In October 2020, I was invited to join a panel discussion on instrumentality in networked performance at the Piteå Performing Arts Biennale, Sweden. Each panellist was asked to make a short ‘provocation’ by way of beginning the discussion. The following is an edited transcript of my contribution.

The current ‘zoom’ culture of communicating might make us wonder whether networked performance could constitute a model of future music-making. So it is worth thinking critically about what we’ve been doing recently, in performing online, and how we might go forward with such technologically mediated action.

The way we refer to things and actions can affect how we think about and undertake them and consequently what we try to do or achieve with them. So it’s worth keeping in mind that the word ‘performance’ in ’networked performance’ is being used in an extended way. Stan Godlovitch, for instance, has argued that computer-based art issues a challenge to direct causation between user input and resulting output. The moment you issue this challenge you problematize performance in any traditional sense.

We issue such a challenge to direct causation all the time in computer music. Some input might result in any number of outputs. Working in the medium is often a matter of managing this multiplicity of outcomes. Artists and engineers have done plenty of work on this challenge, researching machine-human interfaces, for example, and thinking about the relation that bodily action bears to electronic sound.

But often we are inclined to work up operations on network technologies with processes that derive from and apply to something we’ve known well in the past, rather than shaping an entirely different category of music-making. Some networked music-making is now a function of highly efficient audio delivery across the internet. A lot of development has gone into addressing the problem of latency. But this approach maintains an aspiration to simultaneity between discrete events as if it were governed by some entrapped memory of traditional performance.

Other kinds of networked music-making are less concerned with the instantaneity of audio delivery and send control data instead. This method is more coherent with the categorical shift in the loosening of direct control. There is perhaps more of a sense in which the process is reconciled with a new category of music-making. It seems to exhibit a kind of forgetting about what performance ‘used’ to be.

I would incline towards the latter approach and suggest that if we want to get a sense of what this technology might offer, in our musical futures, we might need to be less inclined to push against it, importing characteristics from one category of musical action with the intention of fitting their operations into another. Think about the rain: you can’t control it, so you can either choose to open an umbrella and carry on as normal or you can step out into the rain, regardless, and have experiential access to the meaning of wetness.

text copyright © N.G.Brown, 2020.
Not to be reproduced without permission.