“Where We Die Together in Real Time”: Staging Prosthetic Liveness in To Be a Machine (Version 1.0)

Huayu Yang*

Abstract

To Be a Machine (Version 1.0), premiered in October 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, was an online “live-audience-upload-experience” created by the Dublin-based theatre company Dead Centre, based on Mark O’Connell’s 2017 book on transhumanism titled To Be a Machine. Prior to the performance, each audience member is asked to upload video clips of themselves watching, laughing and sleeping—which would be displayed on screens fixed onto seats in the auditorium of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre during the live-streaming performance. These digital avatars become tokens of the audience’s alternative presence, being doubled and canned repetitions, harrowing reminders of its alterity. This article thus delves into how To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) creates a self-reflexive spectatorship to probe the ever-evolving relationship between liveness and presence, reframed in a context of online performance. Rather than simulating the traditional live theatre-going experiences, the show stages a prosthetic live experience that evokes the thrills of copresence while harbouring an uncanny, deadly alterity. In line with the transhumanist vision of a “substrate-independent” future of human beings, the show challenges the truth value of “feeling live” and explores the possibility of a disembodied, alternative liveness. Yet, this wild manifesto of a cyborgian liveness is simultaneously subverted by the ineliminable desire for the mundanely human copresence shared by theatre makers and audiences alike, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 lockdown. The article contends that To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) reimagines liveness as a phenomenological encounter, which adapts to the audience’s modes of perception in the digital context while remaining deeply rooted in the embodied experiences of togetherness, co-presence, proximity and the physical act of going to the theatre.

Keywords: spectatorship, liveness, To Be a Machine (Version 1.0), Dead Centre

To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) is loosely based on the nonfiction book, To Be a Machine, written by Irish writer Mark O’Connell, first published by Granta in 2017. O’Connell’s book is an account of his exploration of the transhumanist movement, which seeks to liberate the human race from their mortal bodies and to avoid the inevitable fate of death. Throughout his narrative, O’Connell engages with prominent figures within the transhumanist community by attending lectures and visiting life-tech companies, all the while maintaining the tone of an observer. Driven by a sense of horror at the vulnerability of his newborn son and disillusionment with the harsh realities of the human condition, Mark sympathises with the transhumanists’ agenda of transcending human frailties and breaking free from “biology itself” (O’Connell 6). However, an underlying unease persists, as he grapples with the possibility that “this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology” (6).

O’Connell’s book becomes particularly relevant “in the midst of a global pandemic, where our bodies have become biohazards” (Dead Centre). To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) is a collaboration between Dublin-based theatre company Dead Centre and Mark O’Connell. It premiered as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2020, when most of the festival’s shows were cancelled due to the Irish government’s lockdown restrictions.[1]

Founded in 2012 by artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, Dead Centre has produced devised productions in Dublin and collaborated with major European theatres, including the Schaubühne Berlin and Berg Theater, Vienna, creating shows that “engage with aspects of the history and tradition of Western literature and dramatic theatre” (Bleeker 115). To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) marks Dead Centre’s first foray into online production. Envisioned as “an early iteration of a future project,” the show is both a postdramatic experiment on the new forms and limitations of live performance following Dead Centre’s consistent artistic trajectory and a contemporary response to the posthuman exigency faced by theatre-makers and audiences alike.

Based on the author’s attendance on October 10, 2020, and the recording of the performance on October 7, 2020 (courtesy of the company), this article explores how To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) stages a prosthetic digital liveness. Since 2021, the show has garnered scholarly attention as an example of post-pandemic digital performance. Fintan Walsh, for instance, provides a detailed examination of the show as a “mourning of live arts, shared physical experience, and human life intertwined” (407). Barbara Fuchs, in Theater of Lockdown, highlights the show’s self-conscious simulation of theatrical experiences and inter-relationships. Ciara Murphy’s analysis in Performing Social Change on the Island of Ireland situates the show in the post-pandemic context of Ireland. And Tamara Radak’s “‘Dying…to Connect’: Postdigital Co-presence in Dead Centre’s To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) (2020)” investigates how the boundaries between “spatial co-presence” and “temporal co-presence with the remote audience” are metatheatrically blurred. These existing studies probe into the concepts and forms of liveness within the show in varying ways. Building on their interpretations and drawing from my spectatorial experience, this article focuses specifically on the audience’s prosthetic experience of digital liveness and examines how the show challenges the truth value of liveness in favour of a fluid, context-specific understanding.

