Can producing a primary experience through performance art, aid our understanding our over-use of digital technology?

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Angelique De Raffele

Can producing a primary experience through performance art, aid our understanding of how our over-use of digital technology is distancing us from our physical abilities?

2017

Fig. 1

Angelique De Raffaele is a Ravensbourne BA (Hons) Fashion Promotion graduate. In working to understand and explore the zeitgeist issue of placing our self-worth within the digital realms of today, Angelique’s practice-based Dissertation uses the glove as a tangible metaphor to demonstrate the effects of digital technology on our perception of our physical skills and innate qualities.

Angelique’s work continues to utilise a multi disciplinary approach when working to  understand and create awareness for issues faced within our community today. Her publication Hoarder zine, challenges our perception of how acting sustainability can be desirable and efficient, through tactile activities and social exchange.

Fig. 2

Introduction

The over-use of digital technology, which is distancing us from understanding our physical and mental abilities, takes many forms through the internet, smartphones and desktops. It will be critically examined how these technologies are used to extend and amplify the physical body and its senses, when completing varied tasks. Media theorist, Marshall McLuhan proclaimed The medium is the message (1994, p.1), the medium being technology, as opposed to its content, such as social media and advertisements (Carr, 2011, p.2). As news sources report links between the rise of anxiety to the use of technology, it affirms McLuhan’s claim that it is the physical technology, which should be confronted rather than the content. The research collated will inform a performance piece to bring awareness to the role of technology in our everyday lives.

In the dissertation’s methodology, the process used to complete a task will be defined as layers; layers, which build around the body when they are in use. The first chapter will interpret Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1994) and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2011), to argue the physical distance created by technology between the individual and their use of physical and perceptive abilities.

Through appropriating the theory of technological layers extending man’s abilities, this study will utilise quantitative and qualitative analysis from trend forecasting reports, sociology experiments and news reports to establish the relationship between the overuse of technology and the rise of anxious individuals. By conducting a focus group, and a questionnaire, it will be argued how anxiousness caused from the overuse of technology, creates further dependence on technology to combat the problem.

In the third chapter, the research conducted previously will become embodied within a piece of performance art. Through materialising the layers of technology, the primary senses, where one touches, listens, smells, tastes and reflects are highlighted for their significance when achieving a task. In doing so, the performance aims to aid our understanding of the importance of our physical abilities, in spite of the use of technology. This argument will be informed by the 1960s art movement of Fluxus, through the book Fluxus Experience by Hannah Higgins (2002). Fluxus performances signify the everyday and the interactions which aid our survival. The contemporary work of Anne de Vries’ Critical Mass: Pure Immanence (de Vries, exhibition, 2016a) and Martin Creed’s Work No. 1701 (Creed, exhibition, 2016) will further inform the visual element of my dissertation.

The motivation for the study were due to an occasion, whereby taking a copious amount of images of an environment I had an emotional connection to, upon revisiting these images I felt somewhat disconnected to the initial state I was in, this started my inquiry into the dissociative nature of technology. I was able to appropriate this feeling to other aspects of my life, such as my dependence on technology and digital communication.

The dissertation consists of a body of research to inform the visual elements, accessible through a linked video, and evaluated through accompanying text and test performances (De Raffaele, Youtube, 2016e). This will be contextualised by historical and contemporary work, also accessible throughout in links.

 

CHAPTER 1: Extending human senses through technology

Metaphysics is a term which can be described as an exploration of the being, dealing with the confusion of placing one’s self in the surrounding world (Merriam Webster, merriamwebster.com, 2016). ‘Overcoming’ metaphysics’ (Levin, 1985, p.19); philosopher David Michael Levin, uses this term to suggest that for understanding oneself, we must first overcome ‘our deep-seated guilt and shame, flaming into a terrible hatred of the body’ (Levin,1985, p.19). This claim can be interpreted as humankind’s dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by the physical body. To surpass each limitation, man has created various forms of technology in an attempt to acquire complete control over one’s environment. Extraneous technologies act to enhance, strengthen and amplify the body, be it the foot, hand, primary senses or consciousness. These extensions can be best characterised by Nicholas Carr:

One set, which encompasses the plow, the darning needle, and the fighter jet, extends our physical strength, dexterity, or resilience. A second set, which includes the microscope, the amplifier, and the Geiger counter, extends the range or sensitivity of our senses. A third group spanning such technologies as the reservoir, the birth control pill, and the genetically modified corn plant, enables us to reshape nature to better serve our needs or desires. The map and the clock belong to the fourth category … ‘intellectual technologies’. These include all the tools we use to extend our mental powers – to find and classify information, formulate ideas … take measurements and perform calculations, to expand the capacity of our memory

(Carr, 2011, p.44-45)

‘The fourth category’, our desire to enhance our intellectuality via technology takes one of its many shapes through the internet and its accessibility through smartphones, tablets and computers, which have arguably become the dominant way in which human mental capabilities are extended and processed in the developed world.

