09 March 2018

Technologies Old and New

by Celia Wren

[On 5 December 2010, I published an article on ROT called “Theater and Computers” in which I discussed the uses computer technology was being put to in stage performances and where I thought it might be going in the near future.  I probably should have called the piece “Theater and Computer-Age Technology” because there’s more to the field than just computer-generated effects and computer-assisted visuals.  In this article, Washington Post writer Celia Wren writes about a whole performance festival centered on new technology, related to computer games and social media, that are being melded with traditional theater techniques in fascinating and imagination-provoking ways.  This article was originally published in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post on 4 May 2014.]

One minute you’re a ­theatergoer, the next, you’re an avatar in a ­cyber-thriller.

Such is the transformation one apparently undergoes at “15’000 Gray,” an interactive production that is part of the Zeitgeist International Festival and Symposium, running May 10-12 [2014] at the Goethe-Institut Washington and Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center.

The festival focuses on “Participatory Theater: The Intersection of Theater and Social Action.” But that solemn rubric might not do justice to the adrenaline quotient in “15’000 Gray,” which was devised by Machina Ex, a German company that specializes in fusing theater with the principals of digital gaming. “15’000 Gray” (the title refers to a radiation level) conjures up the laboratory of a scientist named Professor Hovel, whose trailblazing discovery is about to fall into bad guys’ hands. Audience members make decisions for the scientist characters, racing to protect Hovel’s discovery before a bomb goes off.

“Theater performance and gaming-arts culture combine really well, because they give each other something that the other is missing,” Philip Steimel, one of the leaders of Machina Ex, said. Theater gives the computer- ­gaming format the immediacy of live experience, he notes, while the fun vibe of gaming can counteract the all-too-frequent assumption that theatergoing “has to be very earnest and serious.”

Moreover, added his colleague Laura Schaeffer, theater can bestow a mantle of social significance that gaming culture covets. It is perhaps not surprising, then, as Schaeffer says, that interest in theater-gaming hybrids “is skyrocketing!”

Well, skyrocketing in Europe, perhaps.

“There are more pockets of folks thinking and speaking about a more immersive theatrical experience” in Europe than in the United States, says Washington thespian Rachel Grossman, who is co-facilitating the Zeitgeist symposium. Grossman recalls that when her company, Dog & Pony DC (“Beertown,” “A Killing Game”) began staging its brand of interactive theater a few years ago, “People thought we were crazy” even though such involve-the-spectator experiences were hardly new.

But there is increasing awareness among contemporary American audiences that participatory productions constitute a valid subgenre of theater, says Grossman. That uptick in recognition — combined with the fact that at least some contemporary audiences appreciate being actively involved in culture (they may well be tweeting and posting videos in their spare time) — lends an aura of timeliness to this year’s Zeitgeist proceedings.

Launched in 2011 by local director Gillian Drake, the Zeitgeist festival has been co-produced annually by a group of local theater folk and European diplomatic and cultural entities. Collaborating on this year’s edition of the project are the Goethe-Institut Washington, the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington, the Embassy of Switzerland, and — from the greasepaint side of the spectrum — institutions including the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Studio Theatre. (All the festival’s events will be in English.)

Studio is partnering on the “15’000 Gray” production. The Shakespeare Theatre is helping to present “Coffee & Prejudice,” the Swiss company MerciMax’s experiment in pairing an audience member and a performer, one-on-one, across a table.

Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics is co-producing “Love Club,” created by the Austrian troupe God’s Entertainment: In the piece, audience members armed with devices reminiscent of gaming controls steer a make-out session between two performers. The audience members can choose between four instructions — touch, kiss, undress and “intensify” — says Georgetown professor Natsu Onoda Power, who is directing the D.C. production. A performer can quit whenever the intimacy becomes too uncomfortable. So, for the audience member with the control, “You want your person to be romantically aggressive, but you also have to gauge what the person’s boundaries are,” Onoda Power says.

“Love Club” might sound like a very personal — not to say racy — project for a festival that has proclaimed its interest in “social action.” But several of the Zeitgeist organizers say that interactive theater implicitly poses questions about civic and personal responsibility, power structures and even democracy.

Expect discussion of such matters at the May 12 symposium, in which Grossman will be sharing facilitator duties with Georgetown’s Derek Goldman and with Michael Rohd, who heads Sojourn Theatre, a company with a national scope.

“Even if the content isn’t social justice-related,” participatory theater opens a discussion about “responsibility, or what the rules are, or who is really in control,” Goldman says. The format builds the audience’s sense of themselves “as chroniclers of their own lives,” and “there’s a power to that,” he says.

The Zeitgeist festival is of-the-moment. For international art with a through-the-ages luster, you can turn to the upcoming D.C. appearances by the Gundecha Brothers, virtuosos of the centuries-old Indian music form known as Dhrupad. The Gundechas — two brothers sing; another accompanies them on the pakhawaj, a two-headed drum — will give a concert at the National Museum of American History on Sunday. Then, on Monday at the Embassy of India, the siblings will preside over an evening devoted to Dhrupad appreciation.

Dhrupad can be intensely meditative; it can also be stirring. Accompanied by drone instruments, as well as — for some portions of the music — the pakhawaj, the Gundecha vocalists sing in a duet format, known as jugalbandi, that involves passing musical notes back and forth.

“You feel as if one is handing it to the other. One elaborates on the other’s [sound], improvises on it, and the other one picks it up from there. So there has to be a perfect understanding [between performers], because it’s so improvisational,” says Manjula Kumar, the Smithsonian project director who is producing Sunday’s concert.

