance of technology in our lives is to encourage “the capacity of ordinary women and men to think of themselves as somehow in charge of even their most highly mediated environments” (xiii). As such, there is a need for audiences across the world to deliberate on the pervasiveness of technoculture in contemporary social life and to consider ways of reacting against the effects of the digital anxiety that permeates every facet of a technologically-dependent society. However, amidst the increasing popularity of technoculture as a critical lens by which to interpret such artistic forms as literature and drama, I find it necessary to look beyond Penley’s and Ross’ theoretical perspectives on this concept, in order to understand its relationship with a more aesthetic perspective on the performance of Technodrama. In Times of the Technoculture (1999), Kevin Robins and Frank Webster assert that the “technocultural project, as it is concerned with information and communications technologies, now embraces a very broad range of issues—from economic policy to virtual popular culture—and consequently mobilizes a variety of discourses” in areas such as media, cultural studies and, I would argue, most recently, in Technodrama, where technoculture and aesthetics are deeply intertwined (3). The changing technoscape since the 1960s has been reflected in the overall shift in perspective from the political-economic to the cultural, a phenomenon which has resulted in the “opening up of the agenda, from a concern with the information society to an interest in the virtual life,” thus marking a cultural transition from epistemological doubt to ontological uncertainty (Robins & Webster 3). What this means is that the questioning of knowledge (how we know what we know) has become passé, replaced by a new kind of skepticism that has emerged in the age of digital anxiety, one that is suspicious of the ‘realness’ of our existence in the physical world.
In a postmodern environment where we are anxious to locate our position within global space and to ascertain the veracity of our existence, the interplay of various social, political and cultural forces compels us to constantly anticipate the arrival of new technologies and, in turn, to be alienated by the unfamiliarity of their dominant presence in our lives, even though most of these so-called new and innovative technological products are merely variations of the same basic technical concept. As such, it is this desire for new things that forms the bedrock for the infinite reproduction of reality as we know it (most notably in the form of objects, images, people, environments etc.) by means of machinery. The representational power of machinery in the modernist period of the early-twentieth century was manifested, as Fredric Jameson claims, in the celebration of mechanical systems like the machine gun and the motor car as “visible emblems, sculptural nodes of energy which gives tangibility and figuration to the motive energies of that earlier moment of modernization” (36). As such, while the ‘metaphorical presence’ of technology (i.e., its symbolic power) produced in the era of modernization could articulate certain cultural points—mainly because the materiality of these devices inherently possessed the capacity for tactile representation—this distinctively modernist ability, however, does not hold true for the technology of the postmodern age. Instead, as Jameson points out, machinery in the postmodern age is only capable of representing the process of reproduction which pervades most postmodernist texts. In this sense, beyond the thematic concerns of the dramatic content, the employment of technological devices in Technodrama participates in the process of reproducing ‘realities’ in the form of images and sounds, thereby affording us “some glimpse into a postmodern or technological sublime, whose power or authenticity is documented by the success of such works in evoking a whole new postmodern space in emergence around us” (Jameson 37). Thus, despite the absence of technology’s representative power in the postmodern age, simply experiencing its presence in Technodrama could raise our awareness of the technocultural landscape that has dominated much (if not all) of our postmodern world.
As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace in the new millennium, more sophisticated systems will be created and it is inevitable that these inventions will eventually dominate everyday life in contemporary society. Perhaps no other technological innovation in recent times can match the computer in terms of its pervasiveness in our postmodern world and its ability to shape the ways in which we organize our lives; this latter point becomes even more prominent as more people begin to use the computer for a multitude of activities ranging from writing to the creation of art. With the arrival of digital technology, questions regarding the relationship between reality and virtuality have emerged. Furthermore, the notion of art in new dramatic movements such as Technodrama has also been refashioned by the increasing use in contemporary theatre production of machines with high computing power. Fredric Jameson, in his study of the role that technology plays in the artworks of the postmodern age, argues that the demands which computer technology makes “on our capacity for aesthetic representation” allow for the creation of non-physical entities that challenge the traditional idea of tangible presence, a quality which is characteristic of the older machineries that were produced in the era of modernization (37). However, this new capacity for aesthetic representation is further complicated by the advent of virtual reality, which calls into question any preconceived notion of what constitutes reality. Because virtual reality has the potential to distort the boundary that divides the ‘real’ and the virtual (i.e., the technology could potentially cast doubt on our very own existence), it becomes even harder to formulate an appropriate aesthetic response to works of art that employ this highly advanced but ontologically problematic technology.
