How to Breathe Soul Into a Machine! A Plea for More Digital Tenderness

The digital age! If only it would just disappear? Can we turn it off? Real people want to see real people!

by Christian Römer

Digital topics have long since arrived on Germany’s performing arts scene, the heroes and heroines of the internet go onstage as dramatic characters. Whether it’s cyberbullying in Berlin’s schoolyards, Assassinate Assange onstage, or Hamlet’s Denmark in a modern surveillance ambience, German-speaking cultural institutions tend to reproduce digital phenomena in analogue formats and, preferably, in dystopian fashion. But is that all? What sort of virtual spaces could theatre take place in? Where are the stages that broadcast online? And how do artistic projects develop their own aura there?

Sceptics of the movement will probably agree with Walter Benjamin, who once stated that electronic reproduction potentially endangers ‘the aura of authenticity and uniqueness’ of an artwork. This decay is based both on the concern ‘of the masses in today’s life’ to bring things closer to each other spatially, and to overcome the idea of the unique ‘through the recording of its reproduction’. Collective aesthetics lead to social emancipation and democratisation but also bring about the danger of political appropriation, as is evident in the rise of fascism today.

In view of the aestheticisation of politics in the digital age and the suggestive use of social media in political spaces, Benjamin seems confirmed in his cultural-theoretical assumptions by the avant-garde of ‘copytainment’ performing on the digital stages of the new right wing. But are the opportunities even about electronic reproduction? Isn’t it rather about how artists can give their soul to machines and platforms? How do we develop a more tender relationship to the medium itself?

Could a more reflective approach help future projects that play with the elimination of continuity of time and space, and the dissolution of audience and actors? The challenge – and this not only holds true for the performing arts – is in the combination of new technology with the demands and qualities of art as a social experience and unique immersive event. We need technical and aesthetic research to expand the performing arts through the new perspectives of the digital revolution.

But who will take responsibility for this pioneering work? How much space is there for free art if the funds for research into virtual reality are mainly provided by social networking companies? Of course, artists can participate in these developments, but for the time being they remain in the hands of convergent corporate headquarters in technological terms. The internet industry wishes for the virtual ‘Cirque de Soleil’ – the perfect reproduction of artists, animals and sensations for online entertainment’s sake. It is not about the uniqueness of art production, but about its mass suitability – the maximum reproduction paired with Auto-Play and a paywall. Let us not leave research into virtual space exclusively to corporations and the porn industry!

But who authorises artists to enter into a protected mode of research that evades hasty critical assessments? Even though Berlin’s cultural policy has now set an example by introducing an innovation fund for digital culture and Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation has set up a funding programme, in the end, we are the ones who are responsible.

If we see art as an essential part of a reflective system that offers space for radical criticism, we must empower ourselves to give digital spaces the aura of Benjamin was talking about: ‘the unique emergence of a distance, as close as it may be’.

Christian Römer

Head of Cultural Policy and New Media Division, Heinrich Böll Foundation Berlin

He studied stage direction at New York University, Tisch school of the arts. He specializes in the conception and organization of festivals and conferences such as the annual workshop conference Theater und Netz (Theatre and Internet) in Berlin in cooperation with the national onlineplatform for theatre critique


This article was published in the ETC Casebook Digital Theatre – A Casebook in 2018. 

Read all published articles of Digital Theatre – A Casebook here

Image: Idiomatic © Albert Dobrin

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