Networked Publics and Dramaturgy

Maska 2010English
Maska, vol. 26, no. 131-132, pages 62-73

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During the time that I was giving this talk for the first time, there was a performance taking place. Well, there was probably more than one performance happening at the same time, but I was thinking about one in particular.

The one I was thinking of is A SHORT MESSAGE SPECTACLE (AN SMS)1, a performance by Tim Etchells. A SHORT MESSAGE SPECTACLE (AN SMS) is labeled or described as an “imaginary performance”. It lasted for 16 days, with each of its scenes described by text message, relayed as virtual events taking place through the day and night in diverse locations across an imaginary city. The audience for this work subscribed to a special phone number (for those outside of UK it was +447786200690), and in order to become an audience member for this work, you had to have texted the keyword “NNF”, along with your postcode and your age to the abovementioned phone number before 7th of May 2010.

The word NNF refers to Norfolk & Norwich festival, which took place this year from the 7th until the 22nd of May. A SHORT MESSAGE SPECTACLE had its world premiere at the Norwich & Norfolk Festival, but you didn’t have to be in Norwich to take part. Technically, you could have been anywhere in the world where you had mobile connection, but practically, from what I understood, in order to receive those messages, you had to have at least been in Europe. The performance was free, and (on the promotion materials for the show) the audience members were deemed “imaginative co-authors in the performance as it unfolds in daily missives to the intimate space of a mobile phone.”

The topics that my talk revolves around, or the walking route through the “conceptual landscape” that I’ve chosen, include the role of the dramaturge today, and the question of “how changes in everyday life/on the social and political path influence the role of the dance dramaturge”.

It occurred to me one night during the Ljubljana symposium on dramaturgy, that after several days of thinking about dramaturgy (and in the past few years I've attended at least one dramaturgy seminar or conference a year) I'd never checked the Wikipedia entry for the word “dramaturgy”, so I was curious to see what it said there.

Under dramaturgy2, there are two sections: one dealing with the history of the notion, which describes Aristotle’s Poetics in two sentences and finishes with the following, “Many directors and playwrights have since written about their own dramaturgical thinking, including Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, and David Mamet.” And reading those three names in sequence – Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and David Mamet – made me think of the way Tim Etchells had described the conventional role of the dramaturge: “the positioning of information, the positioning for the most part of some things as being more proper, some things less proper, or maybe some things apparently more real, some things apparently less real than others. A matter of giving weight to information, of creating hierarchies. A matter of sequence and managed revelation arranged across time.”3

Why those three people together?
Why those three people together?
Why those three people together?
Why those three people together?

Of course, Wikipedia is not a reliable source – we all know that. And yet, in the days when the company Google penetrated our daily activities with its search engine so much that its influence became a linguistic fact, with its own verb “to google”, it needs to be taken into account that Wikipedia entries are usually what comes on top of every Google search. They tend to show socio-politico-cultural trends in the understanding of certain notions. What worries me, to go back to the notion of dramaturgy, is not so much that whoever was writing this Wikipedia entry was obviously a very bad dramaturge in terms of “giving weight to information” or “creating hierarchies”, but that there was no indication of any type of discussion on this page or any interest from the community of dramaturges to communicate what they were doing outside of their field to Wikipedia, today's most popular knowledge resource. Let me read to you what it says there: 

Since dramaturgy is defined in a general way and the function of a dramaturg may vary from production to production, the US copyright issues have very vague borders. In 2006, there was debate based on the question of the extent to which a dramaturg owns a production, such as the case of Larson and Thomson. Lynn Thomson, Jonathan Larson's dramaturg on the musical Rent, claimed that she was a co-author of the work and that she never assigned, licensed or otherwise transferred her rights. She asked that the court declare her a coauthor of Rent and grant her 16% of the author's share of the royalties. Although she made her claim only after the show became a big hit, the case is not without precedent, for 15% of the royalties of Angels in America go to the author's dramaturg. On June 19 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the original court's ruling that Thompson was not entitled to be credited with co-authorship of Rent and that she was not entitled to royalties.”

