Saturday, 8 January 2011

Capturing Art

From an article in today's Guardian:
I reflect sourly on what the great German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote about how instrumental rationality undermines the emancipatory possibilities of technology, reducing it to a tool for our domination. What I think he meant by this was that instead of using technology such as camera phones to make our lives richer, freer and happier, we stand like lumps doing something socially irritating and existentially pointless, thereby ruining the view for everyone else. We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile.
It's a nice, open-ended reflection on the pros and cons of the increasing ubiquity of cameraphones.

Those of us who work as a soldier-ants in the entertainment industries, reliant on localised, short-term contracts are increasingly at the mercy of the ease of digital video capture and dissemination.

I find it peculiar how the explosion of digital file-sharing over the past 10 years has revived live performance, only for those going in search of it trying to capture it as a audio-visual souvenir. It compromises not only their own experience but also that of others in the same situation. It simply isn't possible to have the live experience whilst trying to capture (and indeed distribute) it. Heisenberg had plenty to say on the subject.

Prince had the right idea, i.e. he was sanguine. I went to see him play the first night of his O2 residency in 2007. At the gate we were given the new album for free, just for turning up, such was the relatively low value of the CD in a global market climate where no-one was prepared to pay for it. Instead the big draw was the opportunity to see Prince perform live.

Prior to the show, it was suggested that we didn't need to take photos or video footage during the show but that we should treasure the experience. This was an mature approach to getting people to enjoy themselves, accepting of those who would want to take some sort of souvenir (as well as those chancers prepared to bag themselves an old-fashioned bootleg). Consequently the atmosphere was super - hey, even I took a snap of the show (right). It's instructive that the film industry has produced pre-feature advertisements explaining why one shouldn't capture and reproduce the film. It stresses the 'cinematic experience'.

That's the right idea but in purely artistic terms rather disingenuous. The experience of seeing a film is basically limited to what's on a screen. Beyond that the only added value for a consumer comes with the DVD special features before the whole experience becomes a lasting, petrified anachronism.

All this boils down to an issue of media. Cinema is a mediated art form by its very nature, in the same way that much pop music is processed, even if only through amplification.

What is interesting to me in all this is that the inability to faithfully capture and reproduce the experience of acoustic entertainment will be the salvation of live performance, defying the 'convenience' of recording. It proves redundant (i.e. it won't sound so good on a PC or phone) and the peculiar nature of acoustic art is that it draws you in.

For the time being, those of us involved in live performance must continue to adopt a professional but sanguine position - to take pride in doing the best that we do as the most magnanimous foil against its consequent reception and use. That's art.

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