A Digital Talk About an Analogue Art: Interview with Erika Fischer-Lichte

by Ivan Medenica*

This text has a hybrid form. To the transcript of the discussion which I held at Bitef-Prologue (in Belgrade) in September 2020 with Professor Dr. Erika Fischer-Lichte, one of the leading German and world theatre scholars, I have added, in the form of an introduction, some general dilemmas about the aesthetic essence of theatre. The hybridity of this text encompasses elements of curatorial self-reflection (I conceptualized the Bitef-Prologue) and performance analysis of this particular public (academic) interview seen as a cultural performance.

Professor Dr. Erika Fischer-Lichte, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies on “Interweaving Performance Cultures” at Freie Universität, Berlin. Photo: Wikipedia

Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, in which we have one form in various sizes, the discussion between Professor Fischer-Lichte and I was also, as we now call it, hybrid; in the sense that it was a combination of digital presence (Fischer-Lichte) and live presence (myself). I was positioned on an open stage which was, in accordance with anti-pandemic measures, specially built for this Bitef edition and placed in Mira Trailović Square, right in front of the Bitef Theatre building. Fischer-Lichte was in her Berlin office, on an online platform, and the computer image of her was multiplied on two large screens for the audience in the square in Belgrade.

There is something both twisted and “heroic” in the fact that this academic interview, a specialized event aimed at professionals, was realized technologically in ways similar to that of a rock concert: that is to say, there were several cameras filming the event from different angles, capturing Fischer-Lichte’s appearance on both screens, as well as the audience (who were seated within metal boxes, just like at the concerts organized during the pandemic) and, on stage in the square, myself. Moreover, everything was live streamed on the Bitef YouTube channel, which made it possible for the hybrid discussion about the (lack of) possibility for theatre to exist in the digital world to also have its own digital edition!

Photo: KaranovicJakov Simovic

Knowing that I have based the doctoral curriculum in theatre and performance studies at the Faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade on Fischer-Lichte’s theories, and that the audience of the interview mostly consisted of my students, one could, with a hint of benevolent irony, add a certain symbolic value to the fact that the large screen with Fischer-Lichte on it was mounted onto the main façade of a church. To explain, the Bitef Theatre is situated in an old church, which, with additional symbolism, happens to be German. As one of the students observed, the interview would have been a first-class cultural performance (which public interviews and lectures are), even if the high priestess had not appeared on the church. In this instance, it was an “academic liturgy.”

Photo: Jelena Jankovic

What made this discussion additionally performative, even dramatic, was an unplanned, well-camouflaged agon between Fischer-Lichte and I. My idea was to use examples of performances which employ “digital bodies,” as referred to by Steve Dixon (avatars, cyborgs, robots . . .),[1] and by assuming that artificial intelligence could become an agent of robot-performers, “expand” the theory of Fischer-Lichte’s “autopoietic feedback loop.”[2]

Erika Fischer-Lichte’s influential book Transformative Power

I wanted to argue that, presuming that artificial intelligence operates robots, it is possible to achieve the reciprocity that the autopoietic feedback loop implies. To my surprise (hopefully concealed), Fischer-Lichte rejected this “theoretical expansion.” She concluded that the lecture-performance Uncanny Valley by Stefan Kaegi and Rimini Protokoll, on which I tried to base my argument, is unquestionably an intelligent and relevant piece of art which she liked very much, but that it is not theatre. The “dramatic tension” of this interaction was noted in one of the media articles about the Bitef-Prologue:

The discussions tackled several interesting topics and ideas, but the unexpected, almost dramatic twist occurred at the end of the talk with Erika Fischer-Lichte, at the end of the Bitef-Prologue. Erika Fischer-Lichte attended virtually, while the discussion was moderated by her admirer, Bitef artistic director and curator, Ivan Medenica. Given the fact that she had already seen Uncanny Valley, Medenica wanted to talk to her about further perspectives of theatre, using this work by Stefan Kaegi as a reference. However, the famous theatre scholar said that those kinds of experiments surely do push the boundaries of art but that she does not consider that to be theatre—theatre is exclusively an encounter between human-actor and human-audience and that theatre has never been and never will be anything but that.[3]

Here is where I can draw a line and, in the form of the curatorial self-reflection, explain what led to this interview.