Now, although there is a part of me that feels rather curiously overjoyed that the notion of the dramaturge doesn’t sit very comfortably within US copyright definitions, the problem is that dramaturgy is not subverting them, ridiculing them or deliberately questioning them, the way that the website Pirate Bay4 does, but rather that dramturgical work is simply not recognized within these definitions as the work of an author worthy of protection.

Right after the title “dramaturgy” on the entry for dramaturgy on Wikipedia page, before the description of what dramaturgy is, there is a note saying “For a meaning of this word in sociology, see dramaturgy (sociology)5”. When you click on that link, what appears is a very decent entry, ten times the length of the entry “dramaturgy” that is related to the theatre. This entry describes the notion of dramaturgy in sociology, and talks mainly about the work of Erving Goffman, who uses a theatrical metaphor in defining the method in which one human being presents itself to another based on cultural values, norms, and expectations.

Now, we could go down the path of simply saying that we need to change the wiki entry for the notion of dramaturgy, so that it includes a more – to say the least – accurate, let alone more comprehensive, definition of the word etc. But maybe we should take our cues from the abovementioned Wikipedia definition of the word “dramaturgy”, and toy with the notion that the general public is more interested in the way dramaturgy operates in terms of human relations and communication or sociology.

The following question, therefore, interests me: Why would we want to delineate the role of the dramaturg when what is so appealing about the role of the dramaturg is precisely that it is a nondisciplinary role, a role that simply does not fit within the categories of classification of jobs, if you wish, but reveals a rupture in our thinking about classification and categorization? The role of the dramaturg problematizes the idea of the classification of roles. And that is part of the reason that we are interested in it. So, if I may use the words of Marx, the role of the dramaturge for me, is the opportunity for a man to “do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”.6 So the role of the dramaturge indicates an inclination towards a society whose members are encouraged to develop their potentials through a variety of experiences, in different ways, in different manners, through different fields of interest.

I am not trying to bury the idea of the dramaturge; it is obvious that there is a very practical need for its existence. The role of the dramaturge is as a midwife, trotting down Socrates's path, as someone who is facilitating the production of meaning, asking awkward questions, pointing to the contradictions, discrepancies, inconsistencies, helping to reveal what is hidden. But I wonder whether, in the popular perception, under the influence of new technologies and for the general audience, we need an updated version of the notion, or an alternative notion, so as to attract interest outside of the narrow field of our own practice, or so that theatre studies or performance studies could somehow reclaim it from sociology.

It is precisely those technological advances that are crucial in providing the material conditions for a broader understanding of the concept of the dramaturge, and I will place the dramaturge in the context of those new technologies, which were not available to us literally 10 years ago but are now at our disposal, and by “not available” I mean that not enough people were using them. It is not that technological advances result in our changed perception of certain notions, but that material conditions and conceptual production are interrelated, that one influences the other and vice-versa.

As Martina Ruhsam already mentioned in her lecture on the first day, we live in a Post-Fordist society, and here is what Paolo Virno7 means by that term: 

“Post-Fordism is a set of characteristics that are related to the entire contemporary workforce, including fruit pickers and the poorest of immigrants. Here are some of them: the ability to react in a timely manner to the continual innovations in techniques and organizational models, a remarkable opportunism in negotiating among the different possibilities offered by the job market, familiarity with what is possible and unforeseeable, the minimal entrepreneurial attitude that makes it possible to decide what is the right thing to do with a nonlinear productive fluctuation, a certain familiarity with the web of communications and information. As one can see, these are generically human gifts, not the result of 'specialization'. What I hold true is that Post-Fordism mobilizes all the faculties that characterize our species: language, abstract thinking, disposition toward learning, plasticity, the habit of not having solid habits. When I speak of a mass intellectuality, I am certainly not referring to biologists, artists, mathematicians, and so on, but to the human intellect in general, to the fact that it has been put to work as never before. If we look carefully, Post-Fordism takes advantage of abilities learned before and independently of entrance into the workplace: abilities brought forth by the uncertainty of metropolitan life, by uprootedness, by the perceptual shocks of technological mutations, even by video games and the use of cellular phones. All this is at the base of Post-Fordist flexibility. These experiences outside the workplace become afterward, in the production system known as 'just in time', authentic and proper professional requirements.”8

