Approaching Techno-dramaturgy and Disability: Prosthetic Bodies and the Cyborg in Intermedial Performance

By Stephen Fernandez (University of Waterloo & Wilfrid Laurier University)

This text is an adaptation of the seminar keynote lecture at Oktoberdans 2020's discourse program FUTUREBODIES, focusing on topics as time, transhumanism and dramaturgy.

 

 

The emergence of intermedial performance relies as much on the affordances of media technologies as it does on the development of new approaches towards performance creation. While some intermedial performances may incorporate different media technologies, others foreground the unique qualities of theatrical performance by setting it apart from such media as film, video, television, and computer games. As new technologies continue to emerge, theatre practitioners are constantly experimenting with new methods of addressing the audience through the use of different media and technological devices in the creation of the theatrical mise-en-scène. Here is where dramaturgy plays a critical role in shaping the audience’s perception of human-technology interactions. 

 

As Maaike Bleeker notes, the new dramaturgies tend to “more explicitly and directly engage with the modes of perceiving and thinking of the audience that they are directed towards,” an approach that contrasts with “the construction of a closed, unitary and coherent world on stage, typical of the dramatic theatre” (2012, 62). However, while these dramaturgical strategies may be directed towards the “mind” of the audience, in particular, their perceptual modes and cognitive capacities, Bleeker cautiously points out that this “mind” has to be understood as embodied. She emphasizes that the “mind” that is addressed here “does not refer to something existing separately from the body,” but rather to that which is “always fundamentally embodied and exists in how bodies enact making sense of what they find themselves confronted with” (2012, 62). Bleeker observes that these dramaturgies of the “mind,” which she calls “media dramaturgies,” account for media as part of the “mind set” – that is, the modes of perception and cognition – of the audience members, many of whom would likely be accustomed to media technologies in their daily lives. For this reason, what media dramaturges seek to address in their theatre practice is the ways in which these media technologies afford new modes of perceiving, thinking, and imagining time and space (2012, 64). 

 

“Dramaturgy” is a curious term in theatre and performance. As Geoffrey S. Proehl elucidates, dramaturgy is “inseparable from theatre making,” and it does not matter “whether we think of it as a play’s poetics or its physics, its nuts and bolts or its flesh and blood” (2003, 27). The juxtaposition of “nuts and bolts” with “flesh and blood” emphasizes the interplay between the physical and technological elements of dramatic performance and the organic bodies of human actors. In this sense, theatre making is essentially a convergence of poetics and physics. As the Italian director Eugenio Barba reminds us, “[w]orking on the dramaturgy does not only involve the text or the story that we want to tell and make visible to the spectators” (2000, 60). What this means is that the practice of dramaturgy is not simply about enacting a written script. Instead, it involves the structuring of scenic, technical, and performative elements in order to produce a complete dramatic spectacle. 

 

Barba identifies three types of dramaturgies. The first is “organic or dynamic dramaturgy,” which involves the “composition of the rhythms and dynamisms that affect the spectators on a nervous, sensorial, and sensual level,” while the second type is “narrative dramaturgy,” which refers to the “interweaving of events and characters, informing the spectators on the meaning of the performance” (2000, 60). “Evocative dramaturgy” or the “dramaturgy of changing states” constitutes the third type, whereby the entire performance “evokes something different by distilling or capturing hidden significances that are often involuntary on the part of the actors and the director” (2000, 60). Because each member of the audience perceives these hidden significances differently, this third type of dramaturgy endows the performance with “a sense of mystery” (2000, 60). Barba reckons that “evocative dramaturgy” is the most elusive among the three, as it is “difficult to explain what it involves beyond the perceptible effects: leaps from one dimension to another” (2000, 60). Moreover, he regards such a leap between perceptual dimensions as “a perturbation, a change in the quality of energy, which produces a double effect: enlightenment or a sudden vortex that shatters the security of comprehension and is experienced as turbulence” (2000, 60). I believe that the production of this turbulent experience serves to disorient the audience members and frustrate their perception of the action on the stage, which thereby unleashes the potential for critical reflection on the formal and thematic aspects of the performance. 