Uncanny Valley by Rimini Protokoll

Belgrade International Theatre Festival (Bitef) was initiated in 1967 as an international festival of “new theatre tendencies.” The principle of this programme, based on the idea of “novelty,” met the requirements of those modernist times—the times of the “neo-avantgarde.”[4] Meanwhile, postmodernism hurtled through the worlds of the arts, science and philosophy, carrying its affirmation of citing, collaging and intertextuality. One of the consequences that ensued lies in the fact that we can nowadays no longer innocently, without doubts, reservations and contextualisation, talk about the absolutely new in art. Bitef has remained a festival of “new tendencies” in theatre and performing arts, but it has remained necessary to, constantly and thoroughly, problematize and contextualize these categories in theoretical terms.

Photo: J. Jankovic

Every year, since 2016, when I became Bitef artistic director and curator, I have tried to place a focus on an artistic tendency in contemporary theatre that is, if not necessarily “new,” at least radical and subversive. That goal is mostly achieved by the selection of performances in the main programme, but also through lectures, conferences and interviews in the side programme.

Long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided that the artistic focus of the 54th Bitef, planned for September 2020, would be the phenomenon of dehumanization of the subject of performance and deconstruction of live presence on stage; through the use of various technical devices, from simple and inherently theatrical features (like lighting, costumes, smoke and other effects) to more complex phenomena (including new, different performing bodies, such as avatars and robots). That does not imply that all the selected shows would be performed only by such bodies, nor was it our aim to “banish” actors from the stage. However, we did want to mark this “new” tendency in contemporary theatre, to contextualize it and illuminate it theoretically. The complementary, thematic line of the 54th Bitef programme describes the arc from ecological crisis to the phenomenon of posthumanism.

Photo: J. Jankovic

Due to the pandemic, it was decided that the 54th Bitef had to be postponed until 2021 and connected to the 55th edition. However, we fought for and managed to present a preview of the future double edition (which we called Bitef-Prologue) during the previously planned term (September 2020). Not only did we want to maintain the unbroken, 50-year tradition of the festival, we also wanted to demonstrate that live art is possible even in the corona times (whilst, of course, respecting the anti-pandemic measures). From the already approved programme, we selected two performances that both represented the artistic and thematic concept of the programme and fitted within the restricted boundaries for production created by the virus. Those restrictions were related mostly to the decision to have the main programme performed in the Bitef Theatre, the stage of which is rather small (the Bitef festival normally uses all the institutional stages in Belgrade, as well as many alternative spaces). Both pieces selected fitted within the limited possibilities because they are performed and serviced by small groups of people, which lowered not only expenses, but also the epidemiological risk.

In the aforementioned lecture-performance Uncanny Valley, the only performer is a humanoid robot. In the Swiss performance Being Arielle F (a co-production between Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne and the author’s company from Geneva), which is also a lecture-performance, the only performers are its author, Simon Senn, and a virtual projection of a woman (the titular Arielle F), who also appears in person, but only as an image on the screen of Senn’s smartphone.

The conversation with Fisher-Lichte was conceived mostly as a theoretical exploration of aesthetic aspects of performances in which live presence of performers is expanded by the presence of virtual bodies or is entirely substituted by robots. As I have already mentioned, the initial, vague idea was to use the concepts of interface and/or artificial intelligence to try to expand her theory of “autopoietic feedback loop” and propose a hypothesis that Fischer-Lichte’s theory functions even when performers are not living beings. In order words, I wanted to suggest that it is possible to imagine the situation of exchange between audience and robot-performer if the latter one is operated by artificial intelligence.

Moreover, my idea was to have such an authority as Fischer-Lichte draw a clear line between the already existing performing practice, commonly called “cyber-performance,” and TV and YouTube screenings of previously recorded performances, which is a practice that exploded during the pandemic. The problem is not the ubiquity of the screening (which does convey information about performances and sparks interest in theatre in general), but that, more often than not, it is described ignorantly as “digital theatre,” “online theatre” and so on.

Last, but not the least, I was curious to find out if anti-pandemic measures, which can determine the distance between actors on stage and limit physical action, belong to restrictions of the same nature as the ones that theatre has been facing throughout its history (various forms of censorships), or if they represent a new phenomenon; one which, I suggested, might be called “medical censorship.” I am of opinion that there still is a significant difference between the situation in which something cannot be uttered on stage because it is politically unsafe, and one in which something cannot be done physically because it is epidemiologically unsafe. I believe that “censorship” of actors’ physical action problematizes the aesthetic essence of theatre more deeply than (political) censorship of speech.