To be an audience member of To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) (hereafter shortened as TBM 1.0), ticket holders are instructed to upload videos of themselves watching, laughing and sleeping after receiving a link via email. The email explicitly mentions that the video will be used in the performance, while it remains unclear how one’s digitised self would be uploaded “into the crowd” and “be the best audience member you can be” during the actual performance (DTF 2020 Brochure 10). This act of self-uploading becomes a requisite of participating in the show, constituting a voluntary contract between the audience and the production.

To Be a Machine (Version 1.0)’s programme page in the Dublin Theatre Festival 2020 brochure

Becoming an audience member thus involves one’s active participation, be it through physical presence or audio-visual representation. As Erika Fischer-Lichte articulates, “each individual participant, be they actors or spectators, experiences themselves as subjects who are neither fully autonomous nor fully determined by others, as subjects who share the responsibility for a situation which they may not have created but take part in” (174). Attending a performance, in other words, encompasses both a private phenomenological experience and an intersubjective encounter with spectating/acting bodies on and off stage. Through the intentional act of self-uploading, TBM 1.0 foregrounds the participatory co-presence inherent in theatre spectatorship: the audience desires and chooses to be present among others, both physically and digitally.

By uploading self-images, I not only submitted myself to the theatre event but also entrusted my embodied agency to my digital replica, which transcended being a mimetic representation of my body to become a “prosthetic-like . . . extension of the real” (Giannachi 105). In this period, during the early 2020s, defined by social distancing, where physical presence was invalidated and its virtual alternatives became the new norm, this prosthetic tentacle feels more like a tangible reality than mere dramaturgical speculation.

In TBM 1.0, instead of real-time projection, this prosthetic extension of the audience’s embodied presence was filmed and stored. The recorded content, which seems to be capturing audience’s embodied reactions to theatrical catalysts, is a product of imagination rather than interaction. As Barbara Fuchs observes, “why not just have the performer tell a joke, and at least try to provoke laughter in the viewer? . . . the consequence . . . is necessarily a manufactured, fake laugh” (107). The dramaturgical highlighting of the unsettling, inauthentic alterity of my spectatorial telepresence—which feels unreal even in its creation—marks the actual commencement of the show and raises the question: how, and to what extent, is this self-image, contrived, unfeeling and disconnected from my organic body, a sufficient “extension of the real” (Giannachi 105)?

The online performance takes place on the video platform Vimeo. Alongside the uploading link, ticket holders receive a separate link to access the show. Upon logging into Vimeo, I was faced with a video player displaying a static image of white letters against a black backdrop: “We are just waiting for the last few audiences to take their seats. The performance will begin very shortly. For the best experience, we recommend the use of headphones. Enjoy the show!” Soft, ambient music played in the background, and a small red “LIVE” button on the top left corner of the player indicated that the livestream was underway.

This waiting period evoked memories of sitting in the auditorium, facing the pre-show curtained stage, but also reminded me of waiting for a Zoom call to start. However, the actual experience differed from both. I sat in my room alone, doors closed, creating a sense of privacy that could easily facilitate a safe, laid-back watching experience. There were no attempts to breach this spatial preclusion (such as requiring access to the audience’s camera or audio) to enhance the feeling of “liveness.” And Vimeo, being primarily a platform for uploaded videos, lacked the temporality of communicative platforms like Zoom. At this point, the only reminder of the show’s liveness was the inconspicuous “LIVE” button, which, for a sceptical audience like myself, could easily be perceived as fabricated and unreliable.

As the storytelling commenced, the audience was welcomed by Mark, a stage representation of Mark O’Connell, the author of To Be a Machine, played by actor Jack Gleeson. “Hello, good to meet you. I hope you are doing well in these strange times,” he greeted. On the screen, he continued, “Maybe there is a way that we can be together, even if we are not together. Try to forget about the screen you are staring into, just for a short while, and try to picture me, not in your laptop, but standing on stage.”