While some cultural critics may point out that the apparent ubiquity of virtual reality technology in our postmodern world (as reflected in some Asian advertisements that employ augmented reality technology)5 could potentially result in the impossibility of differentiating between reality and virtuality, such a postulation, I would argue, is driven by the often unsubstantiated fear that virtual reality might one day supplant the physical reality of the world as we know it. As such, the only way to dispel such assumptions about the dangers of integrating virtual reality into our physical world (including theatre production) is to examine how virtual reality functions. Slavoj Žižek, in his filmed lecture The Reality of the Virtual (2004), sees virtual reality as a miserable idea which, in his opinion, is essentially a way to “reproduce in an artificial digital medium our experience of reality” (48). What this means is that virtual reality creates by way of digital media technologies, a ‘double’ that aims to duplicate aspects of what we conceive to be (physical) reality. In other words, virtual reality is very much a technologically reproduced image of reality. Because this image is a product of the ‘real’ world (as it is produced by human programmers), it is possible to suggest that virtual reality exists inside—and not outside—of reality as we know it by creating a new virtual space.
As I mentioned earlier, some cultural critics assume that this new virtual space exists in a realm that is completely separate from reality, that it is the ontological antithesis of the ‘real’ world. In their analysis of the effects that virtual reality imposes on the perception of space in the postmodern age, Robins and Webster assert that “virtual culture is a culture of disengagement from the real world and its human condition of embodied (enworlded) experience and meaning” (244). The argument above is based on the idea that the virtual world is distinct from the so-called ‘real’ world, such that our contact with the technological might serve to immerse us in “an alternative space that will entirely fulfill the desire for effective disconnection and refuge from the world,” a space that compels us to go on “ignoring the erosion of the world’s reality” (Robins & Webster 246-47). However, I would contend that Robins’ and Webster’s distinction between reality and the virtual inadvertently obscures the fact that virtual elements are very much a part of reality, in so far as it remains a product of human intelligence and labor (i.e., it is made by humans using materials from the ‘real’ world). Moreover, even if one were to completely immerse himself, or herself, in the digital world of virtual reality, it is currently impossible to sustain this immersion without the help of tactile elements such as a constant supply of energy which at present can only be produced in the ‘real’ world. Likewise, in the context of Technodrama, the validity of any theoretical model that divides the ‘real’ and the virtual into two distinct entities is undermined by the interaction on the same stage between virtual characters and ‘real’ characters played by ‘live’ actors in The Jeremiah Project (Blue Bloodshot Flowers) and Everyman: The Ultimate Commodity. Therefore, in the subsequent sections of this paper, I will be examining in greater detail the implications of integrating ‘live’ and virtual realities in these two Technodrama plays.
