I considered performing a dastardly act of subterfuge this week: I thought I might just stream the rehearsal footage for my weekly experimental stream instead of actually doing it live. I know. I wasn’t feeling quite myself. In my defence, my last livestream had been riddled with tech issues and I questioned the sanity of putting myself through the stress of wrestling with technology I haven’t yet mastered in front of an audience. I had made a pre-recording as a backup in case I ran into tech problems again and then it occurred to me that perhaps I could skip the live attempt altogether whilst still providing a live experience. I employed all manner of sophistry – does it really matter if it’s actually live? Isn’t it more respectful of the audience’s time to stream something reliable? I recorded it earlier today in one take, so that’s very almost live…
It helped that I had been questioning the meaning of “live” in livestreaming for a while already, as I had been exploring the unique character of the livestreaming medium by testing the old rules of shared-space performance and maximising the new opportunities of independent-space performances. I had started to question whether livestreaming really had to be live in the same way that I was questioning all the rules of shared-space performance: holding the old rules up to the new medium, careful not to indiscriminately lift and drop the limitations of shared-space performance into livestreaming.
Does live matter, then? And what are the ethical implications of deceiving an audience? The possibility of seamlessly faking the live-ness of a shared-space performance is not at all straightforward whereas such a thing can easily be achieved in livestreaming. If an audience is deceived into watching a pre-recorded stream, will their emotional experience be any different to witnessing a real livestreamed performance? Here I am assuming a difference in emotional tone between live and pre-recorded performances – from my own audience perspective I would expect to experience greater anticipation and empathic nerviness from a live performance due to the inherent danger of live performance: things can and do go wrong. Equipment breaks; humans err; programmes crash, often with comic timing. This adds some excitement. I like excitement. An elevation of the heartbeat. I like a good heart thump. An increase in empathy towards the artist because neither artist nor audience knows for certain what is going to happen. I love a bit of empathy.
In questioning the limitations of shared-space performance it is important to understand that many of these limitations carry with them opportunities that may be lost in another medium. One promised advantage of independent-space performance (i.e. virtual performances) is that audiences are able to augment their experiences to suit their needs and preferences: you don’t have to deal with a chatty person standing next to you, nor do you have to sit in silence and endure the length of a performance if you don’t want to. But are those things actually important? Is the threat of a chatty audience member an opportunity to savour the specialness of pin-drop-rapt gigs? Is the obligation to remain through a patience-testing performance in fact an opportunity to push through mental inertia? Should we be finding ways to build these opportunities into livestreaming? And what does all this tell us about how humans experience performance and how individuals navigate through the personal, social, and ritual elements of performance?
I digress, which appears to be a general hazard in undertaking this research as there are so many fascinating angles to livestreaming and the way it reflects on people and art and society. Back to the story, then. It’s Thursday evening and I’m due to start streaming in half an hour. “Well I suppose I’d better pretend to start setting up now”, I joke to my fellow lockdown inmate. And that’s when I appreciate the full absurdity of faking a livestream. Whatever impact the deception might have had on the audience (arguably none), the experience for me was bound to be drastically different if I went through with using a pre-recording. No adrenaline; no endorphins. I mean I care about sharing my art and everything but also I really like nice chemicals. So, I wired everything up and managed to get the stream out on time – a real live livestream – with extra heart thumpiness because usually I’d have allowed at least an hour for set-up.
What does all this mean? Does live matter? Inconclusive; however, the thrills greatly outweigh the stress for me so I reckon I’ll keep doing it forrealz live.
Watch Thursday’s experimental live stream
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