As humankind’s abilities are extended, the physical detachment that occurs by the use of technology must be considered. McLuhan exemplifies this distance by the surgeon who ‘would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in operation’ (McLuhan, 1965, p.4). As smartphone applications are understandably used as aids to daily tasks, the physical detachment can be seen in simple tasks, whereby a phone call diminishes the need for a face-to-face interaction, or adding up groceries on a device diminishes the need for mathematical thought.

To formalise the physical distance created by technology, the completion of a task will be formalised into three sections; the individual, the layer and the completed task. Firstly, the person is understood as the controller of a task. Secondly, the layer can be understood as the process between the individual and the completed task. This layer can take form in one’s primary senses or creative or mathematical thought. It can also be found in a physical action such as throwing a ball. The action of completing a task can also be external, for example through an algorithm or the calculator on a smartphone. Thirdly, the completed task, which can take its many forms in, remembering the colour of an object, a written paragraph, a conversation or something physical such as a painted wall, a cup of tea, or a room filled with light.

Therefore to demonstrate how the overuse of technology is distancing individuals from the understanding of their abilities, the three-part structure argues how as a person completes a task, a layer is being exercised over another. This is exemplified by my own experience through utilising my camera to capture significant memories; the time spent memorising my surroundings, was fragmented between the layers of sensory abilities and the layers of capturing the environment through the lens of the camera. Therefore utilising one layer lessens the engagement with another.

This disengagement can be argued in a study of computer-aided learning, Christof van Nimwegen (2003). Two groups of people were instructed to solve logical puzzles on a computer, the puzzle consisted of coloured balls being transferred between two boxes in accordance with a set of rules. One group used software designed to assist them and offer on-screen tips, whereas the other group used basic software with no guidance. At the start, the group using helpful software solved the puzzles faster, however as the puzzle proceeded, the other group using unhelpful software, were able to solve problems faster with fewer wrong moves. As a result, this indicated that those using unhelpful software were more engaged and better at planning ahead, whereas the other group tended to rely on trial and error (Carr, 2011, p.214).

Ecological psychologist, Edward S. Reed described in The Necessity of Experience, how processed information, gained through secondary experience, differentiates from that of primary experience:

If I am looking at a photograph of you instead of looking at your face, there is an inherent limit to what I can learn about you. No matter how thoroughly I scrutinize the photograph, at some point I stop learning about you and begin to learn about the picture

(Reed, 1996, p.3)

Reed uses the term ‘ecological information’ (Reed, 1996, p.2), to indicate the information gained from the abilities to smell, see, taste, touch and hear. Reed therefore argues that through secondary means, one’s ecological information is limited to the extent of the technology. If social interaction is however considered from a binary perspective, then technology has accelerated human interaction and connectivity into a global and prolific scale. It is only when these interactions are separated into physical and secondary, that their value can be evaluated.

If I am conversing face-to-face, I am aware of how the surrounding space, the recipient’s body language and mine is affecting what is being said. When this is compared to a video call, the information gained from the recipient’s reactions lessens, as I am only able to inherit information accessible from the screen. The information gained from a phone call is therefore lesser, and far less using instant messaging, much like what was discussed by Reed. As I am utilising these layers of communication more regularly, the layers of conversing face-to-face and picking up reactions from body language, are therefore not being exercised as regularly. Reed here characterises the imbalance:

Telecommunication works only because people who cannot observe one another directly nevertheless have considerable previous experience with direct face-to-face interactions. For understanding our place in the world, ecological information is thus primary, processed information secondary. It is this relation between primary and processed experience, in which the balance should be tilted towards primary experience, that has been disrupted and degraded by modern life

(Reed,1996, p.3)

The next chapter will establish how as physical interactions lessen, anxiety is seen to increase, causing individuals to be drawn to choosing layers which feel more in line with their social confidence, leading to further dependency on technology.

 

CHAPTER 2: An anxious civilisation

‘The more desperate and uncomfortable I get, the more I use my phone, maybe every 7 to 10 minutes’, Participant A

(De Raffaele, focus group, 2016f)

As anxiety is reported to affect 8.2 million people in the UK in 2013 (Fineberg et al, 2013, pp. 761-770), mental health organisation Mind, defines the psychological effect of anxiety as ‘feeling tense, nervous and on edge’, ‘feeling your mind is really busy with thoughts’, ‘feeling numb’, and can cause problems when ‘developing or maintaining relationships’ and ‘simply enjoying your leisure time’ (Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 2015).

