Lessons from Covid-19 – How theatre reaches its audience digitally (2)

The digitisation of theatre first failed over 20 years ago. Now it’s time to break new digital ground, in all the arts. We have the economic necessity and technical opportunity. Now is the time for transformation. On the day Part 1 appeared, Bern’s theatres were closed, along with clubs, bars and museums. Between the first lockdown and this measure, not much happened culturally, not even in the development of new technical possibilities for online arts access.

A personal snapshot

The IGNM Bern, of which I was president until recently, was at least able to organise two concerts, but had to cut the programme of the second concert. Our strategy of bringing new things from out of town to Bern is Corona-incompatible. But we were lucky that both concerts could take place at all, because they were planned for early autumn and the Swiss quarantine rules provide for exceptions for artists. Personally – as a researcher, consumer and lecturer – I can’t complain. The “in-between time” was not great, but ok. Among other things, I was able to advance two research projects with artists (though without acquiring third-party funding for them), attend a good three dozen art events myself and give a lecture to an academic audience on a matter close to my heart: the unequal relationship between science and art. For many others, however, the balance sheet at the end of the year will be a sad one – with the prospect of prolonging the misery until autumn 2021. Since no one knows when vaccinations will come and how well they will work – after all, the famous “Phase 3” only tests their health compatibility, not their effectiveness – it is time for all of us to look digitally: How do I get my personal encounters with art online? Or rather: How do I get to the audience online?

The situation of the artists

For artists, the two-tier society is reinforced: those who are well positioned make a good living and have no financial reason to change. He or she “only” suffers from audience deprivation. Those who are poorly positioned have no livelihood and must change for financial reasons alone. Yet it is precisely the few but wonderful online concerts by superstars that generate mixed feelings: on the one hand, they raise the perceived value of art among the public, which helps everyone, but on the other hand, they raise the question of whether in the future only the most successful will earn money with art. Because in many contexts,“the winner takes it all” applies on the internet. “Although there is also the famous“long tail” effect, the uncertainty is great. The example of the IGNM Bern outlined at the beginning illustrates a general experience: the health crisis forces a rethinking of content – in the case of the IGNM Bern, the answer to the concrete question “How can I show foreign innovations without bringing artists* into the country?”. On such a generic level, the question is answerable. For many concrete projects, however, it means the end and thus forces a reorientation. Making art accessible to the public online is an opportunity in the current situation, but it poses great challenges. With the factual – objective and subjective – change in the quality of the art experience in the online channel, possibilities and necessities for art creation change. It is usually much more productive to invent new content for online channels than to adapt the new medium for existing content. But this takes time and ingenuity. The current concern is that the established are sitting out the health crisis and don’t want to promote new things. Too many arts practitioners believe that art is sui generis above economic contexts. This myth fits perfectly with the narrative of cognitive-cultural capitalism, which seeks to use ideational values to increase demand. It is popular to communicate the myth with tactics of political populism, such as demonstrating shameful contempt for any demand. This is promising in good times, but now blocks the much-needed outreach to the public.

A look back

From a historical perspective, one can nevertheless look to the future with optimism. Innovation is just as intrinsic to art as the subsequent adoption of art techniques by others, who then compete with art. Once art brought colours, sounds, stories into people’s lives and thus gained social significance. In the course of time, there were more and more non-artistic sources of sensual pleasure and art developed new characteristics that enriched people’s lives. Most great composers and many great painters invented new forms of artistic expression, which were subsequently appropriated and cheaply reproduced by non-artists, which in turn forced art to innovate. Art, for its part, repeatedly appropriated technical innovations and used them for new forms of expression of its own. Unfortunately, this did not yet work in the first lockdown: when art lost the competition, it was less present than before. Too few artists used the digital channels, too many just waited.

A first vision of the future, a principle and a common ground

But there are alternatives to waiting. Curiosity is generally an important signpost for the digital transformation of disciplines. This also applies to art. Digital answers can often be generated to questions that are inaccessible in analogue form, for example: What does a concert sound like inside a violin? How would a picture change if the people depicted changed their perspectives? How does one experience a play that can be viewed from different perspectives at will? There are many exciting questions of this kind that go beyond the scope of convention. Some have been answered at great expense through experimental productions. With digital technology, however, these experiments can be carried out much more comprehensively and easily and, above all, questions can be answered to which there are no answers with analogue art. In this context, technology is in particular demand as an extension of human capabilities. It should by no means serve to “domesticate” – neither the performers nor the consumers – but to “empower”. This principle can be vividly illustrated by the example of theatre: I am allowed to temporarily manipulate theatre audiences, but if I do, I have to make it visible to them at least afterwards. The same applies to the use of technology in art, which brings with it a lot of new potential for manipulation. Because it’s about enriching the audience and expanding individual agency in theatre. The similarities go even further: both digital tools and theatre serve to expand human agency – theatre mentally, digital tools physically and cognitively. By associating myself with the heroine in theatre, I simulate her heroism and in the process ideally acquire the option to act heroically in comparable situations. Harald Schmidt brilliantly and cynically demonstrated this principle using the example of changing a tyre. By using digital tools, I can hear, see or think better accordingly. In the digital transformation of theatre, the ambitions for mental and physical-cognitive expansion of human abilities can come together. Similarly, a new form of spatial music can emerge or the mental play with image compositions can find a sensual expression.

New forms of feedback

Of course, the taboo of intransparent manipulation is also a source of artistic play. The cave experiment is well-known: the theatre performance in the cave is illuminated by the visitors’ headlamps. But how would it be – according to an idea by Peter Danzeisen – if we measured the visitors’ attention, their state of arousal or their synchronisation with the stage heroine? We could also do that with online streaming at home, with feedback on the lighting and the soundscape on stage or the image quality for the audience. Years ago, Stelarc already had his muscles controlled by packet flows on the internet. His radical delivery illustrated the untapped potential for online relationships, but the possibilities go much further.

An early failure of digitalisation

Back in the day, we dreamed of persuading theatres to schedule their premieres on the same day. We wanted to produce an evening of theatre radio along the lines of football evenings: with live broadcasts of the respective premiere, in which we would have commented on the game in a wickedly entertaining way. We were actors and the critics of the internet. And “anno dazumal” was the time when critics from the internet were still personally greeted at première performances in small theatres. Back then, the internet was the place where anyone could write (quote from the director of an avant-garde theatre who did not appreciate this progress at all). It was an experimental room where the incompatible temporarily came together – at least in Zurich, where even theatre demos are funnier than funerals in Vienna. The theatre blog “Zurich’s Cynical Theatre Index (ZZT)” began in 1993 at the Mathematics Institute of the University of Zurich – with an email subscription list and moved to the web in 1995. Three or four years later, the attempt to build a virtual theatre venue in Switzerland failed because the Zurich Opera House wanted to join in. The university executives were afraid of the badmouthing of the opera house director in case of failure. The ZZT made various further attempts at development, also in cooperation with other theatre institutions, but ultimately remained only an early web voice and ceased its publishing activities in 2006. The 90s dream of a Swiss theatre portal was never realised. The same is true for many dreams of the 90s about the future of art in the digital age. In the new edition of Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet H. Murray draws an exemplary balance. But the dreams of yesteryear have matured and gained depth in the meantime. That’s why now is the time to take the path into the digital 21st century in theatre as well.

Part 3 of this series will be published on 13 November.


Sincere thanks go to those who contributed to the creation of this text – especially Martin Burr, Carolina Estrada, Tine Melzer and Anne-Careen Stoltze, but also to all the cooperation partners from the past.

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AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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