This “Post-Fordist flexibility” is reflected in the notion of the dramaturgy, and the notion of dramaturgy reflects back.

Now, in order to further narrow down the topic that interested me most, the question of how social and cultural conditions influence the position of the dramaturg, I would like to take a particular look at the question of how the development and increase in the use of social networks and mobile technology (especially since mobile technology is connected with the internet, so most people can access social networks via their mobile phones) influence our understanding of the notion of the dramaturge, or of the idea of what dramaturgy is? Let us look into the way the term “social network” is defined:
“A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called "nodes," which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige. Social network analysis views social relationships in terms of network theory consisting of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. The resulting graph-based structures are often very complex. There can be many kinds of ties between the nodes. Research in a number of academic fields has shown that social networks operate on many levels, from families up to the level of nations, and play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals.”9 (Wikipedia entry)

Now, obviously, the internet did not invent social networks, that is clear from these definitions, but the internet did influence the way they are formed and maintained. So what I would like to explore here are not social networks in general, but social network sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Friendfeed, Jaiku, You Tube, and In an article by Nicole B. Ellison, trained anthropologist and one of the most important social media researchers in the field Danah Boyd is cited to claim the following: 

“What makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks. This can result in connections between individuals that would not otherwise be made, but that is often not the goal, and these meetings are frequently between 'latent ties' (Haythornthwaite, 2005) who share some offline connection. On many of the large SNSs, participants are not necessarily "networking" or looking to meet new people; instead, they are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network. To emphasize this articulated social network as a critical organizing feature of these sites, we label them 'social network sites.”10

I am aware of the fact that I am treading a fine line here; it is my guess that most of you relate the idea of social networking sites entirely with the aforementioned Facebook – with photos of your high-school friends whose names you can hardly remember standing in front of pyramids, sunsets, and statues at Madame Tussauds; the endless reproduction of clichés; online social games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, or other pastimes; tests determining which type of cheese or llama you are; and applications that allow you to send a virtual gift such as ‘Inevitable Student Fans of Ayn Rand’ (Shite Gifts for Academics). However, there are other social networking sites apart from Facebook and Twitter ( which, though hopeless in terms of organizing any sort of conversation, is brilliant for short, instant information sent to a large group of people), and there are ways of using them that are not solely dependent on the proliferation of idiocy or narcissism, even though idiocy and narcissism could also be considered strategic tools for the development of more interesting features.

