Performance Art, Mediatization, and Stevie Wonder

I counted: Stevie made three jokes about blindness at Tuesday's show.
I won't proceed to make one here.
It's been a fine week to hear music in Boston. On Tuesday night, Stevie Wonder graced the crowd that flocked to TD Garden with his presence, performing the entirety of Songs in the Key of Life, plus the obligatory "Superstition" encore. I had already heard about the show from friends in New York and Washington D.C.; as one friend memorably noted, "How is it possible for someone to sound as good at age 64 as they did at 24?" The answer is, of course, to be Stevie Wonder. And it's true: Stevie brought the house down. Generations of Americans were dancing in the aisles to "Sir Duke" like they were hearing it for the first time, and to hear that voice ... oh, man. 

During the show, though, I couldn't help but think about the readings we'd discussed in Vijay Iyer's graduate seminar earlier that day. The week's readings were labeled as "Technologies & Interactivities," including essays on the historical relationship between theater, film, and TV; the expressive possibilities of new technologies and computational media; and analyses of the works of pioneers such as George Lewis, Steve Coleman, and Pamela Z. The word "mediatization" showed up prominently (an ugly word, if there ever was one), notably in a chapter of Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture from 1999 by Philip Auslander. Writing on the relationship between liveness and mediatized events, he makes the following claim:
The ubiquity of reproductions of performances culture has led of all kinds in our to the depreciation of live presence, which can only be compensated for by making the perceptual much as experience of the live as possible like that of the mediatized, even in cases where the live event provides its own brand of proximity.
Writing from the horizon of 1999, he gives examples like Madonna live performances simulating the music videos to a T, which underscores the time from when this was written. Although music videos have declined in popularity since the hey-day of MTV, he's got a point in the broadest sense that we live in a world where life imitates not art, but popular media—not just the other way around. I was tempted to switch from the balcony to the ground level when I got a tip from a friend who showed up late and managed to get into a section downstairs much closer to the stage; apparently there was a substantial quantity of comp tickets that had gone unclaimed, leaving lots of empty seats in that area. In the end, I decided as an experiment to stand my ground and take in the show from my distant, albeit mediatized, perspective. To be honest, seeing Stevie and the band on the big screen wasn't so bad; it definitely felt more intimate than watching concert footage on YouTube, although part of that might also have been the sound, which got exceptionally loud at times. 

At the end of the Auslander chapter, he asks why people continue to attend live performances in a culture all but fully conditioned to mediatization. He offers two arguments that he proceeds to quickly dismiss: (1) that live performances appeal more to the senses, and (2) that live performances create a sense a community that would otherwise be missing. To the former he responds that mediatized performances also appeal to the senses, but in different ways (considering how a filmed concert can have close-ups, changing points of view, etc.), and to the latter he responds that mediatized performances don't preclude the possibility of community (listening sessions and families gathering around the television come to mind). He also offers up the possibility that people continue to attend live performances for the sake of symbolic capital, i.e., to be able to say, "I saw Stevie live last night! ["and you didn't, so you missed out" is the subtext]. This brought to mind an NYTimes blog post about a recent psychology study that examined how sharing experiences that might grant such symbolic capital sometimes actually backfire. I would go back to the second point, though, and say that there is an amazing feeling to being in a single enclosed space with thousands of other people, grooving to Stevie's voice soaring over a band, string section, and backup vocals. Even though what we're hearing—Stevie's amplified, technologically-mediated voice—is not natural, we're engaging in one of the most basic human behaviors: gathering to undertake an experiential passage of time together, which in this case comes in the form of music. 

Long story short, Stevie was thrilling to hear in person but mediatized. The next night, similar thoughts came to mind as I watched highlights from the Very Very Threadgill concerts from September, curated by Jason Moran. The performance was broadcast as part of Jazz Night in America, a new series jointly presented by NPR Music, WBGO, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. I had known about the event for weeks, but by the time I tried to by tickets, they were all sold out. I ended up going down to New York that weekend anyway and managed to attend Henry Threadgill's moderated discussion with Jason Moran and Brent Edwards, but I was kicking myself for weeks afterwards for not buying tickets earlier. The conceit for Jazz Night in America is a bit cute—for me, it brings to mind American families gathering around the family radio set earlier in the 20th century—but I'm not complaining. In the c. 2014 version, there's also a live chat room widget for listeners, which I found a bit distracting, although a number of jazz-world names were in attendance and chiming in from time to time. One commenter even mentioned how you could see the sweat on a performer's forehead (again, the intimacy afforded by mediatization, and I also noted seeing Jason's clear watch-face, which I would've missed live). I also recalled reading a story about Bird clapping after listening to an orchestral performance on the radio; at the time, I was just thinking about the high regard in which Bird held classical music, but I realized also that he must not have felt too bothered by the displacements of technology.

And tonight, I had the pleasure of seeing Reanimated, a relatively recent collaboration between performance artist Joan Jonas and pianist Jason Moran, who also taught a duos masterclass at NEC earlier in the afternoon. The hour-long performance featured a score by Moran and a sequence of mixed media events by Jonas inspired by Under the Glacier, the 1968 novel by Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. Laxness, the only Icelandic author ever to win the Nobel for Literature, received the prize in 1955, two years after Winston Churchill, a year after Ernest Hemingway, a year before Juan Ramón Jiménez, and two years before Albert Camus (needless to say, the man was in good company). The novel follows an anonymous theology student sent as a bishop's emissary to talk to locals about unusual activity near an extinct volcano in the west of Iceland. As this review in Salon points out, notable parts of the novel include the notion of deceased women reanimating and baking bread (hence Reanimated), a woman turning into a fish, and philosophical dialogues about metaphysics, time, and more; all these these aspects appear in some form in the performance. 

My background in performance art is severely limited (i.e., nonexistent), save for the caricature of a performance artist in The Great Beauty, wherein a naked woman repeatedly runs headfirst into a wall and breaks down in an interview with a journalist after being pressed to explain her vague notions about "vibrations" and "extra-sensoriality." I have to say that I was mesmerized by Jonas's performance, which featured at various times recorded text, spoken text, projections of film and moving image, superimposed real-time drawings (via a neat contraption Jonas had set up on a table, where an overhead mounted camera overlaid the drawing she performed underneath), masks, hand percussion of various kinds (including finger cymbals and bells), whistles and rubbery wind toys, paper being crumpled, and more. 

Having not read the novel and not being familiar with Jonas's work, I felt a narrative logic to the entire performance not unlike that of a sketch comedy show: series of events that summoned and sustained a mood, like the glacial solitude that I imagine a remote area of Iceland would convey. At one point, on top of film of a woman swimming in water Jonas superimposed an open box of marbles crashing into one another, then began stirring the marbles as she traced arcs of chalk onto the bottom. Jason's score, which incorporated some raucously distorted synthesizer as well as crystalline, meditative piano, was perfectly adapted for these kinds of visual events: swirling, pointillistic, and full of surprises. 

The performance ended as it began with a quotation from the novel: "[T]ime is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural. It is at least neither energy nor matter; not dimension, either; let alone function; and yet it is the beginning and end of the creation of the world." It was a performance that called attention to the passing of times: different layers of time being perceived, and attention being diffused toward differing timescales of events. If you get a chance to see this live, don't hesitate. 

Read more about "Reanimation" and other works by Joan Jonas at this more legit-looking art website.