  

Approaching Techno-Dramaturgy 

In light of the interface between performance and technology in intermedial performance, I propose a fourth kind of dramaturgy called “techno-dramaturgy”. There are two reasons for choosing the word “techno” rather than “intermedial” or “digital” to describe the dramaturgical framework. Firstly, the word “techno,” which is an abbreviation of technology, opens up the possibility of featuring and analyzing a wider range of technology (be they digital or otherwise) in the intermedial performance event. Secondly, the hyphenated conjunction between this abbreviated prefix and the word “dramaturgy” emphasizes the co-evolution across time and space between technology and the human practice of dramaturgy in the creation of performance art. 

 

In searching for a foundational model on which to develop my concept of techno-dramaturgy, I turn to the dramaturges Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink and Sigrid Merx’s theorization of two dramaturgical strategies that they believe are pertinent to the creation of intermedial performance. The first strategy involves the “particular ways of structuring the stage, employing aesthetic strategies such as montage (spatial, simultaneous) and collage, doubling, difference, framing or interactivity” (2010, 223). This dramaturgical strategy is essentially a choreography of space and time, a technique that could potentially generate concepts about intermediality in performance. The second strategy is characterized as a “dramaturgy of spectatorial address: the structuring of the encounter between the stage and the spectator” (2010, 223). This strategy is designed to move the audience members to think about their interactions with technology. 

 

Nibbelink and Merx acknowledge that the process of analyzing intermedial performance requires “a continuous dialogical negotiation between a performance as a theoretical object, and a concept that is generated to analyse the performance” (2010, 219). Yet this negotiation can only work if the audience members are involved as agents in the creative process. In turn, a triadic feedback loop emerges among the performers, the technological devices featured in the performance, as well as the audience as “incorporated performers”. 

 

Building on Nibbelink and Merx’s theorization of the dramaturgical strategies for intermedial performance, I argue that intermedial performance reinvigorates the role of the human body through a Techno-Dramaturgy that mobilizes embodiment as a strategy for shaping the audience members’ perception of how humans are embodied with technology in various spatial and temporal contexts. I further argue that the deployment of Techno-Dramaturgy in intermedial performance serves to frustrate the audience members’ familiarity with the conventional functions of the technological devices in the performance, thus influencing their perception of human-technology interactions in contemporary techno-culture. 

 

As an intermedial strategy, my concept of techno-dramaturgy consists of two interrelated approaches: 

1) Intermediality and De-familiarization: This approach involves the deliberate structuring of the interplay between the human participants and the new media technologies featured on the intermedial stage in ways that destabilize the audience’s familiarity with the conventional uses of these technologies. The aim here is to challenge the audience’s perception of how humans are embodied with the media technologies that they encounter in daily life. 

 

The Dutch media philosopher Henk Oosterling’s theorization of the ontology of intermediality as “in- between” or “interesse” emphasizes how difference (among media elements) operates as the structuring principle of intermedial effects. In light of the contextual juxtaposition between various media technologies in intermedial performance, there is a need to analyze how different media elements relate to each other amid what Oosterling refers to as their “tensional differences” (2003, 30).

 

2) Interactivity and Perceptual Engagement: By incorporating the audience members as agents who are capable of influencing the action in the representational context of the intermedial performance event, the deployment of techno-dramaturgy has the potential to stimulate the audience’s critical awareness of the ways in which the rapid development and ubiquitous usage of new technologies affect the individual and society. However, we should note that the experience of interactivity, as Brenda Laurel puts it, is a “thresholdy phenomenon” that is “highly context-dependent” (1991, 21). As such, we will need to examine the phenomenological effects of intermediality in performance, particularly the ways that intermedial performances engage with the audience’s perception of how humans are embodied with technology.

 

The Cyborg in Performance 

Let us begin by looking at Stelarc’s artistic attempt at “cyborgian fusion”, which is the belief that technology and the human body-mind can be combined or fused into a seamless techno-organic whole. 

 

The Cyprus-born Australian artist, Stelarc, has engaged in numerous experiments with the prospect of cyborgian fusion through his intermedial performances. To realize his artistic vision of becoming a physical cyborg, Stelarc surgically grafted an electronic “third ear” onto his forearm. This technological prosthesis is shaped like an actual human ear, but its internal setup consists of electronic parts that allow the artificial ear to detect ambient sounds and transmit those signals to Stelarc’s biological eardrums through his nervous system. As an experimental artist, Stelarc specializes in intermedial performances that seek to extend the capacities of the human body through the use of robotic prostheses and electronic actuators that are attached to the artist’s body. For over three decades, Stelarc’s work has explored the cybernetic feedback loop between technology and the body. The thematic focus in most of his performances hinges on his belief that the “human body is obsolete” amid the rapid development of sophisticated technological systems such as bionic arms and autonomous robots that outstrip the capabilities of human beings. This concept of bodily obsolescence has led Stelarc to develop intermedial performances that augment the capabilities of the human body by connecting it directly to a computer network and allowing that system to control its physical movements. 