Simultaneously, the live-stream camera zoomed out, revealing that the man speaking a moment ago was a video image on a tablet screen, beside which stood the actual actor/character. The onstage Mark then took over the speech: “Because that’s where I am. This is happening live here at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.” This juxtaposition between the pixel-smooth, two-dimensional texture of the screen image and the relatively more organic, embodied presence on stage was almost affirmative of the authenticity and credibility of the live performance. However, the screen-within-a-screen also served as an unsettling reminder for the audience of our mediated and prosthetic viewing experience through the screen at hand. The recursion of screens, metatheatrically, prevented me from backgrounding the frame of my laptop screen, which flattened Mark’s embodied presence, much like in the tablet on stage, into a two-dimensional digital video.

Mark continued, saying, “People sometimes say that theatre is a dying medium. And I actually think that’s true, it’s the dying medium, a place where we die together in real time.” In her analysis of the documentary Silverlake Life, Peggy Phelan describes dying as an “is,” an extreme presence: “. . . its Being fills the present. Dying is not in the future; death is not in the past. Dying is” (167). Theatre or performance itself, the embodied “instances of enactments predicated on their own disappearance,” also becomes a ritual of dying, a celebration of the mortality that frames our very existence on and off stage (2).  Liveness, in this sense, is precisely experienced as the thrills of dying in the here and now, as “the oneness of being and dying” (Bataille 267), as if the show is attempting to recreate this experience via the digital platform.

Then, Mark checked his watch, announced the time, which indeed reflected the real-time, and greeted the audience again: “It’s great that so many of you could be here too.” At this moment, the camera shifted, and the audience was confronted with our avatars: the videos recorded and uploaded by the audience members were displayed on tablets, each fixed onto a seat in the auditorium. These avatars became tokens of my alternative (co-)presence in the auditorium, simulating the experience of being in the theatre building. This confirmed my virtual participation in the show, among others, on a spatial dimension.

However, these pre-recorded, canned videos looking back at us simultaneously created an uncanny sensation of absence and the past. Instead of dying along in the unstoppable flow of time, the prosthetic extension of me, severed from my body and my time, seemed already dead, or never to die. The thrills of liveness, of dying together, are thus haunted by there and then in TBM 1.0. As Herbert Blau delineates in Reality Principles, the live experience of theatre “would seem to depend on a here and now, but we’re living acceleratingly, anaphylactically, in a then and there” (106). This harrowing “here and now,” “there and then,” dead and undying, as this article is about to argue, becomes a distinguishing attribute of prosthetic liveness in digital performances.

TBM 1.0 creates an experience of digital liveness that evokes both a simulated sense of embodied copresence and an artificial, timeless alterity entailed in our prosthetically extended presence. It mirrors a spectator, among others, in pursuit of participatory temporal-spatial copresence in the digital realm, who is nevertheless confronted with the dead/undying prostheticity rooted in their virtual living/dying. In contrast to many online performances’ emphasis on “collectivity, simultaneity, (co)presence and immersion,” TBM 1.0 focuses on what Yana Meerzon conceives as the “traumatic . . . ontological loss of self,” highlighting the alterity embedded in digital liveness that cannot be assimilated into our embodied here and now. In other words, rather than simulating an illusory, cathartic copresence, it generates a live experience in which absence, instead of presence, becomes the dominant phenomenological experience. This present absence also echoes beyond the virtual realm, aligning digital liveness with its embodied precursor in a developmental sense.

Mark stood among the tablet screens in the auditorium, which displayed the image of one of the audience members

When the audiences’ digital avatars are controlled by the show to watch, laugh or sleep, they also allude to the prosthetic dimension of the manufactured, pre-written and repeated “programming” that could be found in live in-person performances. The avatars can be directly manipulated by back-stage technicians to react to the actor’s lines on stage, much like a playwright who can “programme” the audience to laugh using rhetoric devices and plot design. However, both technology and artistry of theatre can falter, just like when Jack cries out “Why are you laughing? It’s not supposed to be funny!”—a “bug” appears in the show and the audiences laugh collectively at an unexpected point. In this vein, the unsettling, dead/undying alterity of digital liveness also becomes an exacerbated manifestation of the “here and now . . . always already infected by there and then” (Reason and Lindelof 4). Having co-evolved with its new medium, liveness on the digital platform is transformed into a variation, rather than pure simulation, of the temporal-spatial-copresent liveness.

