On Liveness 13.03.11

Posted on March 21, 2011


In attempting to answer this question, my inclination would be in part, emotional and perceptual, and in part, logical. As I try to come to terms (pardon the pun) with the applicability of the term ‘live’ in its more contemporary context as the mass media would have it, the term ‘live’ has come to encompass more than the usual spatio-temporal co-presence, and can in television broadcast, be used in reference to a synchronicity of spectatorship and event occurrence however far-flung these two locations might be from each other. In radio broadcast, or in the increasing usage of web broadcast or publishing, to ‘go live’ would be to come into public access and partake in the transference of information to an audience or viewership.

While considering the numerous ways that ‘liveness’ can be approached, it came to my realisation that the concept of ‘audience’ is also henceforth problematized. Where I would find no problem considering myself an audience at an event, such as a play, concert, or at the cinema, I would hesitate to identify as an audience at a rehearsal, or in a self-initiated private film viewing effort. I ask myself why this may be the case, and realise that the word ‘audience’ for me exists as an extension of a public form of identification. In the example of being a spectator at a rehearsal session, I may at times see myself as representing the ‘audience’, in terms of spatial occupancy, but not an authentic audience member, because the real event has not yet occurred. Clearly, in my perception of what being an audience entails, it is not simply about hierarchical definitions, but it can be restricted to an official allocated time frame that an event should occur in. Another area for investigation – the different perceptions of time is another concept that can be heavily dissected. I hope to touch on this at a later stage.

Of course then, one cannot re-watch a play. It is only possible to be a part of a second, third (and so forth – again, no pun intended) production of a play. If you review a video documentation of the production, are you considered a part of the audience? I don’t think so. With film audiences, it is slightly tricky to keep the same definitions. In saying this, I may seem to be opposing my first stance – when I posited that a viewing session of a film while in the privacy of one’s home does not qualify the person as an audience member. As film essentially exists as a physical artifact, a historical perspective may consider all viewership as audience. It is different from television and radio though, as viewership and listening in the privacy of homes and non-fee paying spaces is the normal standard by which information is distributed, and all access regardless of space, will qualify one as an audience.

The mediatisation of events thus, should not be seen as a singular phenomenon. Film and television both hold non-identical cultural economy, which affects the specific use of certain terms such as the concept of being an ‘audience’. I choose film and television as specific examples, because they both serve different purposes and exist in different capacities, but are often confused with each other. Performance theorist Philip Auslander does distinguish between the cultural presence of film and television, but what I am proposing is that because their first premise of access is different, then the applicability of certain terms should be considered separately as well.

I would worry then, that in the standing debate between Auslander and fellow performance theorist Peggy Phelan, the mediatisation of performance events is used as the basis for problematizing the concept of ‘liveness’. Within this argument, it would not be surprising to locate further grey areas that will question more regularly used terms and concepts.

The presiding discourse thus, has arisen from the debate between Peggy Phelan and Philip Auslander, as to what does constitute ‘liveness’. Phelan writes against the digitalization of performances, suggesting that the mediatisation of live events has counteracted the liveness of it all. She argues that a performance essentially resides within the limits of non-reproducibility.

Phelan states quite clearly in the chapter ‘The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction’ of her book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance:

Performance’s only life is in the present.  Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.  To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.  Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance. (p.146)

Auslander on the other hand, critiques the traditional concept of ‘liveness’ to propose that it would now include mediatised forms and could include any forms that can be digitally reproduced. In the interview with Performance Paradigm, he articulates an understanding that different types of performance events call forth different levels of receptivity to these mediatised forms. However so, he does make it clear, plain and simple that his stand is, that to whatever extent one may receive a digital form as ‘live’, it is nonetheless an active presence, hence justifying its ‘liveness’ as performance.

Perhaps, it would be much easier to pinpoint the specific application of the term ‘live’ by differentiating between a ‘live’ experience, and a ‘live’ subject. Witnessing a specific performance event as an audience co-present in that specific location, we can agree that the experience is ‘live’ no doubt, but the subject – if in a mediatized form – may not be as easily considered ‘live’ as such.

If we look at artist Mike Parr’s body of work, it again investigates the concept of ‘liveness’ in performance, but on very different levels. Edward Scheer describes Parr’s performance art as a “hybrid conception of critical live art and time-based media forms”. (p.4, Scheer In Parr’s case, the concept of live art is intrinsically linked to its durational emphasis. I suppose, that even if his performances are viewed through video documentation, the immediacy of it can be felt, but to different degrees. More importantly, it is necessary to undergo the full duration of the viewing to perceive the event in its minimal intensity at its best.

At this point, it is clear that the time factor is a huge component of experience and what constitutes a genuine emotional investment. I will however require much more elaboration to fully expound on the complexities of experiencing time. Admittedly, at this stage with the little that I have read, I cannot yet fully agree with either Auslander or Phelan on their terms, as to what does appropriately constitute a performance.




Edward Scheer, The Infinity Machine: Mike Parr’s Performance Art 1971-2005, Schwartz City: Melbourne, 2009.

Informally referenced:


Books I should be reading more thoroughly:

Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture

Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance


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