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A collaborative project in creative interdisciplinary research running September 2005 – June 2010
Presence is a fundamental yet highly contested aspect of performance, and performance has come to be a key concept in many different fields. Notions of presence hinge on the relationship between the live and mediated, on notions of immediacy, authenticity and originality. Presence prompts questions of the character of self-awareness, of the presentation of self. Interaction is implicated — presence often implies being in someone's presence. Location too — to be present is to be somewhere. Hence presence also directs us outside the self into the social and spatial. And also, of course, into temporality — a fulcrum of presence is tense and the relationship between past and present.
The Presence Project aims to combine expertise from performance and drama theory and practice, anthropological archaeology, and computer science to investigate means by which "presence" is achieved in live and mediated performance and simulated environments. The project aims to explore how exchanges of practices, concepts and methodologies between academic disciplines and between live, mediated and simulated performance may deepen an understanding of the performance of presence.
Debates over the nature of the actor's presence have been at the heart of key aspects of theatre practice and theory since the late 1950s and are a vital part of the discourses surrounding avant-garde and postmodern performance. These debates explore terms essential to the theatrical event, addressing the spectator's encounter with the performer, the actor's "authenticity", "aura", "authority" and self-awareness and relationships between "live" performance and its mediation, documentation or trace. Experimental theatre's engagement with video and new media has further heightened the importance of these issues.
Archaeology is increasingly understood less as the discovery of the past and more in terms of different relationships with what is left of the past. This foregrounds anthropological questions of the performance and construction of the past in memory, narrative, collections (of textual and material sources), archives and systems of documentation, in experiences of place. Concepts of "presence", "aura" and the "uncanny" return of the past accompany an emphasis upon encounters with the cues or prompts of "site" — with the sign or trace. Such thinking has led to radically new forms of archaeological investigation and documentation that draw on and advance theatre theory and practice.
In Computer Science, "presence" is a key concept and goal in the construction of Virtual Environments: complex interactive projections that simulate three-dimensional environments and which may include representations of humans (avatars). The effectiveness of these representations is not simply a matter of rendering accuracy, but of understanding how specific aspects of behavior, postures, gestures, glances, head-turns, and expressions affect real human participants: how the signs of performance effect a sense of "presence". Presence is also key to Mixed and Augmented Reality environments, in which presence is further problematised by the layering of virtual with real phenomena.
While the Presence Project focuses its interests through this creative disciplinary triangulation of Performance, Archaeology and Computing, the scope is broad and involves questions such as the following:
The Presence Project has six strands.
The project will run a series of public one-day workshops with performance practitioners of international standing — Tim Etchells, Bella Merlin, Vayu Naidu, Mike Pearson, Fiona Templeton and Phillip Zarrilli. These will explore theatrical practices that deal in the presence of the performer. The workshops will culminate in seminar-based discussions of method and effect. The series will be hosted jointly during academic year 2005–2006 by Exeter University's Centre for Intermedia and The International and Intercultural Research Centre, Laboratory and Archive for Performance Practice and Actor Training, which has an internationally recognized profile in research through practice. The workshops will be documented through video, transcription, and interviews of practitioners, as well as collaborative social software (see below).
Two. Literature Review.
In years one and two (2005-6 and 2006-7) a literature review undertaken by two doctoral research assistants will address relevant areas of theatre, performance, new media, video and visual art theory and practice, extending to non-technical material in Computer Science and Archaeological theory. The review will create a downloadable web-based project bibliography.
In years two and three (2006-7 and 2007-8) the project will model presence in virtual environments that incorporate avatars (representations of humans). This will be undertaken by the Virtual Environments Computer Graphics (VECG) team, University College London. Their Virtual Environments Facility is known by the acronym CAVE. Several modeling exercises will be based upon the findings of the workshop series: we aim to model techniques associated with performer presence, and analyze them according to the methodologies developed by the VECG team. The simulations will be fully documented and published in a project DVD-ROM.
Four. Case Studies
Through the four years of the project we will undertake a series of critical documentations of artists' work that explores presence through relationships between live, mediated and/or simulated performance. Some of these case studies will involve work created specially for the Presence Project. The artists and scientists are Lynn Hershman Leeson (performance and media artist, A.D. White Professor, Art Department, Cornell); Gary Hill (video artist, Seattle and New York); Blast Theory (mixed reality gaming and performance, UK); and The Builders Association (multi-media theatre company, New York); Paul Sermon (telepresence artist, Reader in Creative Technologies, Salford University).
The case studies will involve interviews with participants; research in participants' private archives to access otherwise unavailable documentary material; e-mail exchanges to diary working processes; supplementary interviews conducted electronically; joint authoring of the documentation of current work. Rehearsals will be accessed by company rehearsal tapes and notes.
Five. International Conference.
One culmination of the Presence Project will be an international research conference held in 2008-9 that will further advance the project's address to its research questions. The PIs will present key findings of the project to date. Artists participating in strands 1 and 4 will be invited to offer keynote presentations, responses to project findings and participate in seminar events. Delegates and speakers will be drawn from a wide range of disciplines, including Drama, Computer Science, Archaeology, Visual Art, Media and the Arts.
Six. Exhibition and Colloquium.
Plans are underway to mount an exhibition of artists' work that deals in presence and mediation and to be held in Stanford in 2009-2010. This final culmination of the project will be accompanied by a colloquium open to the public where artists, Presence Project team members and invited critics and academics will explore the work of the project.
A basic premise of the Presence Project is that performance art is a research opportunity, a research program in presence and mediation. We will engage the topic of presence through several methodologies:
Throughout the project we will be exploring how exchanges of practices, concepts and methodologies between academic disciplines and between live, mediated and simulated performance may deepen an understanding of the performance of presence. This will involve:
Underpinning the project as a whole is this Presence Project Collaboratory, created and hosted by Stanford University. The Collaboratory is a web-based co-authoring, publishing and archival environment that provides a forum to develop new ideas and practices, to create dialogues between participating artists and academics, and to engage a wider public with the project’s possibilities. It is based upon the considerable experience of Michael Shanks's Metamedia Lab (Stanford Humanities Lab) in building and running such social software.
Performing Presence will result in print and electronic outputs of interest to national and international academic research communities in Theatre and Performance Studies, Media, Visual Art, Archaeology, Computer Science; theatre practitioners and visual artists; and postgraduate students. Outputs will include:
The Presence Project has direct bearing on the following fields and practices: