Not Here, Not Now? Liveness Revisited

Małgorzata Sugiera*

Taking as its point of departure two video projects created by Polish theatre artists at the time of the COVID-19 crisis and presented on YouTube, my article intends to revisit the concept of digital liveness, presented by Philip Auslander in 2012. Both projects explicitly take up an important issue of liveness as supposedly characteristic of theatre performances as such. Referring also to such recent performance-installations as Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms and Nachlass/Pièces sans personnes, as well as Mapa Teatro’s Of Lunatics, or Those Lacking Sanity, the article claims that the COVID-19 crisis has not so much jeopardized the ontology of theatre as a communal form of art but rather put in question the notion of co-presence of performers and their audience “here and now” as the core of this art.
Keywords: Jacek Dukaj, Ambasada, Usta Usta Republika, Wojciech Wiński, Auslander, site specific, Internet

Amid the COVID-19 crisis (May 2020), Into the Night, inspired by Jacek Dukaj’s novel The Old Axolotl, premièred on Netflix. During an interview about this work, the well-known Polish science fiction writer was asked to comment on the lockdown and its social effects. For the most part, his answers were quite predictable. Dukaj underlined our dependence on technology that created “a situation wherein corporeality and social interactions have been visibly reduced.” Just like many other science fiction artists, he envisioned our future in a dystopian way. However, while commenting on the effects of this “global digital experience” in the domain of culture and values, Dukaj made an interesting observation: “The virus has only accelerated changes which were to happen in one way or the other.”

Ambasada 2.0 by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 22–24, 2020. Online via Zoom. Photomontage: Dariusz Zakrzewski.

I would like to employ his perspective and take up a more specific topic in relation to today’s theatre by drawing on Ambasada (Embassy), a site-specific performance which after almost fifteen years was re-made in May 2020 as an online performance (Ambasada 2.0) by the Polish theatre group Usta Usta Republika (Mouth-to-Mouth Republic). This example will hopefully help me tackle, from a more global perspective, the issue of what kind of changes, accelerated by the virus, could be identified on theatre stages, and how they may influence the ways of watching, engaging and writing specifically for performance studies.

The Polish government implemented a total lockdown in mid-March, 2020. Shortly thereafter, many institutional theatres opened their archives for free or organized frequent streamings of recent or well-known performances. Soon, new projects, designed specifically for the Internet, cropped up. Often, they allowed Internet users to comment on and share video-performances available on Facebook and other platforms. Many of the new projects represented the harsh, sometimes dull, reality of the lockdown, showing predominantly digital forms of human relations and communication. However, only few of them included, as an inherent part of their structure, various forms of digital interaction with the prospective participant.

My understanding is that this was not necessarily done for technological or artistic reasons. The critical aspect of these performances was the very mode itself which has remained unchanged for the Western theatre: namely, the mode of co-presence of active performers and their “passive” audience; passive in the sense that their only activity was, and still is, the psychodynamics of identification with the protagonists. The lasting influence of this understanding of co-presence is particularly striking in view of the fact that, as Nick Couldry argues, interactivity has become “a key-feature of the contemporary media ecology, which makes it very different from earlier phases in media history” (27).

Ewa Kaczmarek as Little Girl who celebrates her birthday. Ambasada 2.0 by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 22–24, 2020. Online via Zoom. Photo: Laura Leish

In other words, today’s digital media, as a fundamental infrastructure of our connection and participation, creates new spaces for interaction and interpersonal communication which were marginalized and underestimated in the traditional theatre. With reference to Ambasada 2.0 and with Dukaj’s quotation in mind, I subsequently want to argue that the recent lockdown with its “global digital experience” has brought to the foreground the need for a more visible affective turn in performance studies, focused on the audience’s affective experience as a new locus of liveness. 

