Is performance art being negatively impacted by online shows?

As a dancer, I have seen an explosion in online shows to maintain a sense of community and have a space to share and make art. While I have attended some great shows, I have growing concerns about how this is affecting the process of artmaking itself. Is it limiting the way we make our art and what ideas we pursue, or is it opening up our possibilities? Is it changing the way our audiences interact with our art and consume it? Specifically in the dance world, streaming capabilities can truly hurt a performance when Internet connections are not strong enough. I am interested in starting a conversation about these topics.

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Welcome to the community, Elsa! This is a very interesting topic.

Yes, so much has changed in such a short time. Talking about disruption… this is it, right? How much of the change will stick? How will things evolve? I see both opportunities and threats for your profession. Whether there are more threats than opportunities depends, I think, on the new reality that exists after the corona crisis has past (or is sufficiently manageable). Will things return to normal then, or are there lasting changes?

I’m no expert in the performance art branch, but I the following opportunities for the immediate and longer term:

  1. Reaching a new, much broader audience online than you’d ever reached before. People who’d otherwise never ‘crossed the barrier’ of going to the theatre for various reasons.
  2. Tapping into new sources of revenue that didn’t really exist before, and can help finance the arts world which is struggling to have ends meet (especially smaller performances dependent on subsidies that are drying up).
  3. Small performance art groups can suddenly ‘put themselves forward’ in a way they couldn’t before. Creating a more equal playing field.
  4. You can creatively explore a new medium: the online world of the internet. There is now real incentive and need to develop this as fast as possible. New softwares and methods will be created/invented to help bring your message across.

But all of these points requires much more new expertise to do this well. And here there are dangers. You need real help of other professions that were not so much involved with performance arts before.

Regarding threats I see the following things playing a role:

  1. You throw your fate into the hands of Big Tech and Media molochs, who are fighting for ‘original content’. Completely new, unknown dynamics are at play now. Commercial pitfalls, copyright issues, ranking algorithms, censorship, deplatforming, demonetization, etc.
  2. Freedom of expression. Can you still perform anything you want? Do you have to perform what the new online masters fits best? Does your performance need to fit a market? Do you dare make controversial performances with a toxic internet mob now reacting to what you do. Trolling, doxxing (e.g. publishing your name and address), cyberbullying, etc.
  3. In a theatre you can perform the same dance or play a 100 or more times in a year. Online not so much, 1-3 times max. and there should be differences between each performance. Note this could be to your advantage too, as performing the same every day may be a chore / ‘boring’. But it has impact on revenue. How many times should something be streamed to have enough revenue to pay salaries etc. Where does most of this revenue end up (if you are not careful I’d wager this is with the media / big tech company).

I am a big believer in the free software movement and free, libre (as in freedom) software, which has been quite successful and steadily growing. The majority of all software used today is open source (though often free software). Open source has a problem in that its community is weakened / hijacked / abused by commercial, big tech interests who use the software without giving back in sufficient amounts.

For the independence and freedom of the arts I think it is very important to develop and adhere to an Open Culture movement! The same forces will be at play here that also plague the free software movement. In the new online post-covid environment both movements can help and reinforce each other. This is an opportunity.

Important is that the arts stay independent. That you keep control of your work before you license it commercial entities. That you do not become boxed in, under contract and legal restrictions, having your art only shown in some big tech’s walled garden platform.

Regarding your concerns about internet connectivity… things’ll improve quickly. Big tech never had it so good. Internet speeds are increasing and e.g. 5G is rolled out faster.

I’d like to point to some fine open-source alternatives for streaming: and for streaming and for decentralized hosting of recorded video. These are free softwares you can use without cost and (if you have the expertise) self-host on your own servers / cloud of choice. These and many other software projects can help you keep your independence.

This is something that I am tackling with myself, Elsa @figthorn. I am an actor in NYC and all stage shows have been halted. Not only that, but for TV and Film, production has also stopped. While I think that digital/online shows have been a great stand-in for live performance of all kinds, I don’t believe it is by any means a permanent substitute. Part of what makes live performance so impactful is that it’s live. I know for myself I am not as engaged if I am watching something online that would have otherwise been in person. We will see how things play out though in the coming months and year. Feel free to reach out to me at any time…I often work at the intersection of technology and performance and would be happy to chat more.

All the best,