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Virtual performance: inferior or just different?

In a world where there is ever increasing opportunity to experience virtual performance, the arts sector is naturally concerned to protect their “X factor” the unique experience of the live performance. Gig organisers are also preoccupied with convincing the audience of the primacy of the live experience (although as advocates of live music, they also have vested interests in getting audiences to venues so that we can buy massively overpriced refreshments and merchandise). But are we right to worry that a virtual exposure to our art can give our audiences an inferior experience?

New York’s Metropolitan Opera have this year streamed live performances online, via their own website and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Suzanne Vega recently performed a live gig in Second Life. Second Life is a virtual reality world, where 1,400,000 residents spend time building up networks of friends, virtually real estate and even businesses. Her avatar (an onscreen representation of herself) performed, whist an audience of 100 other avatars watched (controlled by their real life counterparts to clap, dance to varying levels of sophistication).

The virtual event is inferior if it is trying to mimic the unique qualities of live in the venue. But I want to argue that most virtual performance is simply different. I do not think that the goal of Vega’s virtual concert was to imitate the experience of one her live gigs as perfectly as possible. Had it tried to do this, it would have achieved only a mediocre result. The ambiance of tangible excitement and collective expectation would be missing. You would not be able to feel the volume and texture of the music as the soundwaves hit your body. You would not be able to sense the release of tension in yourself as you exert energy cheering and pogo-ing with the sweaty crowd. The atmosphere would be different.

However, Vega’s virtual reality audience had an opportunity to experience artistic content live, but in a different paradigm: not the same “live” that we’d experience at the venue. This live was different, experienced by the audience in various geographical places and different times of day around the world individually, and collectively in a virtual space at the same time. The set up of the virtual experience added extra interactive and personalised elements – a Q&A session, and an interview with Vega conducted by a radio DJ. This live offers a different level of intimacy and exclusivity not available as an experience at a standard arena gig (…unless you have that elusive backstage pass!).

Likewise, web streaming or radio broadcasting of live concerts are also alternative kinds of experience to “being there”, which is different to buying the CD recording of the same orchestra playing the same piece. Production values are not of recorded CD quality: mistakes and audience disturbance – as you would experience as an audience member on the night of the performance – can be heard.

Our audiences understand this and so we should not fear their loss of custom from live events. As the Met Opera and San Francisco Opera have proved, arts organisations can make virtual or streamed versions of events – audiences have insight into the unique qualities of a live experience at the venue and understand that a virtual experience is dissimilar.

To draw an historical parallel for what we might be experiencing now – a perceived threat to the live art experience – as Alexis Frasz from AEA Consulting points out: just as film started out as a vehicle for recording the live theatrical experience and disseminating it more widely, it soon quickly developed into its own genre, with its own set of constructs and semiotics. Audiences developed an understanding of these, and acquired new and different expectations – they did not expect the same experience or end product as was originally offered to them. Film became an additional art form to live theatre, no longer merely a method of distributing it more widely. Audiences continued liking, and attending, both.

Statistics and our knowledge prove that our audiences are time poor, and may only be able to afford a live ticket price every now and then. As various classical music organisations have asked themselves, why don’t we allow our audience to spread their custom amongst different delivery channels? A virtual experience may cost someone less and be of less sales value to the organisation, but it will be available to audience at a time to suit, and keeps them in touch with you as an arts organisation they like; want to experience; and with whom they have an ongoing relationship. The virtual experience of your work is also available to an audience from all over the globe – remember: potential sales for a web performance are not limited to the number of seats at a venue. Web content can also make available insight and interpretation not necessarily available at every live performance, so someone receiving web-streamed content may in fact have a more enlightened experience. These are alternative methods of making a connection between people and art – not inferior, but different.

First published on Hannah Rudman’s blog 7th November, 2006. A version of this article appeared in Arts Professional.