Written By Jenn Snider
In lens-based practices, and specifically performance art made for the camera, the lens is many things. Both a willing collaborator and stoic informant, the camera is an intermediary, bridging artist and audience. The camera is also a subject, elicited to act as an extension of both the image creator and the viewer. As a boundary-maker, the camera demarcates a site for the testing and breaking of limits: physical and conceptual limits of the body, of the frame, of the artist’s relationship to an audience, and of the audience’s awareness of life extending beyond the image—an image that is constructed by way of the gaze as both whole and partial.
Over the course of Fall 2017, the 7a*md8 series presented by the Toronto Performance Art Collective (producers of the biennial 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art) offered audiences a prismatic look at lens-based performance practice mediated by social media platforms. A unique departure for a collective with a history of presenting critical, live/in-the-flesh performances, 7a*md8 unearths fresh prospects at the intersection of performance and new media forms, in a context of remote access. The works, curated by 7a*11d collective members Golboo Amani and Francisco-Fernando Granados with the assistance of Shalon Webber-Heffernan, shimmer with histories and gestural patterns, echoing actions, words spoken, and images alive with the hum of engagement through the access provided through online platforms. The variety in the artists’ approaches, the urgent and raw nature of much of the production, and the vastness of a potential ocean of followers are just a few of the many facets of this series that extend beyond the lens.
Asked to write a parallel piece to comment on the curatorial framework of the 7a*md8 project, my approach has been experiential—to think through the elements of an experience of the collected works by revisiting them again as a leisurely viewer in contrast to the avid follower I was during their initial delivery. With much of the series now available away from the live streamed or otherwise time-ascribed context of their presentation, after review I’m re-convinced of two things: one, the collection presents a weighty and eclectic medley of works that together strike a discerning yet hopeful chord for a future of interdisciplinarity in performance; and, two, mediation is the key component when considering the interventionist and productive ethos of this series.
To mediate in the context of performance art is to act both generatively and disruptively. As a process of extending, connecting, relating, and intervening, mediation in performance art transmits and influences and augments elements through action and the body. Whether these elements are conventions or contexts, themes or ideas, objects or audiences, the alterations and maneuvers made along the way generate an essential tension that lives at the heart of the mediating process: a cascade of potentials between what was, what is, and what could be. The artists who use this tension can transcend or at the very least transform the immediate constraints of the medium/media they’re working with, such as performance for the camera shared on Instagram and live streamed/uploaded to YouTube. This use of tension as a bridge provides opportunities for artists and audiences to engage with unfamiliar and thought-provoking work in new ways, in this case the appropriation of the ubiquitous, often noisy, proprietary platform of social media.
By positioning 7a*md8 within the social media space, and linking production to the tools and technologies inherent to these platforms, the curators have invited the consideration of a politics of access—asking what it means for artists and audiences when any space becomes a venue, any time offers a performance, and distance away becomes no obstacle to engagement. By freeing the bounds of performance from time and space, as well as the cumbersome weight of the camera thanks to the technology of a smartphone, accessibility takes on a malleable character. Opening up to alternative arenas of practice and new experiences for artists and audiences alike, the politics at play here are also altered by the expectation that the additional layers of complexity will modify how artists and audiences approach the negotiation of creating/viewing the work.
But is it enough to suggest that the mediation processes in performances made for the social media-connected camera are contending with overlapping influences alone? Or, does the way that the lens, the performing body, and the sensory/social points of access for audiences intersect open up potential new avenues of creation and meaning? And furthermore, where the artist’s performance is mediated by their body, their environment, and their use of the lens, how significant is it that the technology behind the lens mediates so much of the view of the artist and the performance, the material, and the sensory experience for the audience? What is being altered, and what is staying relatively the same?
If there is a potential future for performance art that desires to disengage from the “pure form” of its origins and embrace new spheres, this intersectional, interdisciplinary approach to contemporary practice will need to address how critical intuitions can manifest amid the throng of mainstream commercial distribution streams. The distribution style of the online platform, and the scheduling of posts or particular algorithms determining the feed, mediates both the audience’s access/engagement and the artists’ realization of the work. These factors are already a hazy collection to theorize upon, let alone accounting for the complexity of the internet’s invisible borders that censor and filter for political control and/or economic gain. The impact of a global scale of mediation and its panopticonian entailments on the artists’ and audiences’ engagement is inherent here and must certainly be a factor to contend with in the wake of a post-social media, post-performance-artist-as-celebrity world.
With so much that is new, there are at least two facts that we can safely suppose will remain: one, once it reaches them, an audience will always internally mediate the work through their experience of it, who they are, and their understanding/what they bring to the moment when the work is viewed; and, two, all the active mechanisms and points of leverage of all this mediation will always be brought to bear on the artist. It is still the artist at the centre, and it is their decisions and their work which generate the engagement offered to their audience, and ultimately, the meaning and expression available for interpretation and negotiation. Regardless of the form of dissemination the artist is always the central factor of any contention. This is perhaps something that remains of the critical intuitions of the history of performance as it transforms in this mediated context: the possibility of an artist action as an arena of subjective articulation and representation that supplements and politicizes available images of bodies.
For audiences of performance on social media, versus live performance audiences, the artist’s performing body is simultaneously farther away and more available. Through social media, it is possible for audiences to situate their experience of the artist’s performance in ways unavailable in a live performance. Audiences are afforded new powers over the ways in which they interact with these works of art: a viewer can fixate, replay, and obsess over details with an abandon enabled by the fact that no one is watching them watch the performance. Emboldened by anonymity, they can comment, offering praise or criticism with a certain abandon. And of course, with an availability unencumbered by scheduling it is possible for a viewer to experience, engage, and interpret the works within this series no matter where, or when they are. One moment can be played in infinite repetition, or scrolled through. Yet, as that capacity for interaction is bound by the mandates of the software, all access remains mediated. Performance becomes content, content creates engagement, and all engagement becomes data tethered to the dynamics of the mysterious algorithms at play.
Forces of mediation move upon individuals making performance for the camera as acts of heteronomous negotiation to achieve an autonomous expression. That autonomous expression is multiplied and variegated by the distribution network of idiosyncratic, individual nooks of interpretation and replication that hibernate in the devices of each active participant. This perspective—or rather, the view that social media brings an interposed medley of perspectives—disrupts attempts to define human experience as one thing, one kind, or one way to be. In performance for the social media lens, if only one thing is certain, it is that meaning is aggregate. Everything else remains to be seen.