 

Stelarc’s Movatar reformulates the relationship between the human body and digital technology by hooking up his body to a computer. This setup enables a digital avatar to manipulate the upper half of the artist’s body via an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that processes visual, auditory, and physical stimuli from the real world. The aim here is to actuate the physical performance of the body by technological means. Movatar foregrounds the interplay between the human body and a virtual avatar imbued with artificial intelligence, as Stelarc fashions a techno-dramaturgy that involves “a kind of dance dialogue by a combination of promoted actions from the avatar and personal responses by the host body” (“Movatar” 2000). In turn, this “dance dialogue” between the actions delivered by the section of the artist’s body that is not attached to the motion prosthesis (i.e., his legs) and the computer system that comprises the virtual avatar and its AI engine appears to integrate the human being and the machine into a cybernetic feedback loop. Neither the artist’s body nor the computer system is in full control of the performance in Movatar. Yet, my contention is that Stelarc’s cyborgian experiment in Movatar overlooks the subjective experiences encountered by persons with disabilities (particularly in regard to their use of prostheses), as he voluntarily disables his arms and cedes control of them to a computer system. 

 

The human body in Movatar is regarded as an object that avails itself to modification, as Stelarc’s arms and upper torso are voluntarily disabled for the purpose of allowing a computer- controlled exoskeleton to actuate the physical movements of these body parts. In turn, the freedom accorded to Stelarc’s legs as they manipulate the floor sensors that exert a tangible influence on the electronic behaviour of the virtual avatar brings the voluntarily disablement of his upper body into stark relief. Conceiving the human body through the binary distinction between mobility and immobility – or even between ability and disability – forecloses any attempt to consider the peculiarities of bodies that detract from the regularized attributes and behaviours of the objective ‘one-speed’ body. But such binary distinctions seem to fit well into Stelarc’s techno-dramaturgy. 

 

Working at the limits of possibility, Stelarc’s performance of Movatar presupposes a normative body with standardized architecture and functioning that can be exploited for a multitude of uses. Subscribing to a normative conception of the body, which consists of a head, a torso, a pair of arms, and a pair of legs, Stelarc applies the instrumental logic of functional utility to the construction of the exoskeleton ‘motion prosthesis’. The result is a prosthetic device that can only be worn by people who possess a pair of arms – prosthetic or otherwise – to which the mechanical arms of the exoskeleton can be attached. And because these mechanical arms extend from a backpack containing an accelerometer and a set of proximity and tilt sensors, the ‘motion prosthesis’ is suitable only for people who have a straight back, and are capable of standing in an upright position. 

 

Indeed, Stelarc’s voluntarily disablement of his arms and upper torso in Movatar is intended to demonstrate that the human body is obsolete and is thereby in need of technological enhancement. In turn, this intermedial performance neglects the corporeal experiences of persons with disabilities who are oftentimes forced to replace a body part or a bodily function with a prosthetic device. Whereas Stelarc’s performance of Movatar appears to disregard the embodied experiences of persons with disabilities and the ways in which they interact with technology, there are performers with disabilities, such as Cathy Weis as well as Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, who seek to explore the possibility of cyborg performance. These performers are also keen to explore the ways that the intersection of disability and technology in cyborg performance might affect the audience members’ embodied perception of human-machine interaction. 

 

Jennifer Parker-Starbuck draws upon Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept of the “normate” as a “constructed identity” that wields power and authority. “Abject” bodies disrupt “normate” notions of identity and subjectivity, thus moving the discourse on the body’s relation to and with technology towards a “cyborg-subjectivity” (2011, 54). The term Abject connotes a “productive tension between the subject and the object” (2011, 54).  Julia Kristeva sees the “abject” as that which arises from inside the human being in order to maintain boundaries with other animals and the environment – abject can also refer to those who have been marginalized in society in order to maintain a systemic order in society. In discovering new languages of corporeal/technological subjectivity, Parker-Starbuck’s use of the term “abject” is not meant to limit the discourse on particular bodies. In fact, bodies often shift through different terms and subjectivities (it can be abject in one instance, and an object or subject in another – highly contextual). The body in its interactions with technology can “produce more expansive cyborg subjectivities” (2011, 58). 

