no. 7

Dramaturgy of Listening in the Age of Virtual Cities

Johannes Birringer


Part III


At the end of the Göttelborn workshop, six weeks were left to prepare the public performance in Athens and to calibrate all the elements for the live game structure. During the last night at Interaktionslabor, Christoforos made some tests with new camera angles to alter the security camera look of the webcams and construct a different "scenic presence" for the two webcam-characters. Afterwards, numerous other suggestions were made, but as the trans-European team had now dispersed, the decision-making process was largely in the hands of the Greek partners who prepared to mount the show at the IME Industrial Performing Arts Complex. During this preparation period, I published a series of theoretical and practical reflections on the compositon of Walhalla on the internet, and became particularly interested in how the direction and dramaturgy of the work could incorporate the distributed partnership, and thus negotiate the dissent amongst the various members. On the one hand, public dissemination of our ideas on interactive composition, real-time choreography and translocal game-performance could help to build critical interest in the work amongst the international media arts community. On the other hand, my posts to the i-Map group were meant to fuel alternative thoughts on content and aesthetic form which the year-long research process had produced.

Trying to analyze the new work and its technical/aesthetic composition in detail – to see what open questions remain and what perspectives of discussion mighthelp for the future direction of the work, especially the live performance relations between performers (on site and remote), the interactive "game system", and the relations of images, performance to the sound/music. We need to hear Stavros in this debate as well, and perhaps address some questions of the game system in regard to what we hear, not just what we see, and how we hear.

I was very moved today --– again perceiving our process within a larger political context – by reading about musicians and sound artists in Beirut (Lebanon) during the current "war without a name." A magazine article by ethnographer Thomas Burkhalter, entitled "Thank you, for letting me listen to the war again", describes how a war is heard, and what suppressed memories from the 1980s war are now re-turning, re-appearing.

Games, I propose, are also about memories, and re-appearances.

It may not be possible or desirable for many of us in the team to want to associate artmaking (and a computer game) with war. To draw on such associations can very facile and dangerous, since most of us are not suffering directly from the war's effects on humans, in Europe, in the Middle East, the Far East, in other parts of the world affected by the sales of our entertainment development and distribution corporations and the military/industrial complex. And yet we are all sold to the the "front end" /
"user interfaces" for the machine behind them, and as digital artists and re-toolers of game engines this is hard to deny.

"Collateral damage," however, has a military meaning, for example when civilians are hit by shelling or when their urban neighborhood is turned to rubble or when their shops are bombed. A woman yesterday lost her boutique and her entire livelihood when bombing destroyed her shop in Beirut, and the cameras showed her (in a state of shock) standing confused in the middle of the broken stones and walls, looking for a few dresses that were left over. She packed the dresses and put them in a plastic bag. When she was asked what she feels, she said she felt absolutely nothing.

But was it not said, after 9/11, that terror now is unlocalized, it is everywhere, and so are cameras that report on this everytwhere, and is it not US policy to attack terrorists on a global level and thus legitimize prejudice and global terror against civilians, as well as the subtractions & restrictions of human rights?). Iran could be the next sector, and the fall-out of a confrontation with Iran in the Middle East is unthinkable; the deteriorarion in Iraq will perhaps soon involve Turkey's engagement, and EU troupes are already everywhere. When the TV crew came to film us in the Interaktionslabor, the evening news showed us working on Walhalla and the new sensors right after they report on my region having sent troups to Congo. So it is hard to claim that war is not affecting our reality.

We also tend to forget that this kind of reality is close to the other reality (depicted in the logo sections of Walhalla, scenes 6-8, in the new CUE SHEET called "travel & ads"), the surface of the spectacle that is also, in terms of images, a surface of violence, a speed of image transmissions that carries intimidation from corner to corner.

If we use the notion of the détournement (Situationism), there is a historical example I remember from the early 1990s, when I traveled in Eastern Europe and went to former Yugoslavia. The artists from Sarajevo, whom I met in Ljubljana, had been experiencing the attack on their city and the bombing, and after a while, during the siege, they began to use sarcastic and ironic techniques of détournement, for example they published a city "tour guide" that listed the restaurants where one could still eat, the street corners one could still cross without sniper fire, and the survival centers where people gathered to seek refuge. They drew a map of Sarajevo at that moment of its experience.

