The Old and The New and the New Old: A Conceptual Approach Towards Performing the Changing Body


Franziska Schroeder



In this paper I examine the idea of what may constitute an "old" and a "new" body in relation to the body as situated in performance modes that are coupled with technology.

What I call the "old" body becomes highlighted in several performance practices, such as those of Augusto Boal, Hermann Nitsch or John Cage. These are embodied performances that have at their centre the enhanced sensation towards one's own body. This discussion is informed by writings of the French poet and artist Antonin Artaud and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In search of the "new" body I identify technology-mediated practices, in particular computer-gaming, where a move away from the embodied paradigm towards a post-phenomenological usage of the body is highlighted. I argue that subsequent roles of the body will have to be informed by a return to the old, the so-called "new old". I consider that nanotechnology may put the notion of embodiment back into performance practice, where extensions become implants, illusionary identities reshape into parasitic identities seated within the Self, and the Self becomes an emergent property.

Key Words: The Body, Performance and Technology, Embodiment, Disembodiment, Electronic Gaming,, Virtual and Actual, Nanotechnology, the Virtuactual Body

The Body Assaulted – the "Old"

The idea of assault on the body leads me to think of what I title the "body assaulted", which I consider to be an "old" body. Before investigating performance practices that have at their basis the "body assaulted", let me briefly look into the meaning of the word "assault". An "assault" is on a literal level about attack, invasion and the application of force; it is something offensive and violent. The "body assaulted" hence implies a body opened up to physical attacks and insults. It is central to various kinds of what I understand as "embodied" performances. Embodiment here refers to one's own body, rather than embodying oneself through another's body (as in the use of a virtual identity); embodied means being in one's own body. Embodied performances in which the body assaulted features most clearly expose, and indeed require, the phenomenon of an enhanced sensation towards one's own body, towards the limits of one's body. A familiarity with one's own body, not that of another, is emphasised, if not essential to these performance practices.

The body assaulted is strongly featured in the works of the French dramatist, actor, poet and artist Antonin Artaud. Artaud's see the body as consisting of soft, pliable meat; however, what we really need in order to live is a bone he says, we must "be someone, [and] to be someone, one must have a bone, not be afraid to show the bone, and to lose the meat in the process" (in Sontag 1976). The body conceptualised as soft and malleable allows the body to become a surface for constant insults, assaults, attacks and wounding. In Artaud's drawings the body is often spread out, dissected as in an autopsy session - the body assaulted.*)

The body assaulted may stem, as for Artaud, from a total mistrust in one's body, which comes as no surprise considering that Artaud's own body would have been in need of "bones", of a shield, when being subjected to electroshock treatments in a French asylum in Rodez during France's occupation by the Nazis.

There are various performance situations that aim, directly or indirectly, at assaulting the body: be it a human body or that of an animal. To mind come the theatrical and violent performances during the 70's with animal slaughter, electric chairs, guillotines and fake blood by the heavy metal singer, or better named shock-rocker, Alice Cooper (pka Vincent Damon Furnier), (www.alicecooper.com), as well as the performances by the Catalan performance group "La Fura dels Baus" (www.lafura.com). This group uses the performance space to cram a standing, and very soon hysterically running, audience into contained spaces; caging members into corners in order to pull individuals up on stage. Up there, on reconstructed guillotines and torture tables, they are to be splashed with blood, their shirts cut open, buckets of an indiscernible, disgusting stinking fluid poured over them. The group rides on giant metal machines that spurt fire and flash bright lights at the audience. This high-voltage technology spectacle is accompanied by most powerful and pulsating sounds, drumming the audience into obedience. The polysensory performance is centred on making the audience feel uncomfortable, disconcerted; destroying their expectancy of a comfortable and "safe" performance environment: a veritable assault not only on the body, but also on their mind which had up to the start of the performance rested so assured of a forthcoming peaceful and pleasant event.

The knowledge of our body's limits coupled with a close familiarity of our Self - we know that our body will not be able to escape unharmed from La Fura's torture tables – can render those performances particularly violent. Similarly, Artaud's spectacles always aimed to be tactual, maybe more so than visual; his ideal metaphor for the theatre being the plague. In his "Theatre of Cruelty" Artaud states: "[t]he spectator will go to the theatre the way he goes to the surgeon or dentist. In the same state of mind – knowing, of course, that he will not die, but that it is a serious thing, and that he will not come out of it unscathed… He must be totally convinced that we are capable of making him scream" (Graver in Harding 2000, p.51or Sontag 1976, p.157).

On a slightly different angle an attack implies vulnerability. Is it not more likely for assault to take place when the thing to be assaulted is somehow laid bare, vulnerable, exposed? The wounded bird lying on the street, not able to fly away, is exposed and becomes more likely to be attacked by the stray dog. It is this exposure that may function as a sort of prerequisite for the assault that I want to turn my attention to.

