— Book Review —

Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance

by Chris Salter
(MIT Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Matthew Causey
School of Drama, Film and Music
Trinity College, Dublin
Ireland

Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance
      by Chris Salter Chris Salter's Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance from MIT Press, 2010, is an impressive and useful history of ‘how technologies, from the mechanical to the computational, have radically transformed artistic performance practices during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries on and off the stage.’ A remarkable history is told in this book, and Salter's telling is intelligent and clear. The collation of so many artists, practices and technologies is impressive, and this book will serve as a valuable resource for scholars and artists.

Salter brings a sophistication and clarity to his research, which foregrounds the work of the artists rather than the many theoretical complications that have accompanied the history of performance and technology. Covering much of the same territory as Steve Dixon's Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and Installation (MIT Press, 2007), the first two chapters of Entangled are organized historically, as a chronological narrative from 1896 to the contemporary. The remainder of the book is usefully structured along technological and performative modalities (space, projections, sound, bodies, machines, and interactivity). The history begins, as is now the manner for the rehearsal of the history of performance and technology (i.e., Dixon, Goldberg, Giesekam), with Wagner's notions of gesamptkunstwerk as an origin point and the usual suspects of Appia, Italian and Russian Futurism, Constructivism, etc., following. Each movement, artist, practice or technology is neatly positioned and described. The work includes important references to Svoboda in the post-war period, up to and including the contemporary beginnings of new media performance with the earliest experiments with the Sony Portapak system.

Salter's compilation of brief overviews of the artists will be useful for students and researchers seeking to position the trajectory of technological innovations incorporated in theatre and performance. At times, the brevity of the descriptions of each artist override a reflective analysis of the work, and the reliance on precise encyclopedic descriptions does mean that the work is not always clearly organized. Nevertheless, the multiple narratives are exhaustive and complete, as Salter has claimed a wide variety of performance genres into his argument. Throughout the book, little known and overlooked works are recovered and historicized effectively. The sheer volume of works of performance and technology presented is impressive and represents a remarkable diligence in historicizing the field.

The chronological sections are followed in Chapter 3 with a look at ‘ephemeral, transformative, and kinetic’ architecture as a performative gesture. The manners of the performativities of architecture are an interesting area of research, and Salter may make his most original contributions in this section. Considering the work of the Futurist architects and contemporary designers such as Diller + Scofidio, and many others, the discussion concerns the ‘event of architecture,’ its scene rather than screen, its space and happenings, and the machine of architecture. Mediatechtures and their potential for providing smart surfaces and substances that activate digital displays are discussed.

Salter makes us aware that the urban landscape of technologized cultures is moving toward a dynamism of electronic shape-shifting capacities and new models of dwelling and habitation. Modeling architecture on the notions of event and performance gives us a way of reconfiguring our relationship with architecture that draws us toward an electronic theatricality that ‘takes place’ in a building and not simply screened upon a surface.

Televisual and filmic projected imagery in live performance is now a ubiquitous component of commercial and experimental theatre and performance practice, and in Chapter 4, Salter narrates the history of this form and outlines the high points. Again, the history of screened and projection technologies in performance is well-trodden and Salter rehearses the innovations of Paik, Vostell, The Kitchen and the Wooster Group, while drawing out some fascinating and overlooked productions such as Carl Weber's production of Handke's Kaspar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (1973). It is a pleasure to see the lesser-known work of companies and artists such as Squat and Ping Chong brought to bear on this history. It is this attention to detail that makes Salter's work valuable.

The book is highly selective regarding any theoretical models that have been applied to this field of study, however, and there is little in the way of an acknowledgment of the concurrent theoretical discussions that took place in the fields of aesthetics, digital culture and theatre and performance studies. David Savran on the Wooster Group, Michael Kirby or G√ľnter Berghaus on Futurist Performance, Sue-Ellen Case on gender politics in technology, Philip Auslander on questions of liveness, Steve Dixon or Johannes Birringer on digital performance and dance receive little in the way of attribution. In Salter's defense, there would hardly have been room for any further material to be introduced into this lengthy study, which adds up to 460 pages. The focus of the book is the technological innovations and reconfigurations of performance practice considered through a cultural materialist reading.

Essentially, this a book interested in the practices and strategies of the artists and less with a critical perspective. It is a book by a scholar working in practice-based research, and his concern with practice over theory is evident. Salter's own work in technologized performance is presented as part of the book, and the reader can consider his work within the larger history rehearsed. I don't mean to suggest that the work is following the current vogue of anti-intellectualism in academia, nor is it anti-theoretical. In fact, the sheer density of the text is testament to its intelligence and complex retellings. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge the bias of the text toward practice to an extreme exclusion of the wider field of digital and techno culture and performance studies. So, where a theoretical question from Avital Ronell on a Heideggerian question concerning technology may be missing, there will be an inclusion of the lesser-known but vital work of Matt Heckert of Survival Research Labs. Where there may be no substantial reflection on Benjamin's ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ there will be multiple examples of rarely discussed performance works.

For me, when Salter's arguments work best is when he reads the performance practices as if they were theory and follows their response to the technoculture they inhabit. Even with this reservation, I do not underestimate the high quality of the research, the exhaustive detail of the documentation and the depth of the reflection on the topics. It is a smart and important work.

The remainder of the book contains chapters on sound experimentation; bodies in technological spaces; transformed, extended and altered machines/mechanicals; and finally, interactivity. The rhetorical strategy remains the same, with a plethora of examples compiled and organized against a materialist concern for what happens on the stage, the gallery space, or the screen. Chris Salter's Entangled is an important and valuable contribution to the fields of theatre and performance and digital culture. I have already made use of the text several times in my seminar on the ‘History and Theory of Digital Art.’ Thus, the usability factor is very high, indeed.

About the Author

Dr Matthew Causey is Associate Professor in Drama at Trinity College Dublin where he is Director of the Arts Technology Research Laboratory. His book Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture: From Simulation to Embeddedness is published by Routledge.

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