Mixed Realities in Technodrama
Susan Broadhurst’s The Jeremiah Project (Blue Bloodshot Flowers) was an international collaboration at Brunel University between British dramatists and computer engineers and Elodie Berland, a French actress. The project, which investigates the interface between physicality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology in contemporary theatre performance, consists of a number of smaller projects that focus on the theatrical relationship between physical and virtual bodies in different forms of performance, ranging from dance theatre to dramatic theatre. For our discussion, I will be looking at the 2001 staging of Blue Bloodshot Flowers, a Technodrama piece which explores the tensions that exist when technology interacts with the body on the stage. The dramatic narrative of the play is based on a short text of the same name written by Philip Stainer in which the narrator recounts a love affair with an unknown other long since gone. While the aesthetics of the story resides in the narrator’s distorted memory of and unrequited longing for lost love, it does not provide any information on the identity and gender of the lovers and it is not clear if the narrator is even alive. Nevertheless, Broadhurst realized the aesthetic potential that the narrative brought to her investigation of the interface between physical and virtual bodies in a mediatized environment, as “no body,” she argues, be they physical or virtual, “can escape (re)presentation altogether” (48). For this reason, two actors—one ‘real’ and the other virtual—were introduced to the dramatization of this love story, in order to examine the ways in which virtual bodies can be represented in relation to their physical counterparts. With this set-up, the ‘real’ actor performs within the constraints of the stage, while the virtual actor, whose computer-generated animated head is the only body part that is seen by the audience, exists as an interactive image that is projected onto a black cyclorama located at the upstage area. The ‘real’ actor, played by the French actress Elodie Berland, does not speak with her own voice, but instead, a French voiceover serves as a memory device which recounts the lost love in her life. For the virtual actor, visual surveillance and virtual reality technologies were employed to create Jeremiah, an avatar that possesses human traits such as the ability to see and to express his emotions (i.e., he can feel happy, sad or even angry during the course of the Technodrama performance). The decision to cast a female actor and a male virtual avatar is intentional, as Broadhurst wanted to experiment with the audience’s interpretation of the relationship between Berland and Jeremiah, whose virtual presence on the stage is conveniently assumed to be the image of the departed lover in the dramatic narrative. Subsequently, Berland’s relationship with Jeremiah becomes even more ambiguous, as the interaction between these two actors conjures a sense of ontological uncertainty which challenges the neat categorization between the ‘real’ and the virtual. In Blue Bloodshot Flowers, the assumption that physical presence is ‘real’, while virtual presence is not, is further complicated by the fact that Jeremiah is not a passive but a reactive avatar, one whose emotions are shaped by the behavior of bodies and objects within his visual field on the stage. For example, high rates of movement by Berland make him ‘happy’, whereas when she leaves the stage, the lack of company makes him ‘sad’ and in both instances, he expresses his emotions by way of his facial expression. What this means is that Jeremiah’s behavior is directly influenced by the different types and varying intensities of the stimuli that exist on the stage. In fact, he possesses such a high level of artificial intelligence that he can express multiple emotions simultaneously, as he reacts to visual stimulus. Consequently, this non-prescriptive intelligence allows Berland, the ‘live’ actor, to participate in a direct and real-time interaction with the avatar Jeremiah.
For every performance of Blue Bloodshot Flowers, Jeremiah is original in the sense that his behavior is specific to the types of stimuli produced by Berland’s movements on the stage, which range from the rapid tossing of flowers which excites the virtual actor to the exceedingly slow-paced hand gestures that frustrate him. This computer-generated avatar is not simply reproduced as a kind of pre-recorded scripted animation that exists in exactly the same form every time it appears onstage. Instead, he behaves like an improvisation artist who changes his performance style in relation to the situation in which he is immersed, as he interacts with another body that might cajole, abandon or provoke this virtual being, thereby causing it to react accordingly to these stimuli by expressing feelings of happiness, sadness or anger. Even though the facial emotions that Jeremiah expresses in reaction to certain stimuli were electronically programmed by a computer, his ability to demonstrate random behavior adds a tinge of unpredictability to his character, a trait which allows this virtual actor to inch even closer towards becoming a ‘real-life’ being. Because artificial intelligence is capable of producing a virtual body like Jeremiah who can express human emotions in an arbitrary fashion that defies the need to adhere to a fixed script whenever he performs on stage with the ‘live’ actor Berland, Blue Bloodshot Flowers is therefore able to successfully subvert Jameson’s claim that machines in the postmodern age only exist as machines of reproduction.
Far from simply being a tool for reproduction, the play’s use of advanced digital technology to create a life-like virtual being whose unpredictability fragments the formal coherence of the drama is a distinct aesthetic trait in itself. By inviting the audience onstage to join the ‘live’ actor Berland in her interactions with Jeremiah in the second half of the play, Broadhurst brings a new aesthetic experience to contemporary Technodrama, as this participatory mode of artistic appreciation requires the beholder to physically engage the work of art—which in this case is the avatar Jeremiah—in a two-way communication. As they wave their hands and walk about on the stage, members of the audience are able to instigate Jeremiah to respond specifically to their gestures and movements. This interaction between physical and virtual bodies in a single performance space, Broadhurst argues, frustrates the audience’s “expectations of any simple interpretation” of the play which is “complicit with the dominant means of digital representation” in contemporary theatre such as the use of virtual reality and visual surveillance technologies (53). This “metaphysical complicity”—to borrow a term from Derrida—is necessary for any critique of the dominance of technology in our postmodern world to take place, for it would be difficult for us to criticize a certain cultural phenomenon if we were to ignore the machineries that produce the phenomenon in the first place (281). For this reason, Technodrama’s critique of contemporary technoculture necessarily involves the use of advanced digital technologies such as artificial intelligence as part of the dramatic performance, in order to raise the audience’s awareness of the politics of technological dependence in contemporary society, a problem that is only sustained by the narrative’s prevalent sense of digital anxiety about the relationship between humans and advanced technologies.