One of the most interesting social network sites, although not nearly as popular as Facebook, is Friendfeed. I will briefly describe how my network of Friendfeed operates and what are the differences in relation to Facebook. First of all, the criteria for connection with someone is not whether you have actually met that person in real life, what their “profile” is like, or whether they have a sexy photo, but whether what they are “sharing” is interesting or not. What gets shared are pictures, music, blog entries, academic articles, newspaper articles, books, web based art work etc. There is no emphasis on your profile, your personal history, no space to list your CV accomplishments. What is important is how you contribute to the flow of information that you share with your Friendfeed community – what types of articles you chose, what discussion you decide to initiate. That, of course, eventually, ends up being your profile. However, in order for someone to grasp it, they need to be “following” you for quite some time. An image of you is a by product of your conversations and on your interactions, rather than the focus of the network; what is important is what you do (what you share) rather than how you describe yourselves to others. What gets shared ranges from internet memes to academic articles on Brachistochrone curve – it combines the silliness of personal photos featuring stuffed animal toys with the seriousness of peer-reviewed articles (or is it the other way around?). Friendfeed is read through the news feed;every time someone you follow shares something, it appears in your feeds in the chronological order of posting. However, that chronological order, gets disturbed according to whether your group of friends' comments on each article; each comment brings it towards the top of your feed. The way your feed is organised is dependent on a complex algorithm, that I am not going to discuss here, but what is interesting for the discussion on dramaturgy is that you read it in one stream, and you can read it as a continuous text, rather than as a series of articles. In that way, the articles that you share, the conversations that you have, begin to talk to each other, begin to influence each other, and the dramaturgy that develops is not based on any single person directing it, or being in the centre of it, but by the mutual contributions from people in your network. The dramaturgy of your feed develops without the dramaturge; it is an impersonal dramaturgy of the joint enterprise. My group of friends consists of people from various professions, philosophers, musicologists, psychologists, system administrators, software engineers, architects, molecular biologists, poets, theatre makers, visual artist, nutrition experts, and the exchanges that are happening daily, around the material that we share are very intense and varied. My Friendfeed network selects articles for me, some from their field of expertise and some not; most of them are occupied with all sorts of activities other than those for which they were formally trained. All together, we contribute to a very useful and practical editing machine, that selects and organizes material, that engages with “the positioning of information, “the positioning for the most part of some things as being more proper, some things less proper, or maybe some things apparently more real, some things apparently less real than others. A matter of giving weight to information, of creating hierarchies. A matter of sequence and managed revelation arranged across time.11

I have hinted towards the dramaturgy of social network sites, to the fact that they enable a possibility of a joint dramaturgical work, of dramaturgy that happens without the dramaturge. Let us go beyond my description now, into themore organized classification of properties of social network sites12 that Danah Boyd developed in order to see how they could be thought about in the production of theatre, dance and performance work. The list of properties that I will examine parasites heavily on her classification, borrowing her names for properties and dynamics, choosing the ones that focus on those entries that reflect the idea of theatre, dance and performance, and disregard those that are perhaps not as applicable.

In my opinion this classification of the notion of dramaturgy in performance holds two implications:
1) I argue that social network sites could be used as dramaturgical tools for the development of a performance, because they could contribute to more collective practices of decision making.
2) I am interested in performance, theatre and dance pieces happening through the use of these social network sites, and what that does to the idea of a performance, theatre or dance piece and to the idea of the role of the dramaturge.

Social media, by default, isn’t as ephemeral as performance; social media is about producing traces. What you say sticks around; all communication is recorded and archived. The asynchronicity of social network sites allows for an idea to be discussed later, in your own time; it is not as pressurized as brainstorming creative sessions where you need to get the ideas out there in a particular moment, a process which usually results in those people who are most assertive taking the lead. There is a side effect to persistence of course; it can come to haunt you, but just like any archive, it can be immensely useful. So it seems that social network sites bring us back into the era of the text, except that the text is understood in a very different way, no longer limited to a dramatic text, play, or drama. Not even restricted to mean a series of words; the text could be a photo, a video, a drawing, a graph etc. If we now go back to the example of Etchells’ ANSMS, the question is: does that performance problematize the notion of the ephemerality of performance and dance, or does it make that ephemerality even more resilient? Where is the performance? In the texts we receive? In the context in which we receive them? On our mobile phones? Can the performance be taken out of our mobile phones and still be a performance? Or is it, in that case, only the text for a performance that we once attended?