The cause and effect relationship between anxiousness and technology has been researched in 2014 by Kent State University. More than 500 university students were surveyed in over 82 majors. This was done by conducting clinical measurements, recording daily cell phone usage and accessing their education records. The results found that ‘high frequency cell phone users tended to have lower GPA, higher anxiety, and lower satisfaction with life (happiness) relative to their peers who used the cell phone less often’ (Lepp et al, 2014, pp. 343-350).

This report is reiterated by the Independent, stating how ‘rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years’ (Bedell, www.independent.co.uk, 2016). There is a relative correlation between the internet’s inception, transforming from a transactional form of communication in the 1960s (Pingdom, royal.pingdom.com, 2009), with emotional states. No more than a quarter of a century later, the internet has become a singular, pocket sized platform for hyper connectivity and instantaneous accessibility, integrated into the everyday.

As this shift in emotion becomes apparent, William Davies argues in the book The Happiness Industry, it is deemed easier to correct the attitude of the individual, as opposed to addressing the extraneous forces that are used (Davies, 2015, quoted in: Bedell, www.independent.co.uk, 2016):

In the long history of scientifically analysing the relationship between subjective feelings and external circumstances, there is always a tendency to see the former as more changeable than the latter

(Davies, 2015, quoted in: Bedell, www.independent.co.uk, 2016)

41% of the participants in my questionnaire (De Raffaele, questionnaire, 2016g) claimed it takes less than an hour to become accustomed with new phone updates, which demonstrated the easy manipulation of technology. This is reinforced by Adam Curtis in Hypernormalisation:

In an age of anxious individuals, frightened of the future, the virtual world found in the internet creates a safe bubble that protected you from the complexity of the outside

(Hypernormalisation, TV programme, 2016)

Due to the success of the ‘safe bubble’ created by the internet, companies that manufacture and produce these devices have become global ‘superpowers’ with a monopoly not only by the products they sell, but in the way people use them. Viktor Mayer- Schönberger, Professor at the Oxford Internet Institute argues how:

the combination of login data, cookies and IP addresses … Google knows for each of us what we searched for and when … the big changes in our lives – that you shopped for a house in 2000 … had a health scare in 2003, and a new baby later that year

(Mayer-Schönberger, 2009, p.7)

These companies facilitating one’s access to the internet, portray their platforms as unshakeable and all-knowing. This ‘omnipotence’ has only ever been seen in society as god-like or monarch-like figures; these structures enforce a hierarchy with one ruling power. Technology, in terms of the internet has mirrored a similar structure. This perceived ‘omnipotence’ can be identified by how the participants in the focus group discussed a situation where they are unable to connect to wifi, ‘It always works in fact and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t push you to fix it’, and ‘I get more angry than anxious if my laptop can’t connect, It’s not an anxiety thing, more that it should be working and it is not’ (De Raffaele, focus groupf, 2016).

In the case of individuals seeking to enhance or solve problems regarding human emotion, individual’s trust is then bestowed upon digital technology. As seen in my survey, 43% have actively dated someone from using a dating app, and only 17% claimed to never check the internet first when symptoms of illness arise (De Raffaele, questionnaire, 2016g). This trust can be exemplified in ELIZA, a 1964 computer algorithm, where one inputs a statement, and knowingly receives an automated, reconfigured answer back. Its creator, Joseph Weizenbaum, was surprised by how ‘emotionally involved with the computer’ people became, as participants went on to discuss their inner most feelings with it (Weizenbaum, 1966, quoted in: Carr, 2011, p.205). This supports that ‘what made people feel secure was having themselves reflected back to them, just like a mirror’ (Hypernormalisation, TV programme, 2016).

Technology grown from this desire can be seen in the The Feel Wristband; which synchronises to the user’s body through an app, measures their feelings using their biosignals, and then recommends actions to raise emotional wellbeing (Szymanska and Maciejowska, electronic journal, 2016). The end point of this technology can be argued as, happiness. However the ecological information accounting for the individual’s ‘happiness’ must be filtered and measured by the technology. The individual’s understanding of their state of happiness is therefore dictated by the technology, rather than listening to their emotions.