Nancy asked us to reflect on the GHOSTS we are not acknowledging even as we use a reference to "Walhalla." If Walhalla is the field of warriors after death, what does it mean then to evoke the Waffen SS slogan that rhymes so nicely in German : Wir sehen uns alle, in der Ruhmeshalle? (We shall see each other, in the hall of honor)? Does the SYSTEM of games include/implicate games that are not sweet and community oriented (Second Life, SIMS), but enjoy the thrill of darker taboo fantasies of death & revenge written large (Warcraft, Black Mirror, Titan Quest, Counter Strike, Battlefield 2, Grand Theft Auto- Vice City, Halo 2)? And what is taboo today? What is the connection of Walhalla to the "ego shooter games" as they are called here?

Walhalla’s middle part (crowd scenes) shows countless images of people walking – towards what? Where are the zombies walking to? And what could be evoked by the soundtrack – a sound not necessarily smoothing or glueing the images to a rhythm, but breaking, interrupting the seamless flow? A sound that transforms the images? Why do we see Ermira becoming more frenzied in the crowd scene? What is she avoiding and how is this emotionally developed? If games include the possibility of “sudden death” (or press escape), of unforeseen obstacles and accidents, how can we evoke such potential of death (a collision scene was filmed in Göttelborn)? Why does Ermira crawl from concrete pavement to the river water, in the last scene? Has she seen enough healthy logos, fetish images, smooth flashes of glamour? Has she drowned in them? Why not insert a few fractures into the pictures? (6.8. 2006)


When I asked Ioanna how she understands the “city” landscapes, she responded that “Walhalla is an imaginary game environment composed by real urban aspects.” Pursuing this contradiction, she added

The Avatar engages in a big flåneuristic promenade, unaware of the scope of the game (the Player might be aware but not the Avatar), the same way we are unaware and constantly trying to perceive the scope of our own urban reality. In her journey she encounters obstacles that reference our everyday procedures. And this is where I disagree with you on incorporating the aspect of war. Although yes, the war does presently affect us, it is not part of the western everyday life. For me Walhalla – the land of warriors – is the battlefield of contemporary urbanity and it is constant and independent of current political situations. To touch this enormous and sensitive subject right now would be too risky and could turn out confusing and superficially treated, also due to the lack of time. But, Walhalla for me is in many ways a war game. It is the constant battle of trying to adjust to a predetermined urban structure, trying to figure out how to go before figuring out where to go, absorbing and de-codifying the enormous amount of stimuli which you are called to incorporate in the building and improvement of your own identity, forced to adopt a particular behavior and go by unnoticed and at the same time wanting to be noticed but without ignoring the restrictions which are plenty, and wanting to communicate but not knowing how, and the game being over before even having started to create your own structure within the structure. I think that this is the general direction and that we need to work more and come up with specific ideas that will make the various scenes
point out these notions in a much stronger and affective way. (14.8.2006).

As Ionna addresses her understanding of the street scenes, Tzeni decides to revise the dramaturgical focus of the new live game and shift it more decisively to Ivailo (the Player):

Ivo is a very lonely person looking for communication. He chooses different ways that are a bit distorted from the normal behavior although this is very normal to him and looks quite regular. His mind plays games constantly in order to survive and to challenge him within the environment where he lives. He spends his day observing the city from his window, watching TV, playing city-games, calling unknown numbers trying to start conversations, but he never leaves the house. Every night he confesses his daily gathered thoughts in the city by the intercom. (20.8. 2006)


Further directions are added to Nancy’s live operator in Amsterdam. In order to psychologically develop this exposé, Tzeni proposes that a lot of fine attention be devoted to the webcam dramaturgy in Sofia. The partners at InterSpace welcome this, as Galia Dimitrova expresses in her reflections on how to prepare the Sofia audience at Red House for what they are going to experience:

We (InterSpace crew) are very happy with the innovations especially with the development of Ivo's character. Stoycho and I talked to Ivo about the new angles to his character, and he is quite satisfied with this too. So now we can be relieved, as we will have an interesting contribution from Sofia. We especially like the interaction with the intercoms and believe it will work out well with the audiences. We think we will manage with the set up of the room for Ivo in the Red House and with anything else related with the technical solutions for this new setting - so no worries for the things in Sofia. Generally we have no comments on the order of the scenes – it’s really well explained and we think everything comes quite logical. We have questions on the pre-show - I think there is no need to announce the audience to come earlier. The idea is that the doors will open at 8:45, and until 9:00 while arriving the audience sits inside the theater observing an already existing situation that goes on. (31.8.2006)

The concern for the audience understanding the translocal context of the live game is shared by the Waag crew, even as Sher Doruff cautions us to be aware of the new technical/timinng cues and complex demands raised by the amended script:


They require an element of precision that will be very difficult to achieve in a translocal piece. But ok, that's what's up... We plan a production meeting here at de Waag to walk through all the technical specifications (new and old) to see what's workable for us. (There are some technical issues with our intercom system). I guess you've carefully considered the complications of the audio streams and two additional video streams and are comfortable that this will work seamlessly and not stress the system?
It occurs to me that the stage directions and cue calling from Athens have to be very accurate with setup cues. For example, it's now determined that Nancy is Ivo's mind creation, a pivotal concept. Conveying that concept will be difficult. A very clear cue matrix complete with ready-set-go cues and descriptions will be necessary. You will probably also need separate stage directions for Sofia and Athens with prompters on each side as there are many more short cues for the performers and the technicians. the mics make verbal cues difficult. We'll have to see if we can use a wireless headset for Nancy. (30.8.2006)


Some of these organizational questions and conceptual debates, and the answers or interpretations provided by this catalogue, may help the reader who has seen the performance to gain a deeper insight into the context of the creation. It is hard to underestimate the diversity of perspectives that flowed together in the research and development process, and the intuitive rehearsal and performance making process is even harder to describe or analyse. But the performance-making processes and interface-making processes in such hybrid telepresence work are of considerable interest to others working in computational performance; descriptions of methods of practice thus contribute to the crafting of new "instrument" techniques (multicasting and gestural/motorsensory interfaces for digital film, motion graphics, 3D animation/ mocap data processing, and sonic production and processing) in contemporary performance.

Now, before concluding my investigation of the nature of interactive relations in the new work, I return to the earlier question about the peformance situation. On the one hand, the highly crafted and precisely choreographed and timed action-dramaturgy for Walhalla follows a disciplined theatre and film aesthetic, and the care that Ioanna applied to the shooting and editing of the films of the “game cities” in particular runs opposite to the often messy and unpredictable multi-player online collaborations of live net artists. Online performance takes place in a medium which is very different from a local theatre auditorium. Streaming media interaction follows its own protocols and suggests a particular scenario of interactivity and chat communications. At the same time, the script for Walhalla created not only a computer game as the main theme for the live performance, but incorporated the possibility of real-time manipulation of the game world’s image movement by the Avatar, and the real-time encounter of this Avatar with the “Player” and another Avatar. These encounters actually implied the “unpredictability factors” Sher writes about in her theoretical text for the Interaktionslabor website ( And they imply careful attention to the relationship between “public and networked space”, to the “emerging importance of new technologies within both social and fictional spaces created by ‘social software’”(Nancy Mauro-Flude,

The script-development, film shoots, editing and programming for the live game-performance of See you in Walhalla went through an inspiring and organic cycle of workshops. The roles for some of the main research and development tasks (film, music, choreography, live performance, scenographic design, costume design, sensor development for wearable performance, interaction design for the live manipulation of the visual digital objects such as film clips, stills and graphic animations) seemed well distributed, even if the Athens team, under the artistic direction of Tzeni Argyriou (supported by Ash Bulayev and Zoe Chatziantoniou), represented the dominant force of the collaboration. Such concentration and direction for the script development was perhaps quite necessary, since the first workshop (in October 2005) found everyone agreeing on the general idea for the live game-world though hardly on the details of all the elements and the programming for the live inter-action between actors, digital materials, and especially, the distributed events (the webcasts linking the trans-local sites of the I-Map project).