Przemysław Zbroszczyk as Partygoer. Ambasada 2.0 by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 22–24, 2020. Online via Zoom. Photo: Laura Leish

The online performance of Ambasada 2.0 seems pertinent in my context for one particular reason: here, performers, connected via Zoom, interact live with the participants sitting in front of their computers, who are assigned the role of asylum seekers in an undefined country. In a short invitation to its prospective participants, Wojciech Wiński, who directed the performance wrote:

You will see Ambasada 2.0 online, on a cloud platform. This means that we want to entrust the success of our undertaking to the quality of internet connection as well as to performers and participants, both scattered all over the world (literally, for many will be virtually present from abroad). Probably, it will be the first theatre online, live, live. Not streamed, but performed live, on a cloud platform, in interaction with performers and other participants. Will it succeed? We want to try. Have your internet connection ready. Be with us.

This quotation clearly demonstrates the intentions of the theatre group which re-designed one of its best-known performances for live interaction online. In June 2020, I took part in Ambasada 2.0 to see whether the digital form met the hopes expressed in the invitation.

Shortly after filling out the online application form, I received an email from the First Secretary of the Embassy not only with detailed instructions on how to connect through Zoom, but also asking me to prepare a drink and some sweets of my choice for the meeting scheduled the following evening. It turned out that I was one of three asylum seekers, each introduced and visible in the speaker’s view option. During the performance, all three of us had to answer many competitive questions from Embassy officers in order to get asylum. To make our definitive decision about staying in the Embassy easier, we were introduced to various residents. One by one, addressing us by our first names, they told us their (mostly tragic) life stories which lead them to seek asylum and then to stay in the Embassy. Our drinks and sweets became props in their enacted narratives. Lucky to be chosen as the only one prospective resident, in the final scene of the thirty-minute performance I had to write a farewell letter, explaining my reason for staying in the Embassy to a person closest to me, whose first name I gave in the application form. The first sentence was already there on the screen; my daunting task was to finish the letter. However, no matter what I did, nothing appeared on the screen. I got a strong feeling that it was my fault. Beyond any doubt, it had to be me who could not write a simple letter on my computer’s screen and who interrupted the smoothly-going interaction, being unable to meet all the requirements. Nevertheless, while saying goodbye, the First Secretary left me with a glimmer of hope that somebody from the Embassy might contact me in the near future.

Artur Śledzianowski as Frist Secretary of the Embassy. Ambasada 2.0 by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 22–24, 2020. Online via Zoom. Photo: Laura Leish

During and long after the final scene of Ambasada 2.0, I felt like a computer game player who had to quit, having committed a grave mistake. Still, thanks to slow accumulation of experience, I could hope to be closer to reaching a higher level next time. Participating in Ambasada 2.0 was unlike any previous experiences in theatre because I felt directly and affectively engaged in the staged fiction. That is why I decided to take a closer look at how the performance had been re-designed for Internet.

Already in 2006, the participants of Ambasada were asked to fill out an application form on the theatre’s website, giving personal details which were then used during the performance to personalize the experience. However, any participant could also provide this information via a phone call. Only up to four people took part in each performance, which started in a small café. One late evening, the participants clandestinely met with the First Secretary there, and were transported in an unmarked car through a deserted city of Poznań to monumental Imperial Castle. There, they were guided through labyrinthine corridors and introduced to numerous residents who recounted their fates, dreams and fears. The visitors had to do their best to answer many questions, as only one of four seekers could get permission.

Ambasada is arguably the most famous performance of the theatre group. However, in almost all their projects, the group similarly experimented with a non-theatrical situation and space. For instance, Driver (2004) was the first car-play in Poland, which offered a late-night drive through different urban spaces in an old American cruiser. In interactive Alice 0-700, performed in a typical phone booth one year later, the participant, by pressing the receiver’s buttons, had to decide about the future of the main character, to whose story she listened after choosing the number given in the title.