 

We find a prominent example of the body’s cyborgian relationship with technology in the work of the American disabled performer Cathy Weis and her experiments with the “technological prosthetic”. Cathy Weis has Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her dance performances explore the body’s relationship to technology, with particular emphasis on the control of the technology and what the cyborgian body looks like. By way of incorporating what she considers “low-tech” technology (video monitors) into her performance, she is able to “claim technology as a technological prosthetic, interrogating how bodies can move with, within, and between technological scenarios” (2011, 68). In A String of Lies, Weis juxtaposed her upper body onto the video projection of the moving legs of a non-disabled dancer – this intermedial setup allowed her to be a “co-bodied cyborg” dancer (2011, 68). 

 

“Weis,” as Parker-Starbuck explains, “has choreographed her head inside a television monitor, sometimes controlled by the audience sometimes by other dancers, she has lined up monitors and filled them with fragmented body parts that may or may not form a complete body” (2011, 68). It is worth noting that “Weis’s increasingly impaired mobility hasn’t prevented her from dancing – she instead had relied on various technologies to achieve her vision” (2011, 68). Parker-Starbuck observes that Weis “does not let her body (or those bodies she choreographs) disappear completely behind her innovative uses of technology (2011, 69). Instead, as Parker-Starbuck elucidates, “technology merges with the live figure, projecting fractured, composite, and humourous images of this union” (2011, 69). 

 

The mosaic of bodies and body parts enables Weis to reconfigure the ways in which bodies are seen and interpreted – namely, by rescuing those bodies that are deemed “deviant” from the figure of the “normate” subject (2011, 69). According to Parker-Starbuck, cyborg theatre appears when threads of body and technology begin to twist and be entwined, such that the terms “subject”, “object”, and “abject” can be applied to both bodies and technology. At this point, each of the three strands that define bodies begin to develop its own relationship with the historically developed “subject” strand of technology. It is here that the possibility for cyborg theatre emerges, thus unfolding the potential to create new cyborg subjectivities. In this way, cyborg theatre is processual, for it does not seek to reduce technology or the body to neat categories. The body and the technology with which it is entwined are in a constant state of “becoming” rather than “being” (2011, 39). 

 

Who or what is the cyborg? As the theatre scholar Jennifer Parker-Starbuck points out, metaphorically speaking, the cyborg is politically resistant (2011, 1). The cyborg is a provocative yet evasive concept that shape-shifts through history in order to suit the needs of the time. Making its debut in Donna Haraway’s controversial 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” the cyborg as a concept serves to interrogate the binary oppositions that dominate women, people of colour, nature, workers, and animals. Haraway argues that the cyborg is an idea of “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” (1991, 154). However, the cyborg is not purely a metaphorical concept. In her study of cybernetics and posthumanism, N. Katherine Hayles distinguishes between what she calls “actual cyborgs” (people fitted with pacemakers, for example) and the “metaphoric cyborg,” as exemplified by the video game player whose body is incorporated – albeit temporarily – into the cybernetic circuit of the gaming console. Building upon Haraway’s description of the cyborg as a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism,” Hayles maintains that cyborgs are at once entities and metaphors, living beings and narrative constructions (1999, 114). Through the fusion of imaginative significance with literal physicality, humans and machines are spliced together in an integrated circuit that produces the cyborg as a material actuality and a metaphorical construct. For Haraway, the cyborg is a chimera – it is an ironic yet utopian being made from actual and symbolic parts. But what role can the cyborg play in performance? How does its chimeric quality affect the ways in which performance is experienced? 

 

