Context and conditions of confinement


During the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020, galleries, theatres, and performance venues closed along with many other public and commercial spaces in accordance with social distancing, lockdown, and confinement policies. As a consequence, art forms and practices that were dependent on materiality or embodiment, that is their communication as a physical object or through the artist’s body and its juxtaposition with audiences’ bodies, and typically relied on these sites for creation, manifestation, and spectatorship, could no longer do so. Art practice faced a forced existential crisis with an evident but challenging choice: radically adapt its form or cease to be seen by, and therefore exist to, audiences.

Pandemic Performance: A Haunting of Haunts


Garrett Lynch IRL








These can be considered as equivalent to philosophy's object or subject, as well as inhuman and nonhuman (classified as human constructed and the natural world by actor-network theory) or human.

Within this context of social distancing, lockdown, and confinement, which quickly became known as the new normal, I began to research how immateriality afforded by networks and employed over a number of years in my own practice (Lynch 2018a; Lynch 2018b; Lynch IRL 2020) could be strategized and shared with artists whose practice had been affected. There were several questions that initially framed the research. Could strategies be provided to artists in a way that would encourage creativity within confinement? If so, what form would the strategies take? Could artistic practice that is dependent on materiality or embodiment adapt by employing these strategies?


As the pandemic continued, technological solutions were proposed to adapt art forms that predominantly allowed audiences to view art from the confinement of their own home. The intent of this was to curb the spread of COVID-19 by eliminating physical contact between individuals, communal surfaces of spaces, and objects. Art forms that are dependent on materiality, such as painting, sculpture, and other practices that produce physical forms, have for almost a century actively and with a degree of success engaged with issues that question both form and spectatorship. These range from mechanical and digital reproduction (Benjamin 1935; Davis 1995) to digital creation and beyond. Yet, during the pandemic, galleries frequently became navigable 3D spaces within which photographic reproductions of visual art were hung on simulated walls. These mimicked exhibition experiences and disappointingly repeated what had already occurred many times within ‘virtual’ (see Glossary) worlds and video game spaces (Curry 2007; Jansonn 2009).


In comparison to art forms that are dependent on materiality, the performing arts (including theatre, dance, music, and performance art) have been slow over the last century to engage with their corresponding dependency of embodiment and the spatiality that it implies. They have preferred instead to link practice with form absolutely and to prioritize development within how that form is communicated. As such, the performing arts were unprepared for a crisis such as the pandemic that necessitated disembodiment. Theatres and performance venues overwhelmingly adopted video on the internet, often streamed live, as a means through which to perform. These means, which for the most part were technologically not new or innovative, were rediscovered. In a sense, old became new again and was presented as if it had never previously been employed within the context of the performing arts. The choice of video closely paralleled what was occurring in society at large, with networked technologies, such as video call and conferencing applications, becoming the preferred way to communicate, and was quickly adopted as the standard means of work, education, and collaboration. Yet, the choice, perhaps a direct response to the popularity and accessibility of video, posed immense challenges to the ethos of many of the performing arts, in particular those of performance art.



Performance art, evolving out of contemporary art practices in the twentieth century, has long held to the principles that it must be experienced live, entails co-presence, a shared time and space, and therefore cannot be reproduced through any technical means (Phelan 2005: 146–52; Salter 2010). Any technological mediation (McLuhan 1994) is, according to this established ethos, effectively a denial of the form of its practice. The capture of performance through a lens-based camera that is then digitized within a computer, effectively the reproduction of a reproduction, streamed online and available to be viewed from a distance, instantly, at a later time and repeatedly, paused, rewound, shared, copied, even reworked, is, therefore, not simply a challenge for performance to overcome. As Peggy Phelan explains, for performance art, reproduction and mediation in essence “betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology” (2005: 146). Phelan demarcates a hard line (McHugh 2011: 237) between performance and media, liveness, and reproduction, positioning each as binary opposites. Reproduction and mediation are therefore impossible within performance art and this view has become doggedly embedded in performance studies. In digital contexts this also suggests an opposition of ‘real’ (see Glossary) and ‘virtual’, that Auslander calls artificial (2008: 3), and is particularly problematic as these terms have long been proposed as part of a continuum (Milgram and Kishino 1994) in many technological art practices, including my performance practice (Lynch 2012; Lynch IRL 2020). Throughout the pandemic, platforms that support video, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, and video call applications such as Zoom have been employed in every type of performance, from opera and plays to dance and performance art; performance principles are disregarded and swept aside in a desperate attempt to adapt.

This view of reproduction and mediation is not without its critics. Philip Auslander states that he doubts there is any “clear-cut ontological distinctions between live forms and mediated ones” (2008: 7). Nevertheless, the idea persists (2008: 3) and “remains a conundrum that is continually wrestled with both in performance studies and in wider cultural and cyber theory” (Dixon 2007: 115).

In order to underline the problematic opposition of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ the terms are employed in all of my practice and writing within scare quotes. For more details please refer to ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ in the Glossary.