Features Published 25 May 2020

A Case for Liveness

“When you go to a live performance, you take your body with you”: Annie Saunders writes on the essential connection between medium and message.

Annie Saunders

NYC graffiti, May 2020. Photo: Josef Pinlac

Essential, adjective/noun:
1/ absolutely necessary; extremely important.
2/ fundamental or central to the nature of something.

I keep randomly thinking about a thing I read a thousand years ago, probably for a (retrospectively somewhat ambitious) one-term seminar I took at university called ‘Technology, Culture and Society: 1800 to the Present,’ which began at ten in the morning and for which I was consistently thirty minutes late. Marshall McLuhan became internationally famous in the 1960s for his catchphrase ‘the medium is the message’ and his ideas about how the objects that enable mass communication impact our thinking and behaviour; his popularity gradually waned until an understandable resurgence when the Internet came around (some ten years after his death) and then began to wane once more. His big idea was that the mediums of communication themselves, – i.e. television, radio, texting, etc – are saying something far beyond the content they carry, and that these medium-messages have a profound impact on us and on the larger social psyche. The medium is not a silent, neutral carrier of stories, news, or information, but instead has something to say for itself. 

The idea for the piece of writing you’re reading now came up on a long telephone call last month. We talked about all the things we talk about now (health, bread, time, etc), and about theatre, and what has recently been so aptly called the threat of the ‘touchless future’, and about the loss of the elusive feeling of ‘being there.’ I said I thought a time was coming where an argument for what we call ‘liveness’ would need to be made, and it would be our job – the makers – to make it. I think the question ‘does this really need to happen live, in-person?’ is going to become loud and clear and frequent, and that it will be our responsibility to answer, when the time comes. I think we have some time to figure it out, and so many of us are just trying to keep above water at the moment; but I do think it is an important job, that it is our job, and that it is coming. I said all that into my phone, and a short while after that I was asked to write it down, and now here we are.

Is anyone else talking on the phone more often these days, and for longer stretches of time? Does it ever remind you of when you were a kid, maybe lying on the bedroom floor with your legs propped up on the bunk-bed ladder, twisting a long spiral cord around your finger absentmindedly, talking on the only phone in the house for hours on end?

Who remembers the anticipation of the magical phrase it’s for you?

The thing I keep thinking about is somewhere McLuhan writes (and I confess I am, at best, paraphrasing, and at worst, misremembering) something like this: the only thing you ever say on the telephone is I am speaking to you on the telephone. The physical circumstances (wherever your body is and what it is doing) and the medium of communication (the feel and sound of the physical telephone) are saying something louder than any actual thing you say or how you say it, and they say that thing again and again and again, drowning you out. I love you, you say. You’re breaking up, I can’t hear you, I’ll talk to you later, don’t forget this or that. I am speaking to you on the telephone, the telephone, the telephone, says the telephone, over and over.

I mainly make performances where the audience is free to move around. The work puts the physical space and the body of each audience member – what they do, what they feel, where they go, what happens to them – at the forefront of the creative process. I’ve made shows in non-theatre spaces and shows that use theatre spaces in non-traditional ways. I’ve also created and directed a handful of live experiences for brands, and I have had to make the case for liveness and why it is a medium worthy of investment many times in that context. The question of why it can’t be digital, or virtual, or video, why it has to be ‘live, in-person’ comes up time and again. These conversations also happen with arts institutions and funders, by the way. In Holoscenes, a work I have collaborated on with Lars Jan for some years now, a freestanding transparent tank is situated in public space, and a large volume of water continually rises and falls around the performer. A frequent question from prospective presenters when it was being created was: why can’t the water be video? So much cheaper, so much safer, so much so many things, but of course the performer’s body colliding with a huge volume of water was intrinsic to the gut-feeling meaning of the piece. If it was video the audience could understand it intellectually, in terms of content, but the impact of the water on the total sensory apparatus of the physically present performer and physically present audience member alike is profound, especially as you often come across it unexpectedly, on your way to something else. People who encounter the live performance often report that they find themselves holding their breath involuntarily while watching us underwater. I have never heard of this happening when someone is watching video documentation of the piece, for instance. Of course this virtual-physical comparison is keenly felt in our present pandemic free-fall: we frankly don’t know when, if, or how performances that are any semblance of ‘live, in-person’ will happen again. Holoscenes was programmed in the cancelled FTA Festival in Montreal this month, one of many in the ongoing avalanche of cancellations of live work due to coronavirus, with which the reader will likely be all too familiar at this point. 