Approaching Disability: Prosthetic Bodies and Cyborg Performance 

According to Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre “differentiates itself from other labels in that it encompasses a range of permutations from the ‘low-tech’ to a complex and integrated cyborgean performance [sic]” (2011, 6). As an inclusive approach towards theatre practice, Parker-Starbuck’s idea of Cyborg Theatre embraces many forms of technological performance in which many types of media are also incorporated (2011, 7). Petra Kuppers’ 2010 production of Cripple Poetics: A Love Story is one such performance in which disabled performance artists interact with such technological implements as a wheelchair as well as 3D tele-immersive motion-capture and projection while employing the expressive powers of poetry and dance. Kuppers is a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the Artistic Director of the arts collective, Olimpias, which she describes as a ‘laboratory of disability culture” (2011, 2). The name ‘Olimpias’ conjures the image of ‘limping gods’, which seems to resonate with the fact that this art collective comprises a group of talented disability performers (2011, 9). In her book, Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape, Kuppers remarks that the field of performance studies has historically lacked a method for “talking about this kind of performance work [i.e., disability performance] in ways that do not fall into celebration, sentimentality, or narcissism” (2011, 62). As a disability scholar and performance artist, Kuppers seeks to interrogate the social and political challenges that affect persons with disabilities by pushing the limits of creative expression in the theatre. To this end, she integrates such expressive modes as poetry recitation and dance into the fabric of theatre performance. 

 

In Cripple Poetics, Kuppers takes this interdisciplinary approach further by crafting a techno- dramaturgy that combines digital technology with poetic performance. In constructing the cyborg in performance, Kuppers employs 3D tele-immersive motion-capture technology in the recording of the dance that she and her partner, Neil Marcus, performed at the University of California, Berkeley. “Teleimmersion,” as the computer engineers Gregorij Kurillo and Ruzena Bajcsy elucidate, “is an emerging technology that enables users to collaborate remotely by generating realistic 3D avatars in real time and rendering them inside a shared virtual space” (2013, 29). The three-dimensional (3D) teleimmersive footage of Kuppers and Marcus’s dance routine was captured using a customized 48- camera array at Berkeley’s Tele-immersion Lab. Marcus is an actor, a dancer, and a poet who happens to live in Berkeley. He has dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, whereby the sustained contraction of muscles causes the painful twisting of the body. Kuppers and Marcus’s relationship began when they communicated virtually by way of Instant Messaging (IM). After exchanging messages online for several months, they finally met in person at a dance workshop in Berkeley. Cripple Poetics captures the evolution of this relationship, as Kuppers and Marcus exchanged messages and poems that expressed their thoughts and fears about being disabled and in love with each other. First performed in 2010 at the University of Michigan, the production consists of three poetic performances by Kuppers and Marcus. On a screen at the back of the stage, 3D tele-immersive images showing the both of them engaging in a series of circular dance movements appear whenever one poem ends and another one begins. All three poems in Cripple Poetics allude to the cycles of birth and rebirth, as the continuity of life that is expressed through the poetic language of the performance is mirrored by the virtual traces of two dancing bodies – Kuppers and Marcus – projected on the screen. 

 

Commencing right after the appearance of the 3D tele-immersive images of Kuppers and Marcus’s dance, the first poem, “Metaphor of Wind in Cripple Poetics,” alludes to the interplay between movement and nature, with deep connections to the creation of a cripple poetics that is “not extraordinary or ordinary” (Kuppers and Marcus 2008, 7). Resisting the characterization of the body as a conglomeration of medical parts, the poem juxtaposes the natural force of the wind with the human body as a living entity made up of flesh and bones. Just as the wind influences the flower by allowing it to spread its seeds across the vastness of space, the flesh and bones of the human body can be mobilized into action through its engagement in wild salsa dances. As Marcus proclaims in the poem: “There is always wind in my cripple” (Kuppers and Marcus 2008, 7). Without the possibility of movement, be it metaphoric or physical, the cripple body will remain stark and pathetic. In order to aspire towards metaphorical and physical movement, Kuppers and Marcus partake in the labour of poetic performance. For them, the act of performing poetry engenders the possibility of finding a cripple poetics through the interplay of language, experience, and the human senses (Kuppers and Marcus 2008, 112). 

 

Poetic performance is an embodied endeavour that requires the movement of the eyes as the actor reads the words on the printed page, as well as the activation of the mouth and the vocal chords that renders those words audible. It is through the simultaneous movement of eyes and mouth in the act of recitation that Marcus is able to perform the second poem, “I am Salmon,” which recounts a visit that he made as a child to the aquarium in San Francisco, where he watched schools of salmon returning to their birthplace in order to reproduce. At the same time, the same set of 3D tele-immersive images of Kuppers and Marcus’s dance that greeted the audience at the beginning of the play, braids through the recitation of this poem of rebirth. The teleimmersive images projected on the screen in the background depict the syncopated motion of Kuppers and Marcus’s bodies. Whenever Marcus falls to the ground, Kuppers would pick him up and hug him. The images appear fuzzy and fragmented at first. But in spite of the visual distortion, we can still see the colourful traces of Kuppers and Marcus’s bodies on the screen. As their bodies coalesce in a courtship dance that resembles the flowing movements of a jujitsu master, sounds of birds chirping and flowing water can be heard in the background. 