In retrospect, it is also good to remember that the artistic objective, expressed early on by Argyriou, Bulayev and Chatziantoniou, was the public theatrical staging of the new work. Not exactly a “conventional story-telling musical-theater” enhanced with “technological gestures” (Chagas), but a thoroughly digital and distributed performance. The theatrical/filmic staging with a solo dancer in Athens turned out to resonate with exciting potentials, provoking its energized audience (thrilled to watch what was perhaps the first live “computer game” performed in a Greek theatre), even dazzling it with the visual moving-image design, while also hiding from sight the many unresolved conceptual and aesthetic questions that underlie the conflicting strands of this work, even hiding from audience awareness the very fact that the telematic operation was not functioning on dress rehearsal night (prerecorded webcam footage was used instead).

This was not a single-authored work based on directorial vision in the tradition of opera (since Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach or Peter Brook’s Mahabharata), nor was it a live avant-garde visual theatre composition in the spirit of earlier intermedia collaborations and happenings (Cage/Cunningham/Rauschenberg) or their successors in the more technologically intermedial avantgarde (Wooster Group, Builders Association, Remote Control Productions, kondition pluriel, Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, Robert Lepage, Needcompany, Ultima Vez, etc). Rather, if Walhalla attempted to create a live game performed as a telematic dance-theatre performance, engaging various real-time interaction designs in its system of operation, it not only tried something quite unconventional and daring. It also veered dangerously close to organisational collapse, near the final moments of the premiere – it overstretched itself without noticing that aesthetically there were at least two teams at work (in the same work) assuming that the basis of the live performance had specific interactional premises.

The innovative design of work, and the huge international effort that went into its creation, thus makes it all the more interesting to investigate the fault lines of See you in Walhalla, the productive blind spots, and the surprising turns which such a compositional methodology can be seen to take, on the one hand, and the aesthetic safe-guards on the other. Tzeni’s decision, in front of a full house on dress rehearsal night (September 13), to go safe and use prerecorded webcam footage rather than risk crashes (the network technology at IME Industrial Performing Arts Complex had been delived too late and could not be adequately tested), was of course against the spirit of the live art collaboration, and must have come as a shock to the actors out there in Sofia and, particularly, Amsterdam. But similar decisions have also been made by other artists, for example Trisha Brown using video tape rather than bringing the sensors, real-time motion capture rig and rendering computers with her on tour for How Long Does the Subject Linger on the Edge of the Volume. On the second opening night (September 14), which was the public opening, all translocal stops were pulled, and the performance went beautifully as it was planned, and as we all predicted (crashing twice, but the attentive audience barely realized what the sudden death meant and what caused it).

But did they enjoy Ermira’s walking and her apparent sensor-control of the movement-images? And upon entering the space and rushing to get good seats, could they in fact hear the Player’s confessions on the Intercom system? Were they able to discern that a lonely person wanted to confess something to them?



Fig 8 Ermira Goro walking into the cities of heroes. © 2006 Interaktionslabor


Chagas noted in 2005 that the main critique he has against the discourse of "digital interactivity" is the lack of "content". Interactivity doesn't emerge from the use of a particurlar technology, Chagas argues, but as an embodiment of the creation process. The paradigm of "interactivity", in his opinion, is the "chamber music". Vilem Flusser talks about it in his book Ins Universum der Technischen Bilder (1985). From the point of view of the system, philosophers like Niklas Luhmann have argued, there is no "interactivity" between humans and there cannot exist any interactivity between humans and machines, because they operate in different domains, which are operationally closed for each other. Interactivity is a Being-in-the-World and not an ensemble of devices or patches that we put together. Interactivity is a form of synchronization of systems, which cannot distinguish between perception and communication, and therefore they cannot communicate. There is no possible communication between a human being and a computer; only the system can communicate.

