The Great Reformatting

As performances go digital, artists must reconsider their relationship to audiences

Steven Pisano (Flickr/stevenpisano)
Steven Pisano (Flickr/stevenpisano)

This is the first in a series of articles on the shifting landscape of artistic activity on the modern Internet. Each article will explore how digital technology (from iPhones to Instagram) continues to change the ways art is created, experienced, and discussed in a screen-first society.

The coronavirus has coerced a once-impossible concession: the heads of High Culture have acknowledged that they’re living in the 21st century—as many old-school institutions have suddenly dipped into digital. The New York Philharmonic performed Boléro by stitching together videos of orchestra members playing at home, the Smithsonian started offering virtual-reality tours of its exhibits, and the Public Theater premiered Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About? in the form of a video call (just to name a few). Over the past three months, social distancing has abruptly catapulted the classical arts from the secure performance traditions of the 19th century into the dizzying, phantasmagoric virtual circus that makes up 21st-century creative professionalism. And what mighty cultural lynchpin, you might ask, is responsible for bridging the colossal gap between the analog and digital ages? Zoom Video Conferencing.

In a matter of weeks, Zoom has become center stage for all corners of world culture. Every day, I’m invited to another Zoom affair: speeches, poetry readings, town halls, art fairs, movie premieres, book launches, watch parties, and even a digital wedding toast. Of course, Zoom is not the answer to saving the arts for the digital generation, but it does pose the question: Why don’t we have better alternatives? For many institutions, fear that improving the virtual performance would threaten the health of the physical one has kept them in a state of pseudo-Internet denial. But the international health crisis has forced organizations to confront a generational sea change that has been brewing across the arts since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone.

Now, we are in the opening days of a movement without a name. The 20th century was an era of deconstruction in the high arts, from modernist assaults on form to postmodern satires of sincerity and logic. These decades saw the Death of the Author, the End of Painting, and the canonization of alienation as the supreme artistic ideal. But the driving impulse of the 21st -century imagination leans in the opposite direction, as artists across fields embrace an instinct we might call reconstruction. By “reconstruction,” I mean packaging the tired tropes of old traditions into fresh scenarios and formats wherein they recover their original power. The reconstructive artist seeks new forms for old content, fresh formulas for familiar emotions. This artist deploys tomorrow’s vehicles for yesterday’s ideas.

The collision of technological and generational change has fueled this paradigm shift. The marriage of iPhone technology and millennial habits has incubated a new generation of audiences who consume music, stories, and visual art in a fundamentally different way than their pre-digital peers. Across the popular arts today, we witness a wide-scale reformatting of time-honored genres from forms designed for concentration into forms built for interaction. Private concerts become public festivals. Radio shows become podcasts. Passive participation triumphs over active contemplation. While COVID-19 accelerated this trend, the phenomenon encompasses much more than streaming performances on Zoom. Here are a few examples of reformatting I’ve noticed:

• Live storytelling events
• Kindle & Audible books
• George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook (featuring 166 cast members)
• Poetry slam competitions over poetry readings
• Miranda July’s Somebody app (a messaging app through which strangers volunteer to deliver in person your message to a friend)
• Ruchika Tomar’s novel A Prayer for Travelers
• Interactive fiction games (Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, Arcadia, 80 Days)
• Place-based digital storytelling (Detour’s audio tours & the iPad novel The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett, with stories activated by GPS locations)
• Book sculpture (Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern issues printed as balloons, a mail bundle, and a phonebook)
• Chris Ware’s Building Stories (with 14 original printed works that can be read in any order)

• Podcasts over radio shows or newspapers
• The ascent of weekly newsletters over weekly columns
• Reimagined magazines (Pop-Up Magazine, The Thing Quarterly)
• Multimedia infographics & data visualizations
• Video essays & editorial documentaries (i.e., Adam Curtis presenting editorial argument in the format of a “non-fiction” film)
• Investigative crime podcasts over investigative journalism

• Streaming music services over radio or albums
• Site-specific dance & opera
• Kanye West’s opera Nebuchadnezzar
• Multimedia music events (the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s in/SIGHT series, the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox concerts)
• Pop-up street orchestras (the “conductorless” Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra)

• Immersive theater (Punchdrunk theatre company)
• The final act of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview
Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (the Royal Shakespeare Company’s digital project with invented storylines for new characters, including Mrs. Snug)

• Public art installations over museum exhibits (Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie’s The Floating Cinema)
• Nelly Ben Hayoun’s experiential installations (Super K Sonic Booooum embodying a sonic boom from a sub-atomic particle’s perspective)
• Temporary architecture
• Renaming interior architecture as “immediate spaces”

• Pop-up exhibitions & temporary art projects (Banksy’s Dismaland)
• Kara Walker’s site-specific monumental sculpture (A Subtlety)
• Interactive performance art (Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present)
• The rise of art biennials
• Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale
• Thomas Thwaites’s GoatMan project

All of these experiments reflect different strategies for addressing the same problem. Audiences are evolving—and artists are scrambling to catch up.

Scanning the disparate items on this list, a few recurring themes emerge: an emphasis on participation, viscera, ephemera, and an immersive sense of space (whether it’s a physical location, a screen, or the tactile surface of an object). The connecting thread across these themes is an enriched form of interaction: a kinetic recalibration of the audience’s central nervous system, shifting its primary mode of engagement with an artwork from contemplation to interaction. Even the Zoom play (which may seem less interactive than live theater) gives each viewer the ability to adjust the performance’s volume and screen size. In 2020, the onus is on the work of art to engage its audience—to seduce its spectators—not on the audience members to become sophisticated enough to appreciate the art.

This is an incredible departure from earlier eras, which would slap the label “lazy” on such delinquent viewers with barely a second thought. Yet for an Internet-addled public, whose sensory faculties are diluted by a lifetime of constant digital stimuli, there is a need for dynamic engagement that runs deeper than mere laziness. Steady exposure to screens gradually reorganizes neural pathways in the brain to create an intense, biological urge for interaction. More than anything else, writer Marc Prensky explains, “Digital Natives crave interactivity—an immediate response to their each and every action.” This Pavlovian need for interaction demands a larger redefinition of art’s relationship to its audience. Distraction is no longer the exception but the default condition of the mid-millennium mind.

The duty of battling this distraction falls to the artist. The great task of the contemporary artist is to reformat literature, music, and museums in inventive ways that earn the type of enraptured attention that true art demands. Amid the sea of crude Zoom concerts and awkward online readings launched by necessity over the past months, it is easy to overlook that the real purpose of reformatting is not enhancing a work’s accessibility but its artistry. A successful format will invent its own type of attention, and while there have been standout individual performances, I have yet to encounter a virtual concert template that makes Massenet or Marlowe alive for post-Instagram audiences. That is to say, the great artistic genres of the iPhone era have yet to be discovered, and what these unborn titans end up being will shape the institutions, artists, and ideas that rise and fall over the next half-century.

Thus, the stakes of reformatting institutions like the symphony are not just economic survival or cultural preservation—but something more serious. Art exists to break through the hypnotic rhythm of habit and salvage some fresh sensation of life. Reconstruction, as an artistic impulse, represents an attempt to recover the capacity to lucidly think, feel, and hear in an age of infinite distraction.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the SCHOLAR. His past jobs include host at an Olive Garden and partnerships director of McSweeney’s. He is currently writing a book on California’s evolving food culture.


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