 

By drawing on the affordances of 3D tele-immersive technology, which captures and projects the performance of their dance routine, cyborg performance in Cripple Poetics becomes a ritual of rebirth. Whereas their in-real-life (i.e., materially and in the flesh) performance seems to be restricted by their disabilities, particularly in terms of mobility, the tele-immersive technology offers Kuppers and Marcus the opportunity to represent themselves differently in a virtual space. As cyborgs in performance, Kuppers and Marcus experience a rebirth through their simultaneous existence in both the physical and virtual realms of the performance. But in order for the audience members to perceive the tele immersive images employed in Cripple Poetics as socially meaningful, they must be warranted to the physical bodies of the human actors on the stage. In other words, the cyborg does not exist merely as a figure of discourse. “By means of warranting,” as the new media theorist Allucquère Rosanne Stone explains, “this discursive entity is tied to an association with a particular physical body, and the two together, the physical and the discursive, constitute the socially apprehensible citizen” (1996, 41). Warranting implies a link between the virtual body and the convergences of discourses that constitute the body in physical space. These discourses may also include non-linguistic gestures that lend meaning to the human body in performance. 

 

Consider, for example, the scene in which Kuppers performs a poem from her wheelchair, while Marcus stands behind her and reads the same poem. They embrace at one point, and when Kuppers leaves her wheelchair and sits on the floor, Marcus decides to join her. Amid the seemingly voyeuristic gaze of the audience members, they kiss. As their dance routine unfolds on the tele-immersive display in the background, Kuppers and Marcus partake in a material engagement that does not dispense with the visceral character of physical intimacy. Drawing on the expressive potential of tele-immersive technology, a performative conversation emerges between the in-real-life performance enacted by Kuppers and Marcus and the tele-immersive images that capture the colourful traces of their dance routine. However, we should not assume that such interactions between humans and technology would entail the actual fusion of bodies with the machine. 

 

Reacting against the notion of “cyborgian fusion,” Anna Munster posits a differential topology between virtual systems and human bodies by arguing that all human-machine interfaces contain points of connection and separation. Munster believes that the digital enables a relational experience of the movement of the human body. However, she acknowledges that while such an experience is not “of itself corporeal,” it does involve a “capacity for being affected by the diverse speeds, rhythms and flows of information” (2006, 33). For this reason, Munster does not see the virtual as a dematerialized abstraction, but rather “a movement that passes from the abstract incorporeal spaces of information to the concrete actuality of the body” (2006, 17). In this sense, the human body is never completely immersed in the virtual world of information systems, as a “differential interval” continues to exist between the human being and the virtual environments with which it interacts. The maintenance of such a differential interval between the physical and the virtual serves as a reminder of the corporeal relations that characterize the intermedial activities in cyborg performance. 

 

As Jennifer Parker-Starbuck notes, the human bodies in cyborg performance are conceptually mediatized ‘living figures’; they are “[l]iving bodies as opposed to the cinematic or projected figures and technologies with which they co-habit the stage” (2011, 9). The teleimmersive images in Cripple Poetics are not alive in the same way that Kuppers and Marcus are alive in the biological sense. Cyborg performance does not involve the treatment of the human being as a machine nor does it imply that the machine employed in the performance should be humanized in order for the human actors and audience members to treat it with care and respect. Kuppers and Marcus, as cyborgs in performance, do not fuse their bodies with the machine. Instead, cyborgs are what Rosanne Stone calls “boundary creatures”; they are “not only human/machine” – with the splice indicating an intersection rather than a fusion of human and machine – “but creatures of cultural interstice as well” (1995, 178). In their capacity as creatures of cultural interstice, cyborgs harbour the potential to undermine the societal boundaries that inhibit their participation in mainstream society. These boundaries may exist in institutions like governments that prohibit persons with disabilities from taking public office or among certain social groups that exclude, whether consciously or otherwise, anyone who possesses a physical or cognitive disability. 

