The Politics of New Media Theatre / book recension

Author of the book : Gabriella Giannachi
Author of the  Recension: Anneka Esch-van Kan

`The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life ®™ opens with the publishers’ confident announcement that Gabriella Giannachi’s s slim book “is a groundbreaking study of performance that responds to, adopts and subverts current philosophical, political and economic practices.” Extending her prior research on Virtual Theatres (2004) and Performing Nature (with N. Stewart, 2005) Giannachi, director of the Centre for Intermedia at the University of Exeter (UK) and co-director of the Information Society Network (ISN), introduces diverse artistic and scientific practices, explores their potential to effect social and political change and, as if it happened inadvertently, maps out a theory of our contemporary information society that links globalization with cellular practices. The interdisciplinary study builds on the theories of major scholars and philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Umberto Eco, Antonio Negri and Guy Debord, as well as on A-list thinkers of Performance Studies such as Peggy Phelan, Nick Kaye and Jon McKenzie. Rejecting the pessimistic outlook on the efficacy of performance that many progressive artists and theorists have touted for decades, Giannachi champions the potential of technology and new media to blur distinctions between “economic, theatrical and discursive performance” (11), thereby allowing radical practices to emerge that succeed in “aesthetically subvert[ing] the mechanism at the heart of globalization and empire.” (11)
Tracing Descending Motions: Globalization and the Cell. Core Theses
The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ opens with a rather short but systematically structured and highly complex introduction that maps out the main lines of thought, makes basic assumptions explicit, and embeds the study in prior research. Giannachi explicates four core theses, calls attention to three underlying axioms and uncovers three tensions that operate throughout the study. The tensions and axioms are derived from the consideration of recent theory construction in Philosophy, New Media and Performance Studies. Giannachi in each case distinguishes her sources and names specific studies that have influenced her thoughts. Her argument therefore appears less as a vision plucked out of the air and more of a logical continuation of a movement of thought that manifests itself in a multitude of studies throughout the disciplines.
The four theses of The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ follow the general motion of the argument which descends from the macro-perspective of the global to the micro-perspective of the cell, linked by reflections on the city, the (post-)human body and animals and plants. The first thesis of the book is “that the information society performs globalization” (1). The second thesis is grounded on the interplay of facts and fictions in economic, political and cultural performances and finds that “the politics of information is also an aesthetics” (1). The third thesis states that “the interconnected, networked, post-human body is both the industry that produces globalization as well as its principal consumer” (2). And the fourth thesis arrives at the core idea that “cellular practice is at the heart of info-politics” (2). This justifies her suggestion “that the solution to the global concerns of our times can be found in and through cellular models” (1).
The naked theoretical argument appears speculative and risky, yet it gains plausibility by the definition of axioms that support the sweeping blow of the reasoning. It finally becomes readily comprehensible as we are taken on Ginannachi’s guided tour through the art works and practices of artistic ensembles and networks such as ®™ark, The Yes Men, Blast Theory, The Surveillance Camera Players and The Critical Art Ensemble, Body Artists such as Stelarc and Orlan and scientific institutions and scholars such as SymbioticA, Kevin Warwick and Steve Mann.
Re-evolution: Art, Economics and Science. Core Axioms and Central Tensions
The very core of Giannachi’s argument is that “there is contamination between the processes, modes and technologies of information that constitute art and science, technology and biology, nature, culture and society, locality and globalization, individual and mass,” and that “it is precisely at the level of this contamination, of this hybridity, or excess, that the info-politics produced by the re-evolutionary coming together of art, economics and science can produce social and political change.” (6) This assumption is grounded in the described artistic practices and backed up by the explication of three fundamental axioms, which are (a) that “technology is material, literary and social” and therefore allows artists to participate in “social and political interaction” by “dislodging technology at the material and literary levels” (2); (b) that “artistic performance impacts on economic performance” (2) and (c) that “uncertainty is at the root of the politics of knowledge” (3).