A more direct acknowledgement of the unavoidable shadow of “there and then” occurred when Mark began talking about his decision to enlist an actor to play him in the latter part of the show. Due to his bladder problem, he could not stand on stage for extended periods. “But who?” he pondered, “how vain should I be? Should I take this opportunity to upgrade?” He mentioned a few names, including Colin Farrell and Donald Gleeson, before arriving at Jack Gleeson, who was actually playing Mark and delivering this speech. This scene then evolved into a reference to liveness, which even in its most temporal-spatially copresent sense remains a combination of presence and absence, dying and the dead/undying. Mark, or rather Jack, further remarked on how Jack Gleeson, the actor, was known as the Game of Thrones star, adding another layer of prostheticity to this live experience: even if he presented himself as Jack right before our eyes, his presence would still be framed by an invisible TV screen in the past, like he was then within our computer screens.

Even the most “live” dramaturgical works, in this manner, are achieved “only when the audience’s attention and interactions are heavily controlled by theatre makers, the same way it happens in making and watching a film, in which a filmgoer undergoes an emotional, intellectual and sensorial manipulation” (Meerzon). This prosthetic liveness of alterity and the past is central to the spectatorial experience of TBM 1.0. To sensitise the audience to this alterity, the show creates a self-reflexive experience of their own perception of liveness by stimulating the precariousness inherent in spectatorship itself. It places the audience into an alternating trust-suspicion relationship with the performance, fostering an “interplay between unreal and real,” and leads to a self-reflexive perception of our prosthetic telepresence as simultaneously corporeal, authentic and alienated (Jacobson 173).

While endeavouring to convince the audience of its liveness, the show also insinuates that this experience of liveness might well be a manufactured illusion. Throughout the performance, Mark constantly sought to confirm that the audience are real people rather than machines. In one scene, to test our humanity, he enabled the chat box on Vimeo and invited the audience to interact. Messages flooded in, developing a sense of collectivity and even community, where the alterity of our digital live experience appeared to melt in the blend of telepresence and our embodied here and now. Yet Mark persisted in his questioning, doubting even when there was no answer or only false responses, as machines could simulate human-like behaviour. This dilemma becomes even more pertinent in today’s context, with ChatGPT capable of imitating human languages: how do we differentiate between machine and human interactions in chat boxes? As Mark continued his inquiries, the audience were forced to question the sense of community that had just formed: were the other participants indeed human or nonhuman—merely chatbots?

In his analysis of Eugenio Barba’s poetics of theatre in A Theory of Dramaturgy, Janek Szatkowski explains how “the work of art lives by undecidabilities” (199). By incorporating undecidabilities in artistic communication, the spectator’s attention is directed away from the processing of specific information to experiencing “his own experience” (199). The art of undecidabilities, he argues, prompts the spectator to question what they “immediately perceive,” urging them “to take an extra look,” which “has the possibility to make us aware of our perception: to perceive perception” (199).

In TBM 1.0, the undecidabilities are rooted in the precarious spectatorship, which incessantly unsettles the spectatorial perception of the live event per se and directs our attention to our experience, understanding and evaluation of liveness. In another scene, when Mark attempted to show his cyber profile by Googling himself, he minimised the video window. At a fleeting glance of the bar at the top of the window, I could discern that the video was a mov. file, which suggested that what I had assumed to be a live stream might actually be a pre-recorded video, just like our digital avatars. This undecidability of whether it was live or not, and the audience’s self-conscious perception of it, raise the following questions: does liveness have a truth value? And if it does, is the prosthetic digital live experience “real” liveness?

Philip Auslander’s theory of liveness stands as one of the most influential theories in this domain. Auslander argues against the ontologising definition of liveness as non-reproducible, unmediated temporal-spatial copresence and the dichotomy between the live and the reproduced, the immediate and the mediated. According to him, “the im-mediate is not prior to mediation but derives precisely from the mutually defining relationship between the im-mediate and the mediated” (57). In other words, instead of assigning a truth value to liveness and scaling digital liveness according to the extent of its ability to recreate the here and now, liveness can be understood as a phenomenological experience. Auslander himself demonstrates that “to the extent that websites and other virtual entities respond to us in real time, they feel live to us” (62). Feeling, in this context, “becomes a way of knowing” (Jacobson xiii). As Erin Sullivan summarises, this interpretation of liveness as mediated “directs the term away from technical requirements about time and place and towards a particular kind of phenomenological experience that foregrounds interactivity and a feeling of togetherness” (61). Using live theatre broadcast as an example, she defines liveness as “a shared sense of occasion” and “aliveness,” where neither “temporal synchronicity” nor “physical proximity” are indispensable, although they remain significant factors.