 

As cyborgs in intermedial performance, Kuppers and Marcus deploy a techno-dramaturgy that puts forth a critical perspective on the interface between disability and digital technology. Their techno- dramaturgical approach subverts the normative social attitudes that threaten to suppress the expressive rights of persons with disabilities. This subversive potential reaches its zenith during the final poetic performance in Cripple Poetics. As with the recitation of the preceding poems, the tele-immersive images of the dance routine provide a frame for the performance of the third poem entitled “At the Gynecologist.” This poem tells the story of a disabled mother’s visit to the gynaecologist. While conducting an ultrasound scan of the foetus, the doctor intimates that the baby might resemble the father, who has dystonia. It is at this point that the poem makes mention of the nineteenth-century eugenicist, Francis Galton, whose philosophical position concerning disability is embodied by the phrase “galvanized knowledge” (Kuppers and Marcus 2008, 100). The phrase alludes to Galton’s Victorian justification of eugenics as a legitimate scientific practice, an attitude that seems to inform the gynaecologist’s advice to the mother: “You might not want children,” says the doctor (2008, 100). In response to this cautionary note, the disabled mother remarks that Schrödinger’s cat resides in her womb, an ironic reference that foregrounds the suspended medical status of her unborn child who seems to be dancing on the porous border between “ability” and “disability”. Indeed, until the child is born, her exact medical status remains elusive. However, it is the use of pre-natal ultrasound scanning technology – or what Kuppers calls “eugenic technology” – to interpret the medical status of the foetus that reaffirms the disciplinary power of the clinical gaze (2008, 100). Consequently, in attempting to undermine and resist this deterministic injunction against the reproduction of what is perceived to be a “disabled” and abnormal body, Kuppers and Marcus turn to 3D tele-immersion as a means by which to open up the path towards a cyborgian rebirth. 

 

Towards a Conclusion: Approaching Techno-Dramaturgy and Disability 

We have seen how the intersection of poetry and dance in Cripple Poetics embodies the interplay between disability, technology, and the cyborg in performance. Rather than a straightforward recitation of poems written by their own hand, Kuppers and Marcus chose to weave a set of tele- immersive images depicting their dance routine into the fabric of their in-real-life poetic performances. The 48-camera array at Berkeley’s Tele-immersion Lab allowed for the all-round recording of physical movements from multiple angles. Such a setup rendered the performers’ dance routine as three- dimensional (3D) digital images rather than a two-dimensional (2D) video footage. By turning to 3D tele- immersive technology, which captured their dance routine as colourful virtual traces, Kuppers and Marcus could dance in an intimate fashion within a virtual environment. Through this suturing of physical and virtual performances, Kuppers and Marcus manage to forge a cyborgian identity that does not entail the fusion of body and machine. Instead, by dancing within the interstitial spaces where materiality and virtuality intersect, Kuppers and Marcus’s cyborgian existence in the performance subverts the social and political boundaries that threaten to curtail the physical and cognitive potential of persons with disabilities. 

 

In Cripple Poetics, the recitation of poetry and the projection of 3D tele-immersive images are incorporated into Kuppers and Marcus’s embodied engagement with the audience members who are co-situated in the same intermedial environment. This interface between Kuppers and Marcus’s embodied performance and the creative prostheses – poetic language and digital imagery – that they employ could also influence the way in which the audience members perceive the generative potential of disability, particularly as the disabled body, through its interactions with prosthetic devices, is rendered as the engine of creativity. As we approach the intersection of techno-dramaturgy and disability and consider how prosthetic bodies impact the construction of the cyborg in intermedial performance, there appears to be an important lesson that is worthy of continued critical attention: Rather than being a simple appendage to the disabled body, both digital and non-digital prostheses can help to shape the identity of performers with disabilities who turn to these tools in order to perform – in a way that is at once poetic and phenomenological – their thoughts and feelings about disability. 

 

References:

Barba, Eugenio. 2000. “The Deep Order Called Turbulence: Three Faces of Dramaturgy.” The Drama Review 44 (4): 56-66.

Bleeker, Maaike. 2012. “Media Dramaturgies of the Mind: Ivana Müller’s Cinematic Choreographies.” Performance Research 17 (5): 61-70.

Groot Nibbelink, Liesbeth and Sigrid Merx. 2010. “Presence and Perception: Analysing Intermediality in Performance.” In Mapping Intermediality in Performance, edited by Sarah Bay-Cheng, Chiel Kattenbelt, Andy Lavender, and Robin Nelson, 218-229. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London and New York: Routledge. 

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