Tangentially, a conversation came up at the debate connected to an ongoing discussion in this space: performance and memory.
Mr. Coyne conceded there was probably some role for the state to play in archiving and preserving great works, noting that mark of a great writer is their words survive themselves and their era.
As theatre artists, we can’t aspire for our work to be preserved in the same way. You were either there, or you weren’t, and you missed it. Gone forever. We can archive notes, programs, props – even scripts – but the work itself cannot be preserved (as Holger Syme also notes in his post to makes a different point) in a way that it can be reproduced .
This is neither here nor there with regards to the substance of the debate, but it reminds me that part of what makes live performance distinct is it is ephemeral and I am cool with that.
Photo Credit: Kaz Vorpal via Creative Commons (click for profile)
by Maggie MacDonald
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), predator drones, or just plain drones: we’d better get to know them, as they are soon to know us.
The use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen has sparked ongoing debate in the US, and amongst policy-watchers and academics elsewhere. Artists such as filmmaker Omar Fast have been analyzing the role of the drone pilots, who deliver remote controlled strikes on targets thousands of miles away, against a hazy object that may or may not have been a threat to national security.
Journalists and political scientists alike are asking: even if an individual poses a threat, does extra-judicial killing do anything more than set a dangerous precedent, and inspire survivors to plot a counter-attack against the enemy in the sky?
A computer can already beat a human at chess; when will a computer beat a human at moral reasoning? The musical Young Drones is about two war machines who do just that. From their motherboards springs consciousness, from consciousness, conscience. The UAVs see rabbits attempting to hop across a busy highway, and feel a terrible pain at not being able to rescue the animals from certain death or mortal maiming under the wheels of oncoming cars. Without knowing the rabbits, the drones feel a love for them, and once this love is stirred, it extends to all living things, and to each other.
Through the medium of science fiction rock opera, Young Drones breaks down an all-too-present topic into its most basic, melodic elements, in a way only pop lyrics can do. Take matter, break it down, simplify it, hold it to the light. Underneath the questions about US foreign policy, and unfolding dramas in the War on Terror epic combat theatre, the character of the predator drone is the hero of an ancient storyline about technology itself, one that began when humans first turned wood and stone into weapons in order to gain a fleeting advantage over fellow human rivals.
Image: Amy Siegel
After sticks and stones came hammers and swords. Like the sword, the predator drone calls to question the notion of technological neutrality. Recent attempts to market drones as restaurant helpers, beer delivery devices, and possible pizza-man replacements are similar to the Atomic Energy Commission’s “Atoms for Peace” campaign, which proposed nuclear weapons as tools for dam building and mining. Someone even had the great idea, never realized, to use nuclear bombs to liquify the tar sands, before recent extraction techniques were developed.
Young Drones tells the story of two UAVs developed with one purpose in mind: “Protect the Oil.” That is the anthem the humans sing when launching the devices. But these drones are equipped with something scientists and engineers have long sought to create, but only science fiction writers have succeeded in producing: artificial intelligence. The humans believe that it will make the drones better at securing the landscape, since they are able to assess threat level, strike, and destroy, with minimal human input.
In science fiction film and television, cyborgs like the Terminator are depicted as the zenith of human achievement: killing machines… with a cause. Robocop, T2, the “good” Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica. Even when the androids do the right thing, they do it by killing the bad guys. Where are the conscientious objector robots? With Young Drones, we propose that if humans created something more intelligent and stronger than our species, that creation would do better than our species. Once in love, the Young Drones refuse to kill.
The androids, robots, cyborgs, and autonomous agents of cinema reflect our self-myths of superman and homo economicus. Greed, the tragedy of the commons, these are stories we tell, though usually with bigger budgets and less special effects than the hits of James Cameron, and Damon Lindelhof (call it denial, but I won’t drag Ridley Scott into this– that’s a fun example cognitive dissonance for you.)
