On Networked Performance

October 26, 2020 · Talk

Network analysis graph

In October 2020, I was invited to join an online 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 way we refer to things and actions can affect how we think about them, how we undertake them and, consequently, what we try to do or even achieve with them. So I suggest it's worth keeping in mind that the word ‘performance’ is being used in an extended way in the term 'networked performance'. Stan Godlovitch, for instance, has argued that computer-based art issues a challenge to direct causation between user input and resulting output.[1] 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 results in any number of outputs. Working in the medium is a matter of managing a 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.

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. Such use of network technologies effectively establishes new ways of doing things that identify tenets of conventional music-making.

Other kinds of networked music-making are less concerned with conventional tenets such as the instantaneity of musical or sonic events. For instance, there is now the possibility of sending control data across networks, rather than sending audio. This method is coherent with a categorical shift in what we mean by musical performance. There is a sense in which the process points to a new category of music-making. It exhibits a way of ‘forgetting’ what performance ‘used’ to be, now that it is utilizing the technologies we use to communicate online.

My provocation today is that we might incline towards the latter approach. I suggest that if we wanted to get a sense of what networked technologies might offer our musical futures we might need to be less inclined to push ‘against’ them and beware importing characteristics from one category of musical action and 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.


1 Godlovitch, Stan. Musical Performance: A Philosophical Study. London: Routledge, 2002.