Reimagining Light, Technology and Spectatorship in Contemporary Theatre
Amy Chan* and Natalie Cheung**
Light and technology are essential and integral parts of theatre, yet their significance is always perceived as mainly functional. By outlining the technological development of light in theatre and the underlying artistic, social, cultural and historical contexts, we examined the interrelationship between light technology and the aesthetics of theatre. Departing from reflections on technology and theatre aesthetics, integrated with both postdramatic theory and the theory of agential realism, we created an original light installation-performance for solo spectators. On revisiting the installation-performance, its creative concepts and technological details, we argue that the rethinking and the re-imagination of light through both technological and theoretical perspectives can reveal new dramaturgies of light and of the spectator in contemporary theatre.
Keywords: light, science, agential realism, things, postdramatic theatre, dramaturgy, solo spectator.
Technology is an essential component of theatre, yet its significance is always perceived as mainly functional. This article troubles this assumption through two approaches. First, we outline the technological development of light in theatre and its underlying artistic, social, cultural and historical contexts to examine the interrelationship between light technology and the aesthetics of theatre. We then question the role of light in performance practically through an original light installation-performance for solo spectators, which integrates both postdramatic theory and the theory of agential realism. On revisiting the installation-performance and its creative concepts and process, we argue that the rethinking and the re-imagination of light through both technological and theoretical perspectives can reveal new dramaturgies of light and of the spectator in contemporary theatre.
Technology, Light and the Aesthetics of Theatre
Despite the recent influence of the COVID-19 pandemic which brings the discussion of technology in theatre under the spotlight, technology has always been an integral part of theatre. This is especially evident in the history of lighting in theatre. From pyrotechnical displays in medieval liturgical plays (Bergman 36), to gas lighting in the early nineteenth century (184), to electrical light and lighting control technology in the twentieth century that also led to the development of lighting design as an independent discipline (365), to the LED technology and projection mapping nowadays, the development of lighting in theatre is closely associated with technological development. The advancement in lighting equipment and its underlying technological knowledge have significantly shaped visual aesthetics in theatre performance.
However, technology is never simply a matter of hardware and scientific knowledge. The hands-on human process and practice behind technologies are as important as the technology itself. Process and practice shape the development and the application of technology and are themselves affected by social, cultural and historical contexts (Lavender 551). The practice of theatre lighting design, both in how it is shaped and affected by the lighting technology, reflects the theatrical aesthetics of a given period.
If we examine closely the technical makeup of lighting equipment and control systems, we can find hints of dramatic theatre aesthetics inherited in its designs. The technical design of conventional lighting equipment distributed by Strand, for instance—a fixture in international theatrical productions—can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century, associated with the surge of professional and commercial theatre (“About”). Its Leko Lite ellipsoidal reflector spotlight was first introduced to the market in 1933 with the intention of confining and focusing light on stage to the performers, excluding the auditorium and the spectators from the light and stage (Edward Kook Papers).
Used in combination with the control system, it allowed the ease of creating an illusion of reality such as daytime, night-time, indoors and outdoors in representing dramatic texts, plots and characters. The effect is enhanced by conventional theatre architecture that separates the stage and auditorium and allows the creation of the fourth wall. The spectators remain a passive crowd in a dark auditorium outside of the light on stage and the performance space. Despite the development and shifting of light sources from tungsten to LED, similar equipment design with precise focusing power is still found in Source Four Ellipsoidal Fixture of ETC Company, the iconic lighting equipment widely used today. If using the technology without being conscious of the concepts and culture behind the technical design and history of theatre lighting equipment, theatre makers and designers could be subtly modelled by the technology, which may shift their creative thinking and aesthetic choices.
A Paradigm Shift of Light in Contemporary Theatre
Since the 1960s, the contemporary theatre scene has gradually shifted away from the representational aesthetic logics of dramatic theatre. This shift is Hans-Thies Lehmann’s conceptual focus in Postdramatic Theatre. Although light is not the sole focus of his work, certain aesthetic characteristics of postdramatic theatre, in particular the challenge and rejection of the primacy of text, shed new light on the potential of light in contemporary performance. “In postdramatic forms of theatre, staged text (if text is staged) is merely a component with equal rights in a gestic, musical, visual, etc., total composition” (Lehmann 46). In gaining equal weight as other theatrical elements, such as text, light is emancipated from the logocentric hierarchy of dramatic theatre. Light attains the potential of being an individual artistic medium, independent of dramatic texts and representation. A new aesthetic of theatre can arise through the autonomization of light as an individual performative element. The dramatic aesthetic characteristics inherited in existing theatrical lighting technology and practice may potentially pose obstacles for the autonomization of light. Therefore, new theatrical lighting technology and/or new dramaturgical approaches for the existing lighting technology should be experimented with to explore potential alternative aesthetics of light in contemporary theatre, inspired by the concept of postdramatic theatre.