Consequently, the integration of artificial intelligence into Blue Bloodshot Flowers would serve to alienate the audience (in very much the same way as Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt) by allowing them close contact with a virtual being, thereby arousing their awareness of the dominance in contemporary society of advanced digital technologies, in particular, the commodified technological devices produced by multi-national corporations for mass consumption.
In fact, I would argue that the audience, through their physical interaction with Jeremiah, is better able to reflect on the ways in which technology has infiltrated every facet of contemporary life to the extent that it becomes increasingly challenging to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the virtual. Indeed, Blue Bloodshot Flowers is a self-reflexive dramatic performance in which we as humans “re-perform ourselves” in a highly mediatized theatrical environment, “in order to understand through culture’s eyes, what our performance means” in relation to the technocultural landscape that is external to the theatre (Liu & Davenport 238). As such, not only does the employment of artificial intelligence redefine the conventional reproductive status of technology in contemporary society (as is seen in Jeremiah’s ability to adapt to different situations in a theatrical context), it is also indicative of how today’s advanced technologies behave more like humans than mechanical constructs, a paradoxical situation which results in the blurring of the boundary between the ‘real’ and the virtual.
A Conflict between the Virtual and the ‘Real’
The potential for such conflation of the ‘real’ and the virtual is pushed even further in NTU-IERC’s Everyman, wherein questions about the reality of the virtual and the virtuality of the ‘real’ (i.e., questions that reflect the digital anxiety about existence in a highly mediatized world) become even more apparent as augmented reality is integrated into a theatrical environment that consists of ‘live’ actors, such that any assumption on the part of the audience of the neat distinction between humans and virtual bodies becomes problematic. Augmented Reality (AR) in the theatre is an outgrowth of table-top augmented reality art installation projects which evolved in the early 90’s (Azuma 4). In the table-top AR configuration a participant wearing a mobile virtual-reality headset could train the device on a black and white marker and witness a virtual object superimposed in the place of that marker. As Ronald Azuma explains it, the more familiar Virtual Reality Technology - which creates a virtual world that “completely replaces the real world outside”—is different from Augmented Reality in that AR “supplements, rather than supplants, the real world” (1). To this end, a mixed media performance based on Augmented Reality Technology would need to combine the “real and the virtual environment[s],” making them “interactive in real time” and rendering the virtual image of the ‘live’ performance to be “registered in three dimensions” (Azuma 356). NTU-IERC’s Technodrama project, Everyman, attempts to accomplish this, beginning with the idea that if the interaction between the marker and the human participant were to be inverted, so that the marker became mobile and the participant static, it would be possible to employ Augmented Reality Technology in the theatre, where the audience becomes the static participant, while the actors set the mobile marker into motion (according to this scenario, in the place of a virtual reality headset the audience would see the virtual-object superimposition via an onstage screen). Such innovations when employed in the theatre should allow for the adoption of two ontologically distinct if sometimes overlapping spaces on the stage—one ‘real’ and the other ‘virtual’.