Ewa Kaczmarek as Little Girl who celebrates her birthday. Ambasada by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 2006. Zamek, Poznań. Photo: Marta Bruszewska

Seen from today’s perspective, these two performances, together with Ambasada, demonstrate that the term site-specific does not fully apply to this theatre group. Rather, it is the specificity of communication that defines Usta Usta Republika’s projects. The site was important in so far as it demanded a specific form of face-to-face interaction. That is why even Ambasada was successfully staged in other places than the Imperial Castle in Poznań. No wonder, therefore, that already at that time reviewers classified this performance not only as a “Kafkaesque thriller,” but also as a kind of interactive computer game, albeit relocated into live dimension (Moroz). Setting the same goal for all the participants was key for this analogy.

However, what also mattered was that video games are actions—“they exist when enacted,” as Alexander Galloway argued in the same year (2). Fourteen years later, these game-like features of Ambasada 2.0 became even more visible. The artists made every effort to ensure active participation of asylum seekers in the only way possible in the time of the COVID-19 crisis; that is, via a technologically mediated temporal co-presence of performers and participants within a fictional situation. Thus, this performance calls for a reassessment of Philip Auslander’s notion of liveness once again.

A Kafkaesque scene. Ambasada by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 2006. Zamek, Poznań. Photo: Marta Bruszewska

In his Liveness (1999), Auslander posits that liveness is not an ontologically defined condition. What counts culturally as live experience, he argues, is rather a historically variable effect of mediatization. Therefore, the current way we conceptualize liveness should change since the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the distinction between the live and the digital has become increasingly visible.

In his 2012 article “Digital Liveness,” Auslander returned to his previous idea. However, this time he was more interested in “our engaging with machines and virtual entities as live” (7) than in liveness as a contingent effect of mediatization. Yet, participating in Ambasada 2.0 did not involve my engagement with machines and virtual entities. All the time, I remained an active participant in the imaginary world of Ambasada 2.0, able both to act and to see myself acting. Each activity was intimately connected to the socially plausible scenario of a visit to an embassy during the pandemic. Thus, the diegetic and the nondiegetic dimensions (like switching on and off my microphone) became quite indistinct. Although all situations were demonstratively pre-arranged, my decisions could influence the action, and they were integrated in the live interaction with humans and more-than-humans, the digital architecture and infrastructure included.

Hence, I became more inspired by the author’s preliminary remarks based on the audience’s experience as a possible locus of liveness. “The emerging definition of liveness,” Auslander writes, “may be built primarily around the audience’s affective experience” (“Digital Liveness” 6). Indeed, “affective” is how I would call my experience of participating in Ambasada 2.0. Yet, in performance studies more attention has been paid to the affect on the stage rather than among the audience members. This resulted in a relatively mild impact of the affective turn on performance studies in comparison to other branches of the field of arts and humanities.  

Thanks to the pandemic, as Dukaj puts it, not only have digital media evidently become the key infrastructure of our everyday connection and participation, but also emerging forms and formats of the theatre online have brought about a need for new definition of liveness premised on the audience’s effective experience, which Auslander presented as emerging a few years ago.

A Kafkaesque scene. Ambasada by Usta Usta Republika. Directed by Wojciech Wiński. May 2006. Zamek, Poznań. Photo: Marta Bruszewska

Once new spaces for interaction and interpersonal communication online will open in theatre, it may necessitate new methods of watching, engaging and writing about theatre online. As Ambasada 2.0 demonstrates, it is not too early to start seeking them.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. “Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective.” PAJ 102, 2012, pp. 3–11.

—. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Routledge, 1999.

Couldry, Nick. Media: Why it Matters? Polity. Cambridge, 2020.

Dukaj, Jacek. “Wirus przyspieszył zmiany, które miały nastąpić.” 10 May 2020. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. U of Minnesota P, 2006.

Moroz, Agnieszka. “Czy Józef K. to naprawdę ja?Dzienniki Teatralny, 7 July 2014. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.

Wiński, Wojciech. “Ambasada 2.0.” Accessed 15 Sept. 2020. 

*Małgorzata Sugiera is Full Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and the Head of the Department for Performativity Studies. Her main research fields are performativity theories, cultural and decoloniality studies. She published twelve single-authored books in Polish and co-edited works in English and German, most recently a multi-authored volume Emerging Affinities: Possible Futures of Performative Arts (2019).

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