Erin Wilson posts essays and media at thevirtualimage.com Wilson is board president of arts-advocacy organization ArtPeers, and director of Wealthy Theatre. Wilson took part in ArtPrize 2009 and through ArtPeers has been involved with Art.Downtown and ACTIVESITE. He moved to Grand Rapids from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he met his partner, Amy, who has co-founded groundbreaking Grand Rapids modern dance collaborative Dance In The Annex (DITA).
"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."-Bill Hicks (1961-1994)
At Wealthy Theatre (where I work), we've simulcast several live broadcasts of national events, like the 2008 Presidential debates. Always a huge turnout, and happily often covered by traditional news media (we trick them by titling the event "Gang-Related Shooting.") Just kidding. No, we actually do that.
At these events, reporters ask me the same question:
"Why do you think people want to come here to watch this?"
My answer is as uninspired as the question: "They come here... to experience this moment together."
One could randomly arrange word magnets on a refrigerator, and come up with something more authentic. I'm frustrated by the laziness and imprecision of this answer so I keep asking myself the question:
"Why do you think people want to come here to watch this?"
There's a list of reasons not to. First, the commodity (the broadcast) could be watched on one's computer or television, at home. By leaving home, attendees forgo familiar convenience. Not all Wealthy Theatre patrons own vehicles; some have hefty commutes; and it's Michigan, so, of course, there's the weather thing. Adding to this: when they arrive, we gently ask for a donation. Despite this list of reasons to stay home, they don't. And they thank us when they arrive for doing it.
My answer implied that people come together to manufacture a moment -- to connect by watching something in proximity to others. That's so far from the truth.We are choosing to be here right now. Hold on, stay inside This holy reality, this holy experience.
I get closer to a better answer when I lump all our events together -- simulcasts, dance, drama, storytellers, lectures, music, comedy. I ask myself the question again, in this broader context. Something clicks: what if we come together because of a connection that existed before we arrived? Kind of New Age-y, but there are so many options for consuming what happens on our stage -- not the least of which being the fact that Wealthy Theatre records and streams high quality video and makes it available for free.
Every well-attended event demonstrates that virtual options, experienced in seclusion, are inferior, impediments to a more profound, sublime experience. So we remove the physical distance between us in order to eliminate a barrier to what connects us naturally. We knock the rust off the oneness. That's why we gather, even for movies that are available for $0.99 at Blockbuster.
When everything's firing, a live experience is sacred. We are ephemeral beings sharing ephemeral moments. In "being there," we're entrusted with something nobody outside that room can experience. It's rare. It's fleeting. And when it's done, honey, it's done.
By leaving our computer screens, and televisions, and gathering together, we're eliminating the impurity of distance between us. Look at the life of an event as a process that is reductive, rather than additive. We rehearse to eliminate variables that might compromise the art/performance. We promote to eliminate a lack of awareness about the event. We gather in order to eliminate the barrier of distance, to celebrate what connects us, and to receive an artistic symbol of an already-existing truth. We're not adding anything.
The best audio engineers mix sound this way. They simply remove the frequencies that get in the way of the instruments sounding like they sound. They're not in the habit of making things sound better. They just take out what gets in the way of a purity that already exists.
There is no spoon. Movie Videos & Movie Scenes at MOVIECLIPS.comGathering spaces are as trendy as the air we breatheAt this moment, You should be with usFeeling like we do.
-Jane's Addiction, "Three Days"
An experience shared in the company of others cannot be made obsolete by advancements in technology. The term "virtual reality" is two words.
Audio/video media are commodities -- copies -- with the capacity to denature the reality they represent. This is not to malign reproductions of real things. Some are good. Studio productions can sound amazing. It's not like I think the band Boston is "evil." (To call Boston "evil" is overly broad. They are the Anti-Christ.)
Recorded copies can suffer the Seth Brundle Effect, so named (by me) after the scientist in "The Fly" who invented "telepods" -- devices that do fine teleporting inanimate objects, but do not work correctly with living beings. Brundle became obsessed with finding a way to make them cope with living flesh. It ends terribly, with "Fly Brundle" holding a 16-gauge shotgun to his head, imploring his lover to pull the trigger.The experience of the sublime ?Seen your video
That phony rock 'n roll
We don't wanna' know
Seen your video
-The Replacements, "Seen Your Video"
A performance is not real. This sounds ridiculously obvious, but it's critically important to remember that. A good performance (or any good art) is "a reflection of a profound reality," in the words of author Jean Baudrillard. (Simulacra and Simulation
). Art that we create -- to differentiate it from a sunflower, for example -- is at best a symbol of something real. Faithful copies, in Baudrillard's words.
The availability of high-quality video from Wealthy Theatre events has no discernible impact on attendance. There is something about "being there" that cannot be rendered virtually.
I've worked hundreds of "closed door" rehearsals that were identical to the performance in nearly every way. The technical execution of either was essentially the same, but something changed with people in the room, for performers and patrons alike.
Imagine Rachael Davis singing "Over The Rainbow" a cappella to a full house (as she will do Saturday, Nov. 20 at our screening of "The Wizard Of Oz"). Then, imagine it with only her and you in the room. Get past the part where you feel special, and really imagine it. There'd be something missing.
Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation
about a point in society where the simulated copy supersedes the original object. The facsimile replaces reality. He references a fable about a map of an Empire so detailed that its scale is 1:1 -- the facsimile is so exactly reproduced that it's the same size as the reality. In Baudrillard's analogy, the map is where people exist, and the Empire (reality) crumbles from disuse.
Admittedly, everything I'm saying is convenient for me. My life revolves around a gathering space. But the importance of connecting and sharing with others isn't limited to a performance in an auditorium. Let's take for example the most important virtual experience of 2010: the video for Arcade Fire's "The Wilderness Downtown
." Upon experiencing this interactive journey, this copy, our first impulse is to communicate with others -- to share our thoughts, and to solicit others'. This is where one of Facebook's most vital purposes emerges, as a tool to eliminate the barriers of distance, to facilitate instantaneous connection. It's important to remember the video is a commodity, not a connection. It is the fuel before the oxygen. Combustion occurs when we share the experience with others.
Facebook is sort of a contingency for actual experience, a convenience to relieve the challenge of distance between two or more people. There are a growing number of us who are catching up with the generation that prefers to meet in person, rather than telephone. Or telephone, rather than text. And while email provides one with the privilege of determining the pace of response, it takes away so much in return.
Speaking or retro, just a few years ago, it was considered "sentimental" to own vinyl records. Meanwhile (no pun intended), Jeff VandenBerg's Friction Records
was pressing them; Vertigo Records owner Herm Baker was stocking them. Now the importance of analog (vinyl) recording is being realized for what it is: a more faithful copy. Vinyl's hisses and pops acknowledge the facsimile, while giving a more physically immersing experience. And holding an album jacket in your hands to read liner notes is an act that physically obscures the world around you in ways cassette tapes and CDs never could.
Ironically, in the digital age of recorded music, musicians must play live more frequently than ever. Illegal downloads ("pirated" copies) of digital files have leeched revenue. Musicians must tour to augment their income. Before cassette tapes, nobody was pressing pirated copies of vinyl albums. Similarly, I'd contend that one cannot truly bootleg a live performance, where artists, performers and musicians present their art analog -- live, in person. It is the most faithful copy that exists.
Erin Wilson Photograph Courtesy of Terry Johnston