[ISEA95] Keynote: Sally Jane Norman – Acting and enacting: Stakes of new performing arts


For millenia, the theatre has served as an arena for displaying and modeling the human body: the actor offers up to the spectator’s gaze his or her morphology, kinetic potential, vital space, and interactions with other matters and other bodies. The spectacular body undergoes a kind of transubstantiation. It is simultaneously flesh and symbol, thus akin to what Artaud called “the virtual reality of theater”. Stage space is propitious for giving shape to unreal visions, “impossible bodies” endowed with superhuman dynamics and metamorphic prowess, constantly thwarting death. Today, the infinite combinatorial forces of digital technology are taking over from machines which used to ensure sublimation of the spectacular body, but theatrical specificity of the electronic body, its modes of acting and enacting, have yet to be defined. A new live art form is on the rise, oscillating between viewing and doing.


Performing arts history is marked by an ancient, profound tension which is assuming growing importance in the realm of new representationatle technologies, namely the tension between seeing and acting, or between viewing and doing (theasthai = see -> theater; dran = do -> drama). New participatory, immersive live art forms are emerging at the dividing line between these two states. Whether they comply with existing definitions of theater is debatable, and closely hinged on how the “doing/ viewing” components are gauged, although pedantic comparison with existing categories of spectacle is of limited value when dealing with unprecedented perceptual arenas. Irrespective of how new performing arts end up being designated and categorized, the real task at hand is recognition and creative exploitation of nascent representational systems (repraesentare in Latin meaning to “make present”) in situations involving live action and actors.

Harbingers of new technologies announce more or less virtual feasts of the senses which sollicit sight, audition, haptics, and kinesthesia. Longstanding western theater traditions, where staged visions and verbal renditions are essentially based on a literary starting point, are thus challenged by radically new ways of building and communicating multisensory works. Given the
vertiginous possibilities opened up by new representational technologies, attempts to resuscitate aesthetic principles from obsolete performing art forms are to a certain extent useful and understandable. Amajor pitfall, however, is that over-zealous, overhasty  appropriation of defunct models exhumed as stock formulae leads to neglect of other models which, while not as obvious or readily transposable, may point the way to richer, more  meaningful lines of experimentation.

  • Sally Jane Norman, Aotearoa (New Zealand)/France, is a performing arts theorist, author of numerous articles on the body and new technologies; organizer of an international motion capture course in 1994.

Full text p.211-214