The rethinking of light in theatre through different forms and theoretical frameworks has always been a focus in our artistic creation. Intertwining with the exploration of technology, things and the dramaturgy of the spectator, it becomes the basis of the conceptual and creative framework of our recent original light installation-performance. This work not only critically reflects on the aesthetics of light and theatre in association with technology, but it also questions the established relationship of nonhuman matter and humans in the context of science.
Things That Talk—the Creative Concept
Things That Talk (2020) was the title of our original light installation-performance for solo spectator. The title was inspired by a book of the same name edited by American science historian Lorraine Daston. Through the research and writing in Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, Daston and the authors study the entangled relationship of things and humans in art and science. The things examined range from glass flowers used in botany, to soap bubbles in classical physics, to eighteenth-century freestanding columns, to Jackson Pollock’s paintings. These things do not merely repeat the human voice but talk for themselves in their own right (Daston 11). It is worth noting that “thing” should be sharply distinguished from “object.” A thing, following Heidegger’s concept, is “self-sufficient” and “its essence is captured neither by its appearance as given by perception nor by scientific theories about it” (16). On the contrary, an object is the product of ideas and representations of the thing in Kantian terms (16). The title of the book and the discussion about things resonate with the core concept of our work. Science and laboratory were both the key referential subjects of the artistic creation and the objects to be studied and reconfigured in our work.
Traditionally, a laboratory has always been regarded as a space where people utilize matter and things to research and acquire scientific knowledge. Humans are the centre of laboratory and science. Such a conventional duality between human and nonhuman matter, as well as the anthropocentricism in laboratory and science are put into question with the emergence of the concept of agential realism proposed by feminist-physicist-philosopher Karen Barad—particularly her notion of “intra-action” that unsettles the metaphysics of individualism (Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway 139). Inspired by Barad’s theories, we investigated the complexly entangled relationship of human and matter—particularly light, things and space—and reimagined how matter and humans talk by themselves and to each other in laboratories and scientific discourse.
Light, interactive technology and things were the main artistic media to explore in order to reimagine the potential of unconventional theatrical technologies—light, in particular, as a source for a new emerging dramaturgy. The exploration and experimentation are inspired by Barad’s concept of “re-turning,” which is “not by returning as in reflecting on or going back to a past that was but re-turning as in turning it over and over again” (“Diffracting Diffraction” 168). In re-turning light, things, space and science, we created a time and space for both things and humans in the light installation-performance in which both could talk and interact. The light installation-performance did not aim at upholding long-held assumptions segregating humans and things as discrete entities but, instead, explored an ongoing reconfiguration of humans, things, time and space discussed in the following sections.
The Outline of the Installation-Performance
The light installation-performance was presented during the COVID-19 pandemic. The venue was a small gallery space of about forty square metres transformed from an ordinary domestic downtown apartment. Every 25-minute session of installation-performance admitted only one spectator. Upon arrival in the hallway before entering the main performance space, the spectator would be reminded by a computer-generated voice recording that she/he should sanitize her/his hands and put on laboratory latex gloves first so that she/he could freely explore in the space and touch the things with gloves on during the entire session. After the briefing, she/he would enter the main space in a dim light and soon realize that she/he was the only human being there. There was no human performer, no character and no plot. Instead, a laboratory-like space, with a bench in the center with numerous things on top—such as laboratory glassware, a water pump, a bronze basin and a laboratory manual—awaited the spectator. Domestic equipment, such as floor lamps and table lamps with domestic tungsten light bulbs, were scattered around the space, as well as fluorescent light tubes, LED lights hidden inside cabinets, an overhead projector, a glass container with a small plant, a typewriter, coffee maker, books, chairs, tables and some outdated laboratory equipment. The windows were shielded to block light from outside. One of the walls was full of historical scientific diagrams and charts. In contrast to the technological setup, the floor was full of wood chips.