Under the circumstances of physical distancing the aesthetic essence of theatre—the bodily co-presence of spectators and performers—is challenged. The anti-pandemic restrictions are more easily achievable in auditoria than on stages. If there are restrictions regarding physical action on stage—kissing, fighting, cuddling, etc.—do we witness something I overdramatically labelled as “medical censorship”? Or should we see it from a pragmatic perspective, as a temporary means for theatre to survive the times of corona?

I think the latter. I wouldn’t talk about a medical censorship, it is necessary for our health, so we should do it. It is something that brings artists to new ideas. Since they cannot establish usual physical contacts, they have to invent new ways. The physical presence on stage doesn’t mean that they have to touch each other every other minute. They can make “contact” from a distance, and this contact could be so strong that the spectator can sense it. The challenge is to make contact without coming too close to each other. You can have a closeness at a distance as well. The artists should search for some new means of how to achieve that. They are not censored but challenged. The innovation does not occur only from the situation in which you are lying in bed, thinking, and simply generating new ideas. We have seen so many times in the history of theatre that new ideas come from restrictions. I would simply trust in the creativeness and inventiveness of actors, directors, choreographers, of whoever is involved in theatre production, that they will make something new that will outlast this situation.   

Photo: J. Jankovic

Theatre has been trying to resist the measure of physical distancing through broadcasting of recordings of performances on internet platforms or television. When one labels this practice as an “online performance” or “digital theatre” we are facing a theoretical confusion. This is a completely different media format, it does not fulfil the aesthetic precondition of performance as such which is bodily co-presence of spectators and performers from which the situation of, as you defined it, “autopoietic feedback loop” emerges: that is to say, the physical, emotional and spiritual flow between these two groups of people. Is there something like digital theatre?

No, of course not. Something like digital theatre does not exist. But first of all, I have to say that I am grateful to theatres for granting us the possibility to see some old productions again. This, more or less, gives you an idea of what has happened. But, of course, this is not theatre. As you said, for me, there must be an audience. Without spectators there is no theatre. I am not talking about spectators who sit somewhere else, at home, watching it on television. The audience has to be in the same space as the performers; this is what I mean by bodily co-presence. It is this flow, back-and-forth, between performers and actors that is important. That is what counts because, in my opinion, it is what distinguishes theatre art from all the other art forms.

Photo: J. Jankovic

In theatre, there is no work of art to which people can come, receive it and respond to it while its materiality does not change. If you are at a performance, of course the materiality changes due to the responses of the audience. This can be quite minimal, only for the very sensitive people. On the other hand, the audience can be very loud—shouting, laughing and even jumping onto the stage. So, the production is the same, but the performance changes. Every performance is unique, because this autopoietic feedback loop between performers and spectators is different in each performance.

The social component is important. You can receive a novel or a painting purely aesthetically, but that is something you can never do with a theatre performance. You will always feel that this is a social situation. You sit there, side by side with others, and how they respond will always have a kind of effect on how you respond. I think our culture underrates the fact that sitting at the performance is always both an aesthetic and a social experience; you cannot have one without the other. That makes it unique. And that is why this pandemic situation today is so devastating for all of us.

A “cyber performance” as an exchange between real bodies and virtual reality is an already existing practice. You speak about a merging between dance and computer software in Merce Cunningham’s piece BIPED. How is one to make a theoretical differentiation between these performances and those abovementioned which are, in the times of corona, labelled as “digital theatre”? Here, I do not refer to performances made for Zoom or other online platforms.

These are two completely different things. What Cunningham was doing in this production was, in fact, insisting on the fact that we are human beings with two feet which have to be planted on the ground. What he did with technology was something that theatre has always done. Technology has always been incorporated into theatre art, be it perspective painting, film, video, etc. . . . Theatre is an art that can be very purist: just actors and spectators in an empty space—this is possible. But it can also include all the arts and technologies that are available, yet it still remains theatre—as long as you have these two basic components, performers and spectators. You can use all technologies and media, as long as it is in the realm of performance. However, this is not like film recordings of performances that took place in the past. As long as there are human beings on the stage and human beings in the auditorium, it is theatre. 

Under the notion of digital bodies, Steve Dixon refers to virtual bodies (such as avatars), but cyborgs and robots as well. In this edition of Bitef, we have examined the deconstruction of human presence on stage. In the performance Uncanny Valley, made by Stefan Kaegi and co-produced by Rimini Protokoll and Münchner Kammerspiele, there is only one performer—a humanoid robot, a spitting image of the writer Thomas Melle. One can develop empathy towards the robot, but how could the autopoietic feedback loop function from the opposite side? Or is this performance too “eccentric” for us to rethink the aesthetical concept of performance?

