Leonardo Thinks: Louise Poissant on “Performance Arts and Effects of Presence,”

“Performance Arts and Effects of Presence,”
Leonardo Editorial by Louise Poissant

Just Accepted


In the last few decades, a multitude of technology-driven figures and interventions have radically transformed the practice and diffusion of performance arts, and more broadly, any live art. Problematics have emerged with the advent of these new technological “partners” that, in certain instances, attach directly to the actor. One of the recurring questions common to all of these productions pertains to the “effects of presence”. It is precisely with the aim of advancing this problematic that the research group Effets de présence (UQAM) will host its annual international colloquium, in partnership with LIRA (Laboratoire international pour la recherche en arts at the New Sorbonne University), on the theme Bodies on Stage: Acting Confronted by Technologies (http://acteurecrans.com/), from June 3 to 5, 2015.


Stage direction undoubtedly has a long history of inventions and strategies reaching back into antiquity, with mediation devices (megaphones, artificial lighting), simulation processes (shadow puppetry, sound effects) or special-effect mechanisms (smoke, disappearances).


The Baroque period, and more recently the pioneering experiences of early 20th century, from Appia to Piscator and including Fuller, the Russian Constructivists and the artists of the Bauhaus, all called upon the most advanced technologies of their day in the pursuance of a broader scenic vocabulary. The proliferation of screens and the infiltration of onstage connectivity have increased the spectrum for scenographers, playwrights, as well as actors, establishing a new framework on stage and for the audience. Indeed, it is the very notion of presence which has been reinterpreted.


This notion of presence is actually the object of important philosophical research, as well as in cognitive sciences and in neurosciences. Its significance has increased with productions in virtual reality and digital art. Regarding these art forms, we now distinguish between two fields of investigation: the effects of presence and the sense of presence. The former stem from the works’ devices and the latter derives from the audience’s disposition. Although the effects on the audience would deserve to be examined, the devices themselves are what have interested artists the most.


Indeed, the notion of presence becomes central in a context in which the virtual is emphasized. What creates a sense of presence with an on-screen character? Once the public overcomes the magical effect of the appearance of a virtual image, the shadows, the projections of magic lanterns, the color organs or the Pepper’s Ghost Effect, what role is the virtual character destined to play? And which device or interface will best renew the dynamics between acting, decors, the stage and the audience? Where do the audience and events held outside the white box fit when impacted by connectivity technologies?


A large portion of our research has consisted in defining various devices and interfaces we call “presence shifters” following the linguistic works of Roman Jakobson. These shifters allow the virtual character or the technological element to irrupt as a partner in a scene and to become an agent, in the strongest sense of the word, a character or a part of the scenery that guides the action. Shifters refer to actants (on-screen or virtual characters, avatars, electronic puppets) whether in a spatial environment or a temporal context (now, yesterday, tomorrow). In the case of performance arts, spatial dimensions are consecutively added (fictional, imaginary, psychic, relational) and may be superimposed or inter-related. Their substance must be understood in order to grasp the scene. Additionally, temporal dimensions [delayed time, abstract time (Nam June Païk), uchronic time (Couchot), etc.] are engaged by scenic devices, playing with various temporalities.


Shifters are, literally, that through which action is engaged, giving substance to the whole scene including the real actors, as well as virtual characters. They also serve to integrate various elements, creating new meaning that emerges from this very integration. Furthermore, they reveal levels of language, links, elements or clues which are essential to the comprehension of the work.


The work of identifying and analysing various scenic devices creating effects of presence forms a field of research in which there is still much to discover. Overlapping perspectives from several disciplines, stage directors, scenographers, media artists or specialist of cognitive sciences are essential in order to better comprehend how the effects of presence are triggered, how they capture the audience’s attention and can enliven a performance.


Translation : Line Dezainde




Louise Poissant, PhD in philosophy, is Dean of the Faculty Arts at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) since 2006. She is professor of aesthetics and theory at the École des arts visuels et médiatiques at UQAM from 1989 to 2006 where she he leads the Groupe de recherche en arts médiatiques (GRAM) since 1989. From 2001 to 2006, she led the Centre interuniversitaire des arts médiatiques, the CIAM which included researchers from Concordia, U. of Montreal, McGill and UQAM. CIAM has recently merged with Hexagram becoming HexagramCIAM.

She is the author of numerous books and articles in the field media arts published in various journals in Canada, France and the United States. Among other achievements, she edited and supervised the translation of the Dictionary of the Media Arts published in the media PUQ in French and English, by sections in the journal Leonardo MIT Press. The electronic version is available since 1997. This version involves the encyclopedic participation of artists from the international community including visual documents. She co-edited a series on Media Arts in collaboration with TV Ontario and TÉLUQ and co-directed a series of video portraits of artists with the Museum art contemporain de Montréal. Her current researches focuse on new technologies applied to the arts of performance and on biotechnology and the arts.

Click here to see the video: “Tribute to a Media Art Pioneer: Louise Poissant Ph.D.” on Matricule Archive.


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