Giannachi’s reasoning starts from the firm conviction shared by many contemporary artists and theorists that political resistance can only happen from within. The Critical Art Ensemble suggests that ‘[c]onfusion should be seen as an acceptable aesthetic[,]’ and argues that ‘[t]he moment of confusion is the pre-condition for the skepticism necessary for radical thought to emerge’ (130). Drawing on the work of Hardt /Negri and Baudrillard, Giannachi envisages political art as a virus and employs the notion of “contamination” to describe its functioning. She argues that “by means of contamination of its branding, […] we are able to intervene in capitalist processes.” (11) Accordingly, more and more artists adopt economic terms and structures to subvert capitalism and globalization from within.
As the argument progresses, there is a notable change in the type of examples used. Most examples in the chapter on globalization draw on web-art, hacktivism and networks such as Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT), ®™mark and eToys that (primarily) work via the internet. The chapter on the city stresses works of art – such as those by Julia Sher, Bruce Nauman and the New York-based Surveillance Camera Players – that engage with surveillance and the various ways in which “our lives become […] information” (43). The theoretical reflections on the (post-)human body are accompanied by descriptions of artistic and scientific practices that transform bodies and create cyborgs. Examples are drawn from the work of body artists such as Stelarc and scientific experiments such as those by Kervin Warwick and Steve Mann. The chapter on animals and plants reaches from the actual cloning of animals as well as artistic projects that engage with genetic engineering to interactive installations and performances that stage evolutionary processes by experimenting with artificial life. In contrast to the chapter on the body that sketched the dissolution of the body in information, this chapter follows the idea that “information becomes life” (83). The final chapter focuses on the cell, highlights artistic experiments with semi-living creatures and champions the work of the internationally renowned Critical Art Ensemble.
Gradually, in tandem with the progression of the argument and the changing examples, the fundamental tensions at the heart of the study become increasingly evident. The first tension exists “between ecology and postmodern cultural history” (4), the second “deals with the construction of societas within nature” (4) and explores how “[t]he societas of nature […] must become the theatre of info-politics (5) and the third tension complicates the relationship between science and theatre arts. In several chapters scientific experiments appear next to artistic projects without any clear mark that would separate one from the other. The relation between science and theatre arts itself, however, does neither explicitly come under scrutiny in form of a discussion of different ways of understanding and world-making nor in terms of power and impact. The omission of an explication of the seemingly equal status of scientific and artistic experiments allows making the intersections visible and at the same time creates risks that might undermine the possibly subversive potential of certain performances. When art and science become indistinguishable there is a thin line between critical subversion and imprudent affirmation. While science and art projects are first indiscriminately listed, later examples focus on performances and projects that explore the intersection of art and science and explicitly question established boundaries. SymbioticA is a scientific laboratory located in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia that follows a “non-scientific approach to science” and is dedicated to artistic experimentation. Members of the Critical Art Ensemble publicly appear as scientists and invite audiences to experience science while critically reflecting the impact of controversial scientific developments and practices. Among others the collective quotes the Living Theatre, The Theatre of the Oppressed and the Situationists as models and perceives “science as the new religion” (125) that needs to be addressed and subverted. Giannachi is very enthusiastic and optimistic concerning the possibilities extant in the co-operation between art and science. She announces: “I believe that the most interesting and long lasting politics of the twenty-first century will emerge out of the collaboration between art and science” (6).
Info-Politics, (New Media) Theatre and the Ruts of Bodily Experience. Points of Criticism
The daunting kaleidoscope of examples that turns The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ into a soon-to-be-seminal text that must not be absent on the table of any scholar interested in the intersection of art and politics, might as well serve as a starting point for a fair comment on the book. Any study that aims at providing an overview over certain trends in artistic practice, and therefore embraces an immense number of examples, risks losing sight of the art projects themselves by transforming them into mere ornaments to support a theory. The fact that the description of artistic projects quantitatively outweighs theoretical reflections, however, makes it likely that the analyses are meant to share equal footing with the construction of theory. Moreover, it becomes obvious that the theoretical design must actually be derived immediately from the reflection of emerging artistic practices and not the other way