Live Art Amidst the Digital Deluge

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What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong?

I am a first generation Internet pirate. In the year 2000, as an undergraduate with an unfortunate a capella habit, I discovered I couldn’t find a street legal Rockapella CD in all of Manhattan. A dorm-mate recommended Napster, which allowed me to download a dozen different versions of “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” with a click. The experience was painless, frictionless, gave me the exactly the content I wanted in the format I desired, and was, of course, bonkers illegal.

What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong?

My generation was forged in the pain of format-derived scarcity — like in 1993 when my suburban Blockbuster Video ran out of VHS copies of Jurassic Park and only had 10,000 copies of Schindler’s List, which I rented because it was, literally, my only option. Our adulthood is marked by always-on access to an infinite catalog of frequently illegal media. This week, for example, I tried to rent Gravity, but iTunes only had it available for purchase for far more money than I had to spend. All I wanted was to rent temporary access to an hour-and-a-half-long nugget of entertaining content. I didn’t want to own the film. I just wanted to borrow it, and no legal platform offered me such sanctioned access. So I fired up Popcorn Time, the Napster of video media, downloaded Gravity with a single click and watched it in high definition without paying a thing. The experience was painless, frictionless, gave me the exactly the content I wanted in the format I desired, and is, of course, bonkers illegal.

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As the Internet ecology has matured, and evermore creative content has come online, I’ve had to create my own pirate ethic: I always pay for content when it is accessible and fairly priced. I pay if I can, but won’t if I can’t. I get the content either way. For me, piracy isn’t about being cheap or cheating creatives out of their money. It is my only recourse to address the disparity between corporate-sanctioned access to content — which is frustratingly variable — and actual access, which is nearly total. That Titanic, for example, was available on Netflix in July but not in August is an attempt to enforce the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t scarcity of the Blockbuster era. Digital under-supply is an obvious and unenforceable price gouge. In other words, if I want a Kate and Leo fix, I will get my Kate and Leo fix. On my terms and at my convenience.

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This on-demand ethos is, of course, troubling for folks in the live arts. Live-art acts, be they gallery installations, dance performances or otherwise, happen in rare space and time. Live performance isn’t more pervasive online because the technologies of capture, archiving and playback — digital video and streaming, primarily — are so crappy at approximating the “live” experience that there is typically no means for shows to live on once they’ve closed, and no meaningful way for those not physically present to participate. It is the contemporary crappiness of technology — not foresight, not strategy — that precludes the performing arts sector from meeting audience expectations online.

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But this will change. It seems inevitable that technologies of content delivery will make accessible evermore creative content on evermore platforms for evermore people. Live performance can, in this light, be viewed as a throwback to an analog era, a curious, almost counter-cultural means to imperfectly enforce content scarcity in an era of digital infinitude. The strategy is problematic. For example, I live in Rhode Island, which is located in the part of the world that is not New York City. I am no longer able to attend all the live cultural events that I could as a New Yorker, but if anything my tastes have grown more global, more distributed and more cosmopolitan. I am more attuned to an international tribe of digitally native artists, who are all vastly more accessible to me as a Rhode Islander than as a New Yorker seeing shows in specific places at particular times. Artists without an effective digital footprint are quite literally invisible. I don’t perceive their absence at all. They’re damned if they don’t.

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Arts organizations whose forms historically resist capture — contemporary dance, for one — are also damned if they do. When online media adequately represents live performance, that performance becomes discoverable (and pirate-able) like all other media on the planet. Engineering time- and space-shifted entertainment will cement a competitive dynamic between the performing arts and every form of content imaginable, past, present and future. Live-ness is both a troubling limitation and potential inoculation against becoming a digital commodity. Yet there are innumerable examples of institutions built to enforce content scarcity — print journalism, higher education, analog media — that collapsed amidst such content abundance. People tend not to participate in business models predicated on their own inconvenience when given the choice. Culture-seeking audiences, meanwhile, have more content options with every passing day.

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Just yesterday, Wired Magazine un-self-consciously proclaimed that “‘Live’ is everywhere,” highlighting the number of massive online platforms (Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, et. al.) attempting to transmogrify live performance into a monetizable experience catered to at-home viewers. It can be reasonably assumed that Facebook, with its 1.5 billion users and innumerable forays into emerging technologies of content capture and presentation, has the capacity to facilitate organizations’ capitalization on live performances in ways yet unimagined. However, Facebook, being a publicly owned, for-profit entity, routinely launches and kills products without notice or apology. The cultural sector cannot seek to solve its technological dilemmas by relying on the very corporate entities that caused the sector’s disruption to begin with.

The difficulties faced by the performing arts are symptomatic of routine failures of imagination on the part of funders, and the field’s pervasive inability to address, in a substantial way, known yet unspoken dangers. How much routine condescension to millennials for their Internet-abbreviated attention spans is permissible? For that matter, how much kvetching about the difficulties of engaging audiences of color do we tolerate? At what point do we consider that the problem lies not with our constituents, not with external forces, but with ourselves? Such myopia is just the tip of proverbial iceberg. The thing about icebergs is that by the time a ship observes them, it’s usually too late for the ship.

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