Digital Revisions & Disciplinary Crises

While this post aims to contribute to the conversation provoked by Jonathan Pitches’ ‘Embodied Learning Online‘, it is primarily a sharing of thoughts that emerge in light of the current climate caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been informed by two years of research on online, remote, and collaborative teaching conducted in collaboration with Hannah Schwadron (FSU, US) and Theron Schmidt (UNSW, Australia) under the title ‘Planetary Performance Pedagogies’. Hannah, Theron, and I are planning to launch a series of online seminars that build on this discussion by mid-May. If you would like to learn more about that, feel free to drop me a line at felipe.cervera[at]lasalle.edu.sg.

Like many practitioners, educators and scholars, I have been involved in developing and implementing online strategies for theatre and performance-based courses over the last few months. Additionally, I have had the benefit of thinking through this ‘digital transition’ with various friends and colleagues while trying to figure out how theatre and performance should respond to the moment. In digesting these conversations, my first coherent thought about the current situation is that we are facing a disciplinary crisis. This crisis is visible in the various ways in which theatre and performance makers and especially educators are trying to “move online”. However, these efforts — besides not being *really* online but rather emergency reactions — are symptoms of a deeper problem surfaced by the pandemic.

The actual crisis that we face is the crisis of performance knowledge and its systematization into a structure of transferable skills or their display. This is a crisis in the foundational arguments that dance, theatre, and performance made to academia in their fight to legitimize their knowledge(s) as distinct from, and not a subsection of, literature or history (for discipline and degree specialization). It is also a crisis that unsettles the argument that they made to the contemporary economy on their value and specificity concerning other media. Of course, the issue stems from the dislocation of face-to-face teaching and presenting, which by extension, questions too the irreplaceability of tacit and embodied knowledge as being the ontological condition to performance pedagogy. The problem lies slightly beyond the classic debates on liveness and media. It cuts to the core of the specificity of performance knowledge and how it is organised, transferred, and shared.

We are not *really* teaching online, but adjusting to an emergency. This is a pivotal point to have in mind. The situation we face will teach us more about how to teach theatre and performance (and their study) remotely, digitally, and online. But what we are actually doing right now, for the most part, is fumbling to adjust tacit and embodied knowledge into a medium of teaching that we have made sure to pose as its contrary. And we made this point in the pursuit of validating the specificity of live, synchronous, and face to face performance as a legitimate, award-granting medium of instruction and proper academic object of knowledge. In dealing with the current situation, many of us have had to promise our institutions and our students, explicitly or not, that our programmes can and will continue *online* (of course, when online is even an option). As we begin to realize that we are likely to have to adjust or even redesign the curriculum to fit the emergency’s aftermath, it is also important to bear in mind the ways in which the boundaries of our discipline will bend, and maybe even break. That bending/breaking will be a fight for the institutional survival of our field, for sure. Yet, at the same time, it will teach us a thing or two about performance, epistemology, and their interaction. It will show us what performance can do when assemblies are illegal or not allowed. And it will also teach us a lesson to care for our less/non-institutionalized colleagues and our less/non-digital students.

The pandemic has already taught dance, theatre, and performance that remoteness is compatible with learning, teaching, and collaboration. Physical distance does not mean social distance. The situation, thus, invites collaborative efforts, both in proximity and remoteness, to address the disciplinary crisis we face. In the conversations that I have had with friends and colleagues in Singapore and elsewhere on this matter during the last two months, the debate has tended to ask whether what we have done (moving online) is good or bad for the protection of our discipline; or whether we should “go back” to embodiment as a way to retain what is properly ours, or whether university-based dance, theatre, and performance disciplines have finally met their end; or whether we should activate the politics of performance studies and its adisciplinarity to safeguard our future in the post-pandemic university. These are all debates that exceed my contribution to this post, but I remain open to continue to unpack.

Looking at the pattern, however, my instinct is that the actual task at hand might be to spend valuable time re-evaluating the ancillary arguments that hold dance, theatre, and performance together as academic disciplines, and that in doing so we should be ready to unlearn. I also suspect that at the same time, we need to be ready to defend performance knowledge now more than ever, both within higher education and outside of it, and that maintaining the cliché binary of live/online will do us no good in that fight. Multimedia epistemes and pedagogies have been around for a long while, after all.

Felipe Cervera is a Lecturer in Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore) and holds a status-only appointment at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, & Performance Studies of the University of Toronto. His research focuses on collaborative academia (teaching and research), and in the interplays between performance, science, and technology. He serves as associated editor of Performance Research and Global Performance Studies

One thought on “Digital Revisions & Disciplinary Crises

  1. How this all plays out may well depend on how long we will find ourselves locked into these new material circumstances, which strip naked the ideological nature of the live/online binary that has placed embodied knowledge in its dominant position.

    I find this fascinating, more so in my own specialist field of clown performance, which has, perhaps more than others, suffered for many decades under the burden of unexamined assumptions about authenticity, spontaneity, and truth claims about the self.

    May this this crisis may serve as an exciting tool for critical thinking and challenging prescriptive discourses. (See here for my most recent exploration: http://jondavison.blogspot.com/2020/04/are-prescriptions-for-clowning.html )

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