The main issue of current artistic creation, Chagas suggests, is how to shape a dialogue process between different kinds of systems; processes in which the different systems operate as partners and not in a hierarchical structure. This is what I have tried to call a dramaturgy of listening, using the musical analogy. The composer believes that there is a fundamental problem we have in the use of the current technology in society, but particularly by artists. One sees people making sounds or dancing with cameras, sensors or whatever they want to use, and doing unreflected things, because there is no dialogue between the systems operating in that particular time and space. Either it is the machine that dominates the human performer or the human performer uses the machine as a slave for her/his purpose. In fact, Chagas concludes, we reproduce in our relationship with technology the social and political patterns of oppression and exploitation of the late capitalist systems.

This may indicate the need for political and ethical reflection in the new theories of digital phenomenology and data flow environments, the new ideals of “noiseless art”, as Brasilian artist Sérgio Basbaum has called the cybernetic paradigm aiming at a world of perfect informational flux (world without noise). “Interactivity" is mostly interpreted as a synonym of computer calculation and justified as projection for the future of user-machine interfaces. "I might project scenarios which contradict my anticipation of a telematic society, for example a nuclear war or a rebellion in the Third World; or, somewhat more subtle, the dissolution of a very complex and therefore fragile system as a dialogical society must be; and I can also project a scenario in which the repressed physicality in a telematic society rises up against its cybernetic disembodiment, leading to a bestiality never before imagined" (Flusser 1985: 174).

Flusser’s book was published 1985 and has a prophetic character. Since the 9/11 attacks against the Empire, technology development has been focused on security against the global threat of terrorism. As it turns out, it doesn’t protect us at all. Worse than that, it accelerates the capability of self-destruction. One just has to look at the powerful disintegration of the US social system after the natural catastrophe of the hurricane Katrina. This was only a small partial disintegration, but it shows very clearly how fast the system can collapse. We also notice the development of robots and uninhabited vehicles for replacing bodies in military conflicts. There is a strong tendency to make the body invisible through the development of technologies that are supposed to protect us from physical destruction. The suicide bombers from Baghdad and Gaza Strip also create a dimension of "invisibility" when their bodies are used as weapons for life destruction and material damage. This kind of invisibility is justified by the belief in the superiority of a particular religion. The former is justified by the belief in the superiority of the technology that can make our bodies unattainable for our enemies, because the body disappears behind the computer systems. Both invisibilities are motivated by the same kind of operations. And this is our problem. []

If Chagas asks us to listen to the sound of war, he might actually be referring to the digital society projected in the triptychon of Walhalla. The world of technical images, into which the Avatar walks, is a posthuman world full of motion, sound and fury, a synthetic landscape that looks real.

And after the show’s two premieres, two brief responses:

Hello team:
I hope you've recovered or are recovering from the event last evening. From our perspective in A’dam it went well. Many of our audience had positive remarks and found the visuals stunning, Ermira terrific. It was a pity, certainly, that there was no live sound stream as it would have made a tremendous difference, yet nevertheless the show went on.

We chose for a transparent presentation. The Athens stream on the large middle screen and the Sofia and A'dam streams on monitors to the right and left. In the back of the TA (where our tables were placed during the workshop) we displayed the irc chat on a large TV monitor. That was appreciated by the audience (those who chose to glance at it or follow it) because it made the process of the making
clear, transparent and alive - problems and all. I wasn't in the TA but in the lab with Sam on camera and Norah on chat so I didn't have the opportunity to experience the full "show" but the crowd was in a good mood and supportive of our live performer, Nancy.

I hope it went well for the rest of you. I know Sofia was very disappointed as we all were by the lack of live sound. I hope you managed and your audience understood the technical fragility of this type of experiment. Ivo looked great as we've all come to expect! I couldn't gauge the response in Athens but assume since you had the full-out spectacle, which looked beautiful on the stream, that the huge crowd was entertained (even if not quite sure of what they were seeing). The crashes weren't too awful (surprisingly) and could well have been part of the dramaturgy. No signal - liveless Ermira.