Kumar has worked frequently with the Gundechas and has traveled to the academy they teach at in Bhopal, India. She says even newcomers to Indian classical music will enjoy the upcoming concert (to be live-streamed at museumstudies.si.edu). The Gundecha Brothers’ art can touch everyone “because of its spirituality” and because it speaks in “the universal language of music,” she says.

[Celia Wren is a freelance writer, editor, journalist, and fiction writer who has worked in publishing since 1989. She has held editorial positions at Harcourt and American Theatre magazine, and is presently a theater reviewer for the Washington Post and a media critic for Commonweal. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Newsday, the Boston Globe, the New York Observer, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and elsewhere; her fiction has been published in American Letters & Commentary, the Gettysburg Review, the Greensboro Review, and Glimmer Train Stories. A fluent French-speaker with some knowledge of Russian, Wren has lived in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, and Johannesburg, and has traveled in more than twenty countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. She holds a B.A. in literature from Harvard, an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins, and a second-degree black belt in shotokan karate. Zeitgeist International Festival and Symposium (www.zeitgeistdc.org) ran from 10-12 May. Dhrupad: The Mysticism of Sound, with the Gundecha Brothers, appeared on 4 May at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., in Washington.  For more information, visit museumstudies.si.edu or e-mail kumarm@si.edu.]

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by Nick Bilton

[This article on the apparent return of an old technology, appeared in the New York Times on 17 March 2016 in “Disruptions,” section D (“Thursday Styles”).]

For a glimpse of what teenagers are into these days, all you have to do is visit Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. On weekend nights, the half-mile shopping drag is packed with style-conscious kids who traipse past coffee shops, ice cream parlors and boutiques, often while taking selfies.

Yet one of the most popular destinations for these teenagers is a white, single-story building with big pink letters on the roof that spell “Vnyl.” The store sells vinyl records, and the kids who gather there are often in awe.

“I’d say half of the teens who hang out in my store have never seen a record player before,” said Nick Alt, the founder of Vnyl. “They will walk up to the turntable, and they have no concept where to put the needle.” But once they figure out that the needle goes into the outermost groove, those smartphone-toting teenagers are hooked.

Whenever a new technology comes out, we often believe it will make an older technology obsolete. As a reporter who has been covering technology for The New York Times for more than a decade, I’ve made such proclamations, saying that the iPad would kill the Kindle (I later realized the error of my ways, and now own both), that eBooks would be the death of print (I later reversed myself, several times), and that driverless cars will make driving passé and allow us to nap in the front seat (this has yet to be disproved).

But what I’ve come to realize is that while the new thing gets people excited, the old thing often doesn’t go away. And if it does, it takes a very long time to meet its demise.

Just look at film cameras. You would think they have been vanquished from the planet, but millions of people still use them. In 2012, more than 35 million rolls of camera film were sold, compared with 20 million the year before.

And while Polaroid has filed for bankruptcy (twice) in the age of digital cameras, the company is making a resurgence (again). One of Polaroid’s largest growing demographics, surprisingly, is teenagers who want a tangible photo but also don’t want to wait. (Polaroid has also become the go-to camera for people who take nude photos and fear that their phones could be hacked.)

Other types of physical media have also held on.

More than 571 million print books were sold in the United States in 2014. About 55 million newspapers still land on doorsteps every morning. As for those vinyl records, 13 million LPs were sold in 2014, the highest count in 25 years, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. (Records are also one of the few growth areas for the beleaguered industry.)

So why does old tech survive and, in some cases, undergo a revival? For some consumers, it’s about familiarity (e.g., newspapers and print books), while for others, it’s about nostalgia (e.g., record players and film cameras).

For example, I’ve been taking photos for over 25 years, and what made me fall in love with photography was the dirt, grit and grime of film (I used to shoot with Tri-X 3200 for the film nerds out there). And as much as I love my digital cameras, I’ve been shooting with film again to capture some of that visceral quality I no longer get with pixels.

The resurgence of old tech doesn’t stop with physical media.

For example, tens of millions of Americans still own a landline; millions of USB thumb drives are still being used, even though you can store anything in the cloud free; and people still use and buy tens of millions of flip phones every year, including such notables as Mayor Bill de Blasio, Anna Wintour, Warren Buffett, Iggy Pop and Rihanna. Pagers also never completely died.

You’ve probably heard the saying that the minute that you drive a car off a dealer’s lot, it loses value. Well, that is no longer true for old cars. Some vintage cars have increased in value by 500 percent. (One reason for this is that younger car owners want to be able to fix and tinker with their own cars. Try doing that with a Tesla, and you’ll void the warranty.)

Of course, there are some outdated technologies that die a fateful death and never return. I don’t know many people with a dedicated car phone, for example. (Though I’m sure some hipster just posted one to Instagram.)

To be fair, we have been wrongly predicting the demise of old technologies for some time. In 1876, for example, when The New York Times first wrote about the telephone, and later the phonograph, the writers of the day said that these devices would empty the concert halls and churches, as no one would ever want to leave home again.

And yet, just this month, Diplo held a concert for an estimated half-million people in Cuba. Something tells me that some of those people will also be buying the performer’s album on vinyl.

[Nick Bilton writes about technology, politics, business, and culture for Vanity Fair.  He is also a contributor to CNBC and the New York Times.  This article is available under the headline “Why Vinyl Records and Other ‘Old’ Technologies Die Hard” on the Times’ website at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/style/vinyl-records-books-film-cameras-die-hard.html.]

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