The posthuman performer/immersant in mixed reality

Upon exploring video game influenced horror in performance, I have made an interesting discovery. Whilst the focus of my research was initially embedded within the immersant experience, that is to say the experience of the immersed ‘audience’ member, I have been presented with changes and shifts in my operation as performer and have been led to reconsider myself from a posthuman perspective.

Posthumanism is a problematic term and area of thought, due to it’s many conflicting uses and perspectives. At this point I propose a distinction is made in the study as to the approach of posthumanism within the design of the prototype work being made. The aim is not, as the concept of AI Takeover dictates;

‘the view that humans should embrace and accept their eventual demise.’ MacDougald, P. (2015). The Darkness Before the Right. Available: https://theawl.com/the-darkness-before-the-right-84e97225ac19. Last accessed 20th April 2017.

Rather, in applying the coded constructs of video game design to mixed reality performance, we are embracing a Transhumanism approach to the understanding of the enhancements afforded to humans by technology, to ‘greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities, in order to achieve a “posthuman future”.’ Bostrom, Nick (2005). “A history of transhumanist thought” (PDF). Retrieved 20-04-2017.

This is to say that, within the experimental performance concepts being explored in this research, the technology employed allows for us to transcend the limits of a purely biological human performer to create a hybrid network of body and technology. In its’ simplest sense, during prototype research for current work, the performer communicates across spaces, and uses technologies as the sensorial link between those spaces. Without the technologies used, the coded performer is unable to complete the network between themselves and immersant, and similarly the network requires human input in order for the work to move forward. In this sense, the posthuman coded performer is as much a part of the technology as they are a human entity.

In my experience within the system, delivering a coded narrative across spaces with the use of technologies such as telephone communication, assisted by a hands-free headphone accessory, and live video feed to a wearable watch, there was a sense that I was existing in that time and space, not only as a character within the changeable conversation, but also as a key component of the system itself. My understanding of how to communicate with the immersant during the prototype was made greater by the inclusion of the technology, and not complicated by it. It should be noted at this point that different performers within such systems, and when dealing with horror narrative may experience things differently, however at this stage I have been the sole coded performer, with an additional performer merely providing audio input to the system, as a narrative tool for the immersant to understand.

Returning to the notion of posthumanism, and particularly to Bostrom’s journal article relating to Transhumanism, we are presented with an argument for a significant change in the human condition, human-computer transfer.

‘Another hypothetical technology that would have a revolutionary impact is uploading, the transfer of a human mind to a computer. This would involve the following steps: First, create a sufficiently detailed scan of a particular human brain, perhaps by deconstructing it with nanobots or by feeding thin slices of brain tissues into powerful microscopes for automatic image analysis. Second, from this scan, reconstruct the neuronal network that the brain implemented, and combine this with computational models of the different types of neurons. Third, emulate the whole computational structure on a powerful supercomputer. If successful, the procedure would result in the original mind, with memory and personality intact, being transferred to the computer where it would then exist as software; and it could either inhabit a robot body or live in a virtual reality.’ (Bostrom, 2005. p9)

If we are to consider the performative nature of a human being, with all their cultural, social and personal background they bring to a performance, they offer specific qualities that cannot be replicated by a computer. A human performer can allow for changes in situ to the code of the performance. A computer, however, cannot do this. However as we have seen from my reflection in this post, the experience for myself as performer was reliant on both my individual adaptation of the code on any given run of the prototype, but also on the user input from the immersant. If we are to successfully create coded performers they will exist as posthumans within the system as well as a narrative construct like more traditional performance. All of the specific incidences in my own personality or my experiences cannot be simply put into a computer, and as such, the ability for the rigidity of a code to become flexible would be taken away without human input.

