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Surviving Lockdown: performance responses in a constrained pandemic landscape

Analysing the emergence of lockdown performances in the entertainment industry and evaluating reactions to the challenges affecting live performances due to Covid-19. 

four-piece band in a forest setting

Researchers

  • Dr Jonathan Day
  • Dr Jean Davide Caillouet (PGVIM)
  • Associate Professor Nathan Tromans
  • Vin Whyte
  • Gabriel Cammelin (guest, SUIC Bangkok)

Research background 

The research was initiated collaboratively by The Performance Research Hub and Princess Galyani Vadhana Insitute of Music, Bangkok.

The arrival of the Covid 19 pandemic, and the quarantine ‘lockdown’ implemented in a variety of ways by societies around the globe has changed our lived experience in profound ways. We may never return to the civilisation we experienced before the disease–a shift that has been experienced by our species many times historically, though perhaps never before on this scale.

The implications for almost all areas of human activity are far reaching­–almost no area has been left unaffected. Musical performances to audiences have been almost wiped out: in my own country (Wales) no music is allowed indoors (not even recorded music in case anyone should sing along to it) and outdoor performances are restricted to audiences of 30 people. Some musicians have abandoned their careers, while most others are living temporarily on government bail outs (soon to end) and other still have moved en masse into what have been called ‘live lockdown’ performances with some sort of possible payment system (Paypal, etc). It is fascinating to watch in real time the ways in which performers, promoters and filmmakers have engaged with the possibilities and limitations of this form, and attempt to bring their creativity and responsiveness to bear.

Research aims

There are three areas of thought that can usefully contribute to our consideration of these events, drawn from physics, philosophy and Zen. These illuminate the debate and can be applied practically to assist in the creation of effective virtual performances.

Sir Roger Penrose, the Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and a number of other eminent physicists have begun to describe the quantum based origin of consciousness, demonstrating that consciousness is inherent in all matter/energy and that the long assumed human monopoly of it is fallacious.

That all contributory factors within a performance therefore have some variety of consciousness is an understanding that has implications for our notion of ‘concert’.

Graham Harman and other philosophers, in work they call Object Orientated Ontology, have also expounded and explored the independentagency of objects, and the manner in which these objects come into awareness of each other (‘encounters’). Applying these ideas reveals thatelements within a performance are necessarily active rather than passive agents, and that a live performance is an encounter between agents that collide, influence and interact with each other. Some of these ‘actors’ are frequently and habitually acknowledged, while others are less celebrated and some (and for me this is most interesting) are tacitly confirmed. ‘Every performance is about the audience’ is a folk wisdom epithet that is demonstrably true, since the real time interactions between listener/s and performer/s demonstrate clear agency within the encounter. Instruments too, have agency–‘every guitar has songs in it’ is another epithet–here I am quoting singer Harry Stiles. This tacit acknowledgment of influence suggests that instruments are not dead matter in the hands of performers but declare and exert their own subtle influence in the performance encounter. In popular music this is called ‘mojo’, in art music it is evidenced by the conferral of totemic status on certain instruments and makers. A similar influence is exerted by architecture, acoustics, staging and embellishments.

Since a performance relies on the interaction and collision of these ‘objects-with-agency’, what are the effects when they are removed or distanced during a virtual concert? Streamed performances (‘lockdown live’) constitute a shadow- play flicker of charge across light emitting diodes/plasma cells and are demonstrably not the same as an actual experience of a performance. What can we understand about the nature of this difference? How does a virtual experience of music differ ontologically from a live one? How can we apply this to our own virtual endeavours?

This tension between presence and absence in real and virtual performances is intriguingly consonant with earlier writing in Zen. Obaku, in the 9th century CE, throws a revealing light: “The foolish embrace thought and eschew phenomena:

"The wise embrace phenomena and eschew thought.”

Virtuality, most often evident in our sliver thin screens, is an extension of what Obaku calls ‘thought’ and is a realised projection of imagination, the survival necessitated human imperative to investigate possibilities/dreams. We create models of systems in order to understand their behaviour, predict their actions and thereby control them. A herd of animals, for example, though faster and stronger can be understood, controlled by us and exploited. A consequence of this propensity for modelling, as many Zen writers point out, is that imagination is both wild and wilful–many of our models are necessarily flawed, inaccurate and broken, creating a thousand imagined (virtual) worlds in which we may lose ourselves. Phenomena in Zen act as locators–fixed points in the flux of imagination that locate us within our extant experiential context. Zen practice (archery, flower arranging, tea making, rehearsing an instrument) is designed to reinforce this locating behaviour by centring us in our deep minds (away from imagination) and bodies. What happens when these locators are absent? Is there actually an element of risk in any shift toward the virtual? What are the dangers and can we avoid them?

Drawing insights from physics, philosophy and zen, this project examines how ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ are folded into current tensions around the presentation and consumption of music. Many examples of  ‘lockdown live’ performances are examined alongside insights from experiments exploiting a performance/exegesis methodolgy to explore how promoters, filmmakers and performers have reacted to the sudden removal of performance-to-audiences in venues in most territories worldwide. What do their strategies reveal about the melange and collision of performers, spaces and objects? What does the experience of wide scale lockdown suggest about future trajectories for performance and the dissemination of music?

Research methods 

Many examples of  ‘lockdown live’ performances are being examined alongside insights from experiments exploiting a performance/exegesis methodology. How have promoters, filmmakers and performers reacted to the sudden removal of performance-to-audiences in venues in most territories worldwide?

Projected outcomes 

The early conclusions have been shared through an internationally streamed online keynote lecture, delivered as part of the Is the Virtual Real festival/symposium in Bangkok in August 2020. Results from the experimental work have been shared on relevant online platforms (websites, Zoom, Youtube).

The work is on-going.

Further reading

Experimental works: