The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world, and the performing arts have been no exception. The closing of theaters and other performance venues has forced dancers and choreographers to find new ways to create and share their work. Many have turned to live streaming and digital platforms as a way to reach audiences and continue to create during the pandemic. While these approaches have provided some opportunities for experimentation and innovation, they have also presented challenges for dancers and choreographers, who must navigate the limitations of digital technology and the absence of live audiences.

In this context, I am interested in exploring the impact of the pandemic on the body image of dancers and how this might inform the dramaturgical thinking of artistic practice. The pandemic has disrupted the embodied practices that are fundamental to dance, such as touch, proximity, and physical connection. As a result, dancers have had to find new ways of experiencing and representing their bodies, both on and off screen. By examining my own experiences and those of other dancers, I hope to gain insights into how the pandemic has shaped our relationship to our bodies and how this might inform the creation of new work.

Moreover, the pandemic has also raised important questions about the role of technology in artistic practice. As dancers and choreographers have turned to digital platforms, they have had to grapple with questions of liveness, presence, and embodiment in new and unfamiliar ways. By reflecting on my own use of technology during the pandemic and studying the approaches of other artists, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of how technology can be integrated into dance and how it might shape the future of the art form.

On the Pandemic

Research background

The initiation of the research comes at an extremely practical moment related to the impact of the pandemic on dance performances. Covid-19 has affected our lives and forced us to adapt to the new normal in many aspects since February 2020. The pervasive influence of technology in contemporary society is undeniable, with new scientific discoveries and social media platforms continually shaping our daily lives. However, as Steve Dixon (2007) notes in Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, the well-facilitated integration between high-end technology and artistic creation remains uneasy, reflecting a broader imbalance of values in a capitalist-driven society. This tension has been thrown into stark relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced many performances to move online and challenged artists to find new ways of engaging audiences.

With a stop sign on stage performances during Covid-19, artists finally had the time to reflect on the essence of their work instead of churning out performances to satisfy “the industry”. I was very fortunate to be working in a full-time contemporary dance company so there was not so much of a financial struggle, but observing the lack of audience motivated me to look for ways to engage the audience through transforming and refining the performance model. In this context, my research explores the relationship between technology and performance, with a specific focus on contemporary dance, through a combination of theoretical analysis and artistic practice. One key area of inquiry is spectatorship, as I aim to investigate how new technologies have reshaped audience engagement and perception in performance.

It is important to clarify that when I refer to technology, I am not at all focused on high-end gadgets or state-of-the-art machinery, the focus on technology is on the practicality of how these tools shape our perception and how they intersect with artworks and performances. One of the practical involvements of technology is my work on the media of dance and narrative film that I have done since the beginning of the pandemic. I also want to emphasize the impact of modes of organization when we meet the crossroads of technological advancement and the Covid-19 pandemic. As Alva Noë argues in Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, technology encompasses a much broader range of tools and techniques that organize our relationship with the world around us. In this sense, even the most basic human activities, such as breast-feeding, can be seen as a form of technology (Noë 2015) The text "Techniques of the Body" by Marcel Mauss (1935) explores the relationship between the body and culture. Mauss argues that bodily practices are not just biological, but also shaped by social and cultural forces. He examines topics such as sports, dance, massage, hygiene, and bodily adornment to demonstrate how bodily techniques reveal a society's values, norms, and beliefs. Mauss sees culturally specific bodily practices as technologies. (Mauss 1935) In modern understanding it might be hard to think of breast-feeding—an activity with no digital or machinery involvement to be a kind of technology. Aside from a certain stylized physical practice perhaps I can extend to it the use of breast-pump and advancement of portable storage devices that the mother doesn’t have to always be there and be the one to feed the baby. This has allowed a change in the way women with children interact with the society, they are to an extent given more freedom with their choice of activities. Later in the chapter of Spectatorship, Mediums and Media I will further discuss how technology interacts with the creative process and performances. Noë (2015) gives another example that humans are bigger now than three hundred years ago not because of the change in genome but of culture — agriculture, medicine, hygiene. “Cultural formations loop back down and shape not only our minds but also our bodies” (Noë 2015, 59). Following Noë’s line of thought, I explore how the mediatized culture we live in shaped my mind and body especially during the pandemic in the chapter Perception and Corporeality. Please join me in an expanded way of understanding “technology”.

While the Covid-19 pandemic itself is not a technology, the measures taken to prevent its spread can be seen as intentional tools that have reorganized our lives in profound ways, which is in this sense, a technological (re)organization that is embedded deeply in our daily lives and organizes the way we are, the example Noë (2015) used is a door knob, that we don’t think about a door knob when we have learnt to use it anymore. The pandemic changes the way we organize things and lives, and does so in ways which we do not reflect upon anymore. Through my research, I seek to critically examine these changes and explore how art can help us navigate this current technological landscape. Especially when the distribution of these technological tools are not equal, how do I use what I have and remediate the concrete and abstract tools through art?

On technology and remediation

Liveness of art and the integration of technology in the self-conception and perception of human beings are the focus of my research. Instead of trying to incorporate state-of-the-art technology in my artistic practice, I would prefer to scrutinize the embodiment of technology manifested in forms of social and cultural phenomena. The posthuman view of N. Katherine Hayles (1999), according to which the human is an embodied being that can seamlessly articulate with intelligent machines, has somehow pointed out the implausibility to investigate technological development as something constant and static. The opportunity I noticed with the Covid-19 pandemic is a drastic change in the way we organize our lives along the current technology, creating a transindividual experience. This sudden change provided a clearer view into the entanglement between human beings and technology, which I believe has significantly affected my artistic practice with contemporary dance. With the understanding that technology is inseparable in our daily lives, my hypothesis is that liveness in performance does not happen exclusively in live performance but also through digital or virtual media, or maybe in a broader sense, liveness exists even in the most unlively objects. So what exactly is this liveness that we are all chasing after?

The perceptual turn of human organization caused by the pandemic does not only take place in how art and performance is viewed and valued, it also resonates with my personal struggle with existence. Death and mortality come to the forefront of our daily lives when the whole world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, here I would like to borrow the concept of Eros(life drive) and Thanatos(death drive) of Sigmund Freud which highlight the intriguing nature of human minds. The concept has definitely raised a lot of controversies. Although I do not plan to go deep into psychoanalysis, I cannot really get my mind over what Freud (1920) claimed: “The goal of all life is death.” It is certainly a bold claim. To me, it is also poetic and beautiful. Is the death drive something that is intrinsic in our nature and embodied in the way we perceive the world? Would it be possible to use the death drive as a ground to talk about society and art? The ephemerality of one’s life reminds me of how Peggy Phelan (1993, 146) emphasized how performance becomes itself through disappearance. Would I be able to finally become myself through my disappearance? This circles back to the liveness in performance that I aim to discuss through the effects of technology. How is a performance or a piece of art lively or alive? I am hoping through examining the artistic work “how to stay alive here? how about there?” so that I can better understand the ontology of liveness and perhaps in a way look for a suggestion as to how I can respond to the marginalization of contemporary dance as an independent artist.

On Liveness and Death Drive