Annie Saunders and Geoff Sobelle in Holoscenes by Lars Jan in Artichoke’s London’s Burning Festival in 2016. Photo: Lars Jan

When you go to a live performance, you take your body with you. That means that your entire sensory apparatus, your consciousness and your attention are all in the same place, and the same is true of the performers. Everyone is only in one place, and they are there, essentially, for each other. No audience, no show; no show, no audience. Each depends on the other. There is a unique two-way undivided attention, or what my colleague Andy Horwitz has brilliantly called ‘deep horizontal intersubjectivity.’   Unlike in the cinema, the medium itself is attuned to the presence of the audience. If you get up and leave mid-show, not only the other audience members notice, but the medium – the performance – notices too, and is changed. In the moment before the show begins, an invisible gift is exchanged and silent agreement made between the performer and the audience member. Each says to the other: Listen. I’m right here in this room. I am here to do something for you, and everything you do matters and will have an impact. It matters that you are here, and it matters that it is now, and this will only happen exactly as it is happening and will not happen this way again. Disaster or delight could strike at any moment. Ready? Here we go. That’s the medium-message, and that message, that experience, is wholly independent from the content or the scale: this could be a kid’s piano recital, or Carmen at the Met, or an experimental show in a disused building somewhere for only one audience member and one performer at a time. In this way, I think the medium of live performance reinforces some essential truths – truths that may feel even more acute just now: that time is passing and finite and never coming back, that life is infinitely wild and unpredictable, that all we can really know is we are right here and right now, and that we have no actual control or any idea of what might happen next.

I once called my mother from a supermarket aisle in Omaha, Nebraska. I was in Omaha devising a site-specific opera for an audience who would find their way among the set and performers in a vacant warehouse. The work took myths and fairy tales about mermaids, which I saw as essentially stories about what it takes for women to leave home, and superimposed them in a long cross-dissolve with the life of Anne Sexton: the wild and wildly successful poet and erstwhile housewife, who committed suicide in 1974 and who was praised not only for her visceral, vulnerable, searing work about birth, death, sex and menstruation, but also for her long, beautiful legs and her enchanting speaking voice. 

Annie Rosen in Saunders’ The Wreck at Opera Omaha’s One Festival in 2018. Photo: James Matthew Daniel

I was in the phase where you’re sort of exhaustedly swimming around in the dramaturgy: how the mermaid sacrifices her mode of expression (voice) for escape, how she is told she will have graceful human legs but will be in excruciating pain all the time and unable to tell anyone, how Sexton’s life was so clearly a parallel of that story to me, how women’s voices – both politically and anatomically – are silenced, how women’s mouths and tongues and throats are so fraught and objectified in culture, in terms of speaking, screaming, food, sex, what they mean in the context of opera, the open female throat and mouth of that medium; lungs, their connection to deep sea diving, mermaids, whalesong, the vagus nerve in the throat and the idea that our emotions live in it, that this nerve can be soothed by eating, drinking, singing, swallowing (Sexton, like so many in her situation, was addicted to pills)  – and also, did you know that she and her friend Maxine Kumin, another socially-isolated suburban housewife, who also went on to win a Pulitzer, by the way, met in the 1950s at a community college poetry class or something like that, can you imagine, and they installed second telephone lines in their houses so they could stay on the phone all day while they wrote; they would just call and put the receiver down on the desk and keep the line open and whistle if they wanted to talk or read something aloud? I reeled all this off to my mother as I tried to decide whether to have cereal for dinner or make an attempt at a vegetable of some kind. 

‘What’s the matter?’ she said.

‘I want to say all these things,’ I was saying into my phone, distractedly. ‘To the audience. I want them to know all this cool stuff we found out about and how it’s all connected and everything. Whales, this emotion nerve, diving, breath, singing, mouths, phones, channels, throats, suicide, silence, water, women. I can’t figure out how to get it all in there. I don’t know what to say or not say,’ I said. 

‘It’s fine, they will sense it,’ she said. ‘They’ll be in the room.’ And then she said: ‘only tell them exactly what they need to know and let them feel the rest,’ and it stopped me in my tracks. I remember right where I was standing.

I am speaking to you on the telephone. 

My mother died suddenly last July, and I think about a lot of things she said, and all the things I’ve forgotten and will still forget. I’m grateful that she got through to me then, and that her words are loud and clear and frequent now. I hope I never forget them, and I hope I am ready when the time comes to say something for our medium, but for now, while so many of us are still barely swimming, here’s what I think it can say for itself. Maybe it is only exactly what we need to know. You have a body, you are right here, this is right now, and anything, I mean truly anything at all, could happen next. 

The lights go down. Here, our medium says. It’s for you

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Annie Saunders

Annie Saunders is a multidisciplinary director and live artist. She is the founder and artistic director of site-specific performance company Wilderness, and has created experimental theatre and live experiences around the world. Her latest installation, The Home, for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a headphone-based experience for one audience member at a time, won the UK APA awards for Best Experiential Campaign and Best Use of Technology for Good in 2020. Her ongoing collaboration Up In Arms with Anna Maria Nabirye is in development and touring with ArtsAdmin in 2020/21. She is a core collaborator and performer with Lars Jan on Holoscenes, and her aforementioned project The Wreck for Opera Omaha was called ‘ingenious...a persuasive expression of complex female feeling,’ by the Wall Street Journal. Read more about her work at http://about.me/anniesaunders

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