The performance of Everyman at the 2007 Toronto Fringe Festival involved the incorporation of computer-generated imagery (CGI) into traditional theatrical environments and, conversely, the inclusion of traditional theatrical scenes into a virtual environment. As the subject of their Technodrama play, NTU-IERC chose Singaporean writer Gopal Baratham’s short story “Ultimate Commodity,” which it recognized as the ideal vehicle with which to investigate augmented reality’s theatrical possibilities. Baratham’s short story imagines a future in which a Singaporean scientist has created a formula (Substance X) which causes all those who ingest it to undergo a physical transformation so as to become universal organ donors (i.e., so that their organs could be harvested and transplanted into any other person's body without fear of rejection). In this imagined future, the Singaporean Government has taken the liberty of adding Substance x to the city's drinking water, with the objective that Singapore might finally fulfill its destiny as a country where the government's claim that “Our people have become our only resource [...] has become literally true” (Jernigan 36). However, a significant side-effect of the formula is that it also causes the various distinguishing characteristics of Singaporeans to disappear, so that every person becomes morphologically identical to every other person. Against this backdrop, Everyman focused on a small part of the larger story; on the identity crisis which occurs when a father (Binny) confuses his daughter (Leeni) with his wife (Ri).
Throughout the Technodrama play, augmented reality proved itself to be uniquely suited to the telling of this story due to the fact that Binny could be played by a ‘live’ actor even as the other two characters’ features could be ‘augmented’ by virtual face masks superimposed into the scene with Binny by means of screen projection. What NTU-IERC had created, in essence, were two stages: a ‘virtual stage’ and a ‘real stage’. In the ‘real’ stage the audience would always and only see the real actors, albeit outfitted with the necessary devices used to deliver the necessary projections to the virtual stage. In the virtual stage (which was situated side by side with the ‘real’ stage - so that each shared half the stage) the audience would see these same actors from the real stage projected onto a large screen, albeit augmented with their respective ‘virtual masks’. This set-up would allow ‘real’ actors the ability to interact with the augmented ones in the virtual stage. Moreover, this conceptualization also allows for the possibility that while a scene can begin with Binny talking to two characters (his wife and his daughter) it can end with him talking to a single character (a morphed version of his mother and daughter) or, even, with him talking to himself, as his features morph with those of the remaining characters. In relation to the dramatic content of Everyman, this innovative conception not only helps the audience to visualize the elimination of distinguishing characteristics in real-time, but also serves to reinforce the more general theme of the work—i.e., that perhaps contemporary Singaporeans have already begun the process of losing their various distinguishing characteristics. Furthermore, the simultaneous staging of ‘real’ characters with ‘simulated’ characters also resonates with the theme of identity conflation, itself a prevalent theme in Baratham's original text, even though this interplay of ‘real’ and virtual bodies in a single theatrical space raises questions about the assumed distinction between the ‘real’ and the virtual (but more on this later, as I will look first at the issue of identity conflation brought about by the use of augmented reality in theatre).
The potential of AR to express the nightmare which might arise from identity conflation became most notable in the scene that sees the lead character, Binny, mistake his wife Ri for his daughter, Leeni, because the two have become identical. The idea of ‘cloned’ or ‘confused’ identities among the characters in the play was implemented by ‘replacing’ the head of one actor with that of another. As a result, the audience is able to simultaneously see both the masked player on the virtual stage and the unmasked player on the ‘live’ stage. Placing the virtual stage and the ‘real’ stage side by side serves to accentuate the meta-theatrical elements of Everyman, as both the ‘live’ action and the virtual performance reflected on the screen are explicitly presented in real-time on a single stage, thereby providing the audience with a ‘double take’ on the artificiality of the dramatic action. The idea of splitting the stage into ‘live’ and virtual performance spaces not only makes it explicit to the audience that everything happening on screen is happening in real-time, but it also serves an important thematic function in the actual narrative, as the audience—in witnessing both stages simultaneously—is allowed to better identify with the very identity confusion which perplexes the characters themselves. For instance, when Leeni very nearly seduces her own father, the audience’s investment in this identity confusion is compounded by the fact that it witnesses both scenes simultaneously (i.e., what looks like the mother seducing the father from one perspective, is very clearly the daughter seducing her own father from another). Consequently, while a more traditional masked performance only allows audiences the ability to see the role-specific face mask, NTU-IERC’s Everyman simultaneously allows the audience the opportunity to pierce through the materiality of the mask to the actual human face of the performer playing the character, such that the audience encounters what I call the ‘double vision’ of witnessing in real-time, the identity confusion unfolding in the virtual space projected on the screen as well as in the ‘live’ action.
