Can Technology Perform?

I have been attempting to absorb as much theater as I can while I’m here in Edinburgh (then I suppose I should write theatre), but there’s one show I saw advertised that I resolutely refused to see. I saw it as in defiance of my moral principles! Upon reflection, that would have been an excellent reason to see it anyway. Allas, I did not. But it’s been on my mind since I saw the ad.

The show was from the National Theatre of Scotland and called Hello Hi There. It was advertised as “an intelligent, creative and humorous dialogue about humanity in the age of its digital reproduction [in which] theatre becomes a digital art.”

The premise was as follows: Two Macbooks were set up onstage with their displays projected to large monitors. The computers were programmed ahead of time with dialogue from the famous debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomksy about the nature of humanity, as well as from a host of other sources including Youtube, Shakespeare, and even the Bible. At the start of the show a computer algorithm was initiated, and the rest of the performance consisted of an “improvised dialogue” between these two computers generated by the algorithm and projected for the audience to read. That’s the show. If you think I might be exaggerating (especially since I’ve admitted I didn’t see it), check out the performance gallery here.

Why did it make me so angry? Because it seemed ludicrous to pay any money, even the standard £10 or £12 that most theatres charge students to read words on a screen. Don’t I do that enough in my day to day life as a student? I refuse to see a play with no actors in it. I won’t do it and nobody can make me!

That said… I’m starting to wish I had gone. The idea does make you think. Plenty of human activities and interactions are being replaced by technological ones all around us. Automated customer support lines are commonplace, though often frustrating. Snapchat filters can detect faces and create animated content in response to them. I also just saw a frightening ad for the latest iPhone featuring Animoji avatars speaking with human voices. Perhaps the only thing that was lacking in Hello Hi There was a face to go with the dialogue. But who’s to say that at a point down the line there won’t be the technology to project algorithmically generated human avatars onto a stage and have them play algorithmically generated scenes? Hello Hi There “loaded in” words from famous philosophers and playwrights, so who’s to say we won’t be able to fabricate plays in the style of specific playwrights. How different is this really than actually writing plays?

The actor in me screams “It’s not the same because there are no humans involved!” But humans made the machines. Humans generated the source content. Humans wrote the algorithms. Hello Hi There may not have appealed to me enough to take the train to Glasgow to go see it, but it is far from dismissible. Performances like this may become more and more commonplace moving forward as advanced computer technology becomes the next great tool for artists. This is both thrilling and horrifying.

In March the National Theatre is doing a trio of short plays about virtual reality and artificial intelligence called Interference. I think that one I’ll have to go see… Otherwise I may regret it.

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