Therefore, TBM 1.0 demonstrates an understanding of liveness as a phenomenological experience for the audience, a feeling rather than a specific medial or immediate form. It provides an approach to liveness as a spectatorial relationship with the performance. Liveness is fluid and mediated, which will continue to be remediated according to the audience’s evolving modes of perception. The unsettlingly prosthetic digital presence constitutes precisely as a contemporary variation of the remediation of liveness among many. The lifespan of the show itself serves as evidence: TBM 1.0 concluded its final run in 2022 as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. As the world transitioned into the post-COVID era and people were no longer confined to their rooms, the audience for TBM 1.0 dissipated. If staged in today’s context, it would no longer be considered “live” enough. For a new audience out in the world, To Be a Machine (Version 2.0) explores the new media of VR.[2] Liveness undergoes another transformation. Building on this fluidity, To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) creates a self-reflexive spectatorial experience of liveness as a vulnerable mutuality, a shared yet precarious situatedness in the theatre event, for which neither strictly synchronised time nor physical proximity is a necessary condition.

Mark/Jack stood in front of a green screen

Towards the end of the show, Mark ceased his attempts to convince the audience of the authenticity of his presence. He explained the lockdown policies of the Irish government and told the audience: “that’s why you are not here, and I’m not here either.” Suddenly, the downstage black wall against which he had been standing transformed into a green screen. Through the green screen, he indicated that even his physical presence on the empty stage was a visual effect. Instead of severing the experience of liveness, his acknowledgement of the inevitable alterity shared between the audience and himself, actually affirmed the mutuality between the stage and the auditorium even more than his “here and now” statements. It entails a radicalising hypothesis that if copresence is a manifestation of liveness in a specific social context, co-absence could also be experienced as liveness.

While the argument of relativity and fluidity may suggest that theatre can shed its mortal coil, TBM 1.0 refrains from making such a claim, as the writer Mark remains outside of the tide of transhumanism despite his sympathetic engagement. One of the questions Mark posed during the Turing test on the audience was, “What do you miss most about going to the theatre?” In a sense, his final monologue addresses this question: “We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendour. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We gather together, bunched up, as if around a campfire, side by side with other people. So close, we’re almost touching. And we wait for the story to start.” Embodied co-presence remains an anchor of how we human audiences perceive, navigate, or challenge what it means to be live.

While pushing the boundaries of liveness, To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) does not shy away from the desire, of both audiences and theatre makers, for togetherness, co-presence, proximity and actually going to the theatre. At the very end, he glanced to the side and gave an out-of-character smile, from Mark to Jack. This mundane, embodied everyday life is where the story both starts and ends. It wrapped up the show’s exploration of liveness as a spectatorial experience that can no longer be contained within the frame of temporal-spatial copresence but will ever remain interdependent with it.


Endnotes

[1] On 15 September 2020, the Department of the Taoiseach of the Government of Ireland published “Resilience and Recovery 2020–2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19,” which outlines a framework of five levels of lockdown. Due to the hit of the second wave of COVID-19, the government announced on October 4 that the Republic of Ireland will move to Level 3 COVID Restrictions. Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.

[2] To Be a Machine (Version 2.0) is created by Dead Centre and Mark O’Connell as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023. The show experiments on the use of VR technology in theatre: “To Be a Machine (Version 1.0) meditated on the use of technology to improve the human condition. Version 2.0 goes further, exploring how virtual reality will soon feel more immersive than reality itself. And that might mean we never have to go to the theatre again”. Accessed 30 Jan. 2024. See also Meany.

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*Huayu Yang is a PhD student in the Department of Drama at Trinity College Dublin. She received her MA in Comparative Literature from University College London and her BA in English from Shandong University. Huayu’s PhD project focuses on the dramaturgy of the Dublin-based theatre company Dead Centre. Her research interests include contemporary Irish theatre, dramaturgy, spectatorship, and intermediality. She has published articles on these areas for Orbis Litterarum and Dramaturgy of Sex on Stage in Contemporary Theatre.

Copyright © 2024 Huayu Yang
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