Photo: J. Jankovic

First, I have to say that I love this work. It has tested how far we can go in challenging the notion of theatre. And in this production the point is reached where it is no longer theatre. The robot there looked like a human being, exactly like Melle, but it was clear for everybody who was sitting there that it was a robot and that it does not make sense to respond to him directly or to have a kind of dialogue.

For me, it was an experiment that was done, so to say, to prove my idea of the autopoietic feedback loop [she laughs]. You put a robot on stage and wait to see what happens. The loop will not be established. As usually with Kaegi and Rimini Protokoll, the piece was very intelligently made. When I say it is not theatre, it does not mean it is not art. It is a new art format. That is quite important, and it is fantastic. We have to make a distinction. This is art, I can respond aesthetically to it, but I cannot experience it in social terms. When it is done well, I admire that, but it is not theatre. One should coin a new term for these art forms.

On the other hand, if avatars, cyborgs, robots and drones are to become less eccentric and more present as agents in performance, should we think of artificial intelligence as a means of updating our understanding of performance?   

As long as it is done within a performance in which there are real actors on stage, I think it is fine. You can use all kinds of technologies. It is fun to see, side by side, how a human actor responds and how a machine might respond. But the difference is that the machine will do it always in the same way, and a human being will do it in a different way each time.

In an age such as ours, in which there are more and more machines used for very good purposes, there is a belief that they can solve all our problems. They can really solve a lot of technical problems, that is why they were invented, but theatre still reminds us that the encounter between human beings cannot be replaced by any machine. It can be in a huge auditorium, or in a very small place; in the times of corona, the auditorium cannot be big, but it still exists. There are human beings in the theatre space, and it is not the question of how many there are. They remind us of what it means to be human, to respond to another human being. Theatre is an art form that puts one human being in front of the other.

Some students of mine try to connect your theories of bodily co-presence and autopoietic feedback loop, which are “anthropocentric” from the aesthetical perspective, with the notion of posthumanism seen as a vision of the world in which man will not be in the centre anymore. Is this theoretical connection achievable?

Photo: J. Jankovic

I think that posthumanism does not mean that there are no human beings anymore. What interest would we have in posthumanism if our species does not exist anymore? For me, the important point is that we see that we have to take care of nature. Humans have been using the environment as if it were made only for them, to get their needs satisfied promptly. This is what we have to give up immediately because, otherwise, there will not be a world in which we can live. It is a burning issue of our time. Maybe it is already too late; we have to see how to save what is still there and take care of it so that it still may grow.  We can invent completely new art forms that might help us raise our conscience about the situation. Still, maybe I am old-fashioned, but I believe, if I see human beings acting on stage and dealing with ecological problems, that it has greater impact on me than if I just see machines running around.

Theatre helps us raise awareness that the world is too precious, we cannot just go on like this, continuing to exploit it. We have to take care and save it. But theatre with human beings on stage talking to human beings in the auditorium can teach us this lesson as well. 

[1] Steve Dixon distinguishes three types of digital bodies: virtual, cyborg and robot body. Virtual body belongs to virtual space which stands as opposite to the real one and is as such always an image, a representation of another body. While virtual body is linked to the virtual space in which it exists, the cyborg and the robot body exist also in real space, the former as a mechanized human and the latter as a machine. See: Steve Dixon,Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and Installation (The MIT Press, 2007).

[2] “Autopoietic feedback loop” is one of the central theoretical concepts of Fischer-Lichte. According to this theory, the artistic team creates a “staging,” a production, while a “performance” is an unrepeatable aesthetic experience created through the encounter and exchange between the performers and the audience (bodily co-presence) in a real, physical space  and in a certain period of time. In other words, a performance comes to exist once the autopoietic feedback loop starts to “work” determining the mutual flow of energy, emotions and thoughts between performers and audience, which neither of the two sides can completely control, and in which both sides are (co)authors. See: Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance (Routledge, 2008). 

[3] Marina Milivojević Mađarev, “The Actors Have Left, My Lord,” Vreme, no.1550, September 17, 2020.

[4] Here I refer to Adorno’s thought that “novum” is an invariant, an unchangeable feature of Modernism. 

*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre. He is an active theater critic and has received six times the national award for the best theatre criticism. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theater festival in Serbia (2003–2007), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theater Critics’ Executive Committee and the Director of its international conferences. He is also member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the journal of the Association, and as of October 2015, the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade).

Copyright © 2020 Ivan Medenica
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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