When we talk about a great performer's appearance, and I particularly have in mind a performance by a musician, we tend to comment obsessively on bodily characteristics, on her posture, mastery of control, bodily tension and comportment. And although I believe such "body awareness", and the way the body is being guided or directed through a performance is the most essential asset of a performer, it is at the same time that which reveals, more than anything else, the performer's vulnerability. It follows that it is in the "nothing-to-do", and this "nothing-to-do" does not imply not doing, contrarily to the belief that difficult movements, fast passages, long monologues are the most exposing for a performer, that the body's potential impotence is revealed. The "nothing-to-do" is at its height in works such as John Cage's "4'33", or in some of the 1960's compositions by La Monte Young (Composition 1960 #7 comprises of the sustained interval of a perfect fifth with the instruction "to be held for a long time"; the straight line drawn on a file card in Composition 1960 #9, or the instructions "Draw a straight line and follow it" in Composition 1960 #10). The "nothing-to-do" in those works, by shifting our attention towards the performer's bodily tensions, particular towards his non-actions, exposes the body most, and prepares the path for an assault on the body. We become conscious of the body's potential for break-down, of its exposure and its fragility.

Hence, those performances that are meant to be felt, in the same way that they are meant to be seen, feature the body actual, and I therefore regard as embodied. These kinds of embodied performance practices require not only one's attention to be focussed towards one's own body, but the performer also relies on strong ties with his Self. I suggest that various current practitioners already regard such performances as "old"; which in turn highlights a need to investigate what may be regarded as "new".

The Split Body – the "new"

I want to put forward the idea that technology-mediated practices such as telematic arts, interactive arts and particularly computer-gaming, which rely on a post-phenomenological usage of the body, and in which bodily extensions and subversions of the body actual are the central focus, can be regarded as "disembodied", meaning becoming apart from one's own body. Those performance modes are often considered "new". Here, an actual body features alongside a virtual body, and experiences are built on illusionary identities and a detachment from one's Self. This becomes particularly visible in situations in which people communicate with a remote person.

The works of artists such as Paul Sermon rely on such distanced communication. His "Telematic Dreaming" series connects two remote sites, and by superimposing images, people are able to see each other sitting or lying down with a remote person. In environments such as those, the other body is ghostlike, and as Baudrillard suggests the "Other is no longer an object of passion but an object of production (Baudrillard 1995) and "otherness [is] surreptitiously confiscated by the machine" (Baudrillard 1987).

In relating to an absent Other that is nevertheless present, one's own body is reconsidered from a new perspective. We touch the Other, or an image of the Other, and at the same time our body is transmitted to another location, for somebody else to touch. Keith Roberson has noted that "where once we saw ourselves as separate, enclosed, intact, we now become dissipated, dispersed and vulnerable" (in Ascott 2003), and Eduardo Kac suggest that we are physically present, but we have our "own point of view at a remote location" (Kac in Ascott 2003, p.72). A particular artist who has shown the displacement of his own body is Stelarc. In the work "Ping Body" for example (Stelarc 1996), Stelarc wires his body and his robotic "third hand" to the internet which he sees as an "external nervous system". Activity on the internet triggers involuntary responses on Stelarc's remote body - the split body.

In those performance environments a detachment from the Self takes place; the physical body is no longer a separate entity. The notion of a split Self, a dissipated and disembodied body become the vehicle for being in the world, particular in a virtual world.
For example, in multi-user participatory games, such as "EverQuest" or "Asheron's Call", an avatar becomes the prosthesis of our Self. We move through the environment with the aid of our other identity: an avatar that we design in advance; one that resembles us, or one that we are never able to be in RL (real life), such as a cat.

A kind of feed-back takes place as the avatar looks back at us. Indeed, the other Self is often used as a way of "improving" or reflecting upon one's identity in RL. For some users, the avatar either serves as a vehicle to see themselves, or to understand how others see them. In the first case, the MUD (multiuser dungeons or dimension) user detaches himself from his own body and attempts to merge with his virtual identity. He projects his own Self into his mimetic flesh in order to explore his inner self. And further, he expects to be made real via it. This is a kind of self-exploration if not self-reconfiguration of their real life person, also called "Ratava" (Taylor 2002, pp.15-7). In the second case, users view their avatar from a third person perspective in order to be able to understand how others see them in VL (virtual life), but are possibly able to infer how others see them in RL.

It is often argued that the virtual, or inorganic body, which performs in those environments, grounds the user, that it links the user to themselves, as well as to others, and makes him "real" (Taylor 2002, p.2), at least "real" in the virtual world. However, although game designers like to employ the term "embodied" when talking of the avatars in the VW, I see those performances as a disembodied kind, one in which our body no longer serves as reference point for our Self.

I am however not denying that the virtual world can be "real": communities of avatars gather to mourn and protest, to celebrate weddings, to hang out or to engage in sexual activities, and even to stage performances or play games (Taylor 2002, p.8). A game within a game!