As technology encompasses much of daily life, and through its high usage, it can be argued that one perceives their abilities to be more-so produced by technology rather than their physical self. This is further exemplified by the one-third of the participants in my survey who claim to have never attempted to reduce their usage (De Raffaele, questionnaire, 2016g). However, this may lead to a misunderstanding of how our bodies, even though limit our encounter with the world, can ‘simultaneously give us access to what our senses perceive and link us to the whole universe of human perception… Levis describes this expansion as becoming “more fully human”’ (Levin, 1985, quoted in: Higgins, 2002, p. 38).

As technology works to portray an ideal of perfection and happiness, we tend to demonise our failures more abhorrently. This idea is discussed in a recent paper by film lecturer Catalin Brylla at the conference Undoing Blindness Stereotypes through Embodied Experiences in Documentary (2016). Brylla explains how mainstream documentaries eliminate the portrayal of production failures, they as a result stigmatises failure, as it is seen to disrupt the ‘flow’ (Brylla, conference, 2016). In the case of The Feel Wristband, human emotion is reduced to a numerical value, it can veer upward or downwards. The concept of success and failure becomes materialised.

In documentaries, the depiction of seamlessness understood by an audience mirrors that which is acquired by the internet. As Brylla communicates failure in the documentary Ordinary Experiences of a Blind Person, Brylla argues ‘the randomness of failure is a representation of how the everyday is interspersed with disjunctions and only through showing these can we gain a sense of fullness’ (Brylla, conference 2016).

 

Chapter 3: Understanding through performance

In this Dissertation, the research conducted in the previous chapters – in regards to understanding our physical being in relation to technology – has been reformed to create a two-part performance. The work performed by participants, rather than rehearsed artists, aims to translate this understanding though a simple, yet immersive metaphor.

The visual element of my dissertation creates encounters between two separate everyday tasks, this being wearing gloves and to Make a cup of tea or to Roll a cigarette (De Raffaele, Youtube, 2016c).

This metaphor of technology is represented by the glove, which in Make a cup of tea, encourages self reflection and celebrates the everyday as these two entities create an alien experience. On the other hand Roll a cigarette, becomes more durational, using the gloves to bring awareness to the role digital devices play in the everyday.

The performance can also be seen in the three-part structure; the person, the process and the completed task. In aiming to capture an embodied perspective, each performance is filmed using a GoPro for the purpose of presenting it as part of my dissertation.

Make a cup of tea

   
Figs. 3-6

Fluxus, an experimental art movement founded in 1960 by George Maciunas challenged ideas of was is accepted as art. I have referred to Fluxus as it was a democratic form of creativity open to anyone. It valued simplicity and anti-commercialism, with chance and accident playing a big part in the creation of works, and humour also being an important element (www.tate.org.uk). Fluxus experiences termed ‘event scores’, were performances which followed instructions and involved simple ideas and actions seen in the everyday (www.aknowles.com).

By adding comedic value to the performance it encourages engagement and an alternative appreciation for the task in hand, which can be seen in Make a Salad (De Raffaele, Vimeo, 2016a).

By removing the task from its context and presenting it as art, ‘the randomness of failure’ (Brylla, conference, 2016) creates an opportunity for it to be celebrated. This everyday routine of making a cup of tea, combined with wearing a pair of gloves, creates an encounter in which the performer understands the separate entities of each task, but together creates a misunderstanding of how they function together.

The immaterial nature of the act demands one’s ability to think, to touch and to reflect. As we often only see the end product through secondary experience and thus lose out on contextual information. The performance works to appreciate the ecological information gained during the process.

This is further contextualised by Martin Creed’s Work No.1701 (Creed, exhibition, 2016), which focuses on different individuals crossing a road in New York (De Raffaele, Youtube, 2016d). Creed defines the work as ‘doing things in life, living and working, is always using your body’ (Creed, exhibition, 2016). The individuals crossing the road could be deemed as ‘limited’, nonetheless all complete the task in their own way, signifying the importance of ‘failure’ in the act of achieving.

Technology as a layer disadvantages us from making these mistakes and understanding the process as we always receive the edited result. Make a cup of tea aims to re-engage the viewer in the act of doing, to highlight the unique thought process of the physical self.

Roll a cigarette

   
Figs. 7-10

Roll a cigarette changes the role of the gloves as an enabler of process seen in Make a cup of tea, into a physical barrier, obscuring the dexterity of the human hand when handling the smaller objects. Technology is materialised in a limiting fashion as the layer created alters the performer’s sense of touch, whereby ecological information gained must travel through the layer to become understood, and continue to interact with the task effectively. The superiority associated with technology, is transformed into the superiority of one’s physical capabilities. 