As the ‘live’ actors playing the characters Binny, Leeni and Ri in the ‘real’ stage are pitched against their virtual counterparts on the projection screen, it is tempting to presume that the physical presence of the ‘live’ actors renders them more ‘real’ than the virtual presence of the virtual characters whose faces can be morphed from one to another by way of augmented reality technology. In contrast to the explicit artificiality of the avatar Jeremiah, a virtual being in Broadhurst’s Blue Bloodshot Flowers that is constructed entirely by computer technology, the creation of the augmented reality environment in Everyman involves a combination of computer-generated-imagery and real-time video recordings of the ‘live’ actors, whereby the virtual images in the form of virtual face masks are juxtaposed with the human images on the projection screen that divides the ‘real’ performance space from that of the virtual. As such, it is easy to conclude that Jeremiah is obviously a virtual being, whereas the same cannot be that easily said of the virtual manifestations of Binny, Leeni and Ri, as their existence on their projection screen is marked by the symbiosis of a virtual face and a technologically reproduced human body. In this sense, they are neither entirely virtual nor are they completely ‘real’. Thus, it would be unfair to ascertain that just because the virtual characters can only appear in the virtual stage, they are considered constructs and are therefore ‘unreal’, for it could be argued that the replication on the projection screen of the images of the ‘live’ actors who perform in the ‘real’ stage might cause them to lose their ‘realness’, assuming that such a thing even exists.
If the difference between the ‘real’ and the virtual is only a matter of perception (on the part of the audience), then perhaps a better understanding of the conflict between the virtuality of the ‘real’ and the reality of the virtual on the Technodramatic stage could be attained by turning to Slavoj Žižek’s reading of the last scene in Robert Heinlein’s 1942 science fiction novel, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. Žižek focuses on the part of the story where the protagonist Hoag instructs the private investigator Randall and his wife Cynthia not to open the window of their car when they drive home to New York. At first, the journey proceeds without mishap as the couple follows the prohibition. However, things take a turn when they witness an accident in which a child is run over by a car. Initially, they remain calm and continue to drive, but upon seeing a patrol officer, they stop the car to inform him of the accident. As Cynthia lowers the side window a little, they realize that there is no sunlight, no cops, no children and no sound outside the open window, nothing except for a grey and formless mist which merges with the window and begins to drift into the car. Randall forcibly cranks up the window and suddenly, the sunny scene complete with the policeman, the sidewalk and the city is restored. Thus, by deciding to roll down the window just a little and peering through the opening, he realizes that there is nothing, but through the glass, the scene of city traffic and sunny streets remains perfectly intact.
What is crucial here is the line of demarcation which separates the outside of the car from the inside and in this case, this line is materialized as the windowpane. The discord between inside and outside is most apparent if we were to situate ourselves on the inside of a car. Žižek explains that this basic phenomenological experience of disproportion occurs when we perceive the world beyond the windowpane as “another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car” (15). As we sit comfortably in the car, the external world outside the car “appears to be fundamentally ‘unreal’, as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis,” such that it seems as though the objects of the outside world exist only as “a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane” (Žižek 15).
In other words, the external reality is ‘fictional’ and if we were to join Randall and Cynthia in unwinding the windowpane and in so doing, allow some of the outside world to flow into the inside of the car, the presumption that the external is fictional, whereas the internal is ‘real’, would collapse, as the neat division between reality and fiction is ruptured.
Essentially, what Heinlein’s science fiction and Žižek’s analysis of it tell us is that the distinction between the ‘real’ and the virtual is artificial. The horror that Randall and Cynthia experience in recognizing that there is no such thing as an inside or an outside world is in fact an artifice that shapes the story into a work of art. Moreover, what is truly horrific in this last scene of the novel is the way in which the virtual and the ‘real’ have bled seamlessly into one another, a fusion which has been theatrically (and corporeally) expressed in Everyman.