Frank Biocca has suggested that the "tangled mix of bodies online and offline" brings out three kinds of bodies in us: the virtual body, the physical body, and the phenomenal body. He contends that our phenomenal body is unstable to an extent that a VW experience can not only radically alter the concept of one's body, but also reshape one's body sense and the sense of one's Self.
"The result is a tug of war where the body schema may oscillate in the mind of the user of the interface". (Biocca 1997; also in Taylor 2002, p.18).

In brief, in gaming environments the performing body is always in constant flux. There is no more a set behaviour that can serve as reference point for our body. We are constantly asked to reinvent and reconfigure our Self. The need for identification with the Other leads to a kind of disembodied Self, which makes us particularly question the nature of "otherness" in performance environments. The Self becomes a split Self, in a way that the Other always incorporates parts of my own Self, while at the same time my Self always has a need for integration of the Other. A virtual and an actual body exist either side by side, or in a constant tug of war of recognising, appreciating, of improving or even rejecting the other body. The "nothing-to-do" of the "old" becomes striking in computer gaming with respect to the seeing of our body: an avatar in "stand-by" mode particularly draws our attention towards our dissipated and dispersed body while at the same time reflects back at our physical presence.

The Virtactual Body– "the new old"

The actual body of the "old" and the coexistence of the virtual with the actual body in the "new" leads me to examine subsequent roles of the body in technology-mediated performance environments. The disembodied performance modes that have emerged in some such performance environments may point towards the consideration of putting the notion of embodiment back into our practices.

I want to suggest that there will have to be a return to the old, the so-called "new old", in which the body detached is put inside, a kind of virtual body being merged with the actual body, constituting what I term the "virtactual body" of performance.

A variety of artists working with digital media have long emphasised the importance of the corporeal aspect in their performances, as can be seen in the works of Stahl Stenslie (www.stenslie.net) for example. Stenslie's performances aim at bridging the gap between the real and the digital body; he sees the need for re-implanting the substance of life, the body itself, into the digital cyber body (Stenslie).

However, rather than injecting the body into the digital, one may also consider injecting the digital into the body. I see this potential inherent in technologies such as nanotechnology, and imagine performances in which extensions and subversions reshape to become implants.

Nanotechnology, initial laid out in 1959 by Richard Feynman's famous speech "There is plenty of Room at the Bottom" (in Hayles 2004, p.12) provides the possibility of manipulating individual atoms and molecules, and is understood to provide us with the ability of extending the process of miniaturisation "endlessly", offering unimaginable possibilities in fields such as computer engineering or genetics. It steers our modes of perception towards a priority of tactility, as it works at the level of the humanly and technically invisible. Douglas has suggested that with a technology such as nanotechnology "a new geometry within which the biological body is placed" will have to be constructed (Douglas 2004). Smaller and smaller interfaces will mean that the digital can become embedded in the actual body. Indeed, nanotechnology itself is already virtual, insofar as it bears a kind of "remote control-action at a distance", so Douglas suggests (2004). It implies that the virtual is not opposed to the actual; but, that the virtual becomes actualised in the actual body, Deleuze and Parnet argue (Deleuze and Parnet 1977)

With nanotechnology we can imagine a performance that has at its centre a "virtuactual body"; a body equipped with respirocytes maybe? Such respirocytes could allow for an endless amount of breath for an instrumental performer for example, thus not only immensely influencing ways of playing the instrument, but also drastically altering the ways in which we conceptualise modes of playing the instrument. Nanotechnology may alter notion of sensory and tactile feedback and allow for manipulation of the skin/instrument boundary threshold. I am thinking of a performance in which one wears a sonic garment that releases information into our bodies whenever our ear receives a sound: a sonic nanobot maybe? In the "new old" our body may in fact become the instrument. The Self, rather than my Self or another Self, becomes an emergent property propelled by the technology within. There no longer is the question of embodiment or disembodiment, as the virtactual body becomes a body in which not only extensions become implants, but also illusionary identities of the "new" can reshape into parasitic identities seated within the Self.

The nothing-to-do in the virtactual body, rather than exposing the potential impotence and fragility of the actual body as in the "old", or laying bare the dissipated and dispersed body as in the "new", may become concealed all together. Whether this is desirable is another issue, but the fact that new technologies, such as nanotechnology, can lead the way in shaping such a body is certain. It remains to state that this field requires an immense input of performers who will aid in determining the design of the virtactual body.

*)Most of Artaud's drawings stem from after receiving over 50 sessions of electroshock treatment in a French asylum (Barber, 1999).



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This paper was originally presented as a conference paper at the New Forms Festival in Vancouver/ Canada in 2004. The printed version here is a revived rather than a revised version.


Franziska Schroeder is an international performer of saxophone and live-electronic music, a theorist and improviser. Her research interests include the intersection of philosophy and performance in technology-informed environments, in particular the role of the body in the age of technological change. Franziska will be completing her PhD research at the beginning of 2006.











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