The spectators would soon recognize that she/he was subjected to a constantly changing light composition created by lamps, tube lights, LED lights and the overhead projector, but they could hardly tell whether the changing light was solely pre-programmed or interactive. Many of the parts seemed repetitive and followed certain minimalistic rhythmic patterns. However, from time to time, there were moments suddenly punctuating the apparently mechanistic pattern: white LED light coupled with stirring magnets in laboratory glass jars creating both bursts of light and sound; sudden flashes of red, blue and green LED light associated with laboratory alarms immersing the entire space in the transience of highly saturated color; the uncontrollable on-and-off of the overhead projector; the staccato and distorted voice recording of Karen Barad from the bronze basin with water dripping; and the automatic brewing of the coffee by the coffee maker. The actions of the spectators varied. Some spectators suspected that we installed a surveillance camera inside the space to surveil their movement and trigger different light and sound changes accordingly. Some suspected that every change was triggered by sensors around the space. Some touched and explored almost everything in the space, hoping to find all the sensors embedded and understand the logistics of the changes. Some attempted to break away from the apparently all-preset sequences. Some chose to immerse themselves in the space and observe all the changes without touching anything. No spectator behaved the same as another. Every spectator had her/his own choice and action/non-action, creating numerous situations throughout the whole period of light installation-performance.
Light-Human-Technology Interfacing and the Dramaturgy of Light, Things and Space
There are two layers of light-human-technology interfacing in the technological framework of the light installation-performance. One is the interfacing with the creators. Another is the interfacing with the spectators.
Most of the light composition includes pre-programed time-based sequences using a lighting control platform, which forms the backbone of the interfacing with the creators. Instead of the lighting control platforms of major brands commonly found in conventional theatres, a PC-based lighting software is used for programming. Although lesser known in conventional theatres, several features of the software make it more suitable in expanding the potentialities of light and developing a new dramaturgical structure of light than major brand consoles. The lighting control is lightweight, both in terms of computer processing and physical weight, so testing and programming can be carried out conveniently in a home studio setting as well as unconventional performance spaces.
With its capacity for communication via MIDI and open sound control (OSC) with open-source controllers and software such as Arduino, and visual-based and coding-based programming instead of specific syntax-based programming found in the consoles of major brands, the software is a relatively open system of modelling which can adapt quickly in relation to an evolving experimental creative process. The technological features of the software shift away from the aesthetic logic embedded in the lighting consoles of major brands. They allow a more flexible and open process for creating a new dramaturgical structure of light, things and space, which extends to form the basis of interfacing with the spectators and the dramaturgy of the spectator.
Technology and the Dramaturgy of the Spectator
With the open capacity of the lighting control software, some capacitance sensors connecting to the console via signal transmission by Arduino are installed in the work to create the tactile interface with which the spectators interact. When the spectators touch certain objects that are installed with capacitance sensors, specific light changes would be triggered with examples as follows:
However, the trigger responses do not aim to be as precise as possible as those found in the design of most interactive media works. Instead, the inherited instable characteristic of the capacitance sensor system, which is conventionally taken as a faulty response to be eliminated, is partially retained. This creates the incidental circumstance that light changes could sometimes be triggered autonomously independent of the sensors. Short time delays are also incorporated as part of the coding so that the sensor trigger response could not be repeated instantly. The trigger response is further obscured by the lighting design with similar light changes included as part of the pre-programmed light composition. The indeterminacy stemming from the capacitance sensors is incorporated into the dramaturgy of light and interactive technology, which proposes an alternative approach to the prevailing mode of technological application in theatre aiming at high precision and instantaneity of trigger and responses.
This new dramaturgy of light and interactive technology also troubles the techno-determinism commonly associated with advanced technology. The technology here no longer stably and precisely determines and limits the behaviours of the spectators. Instead, its instability and indeterminacy open up the space for the spectators to rethink their possible relationship with light and technology in the light installation-performance. The indeterminacy in this new dramaturgy blurs the boundary between humans and things and troubles the dichotomized delimitation of human and things/technology, a criticism resonating with Barad’s theory of “intra-action” that rethinks the metaphysics of individualism inclusive of human and nonhuman matters.
