Live Versus The Machine (Let’s Not Take The Live Experience For Granted)

The promise of virtual reality has intrigued science fiction writers for years. But the technology for VR has been rather disappointing. Until now, writes Wired. A headset called the Oculus Rift has gamers excited. But also movie makers and artists interested in new forms of story-telling:

What is known is that the ways that perspectives can change thanks to virtual reality are remarkable. Movies, as Roger Ebert said, are “like a machine that generates empathy.” If a person in a VR headset can experience a protagonist’s or antihero’s life first-hand, then the Rift actually becomes that machine. (The possibilities for documentaries seems particularly appealing; Oculus Rift is already being used by artists to “gender swap.”)


Image: Wired

Artists love to talk about the importance of the live space – the theatre or concert hall or museum – and how it delivers a “better” experience. It’s an article of faith that usually goes unchallenged. But technology is creating more and more ways to have artistic experiences, not only competing with live events, but also changing the expectations of audiences.

Live and in person might have been better. Might still be better. But it’s worth asking why this is so and if it will necessarily continue to be so in the future. It’s not something that should be taken for granted. Staging live events is expensive, and orchestras and theatres struggle to support themselves as costs rise. Technology scales in a way that live art doesn’t.

As for competition for quality of experience, any football fan can tick off ways that watching the game on the big flat screen at home is preferable to actually buying a ticket to be there in person.  Doesn’t mean they still don’t want to go. But you can bet the NFL is paying attention to how to build a better stadium experience.

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  1. says

    The cinema, radio, and television vastly diminished our relationship to live performance long ago. A second phase is now evolving for three reasons:

    1. We no longer need the cinema to have high quality audio-visual experiences. We can have them at home – even in 3D virtual realities.

    2. Through streaming media, we can have these high quality experiences on demand.

    3. The web learns what we want as individuals and markets and presents it to us as individuals. (Forget privacy, the Internet knows your desires…)

    The result is something new that might be described under the rubric of behavioral economics. The web learns in detail what each individual wants; it then markets it to that specific individual; and then presents it as an on-demand, high quality experience, it. Instant, individually targeted, tailor-made gratification.

    This means the idea of mass marketing to a general public is more and more obsolete. And that means the kinds of cultural experiences designed for large gatherings of people are becoming obsolete. In the 20th century, we moved from the local public of the theater to the mass public of the cinema. Now in the 21st century, we are moving from the mass public of the cinema to individuals in their living rooms. This allows for marketing that is both massive and individually tailored as the same time.

    This kind of behavioral economics for individuals utilized on massive scales will become the principal medium of the arts in the next few decades. And of course, corresponding new genres will evolve tailor made to this new medium’s systems of marketing and production.

    • says

      I should add one more thought. The next phase after behavioral economics will become biological economics. The web will not only determine individual interests and provide them as an on-demand, fixed product. New technologies will evolve that will allow the web to measure the individual’s reactions to the product in real time while experiencing it, and alter it in real time to further enhance the experience to hallucinogenic levels. Behavioral economics will fulfill our dreams, but bio economics will be our dreams.

      • says

        I agree with most of this. But I actually see it as a broadening rather than a replacement. There can be a thrill to being part of a large group of people. There’s also something to being in a real space. Then there’s the whole interacting-with-other-people thing. And witnessing something together. Yes, we can increasingly connect via technology, but there are also things that being in the same room offer.

        The question is what those things are. Why a big crowd? Why this particular space and at this time? Shared real experiences can be powerful. But not always. And I think many reflexively think live is always better, even with its limitations and hassles. It just isn’t. And if some of those live experiences give way to more virtual ones that offer more, then fine. If that happens, maybe we even learn to value the best live in-person experience more. Just as we value “slow” organic food.

        But most of our theatres and concert halls are built for that generic one-size-fits-all experience (I don’t mean that as pejoratively as it sounds). Seems to me we have to be much better at producing the live in-person experience so it’s clear what it offers over the individualized virtual one that is better.

        • says

          I agree. Live performance has inimitable qualities that virtual realities will never completely capture. So it’s true we must better utilize and vary performance spaces. And perhaps we will need new, more visceral genres that even more fully celebrate the nature of the human body in its extemporaneous corporality. And genres that more fully explore and celebrate the spontaneous interaction of the artist-public relationship.

          Ironically, this is what I try to do with the chamber music theater works I compose. I present the performer in all of her inimitable corporality. And I have discovered that halls barely exist suited to chamber music theater. Recital halls generally lack theater stage lighting, the walls and stage floors reflect too much stage light, and the sight lines and stages create too much separation between the public and performer. Like many composers, I create works for spaces that do not exist.

          Thanks for the interesting blog posts and for ArtsJournal.

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