Similarly this coded environment affected the immersant’s experience. With all of the subjects who agreed to take part in the prototype, they were able to, within some parameters, alter the dialogue in some way. Similar to the structure of conversation trees explored earlier in this blog, user’s decisions in conversation directly affected the direction of the performer’s responses. This was due to the narrative structure of the prototype and the use of decision based mechanics and conversation trees from digital games. The immersant, like the performer, formed part of the system at play. Without their significant impact, the prototype has no way of being completed.

Interestingly, of the three people who participated in the prototype at this stage, 2 were aware of their role in the system (that they were influencing the outcome) and one was not. However on further exploration of this in interview the participant realised that, on some unconscious level, they were strategically deciding what to say as they were unsure what would happen, but felt it may be influencing the narrative of the piece. In this sense, then, it can be said that in not providing explicit sets of rules or instructions, we ask the immersant to act more instinctively. This provokes and interesting argument for the immersant as  a cyborg in the modern age. We are able to ascertain our role in a given situation, and the effect our actions may have both within the system, but on a more human level, within the narrative itself. As a communicative network, the immersant operates as an input command, which then forms a decision which feeds back to the performer in the remote location. This, as has been explored before, is the feedback loop. But the ease of adaptation to such a system was particularly interesting. It seemed, that on some level at least, the immersants could operate as cyborgs, in both physical and digital spaces, as both human, in narrative, with all their human qualities, but also as a technological being within the system, the processes of the system feeding back between spaces influences by their processing of the network at play.

However there is a large difference that has not been addressed in this post as of yet. The cognitive ability, emotions and personal traits of human immersant vs machine. As we explored earlier, a machine capable of the range of thought and emotion of a human mind can only be fully achieved by the transfer of a human mind into a computer space. Suppose, then, we change the rules. The computer, in this case, is the network of performance transpiring between people and spaces. But the collective reactive mind of the  immersant, coupled with the performer, within this coded environment, creates something equally technological and animalistic. As stated at the beginning of this post, transhumanism would seem the relevant term for the practices at play in this prototype. In allowing both performer and immersant abilities beyond the human condition, as well as them existing in a coded environment, we are able to consider their human qualities along with the coded system.

The use of communications technologies, i.e mobile telephone and remote camera in the prototype can be seen as a tranformative technology for the sensory elements of the human bodies in the system. Without the telephone communication, the audio link is gone. Without the camera feed, the performer has no eyes on the space, but equally, the camera allows for ability beyond that of the human body, the performer allows themselves the ability to operate within the technology and the system, by using the camera to give them a view of another space, which would not be possible with the regular human physiology. Harraway states;

‘Microelectronics mediates the translations of labour into robotics and word processing, sex into genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, and mind into artificial intelligence and decision procedures.’ … ‘Communications sciences are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body and tool are on very intimate terms.’ (Harraway, p14.  1984; A Cyborg Manifesto)

If we are to consider this blurred relationship between body and tool, we can perhaps apply Harraway’s method of thinking to the cyborg-like experience for performer and immersant in this prototype. The human body of each interacts with the stated technology, translating thought processes, decisions and conversation through the technology’s abilities, and the given code of the performance, we could state that this is a truly natural-technical relationship as Harrraway describes. The technology used, as stated, is used in this prototype as both a link between spaces and as a sensory device, allowing the advancement of the sensory perceptions of both performer and immersant, through the utilisation of posthuman ideas of blurred boundaries and an improved, beneficial relationship between person and machine.

The importance in this integration across the biological/physical space and person and mediated elements with communicative technologies is that we are applying these concepts of mixed realities and technological integration to our framework. It is important additionally that any ideas of posthumanism are rooted in furthering the framework, i.e to further a particular element of the research or explore further, not purely to adopt technologies due to some cyberpunk ideology that more is better. Technologies, and furthering of any posthuman concepts in the work must be explored in line with the framework.

The current role of telecommunications in the piece, as well as the wearable camera feed, addresses the ability for the work to create a feedback loop and a network across spaces and people, whilst simultaneously addressing the sensory aspects of the work.

 

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