The transforming light-things-space and its indeterminacy without a single independent definite viewing point and instance invites the spectator to explore independently and take action in the space. The spectator is no longer merely an observer but also an actor in her/his own right in this laboratory-like space. She/he can change her/his positions in the space against the transforming light and shadows; she/he can react/not react to light, things and the indeterminate interactive technology; her/his footsteps or stillness against the wooden chips on the floor create different sounds or silence. The sum of all the solo spectators creates infinite potential viewpoints, moments and paths in the light installation-performance. The spectators are given the time and space to explore and encouraged to construct their own narratives of infinite possibilities.
The aesthetic experience emerging from this dramaturgy of the spectator interfacing with light, interactive technology and things could be considered through the concept of the aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability) proposed by Lehmann:
Theatre can respond to this only with a politics of perception, which could at the same time be called an aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability). Instead of the deceptively comforting duality of here and there, inside and outside, it can move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception. Such an experience would be not only aesthetic but therein at the same time ethico-political.185
Without human actors in our work, light, things and space are non-anthropomorphic actors in their own right by means of light interfacing with spectators, creators and technology, and the dramaturgy of light, things and space. The emerging dramaturgy of the spectator, through the aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability), encourages audiences to actively perceive, be conscious of their own standpoint and construction of narratives and to rethink the relationship between nonhuman matters and human. It not only provokes spectators to rethink our mediated society but can also inspire theatre artists to reimagine the dramaturgy of contemporary theatre and the influence of media and technology.
A New Dramaturgy of Light
It is commonly held that the technological advancement of light is closely associated with more spectacular and powerful presentation of performances, both in terms of luminosity and of scale. In New Media Dramaturgy, Eckersall et al. give a detailed account and analysis on the dramaturgy of new media associated with advanced technology including robots, sound, projection and light. In a range of works by Kris Verdonck, Dumb Type and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, both inside and outside theatre spaces, the authors focus on how some of the more radical dramaturgical ideas on the possibilities of light in performance combine with the emergence of more powerful lamps and portable projectors (56). Such an association between advanced technology and increment in luminosity is understandable since it is observed in the historical development of lighting technology. However, the positive correlation of technology and increase in power and intensity of light in contemporary theatre is not a requirement in the new dramaturgy of light proposed in our work.
The light sources in Things That Talk are all domestic tungsten light bulbs, energy-efficient fluorescent light tubes, domestic LED lights and an old-fashioned overhead projector, not bright and intense at all when compared with the advanced moving lights, LED walls and projectors used today. Nonetheless, with the technological support of a flexible lighting control software, together with a carefully choreographed light-space composition, a series of complex, polyphonic and polyrhythmic patterns of light resembling a musical composition is created with these light bulbs, energy-efficient tube lights, domestic LED lights and overhead projector in the light installation-performance. Through the musicality arising from the rhythmic and spatial composition, light autonomizes. It emancipates itself from the hierarchy of dramatic theatre and becomes a non-anthropomorphic performer in its own right. Light forms part of a material composition with other elements including technology, things, space and spectators in a postdramatic context instead of providing illumination for an action or scene in dramatic theatre.
A radically new dramaturgical idea of light emerges with the benefit of technology, yet independent of powerful lamps and immense intensity. After all, contemporary theatre in the face of new media and advanced technology is not just about power and intensity, nor any isolated imagination of light, technology, things, space, time, artists and spectators but, instead, an ongoing entanglement and reconfiguration of all of the above and beyond to reimagine theatre for the twenty-first century.
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*Amy Chan is a light and theatre artist. Her artistic interests are the exploration of musicality, theatricality and performativity of light in theatre and installation, and the intersection of arts and science. She has a Master of Fine Arts (with distinction) in lighting design, from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Her research on light, postdramatic theatre and agential realism was published in peer-reviewed journals and presented in international conferences. She was an invited speaker of “Postdramatic Theatre Worldwide” Symposium (2019) in Akademie der Künste, Berlin. More information on her works can be found at https://www.amychan-light.com/.
**Natalie Cheung is a dramaturg for various cross-disciplinary productions, experienced in facilitating and creating critical dialogues between the work and the creative team. She develops workshops and creates program books to explore theatrical and social contexts with the audience. She is also a drama educator proficient in opening conversation with communities through diverse means and facilitating teacher training courses for various levels since 2000. Her articles can be found in peer-reviewed journal Critical Stages, Hong Kong Drama Yearbook and local and overseas theatre magazines.
Copyright © 2022 Amy Chan and Natalie Cheung
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