In the first version of this talk, I somehow automatically assumed that the performance of AN SMS was solely in the texts that we received – that Tim managed to locate the performance of the text in the text alone. That still seems like a potent proposition, especially because the way in which AN SMS was described, “with each of its scenes described by text message, relayed as virtual events taking place through the day and night in diverse locations across an imaginary city”. If the location of the performance is an imaginary city, then most of it is happening entirely conceptually. And yet, we do receive those texts in the very concrete moments of our existence, in the very concrete moments in a particular city, while we eat a sandwich that used to be fresh, or sit on a blue Citelis Zagreb bus. Isn’t  all that the performance? Especially because the performance isn’t happening in one space or at one time; technically, we should all receive texts at the same time, but practically we don’t, as there is a time delay for people in different countries. It is happening literally in different times and spaces. It has a duration, from the 7th till the 22nd of May, but during those two weeks, it doesn’t happen in the exactly the same time for everybody. You can “watch” it when you want. You can come back to it, re-read it. Because of the way it was sent to me – directly, to my personal mobile phone – it almost gives me the feeling that I am authorized to do what I want with it. Everything I do with it, continues to be the performance. Or was the performance happening only in that particular time and space when we were reading the text, whenever that was? But does the performance still happen when I go to read them now (as they are still saved in my phone)? Does the fact that I can copy all of the text from AN SMS into a Word file onto my computer, the fact that I can read them again, post them on my blog and so on, mean that I am replicating the performance? Re-performing it? Or is there only one performance, so that every time I am reading those texts I am involved in the same performance because the real place of the performance is the imagination?

Social dependency
You can deactivate your FB account or your other types of presence on the net, such as Flickr account, Twitter, Jaiku, You tube channel and so on. If you do so, you erase all the comments with it, you erase your archives. It is a very socially troubling act that has wider consequences than you could have imagined. It is also emotionally very disturbing, because the archive gives the idea that you can always go back to it, reassess the words again, read them with a different state of mind or a different emotional reaction. By erasing your Flickr profile, you erase the comments other people made under your photos; you also break, in a violent way, the links with your contacts that you have acquired over a long period of time – you lose the traces, you tear the fabric. So the idea of persistence is interesting, because otherwise everything can be lost in a second in the shape and form in which it existed, even though computer geeks know that it still is there, and theoretically, although not really practically, there is a way of retrieving that information. What is especially interesting is that you can’t erase just your words – by erasing your profile you erase everybody else’s words in response to what you have written too. It is not like e-mails. You can erase e-mails in your mailbox but you can’t erase the other person’s archive; you can only erase your own archive. Now, some services allow you to activate those networks again. Some don’t. So the social fabric is woven tighter. How it will affect you, depends obviously on how much you use it, but it nevertheless has the ability to produce a sense of loss and betrayal.

Social media scales things in new ways. When it comes to Tim Etchells’ performance, once I copied all the messages in my computer, I can take that document and post it on my blog – , and now comes the point – exactly as it was. So, it is not like a video of a performance taken with a bad camera in hiding and posted on You tube. You post on your blog the actual performance and within days, the number of hits it jumps on Google search. Or is it? To be honest, I have no idea how that works in terms of copyright. In any case, the performance can be replicated exactly as it is in a different medium, to a much wider audience that was previously intended. Or can it?

This leads us to:

(De)locatability. One of the key things in Tim Etchells performance is the fact that people are not in the same time at the same place in order to see it. They are dispersed around the world. With the mobile, you are dislocated from any particular point in space, but at the same time, you are always in some particular point in space. This paradox indicates that we are simultaneously both more and less connected to physical space.

This brings us back to asynchronicitythe idea that you are not only dispersed in space but also in time. We are not seeing or experiencing this performance in the same time – we might be sleeping when the message comes in, or we might be watching another performance with our mobile phones turned off, or there is a time delay from the UK to Croatia in terms of when you receive the message, which gets even worse when you come to Slovenia with a Croatian mobile operator.
Let us also look at different dynamics that have been reconfigured as a result of social media.