In “Happy Birthday, David” a “viral clip” created to promote the blockbuster Prometheus (the latest in the Aliens franchise), the interviewer asks killer cyborg David, “What makes you sad?” At minute 1:25, he answers, “War, poverty, cruelty, unnecessary violence. I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself… This allows me to be more efficient and capable…”
The notion that rationality (and related economic idea “rational self-interest”) is divorced from emotion, empathy, sensitivity, and a feeling of mutual responsibility, has been turned on its head by advances in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. Yet this myth persists, against the evidence, and it is reflected in the cyborg films that audiences flock to see, where killer robots are born of a confluence of bad ideas from eugenics, to neoliberal economics. The only things our “Young Drones” are willing to destroy are these bad ideas. And the humans cannot order them otherwise.
The drones in our musical are young; like most teenagers, they defy the human parents who create them, to design their own future. It’s never too late to rewrite your program, and aim to be better than the myths of your species.
Image: Amy Siegel
Music: The Bicyles and John Southworth, Writer: Maggie MacDonald, Director: Stephanie Markowitz, Visuals: Amy Siegel
Showing August 15th at Summerworks, Black Box Theatre, 1087 Queen Street West, Doors 9pm
Most of our revenue at STO Union comes from international festivals. But any creations that we’ve made at STO Union, usually started with a small grant.
When I look at what STO Union has accomplished over the years, on paper, it looks amazing: we’ve toured to the top festivals in the world, we’ve created small pieces that have long shelf lives and that bring in more revenue from fees than any grants they ever receive. But the reality of the job is that it has been more of a vocation than anything else.
I left Toronto officially in 2004. What propelled me out of the city was that I couldn’t stand seeing up close the capitulation of the art world to the market.
I had to find some kind of psychic ‘space’ that was still ‘free’, so I moved to a village in Quebec.
When I think ‘market’, I think of the square in my village where locals go to see their produce and wares. Down the block, there are two churches, restaurants, entertainment venues and a community centre. There are places of business, places for contemplation, places for entertainment, and a place for the community to gather. There’s also a post office, a fire department, and a hospital. I can see more sharply how society functions through the lens of the smaller scale that a village offers me.
What I am seeing is that the separation between what occupies human time is being eroded: when you’ve placed ‘money’ at the top of your priorities, then everything becomes the ‘market’: it affects the way we relate to each other, what we do with our time, how we work. All interactions become subtly, (and sometimes not so subtly), defined by this.
The market takes over the territory and empties it out of its most precious and unique qualities, turning everything into ‘work’. It’s like an invasion or an infection: slowly taking over our relationships, our time, our attention until that is all that we see. For me, as an artist, now is the time to respond to this, with all hands on board.
A recent letter from a professor to the students of Goldsmiths (University of London) to the students sums it up:
“Perhaps you disagree with my point of view – I can understand that you might be entirely resigned to the notion that capitalism will never be overcome. Maybe you have moved beyond this resignation into a full-blown cynicism. The impression you as artists give is often that everything has already been recuperated, that all radicalism is produced broken, that all resistance is already integrated into the capitalist whole. Your works often make the claim of regretting this, but it is a false claim insofar as it is a process to which they happily contribute. Clearly, few of you are actually interested in a critique of capitalism (but a pseudo-critique that sells will have to do), but for those of us who care about art, for those of us who think that art’s critical capacities have not been exhausted and extinguished, for those of us for whom the abolition of capitalism is not a choice but a necessity, you are the enemy.”
The debate I am having with Andrew Coyne is based on completely insane premises:
it doesn’t matter any more whether we go to the governments or to the business community for money to do our Art projects because the government is now too deeply influenced by the business community and corporate state. The liberal class failed to confront the rise of the corporate state and now it ceases to function.
Ultimately, the concept of ‘we don’t feed those who bite the hand that feeds them’ makes all funded art-work ultimately impotent. If it becomes too potent the funding will be withdrawn.
For myself, capitulation to the market has nothing to do with what ‘the people want and are willing to pay for’, it has to do with surrendering our last strongholds, the last bits of territory that the market doesn’t fully control. Without those free and open spaces, we are all just slaves in denial.
Nadia Ross is the artistic director for STO Union, one of the company’s at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival (7 Important Things). She lives in Wakefield, Quebec.
*Note the printed SummerWorks Guide incorrectly lists this debate as being on August 11th – it is in fact on August 14th at the Performance Bar at 5pm.
“After the years and years of weaker and waterier imitations, we now find ourselves rejecting the very notion of a holy stage. It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep the children good.”