Relating Žižek’s point to the audience’s phenomenological experience of the barrier (i.e., the projection screen) which separates the virtual stage and the ‘real’ stage in the Technodrama play, let us imagine that the ‘real’ stage, together with the space that the audience occupies, constitutes the inside of the car, while the virtual stage becomes the external world that lies beyond the barrier. Since the projection screen is physically present on the stage, its materiality becomes too jarring for the audience to ignore and in this sense, it is similar to the tightly shut windowpane of the car in Heinlein’s story, whereby the outside world has been completely shut off. In this way, the virtual characters and the virtual space in which they perform are considered fictional, so long as the projection screen remains intact. However, once this barrier is removed to allow the virtual characters and the virtual stage to spill into the so-called ‘real’ stage, then the differentiation between the virtual and the ‘real’ becomes distorted in the same way that the assumed separation between fiction and reality in Žižek’s example of the car had been overturned. What this means is that the ‘real’ is perhaps no more different than the virtual, as the expression of the reality of the virtual and the virtuality of the ‘real’ in Everyman reflects the way in which the politics of technoculture has permeated our postmodern world to the extent that humans can become virtual characters in cyberspace, while virtual entities are able to exist as veneers that can be attributed to the identities of human beings living in what we regard as reality. Consequently, it is the foregrounding of this tension between the virtual and the real in the performance of Technodrama that reinforces and sustains the liminality of the Technodramatic stage.
Throughout this essay, we have looked at the ways in which the performance of Technodrama has gradually developed into a technocultural aesthetic in the age of digital anxiety, a period marked by the dominance of consumerism which perpetuates the ephemerality of knowledge, culture, technological innovations and even our existence in space. As such, the pervasive sense of digital anxiety in contemporary society becomes a structure of feeling that alienates us from any knowledge system that serves to ascertain the veracity of our identity or the integrity of our ontological status. As we have seen in the two Technodrama plays examined in this paper, dramatic form is both mutable and fluid in the way that the virtual stage bleeds into the so-called ‘real’ stage. Through the interaction between physical and virtual bodies in a single performance space, the technological devices that these plays employ are able to communicate to the audience both aesthetic and cultural meanings, as these devices draw the audience’s attention to the technocultural politics surrounding the dominance of technology in contemporary society, while simultaneously allowing them to appreciate the formal beauty of the interface between the human and the technological. This dual-role that technology plays in enhancing the aesthetic qualities of Technodrama and in inviting the audience to deliberate on the ramifications of technological dependence is by no means an erasure of the merits that dramatic content brings to this evolving theatrical form. Rather, the emotional relationships articulated by the content of each of the two Technodrama plays provide the basis on which the idea of having ‘live’ actors interact with virtual actors can be materialized into dramatic action. Hence, while the unique morphological traits of Technodrama may serve to undermine the conventional distinction between reality and virtuality as separate entities, these same traits are also capable of foregrounding the constructivism of this evolving theatrical art form, whereby the performance of Technodrama, with its employment of different types of digital technology, is as much a fabrication as the technological devices themselves.
- 1. Such technological devices include electric pulleys for the rotation of painted scenes in Wagner’s operas as well as photographic and filmic projections in most of Brecht’s plays.
- 2. NTU-IERC refers to the Nanyang Technological University – Interaction and Entertainment Research Centre, a mixed-reality and digital media research facility located in Singapore.
- 3. According to Brecht, the distancing effect “prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor,” thus affording them the role of “a consciously critical observer” (91).
- 4. In March 2011, the emerging field of Digital Interactive Theatre was further enriched by the production of the world’s first “Skype Play” entitled “You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas. You Wouldn’t Know Her, She Lives in London.” However, a discussion on the cultural implications of this production is beyond the scope of this paper.
- 5. Willis Wee’s article "5 Cool Augmented Reality Case Studies in Asia" takes an in-depth look at this recent cultural phenomenon in Asia. The URL for this article is http://www.penn-olson.com/2011/04/20/augmented-reality-in-asia.
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Biography: Stephen Fernandez works at the intersection of dramatic theatre, critical theory and digital media. His research interests include technoculture, postmodernism, and the interface between technology and performance. In fact, he is particularly concerned about the impact of digital technology (especially virtual and augmented realities) on the quality of human existence in the Twenty-first century. Besides pursuing such academic topics, Stephen is also an active theatre practitioner. Over the past few years, he has directed several original plays in Singapore, some of which have been produced in support of charitable causes such as the International Down Syndrome movement. Stephen is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo.
© 2011 Stephen Fernandez, used by permission.