Invisible Audiences and Collapsed Contexts. We tend to adjust what we're saying to account for the audience. We tend to choose which things to say in front of whom, or perform differently according to what we expect other people expect from us. So, for instance, a performance goes to different festivals and you are aware of the fact that it won’t be received everywhere equally. You chose where you want to go with your performance, where you want to be represented. Some performances are more appropriate for some festivals, some for others. You chose the context for your representation. In a theatre, you can sense the audience; you can even see them if the light is not too bright. You can see then when they are yawning or dying of boredom or when they are enthusiastically sitting on the edge of their chairs, almost jumping out of their seats so that they can see better. You see them falling asleep; sometimes their mobile phones even ring. Performances on social networks escape that possibility. Social media introduces all sorts of invisible audiences. Even though, as Danah Boyd noted, you mostly interact with a group of people you know, there are lurkers, whom one cannot see, who are present at any moment , and there are also visitors who access the content at a later date or in a different environment to where it was first produced. As a result, there isn’t a full understanding of the actual audience, and the contexts crash into one another. Blurring of Public and Private.

“It’s like you’re whispering in someone’s ear,” Tim Etchells says. “The phone is a personal space, and I like the idea of slipping this little strange story into that, of interrupting people’s days with something extraordinary”.13 By sending you those texts messages, Tim Etchells enters your private space, literally penetrates the fabric of your everyday life. And yet, there is nothing particularly invasive about that; you can chose not to read the text if you are engaged with something else, to read it later, or not to read it at all. There is a sense of intimacy, without the sense of disrespect for boundaries.

This lecture was first given as a part of the “Reflexive Dramaturgy” symposium in Ljubljana. I decided to keep the more informal tone of the spoken language for publication in Maska because that tone reflects the stage that this research is at the moment; it is only a series of notes that are starting to toy with the idea of what could happen to dramaturgy and performance under the influence of social networks and the changes that they bring about in communication. It only briefly opens up those questions, both in terms of using social networks in the initial stages of the preparation of the performance, and as the media through which the performance is performed.

What I find interesting in the concept of dramaturgy is the possibility to make it impersonal or depersonalized, to turn it into a process rather than a function or an involvement restricted to a particular person: when the performance grows organically and almost imperceptibly out of the relations and preoccupations of the people involved. That doesn’t mean – , and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough – that this understanding of dramaturgy, which can sound utopian, will make those involved in it any more happy than they were with the conventional notion of the dramaturge, because utopia, contrary to the popular belief, is not about happiness, nor is it about freedom.14

1Tim Etchells: A SHORT MESSAGE SPECTACLE, Norfolk & Norwich Festival , 7- 22 May 2010.
2Wikipedia: (date needed)
3Tim Etchells. “Doing Time”, Performance Research 14.3, 2009, 71-80, pp. 72.
4Pirate Bay is a non-profit site, started by the Swedish anti-copyright organization Piratbyrĺn. It allows for anyone to share their torrent files. They are under constant attack from the copyright protection organizations, and have been involved in a number of lawsuits, as they are “one of the world’s largest facilitators of illegal downloading” (LA Times).
6Karl Marx: The German Ideology. New York, International Publishers, 1970 [1845], pp. 53.
7Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles, CA : Semiotext(e), Cambridge, 2004.
8Joseph, Branden W. ‘Interview with Paolo Virno’ Ricciardi, A. (tr.). Grey Room, 21, Fall 2005, 26-37, p. 29.
9Wikipedia: (date needed)
10Boyd, Danah M. and Ellison, Nicole B. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13.1, 2007, article 11, (accessed on 4 August 2010)
11Etchells, Tim. ‘Doing Time’. Performance Research 14.3, 2009, 71-80, p. 72.
12The classification is taken from Danah Boyd’s PhD dissertation, Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. University of California-Berkley, School of Information, 2008. See here (accessed 4 August 2010).
13Logan, Brian. ‘A night at the theatre and the star is – you’. The Sunday Times. 24th of April 2010. (accessed on 4 August 2010)
14I would like to thank my Friendfeed community for inspiring me to try to make those links.