At the Performing Presence conference, Exeter, the conference theme seems to divide, multiply and vanish, becoming more elusive by the minute.
Ed Scheer’s comment that perhaps presence is more about a level of affect than perception was helpful to me.
Out of the eclectic mix of papers I witnessed (including the one I gave with Marianne Sharp), I found myself forming a definition of presence – bear with me, this is perhaps vague – as the sensation of imaginative entanglement. Identity is caught up in this entanglement, so that co-presence involves a flow of identity into the other, though this might not be constant, absolute or even a moment of authentic communication – the other might become a screen for our own projected fantasies, perhaps.
As Jackie Smart put it, the idea of ‘reciprocal exchange’ might be important to a sense of the live presence. ‘In order to feel yourself present, your presence has to matter.’ Moe Angelos, speaking of performing with The Builder’s Association, described the technology she performed with as a drag queen with tremendous presence, but suggested that it is only the live performer whose presence includes that of the audience in real time. Whether or not she’s right that only the human truly responds to the human (Jon Brouchoud’s ‘reflexive architecture’, described by Stephen Hodge might raise questions here) examples of performances in the online community Second Life (described by Hodge and others), can also allow the audience member to participate directly, while few performances could be more interactive than Paul Surman’s telematic works, where the exchange is with a projected ‘other’. What is, perhaps, important to a sense of live presence, is the possibility that the imaginative entanglement could work in both directions. The performer (real, embodied, or mediated at a distance) must be able to become imaginatively caught up with the onlooker, just as they are caught up with the performer, in order to produce a sense of the live. This finally helps me to make sense of the preciousness of the live in theatre, even where the audience appears to be fairly passive: imaginative entanglement does not require direct communication… this could be part of its problem, too…
As Michael Hohl suggests, describing technological innovations, the sense of presence has little to do with the level of sensory immersion, which does not in itself produce it (at least, not once it has become habitual). To be truly (imaginatively) immersed, we must be ‘involved, engaged, engrossed’. Paradoxically, perhaps (though I may misunderstand him), we need some critical reflective distance in order to become so immersed. Therefore he posits ‘calm technologies’, which subtly intimate co-presence on the peripheries of perception. For example, the curtain that gently billows when his website encounters a visitor. Such presences hint from the sidelines, rather than swamping us with their sensory demands.
This quiet beckoning through technology starts to suggest new ways of thinking about its use in performance, though I’m not the person to grasp its possibilities. Perhaps rather than ‘What is presence?’ it becomes more interesting to ask ‘What kinds of presence?’ How to mutually entangle imaginations, meanwhile, remains the complex question it always was.