So I wish a good long rest for all of you after a year of very hard work, esp for the amorphy team, and hope you get outstanding reviews.(Sher Doruff 15.9.2006)


Dear collaborators
thanks to the last messages (Arri, Sher, Chris), and perhaps, having been down to Athens as an observer, let me also add my sincere congratulations to the artistic and production teams of all collaborating sites: well done, we all should be breathing a sigh of relief. I can only speak for myself, but Thursday night (and Wednesday night) will be unforgettable. We should acknowledge the hard-working crew and performers in Athens, as well as the web-linked teams and performers in Sofia and Amsterdam, and all sites including Göttelborn and Paul Verity Smith for having accomplished this complex journey and organisational effort between different partners which perhaps was not always easy, yes, indeed contested. It is therefore,open to constructive analysis. Having seen all partners work together this week, I am impressed with the outcome. The description of the configuration in A'dam is very helpful. I always wondered how one could possibly bring this off to live audiences in the remote sites. I think such a scenario (how to involve an audience in a theatre concert that actually takes place elsewhere) is not easy, and perhaps Sofia had the most difficult spot. And Göttelborn was only watching online, no "fingers able to do the walking."

I observed how exhausted amorphy and the Athens-based team were, at the end, after two public performances to packed houses. We shall see a bit of a chill out now, people needing rest and time to reflect/incorporate the experiences.
Some issues have already been discussed. I assume that the experiences were different in each site, and so we look forward to hearing the feedback from Sofia. A proper post-show discussion needs to take place, especially if we imagine to mount a new version (Walhalla 2.0) for a European tour in 2007.

See you in Walhalla appeared to be a cultural event in Athens, noticed by the arts community. Interestingly, we ended up having two exciting performance events, Wednesday 13th and Thursday 14th. Both nights were premieres, each night was different. This raises more questions about the work itself, its complex technical infrastructures, its venues, its audiences, its system of interaction, and its method of organisation.

(a) Wednesday was an open dress rehearsal which (after the network technology was not properly in place in the Athens building and necessary tests could not be made) ended up being directed by amorphy as a "safe" preview performance (leading to a first rate filmic and performative presentation while using pre-recorded webcam footage).

(b) Thursday night was a public premiere which (in the minds of the Greek team) had the character of a dress rehearsal, as for the first time all live interactive systems (webcams, received stream, and outgoing stream) were used, resulting in overload of computing/network system, and decrease of film frame-rate and thus a bumpier ride. We did not have subsequent nights, where the small or larger technical glitches could have been ironed out, and sound levels properly adjusted. The Player confessions at the entrance we not heard by anyone, and thus audience members did not realize they could have interacted with the intercom system.

This scenario now also shows us that we have two scripts/two dramaturgies:

a) One is closer to a locally presentable and extraordinarily well designed and performed live interactive film-theatre-music work, perhaps shifting (in the future) the emphasis to the live choreography and interactive performance with sensors and the interaction between living avatar and pre-recorded city locations and Abandoned Avatar (re-mixing the webcam scenes);

(b) the other would need to be focussed, in a stronger and more transparent way, on the translocal live webcam interaction between cities, shifting the emphasis of the game from the avatar-journey to the Player-Avatar-Abandoned Avatar interaction, and the very particular medium of live telematic performance or multiplayer online role playing game.

The current script is not a fully telematic script. Nor can the live interactive programming be handled by one programmer (Arri) alone. The current dramaturgy (with the interactive film/live performance and animations, the sensor capabilities, live sound, intercom installation, and the interlaced webcam actions by Ivo and Nancy and the site-specific crews in the remote locations) also tends to be too technologically complex as a distributed live event to be sustainable for any touring or long run in a house.

The group might need to get its cooperative ethos worked out, find agreements and compromises, and then refocus the communications between systems, allowing more time and concentration for the truly challenging live performance values and inclusion of audiences. Translocationality is open and flexible. And audiences can be pulled deeply inside this world that has been created once they connect into the journey of the Avatar and see her actual vulnerability. Some of the memorable moments in the work happened, undoubtedly, in the emotional relationships between Ermira, Ivo, and Nancy inside this disturbingly real, animated world that has been created. More thought is needed for the walking in such worlds. (J Birringer, 17.9.2006)


I must find out what the Player confessed, and what is meant by the "melancholic drive" that has been diagnosed to lie at the heart of choreography. Perhaps our Walhalla is a spiritual landscape. Avatars, after all (derived from the Sanskrit word Avatara, meaning "descent"), suggest a deliberate descent into mortal realms for special purposes and incarnations.


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