around. Yet, at times, the analyses seem superficial and may not give an accurate impression of the installations and performances. The analysis of something as ephemeral as performance calls for the inclusion of the spectator’s experience. Giannachi, however, rarely opens a phenomenological perspective on the performances and usually not only ignores her personal experiences (except for references to her participation in “Uncle Roy All around You” and “GenTerra”, 57, 129) but refrains from reflections on the relationship between performers and audience. One might argue that any discussion of the spectator would have betrayed the theoretical complexity of a study that searches for ways to conceive the post-human, yet the flatness of the explication and the lack of any description of bodily experience, could perhaps still be described as a shortcoming. Rather than providing penetrative analyses, Giannachi lists a great number of artistic practices, and thereby offers a pool of examples that might inspire contemporary artists as well as theorists to continue (artistic) research in the field.
Certain insensitivities towards performances as events continue with the absence of a discussion of the underlying concept of “theatre”. There is no passage that would contrast traditional theatre with new media theatre, nor an explication of the significance of the term in the title of the study. Furthermore, seminal studies on the politics of performance such as those by Baz Kershaw are significantly absent from the bibliography, even though his reflections on the political potential of performances as opposed to traditional theatre would have very well complemented Giannachi’s body of examples. An examination of the relation between described artistic practices and traditional theatre might have also inspired a further discussion of the function of representation and its subversion in various projects. The question(ing) of representation is at the heart of divergent concepts of political theatre, reaching from the thematic politicity of theatre plays to performances that formally shape a politics of aesthetics. The artistic and scientific practices described in The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ reveal very different ways of engaging with the question(ing) of representation and further reflections on those might even bring about changes in the ongoing discussions of the topic in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. This possible potential, however, is left undeveloped.
Finally, and this should be counted as a point of endorsement as well as criticism, The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ is cogent and polished. This validates the reasonableness of the argument, but at the same time risks to seal it off from an ongoing discussion. One of the strengths of the study is its inherent potential to mother numerous follow-up studies, yet instead of indicating questions for further research, Giannachi ends her study by referring back to the book’s introduction and thereby artfully closes a circuit.
Zooming Out: The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ An Evaluation of its Significance
The Politics of New Media Theatre. Life®™ is one of the greatest contributions to contemporary academic discussions on art and politics published in the last decades. Introducing projects in “performance, digital art, recombinant theatre, hacktivism, globalization, surveillance, cloning, genomics, architecture, corporate business, new media, body art, prank, bioart, Artifical Intelligence and Artificial Life, robotics, semi-living art, xenotransplantation, cellular practice and swarming” (publisher’s note) the study assembles a broad spectrum of artistic practices that taken together might very well create a fruitful nurturing ground for innovative takes on contemporary political art and performance. It promises to serve as an inspiration to artists and will certainly deeply influence conceptualizations of political performance throughout the humanities. `


Associate Professor in Performance and New Media, University of Exeter. Her research focuses on new media art and performance, performativity and biotechnology, genomics and globalization, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the information society. She is currently developing a number of projects in collaboration with artists and computer scientists from Europe and the US.

Her principal publications include:

On Directing, co-edited with Mary Luckhurst (Faber and Faber, 1999)
Staging the Post-Avant-Garde, co-authored with Nick Kaye (Peter Lang, 2002)
Virtual Theatres: an Introduction (Routledge, 2004)
Performing Nature: Explorations in Ecology and the Arts, co-edited with Nigel Stewart (Peter Lang, 2005)
‘Exposing Globalisation: Biopolitics in the Work of Critical Art Ensemble’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 2006, 16:1: 41-50.
The Politics of New Media Theatre: Life®™ (Routledge, 2006)
with Matt Adams and Steve Benford, ‘Pervasive Presence: Blast Theory’s Day of the Figurines’, forthcoming Contemporary Theatre Review.
with Steve Benford, ‘Episodic Encounter in Blast Theory’s Day of the Figurines’, forthcoming. 

  She is Co-Director of the Centre for Intermedia, University of Exeter and co-Director of Information Society Network (ISN).

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