One of the most well-known lines in Shakespeare’s plays is Bernardo’s question at the beginning of Hamlet: “Who’s there?”
Who is that ‘who’ and where is that ‘there’? It is a doorway into doubt. But it is also a question that cuts quickly to the ontological core of theatre.
“Who’s there?” can be asked of the characters in the play, just as it can be asked of the actors who embody the characters on stage. Although, as Richard Schechner pointed out, “actors exist in the field of a double negative. They are not themselves, nor are they the characters they impersonate. A theatrical performance takes place between ‘not me…not not me.’ The actress is not Ophelia, but she is not not Ophelia” (64).
It can be asked of the playwright, who is twice removed from the play, while still lingering in the play’s wings. If text is what stands in for the absent author, then the actors on stage stand in for text and author, but also for themselves. This nexus alone epitomises “who’s there?”
It can be asked of the ‘world’ of the play that supports that ‘who’ and that ‘there’; the conventions of writing that structure that ‘world’ and the materials (human and non-human) that give it shape and life on stage.
It can be asked of the play’s ‘others,’ which are the other plays or ‘worlds’ with which it communicates, either through textual cross-reference, adaptation, translation, embodiment or other means of representation. The traces that remain from these interactions may not be readily recognisable, they may even circumvent the logic of the archive, but these minute shifts have a cumulative effect over time on the state of a play’s evolving identity. How many Hamlets are there in the world? Too many to count.
The question “Who’s there?” can also be asked of audiences, ‘who’ go ‘there’ to collude in the realisation of this dramatic ‘who’ and ‘there,’ and who participate in this ‘worlding’ experience.
Ethereal Materials asks what “being there” might mean in the context of performance today. It is a research project on the ontological state of performance in an age of the digitalization of everything.
The four keywords in the project’s subtitle, “being and performance in virtual worlds,” function as starting points for a line of inquiry into this topic.
What constitutes a world in today’s digital context? What are its virtual capacities? What does it mean to perform in a virtual world? What does it mean “to be there” in a performance in a virtual world? What is the material status of being in performances in virtual worlds?
The scope of these questions is large. Possibly infinite. In order to keep some grasp on this topic, the project will be based on the following methodology:
- Yuriwaka. This is the practice-led strand of the project. It involves my translation into English of a 16th century text from the Japanese recitative dance form, Kowakamai. The title of the text is 大臣 (Daijin), but the story it portrays is known by many names – among them Yuriwaka. I will then adapt the translation into a mixed media VR installation, which will have at its core, the problem of “being there”.
- Field notes. This is the mapping strand of the project. It involves documenting performance practices in virtual worlds. These worlds may be entirely online, offline, or somewhere in between. The aim here is partly to locate the boundaries of the field, and partly to gain insight into what being in performance might mean for other artists. These notes will include descriptions of experienced worlds and reflections on some of the issues these worlds raise in relation to the project’s core questions. This website will house those notes.
- Critical texts. The third strand of this methodology is bibliographic. It involves the curation of an annotated bibliography of readings that intersect with the project themes. It will allow space for items that may seem radically opposed or totally heterogeneous to this topic. The reason for that, is that all corpuses play a game of hide and seek, revealing truths at the expense of covering others up. This project is mindful of positionality. Not only of its author, your servant here, but of the logic contained within texts as discursive formations, as well as the logic in the performance of the reading of those texts. Which coordinates make the map? Which don’t? This is not a problem I will be in any position to solve. But it is one I will try to keep in plain sight.
- Synthesis. The three strands will merge together in long-form critical writing. This will take essay form with a view to publication.
This is, for now, the basic ground for Ethereal Materials: Being and Performance in Virtual Worlds. I expect tremors and transformations ahead. If any of this is of interest to you, you might consider subscribing to the notes produced here. You can of course opt out any time.
The plan is to run this project over the next two years, possibly extending to a third year. I will be applying for project funding over the months ahead as the parameters and terms of the research become clearer.
The outcomes of the project will include first the mixed-media installation, Yuriwaka. The final form of that project is open-ended at this point, but will find form through experimentation. Another outcome will be the publication of at least one conference presentation, and based on that, a journal article. These are the minimum expected outputs. Other opportunities may arise.
Finally, the project has been set up (initially) on a solo basis. However, any research is always based on the research and creations of others and always in the direction of others. I am very much interested in developing collaborations through this project, so if it is of interest to you or intersects with something you are doing, please do please get in touch and perhaps we can develop some synergy.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002.