One of the performers discussed how ‘it made me think of what to improve upon if I was given the opportunity to do it again’ (McDermott, interview, 2016). This maintains Davies’ observation, as there is always a tendency to see the individual as more changeable than the technology (Bedell, www.independent.co.uk, 2016). As it is discussed in chapter two, when one is unable to connect to Wi-Fi, rather than looking at the bigger picture that they are incapable of menial tasks without the internet, they instead look to the problem of being unable to connect to the internet. The visual metaphor of the gloves, show clearly that the task of rolling a cigarette could be simply done gloveless, rather than trying to fix one’s abilities though the gloves. This also raises the point, that none of the individuals thought to take the gloves off, mirroring how we look to correct and enhance the use of technology rather than remove it and complete tasks in a simpler format. The performances’ comic value engages its audience in this otherwise arguably frustrating experience.

Further contextualisation can be seen in Critical Mass: Pure Immanence by Anne de Vries, a video and sound installation portraying a hard style festival, viewed from the perspective behind phones and industry standard cameras (de Vries, exhibition, 2016a). It demonstrates how digital technology is used when attempting to acquire complete control over ones environment. During my interview with De Vries, he describes a quest for ‘totality’ (De Vries, Interview, 2016c), and in his contribution to the publication Flash Art, he further describes how:

humans sought access to a universal worldview – a worldview valid everywhere and for all time. If this totality were achieved, all human individuality would be subsumed and our quest for individual freedom would be achieved

(de Vries, 2016b, p. 83)

Through my personal experience of the work, it caused frustration through the inaccessibility to the self-liberation associated with music festivals, as the sound and visuals become disrupted by the devices. To develop this idea for the performers to become more embodied by the limitations, I presented the body as an object, in addition to its role as a subject.

Yet by viewing Critical Mass: Pure Immanence through a screen (De Raffaele, Vimeo, 2016b), I was further distanced from experiencing the event. In hindsight however, I have been forced to follow the very same practice through my visual dissertation. By submitting a video rather than a live performance a layer is immediately built between the viewer and the artwork intended. This highlights issues discussed in chapter one, whereby as a society we are now experiencing everything second hand and losing access to ecological information we could have gained from a live, first hand performance.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, the self reflective knowledge gained from experiencing the body can be described by Levin as ‘Ontological Knowledge’ (Levin, 1985, quoted in: Higgins, 2002, p. 37). Ontology is a branching term of metaphysics, which deals with the nature of the being (en.oxforddictionaries.com). It can therefore be seen, by defining our relationship with the environment, that ontological knowledge can be valued for its importance, as one can start to place themselves within their surroundings. As withdrawing oneself from digital technology would arguably pose an uncomfortable occurrence for many, the self-awareness brought about by reflecting upon our reasoning behind the choices we make to extend our abilities, we can then start to appreciate both selves in their own terms, as the primary self is distinguished from the secondary.

Participants in my focus group and survey established their curiosity and excitement for the future of technology, particularly those in the creative industry were hopeful for innovation and connectivity the next generation of technology may bring. It however was a privilege to learn how the performers were able to apply the process explored into everyday life, as Hannah McDermott discussed:

It made me more aware of the shortcuts I use technology for… I guess that’s what you do with technology, make things quicker … I was able to re think how I would physically make it faster this time, improve upon my own skills instead … you can ask why would I even need to learn to calculate something when I have a calculator, but if I’m using the calculator for all my calculations, where does that leave me

(McDermott, Interview, 2016)

This awareness is key when experiencing emotional distress, as one can assess the situation more critically. The materialisation of the process has in effect concluded my own frustrations with my own ‘limiting abilities’, such as remembering the significance of an image. By distinguishing the two processes, it allowed me to evaluate how the ‘two selves’ intertwine during a task, leading to a fuller understanding of the result.

An example of when these two selves interplay can be seen in the selection of a photograph from a variety of memories, and thereby choosing one which best portrays the extended version of ourselves on an online platform, the process can thus be appreciated.

This awareness and embrace of the two abilities is crucial, in the inevitable presence of digital technology. As history dictates, humans are in a constant flux, and never belonging to one state, therefore mindfully we must proceed.

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list of illustrations

Cover image: De Raffaele, Angelique (2017),Make a Cup of Tea / Roll a Cigarette, video still
Fig. 1: de Raffaele, Angelique (2017),Make a Cup of Tea / Roll a Cigarette, video still
Fig. 2: De Raffaele, Angelique (2017), Make a Cup of Tea / Roll a Cigarette, video
Figs. 3-6: De Raffaele, Angelique (2017),Make a Cup of Tea / Roll a Cigarette, video stills
Figs. 7-10: De Raffaele, Angelique (2017),Make a Cup of Tea / Roll a Cigarette, video stills