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Review

The Immersive Aesthetics of Performing Arts in Taiwan

A still of Remote Taipei. Credit: the Taipei Performing Arts Center
Info
DATE2020.03.30
TEXT LO Chien
public engagementImmersive AestheticsPerformance Art

There is a pronounced tendency for the brochures of recent works of performing arts in Taiwan to interchangeably use the terms such as “immersive,” “participatory theater,” “mobile,” “audience engagement,” “interaction,” “alternative theater space” and “environmental theater.” These terms may denote different contents, genres and styles, hence confusing to our eyes, as if performing arts constitute a portmanteau form and not a single proper noun can bracket it. In general, the quality of works and the actor-spectator relationship indicated by these terms have changed in a single shake from confining the spectators to their seats as passive receivers into revolving around them, reacting from their perspective, and treating them as the trigger and propeller of the performances.

To put it another way, a performance no longer centers on the actor, story, movement and plot. However, it doesn’t imply that these elements have now declined in significance, but to situate the spectators at the center stage and set great store by individual’s sensory experiences that may even be sui generis and non-reproducible. The key lies in connecting the spectators’ corporeality with the spatial arrangement and then integrating the two into the kernel of the performance design.

Larry Bell’s work 6 x 8: An Improvisation (1994) at the exhibition “Welt ohne Außen: Immersive Spaces since the 1960s” hosted by the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Germany. Credit: Martin-Gropius-Bau; photo by Mathias Voelzke

Staged at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, Germany from June to August 2018, the exhibition “Welt ohne Außen: Immersive Spaces since the 1960s” featured the immersive space-related works since the 1960s through multiple means such as installation, performance and workshop in a museum-based fashion.1 Rising from the field of techno-art and focusing on audience engagement in spaces, British artist group Random International (2005-) created the installation of immersive interaction Rain Room in 2012,2 and presented it at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai in 2015 as its Asian debut. Founded in 2010, Taiwan-based techno-art team NAXS Corp. (Network Afterlife eXistence Storage) produced the unmanned immersive VR theater Render Ghost, the first-prize winning entry of the 6th Digital Art Performance Awards,3 and presented its new version at the exhibition “Customized Reality: the Lure and Enchantment of Digital Art” hosted by the National Museum of Fine Arts, using techno-art to tackle human sensory experiences in a space interlaced by the real and the virtual.4

The discussions above projected a macroscopic perspective on the concept of immersion from museum-based exhibition, space, and techno-art installation to the fusion of VR and theater. The scope may be expanded into infinity. Therefore, the scope of the following discussions will be confined to the immersive theater in performing arts, especially its definition and characteristics.

British theater company Punchdrunk produced the immersive theater Sleep No More by adapting Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth. Credit: Sleep No More, co-produced by Punchdrunk International and SMG Live plays at The McKinnon Hotel, 1013 West Beijing Road, Shanghai

people want to feel truly alive. In other words, they hope that they can make choices for themselves and take physical actions under specific circumstances, insofar as to escape from the unreal, virtual scenarios constructed by the Internet interface in the accelerated digital world.

The Immersive Theater Revolving Around the Audience

Formed in 2000, British theater company Punchdrunk has made its mark for its pioneering immersive theater. In 2011, its founder Felix Barrett repurposed a warehouse in New York for the McKittrick Hotel as the specific venue for Sleep No More, a piece of immersive theater that has been continually staged to date and enjoyed a favorable rating. Sleep No More had been adapted from Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth. That put on in New York was actually an expanded version of those staged in London (2003) and Boston (2009). The spectators wore masks, freely shuttling around the entire building. After the spectators entered venue, the theater repeated three times before the ending. The space of this five-floor building, along with the movement and company of the twenty actors, shaped this piece of work into a semi- promenade theater—each spectator enjoys the plot along his/her own temporal route, hence brand new experience of viewing. Punchdrunk also found a new venue for Sleep No More in Shanghai. Barrett believes that an immersive theater is appealing to contemporary audience because “people want to feel truly alive. In other words, they hope that they can make choices for themselves and take physical actions under specific circumstances, insofar as to escape from the unreal, virtual scenarios constructed by the Internet interface in the accelerated digital world.”5

Stephen M. Eckert’s article roughly identified the key elements of Western immersive theater: (1) setting great store by physical spatial design; (2) taking heed of spatial and ambient details; (3) emphasizing the stage design from the audience’s perspective; (4) preferring specific sites (e.g., warehouse, hospital, and bar); (5) accentuating the audience’s sensory experience of the audio-visual effect in the venue; (6) covering all possible modes of audience-actor interaction; (7) foregrounding the theater’s duration; (8) using multiple storylines or spatial adventure; and (9) pursuing intimate and personal viewing experience (which may even take a one-on-one form).6

We can elucidate it with a more concise description: An immersive theater revolves around the spectators and mainly unfolds from their physical experience in the specific space. Indeed, it is radically different from conventional theater, which prompted us to wonder whether the immersive theater in Taiwan differs or transcends its occidental counterparts.

Human Party. Credit: KING KONG WAVE Production; photo by WANG Zheng-Zhong

The Theater Experience Highlighting Senses, Experience, and Perception

In terms of the discussions on immersive theater in Taiwan, the article “Two Performances of Immersive Theater” (2017) by Poorman reviewed the theatrical performance An Unidentified Dialogue by Co-coism and the dance performance Touch by WCdance. It is noteworthy that the former included an escape game and a voting system. With regard to the latter, Poorman pointed out that the problem of integrating immersive theater with dance lies in “the lack of the experience of and foundation for audience-dancer interaction.”7 This article also contained his observations on the “variants” of immersive theater in Taiwan.

In his another review article on KING KONG WAVE Production’s Human Party, Poorman wrote that the spectators might mistake this performance for an immersive theater at first glance,8 even though its repertoire simply highlighted the concepts of “space” and “rule” rather than its genre.9 Kyle CHANG offered a structural criticism of this performance from its subject and spatial installation, because they determined how the spectators act and react in the venue.10 The director Anderson HONG argued that “viewing and being viewed are essential to Human Party.”11 The two performance spaces- “exhibition venue” and “zoo”- simultaneously allowed the audience to “experience” the difference between viewing and being viewed. Later, in an issue of Performing Arts Review with “participation” as the theme, Human PartyRemote Taipei, and Sleep No More were discussed from the angle of “participatory.” However, HONG stated that “Human Party is not so ‘participatory’ as it is generally regarded, yet its atmosphere of participatory art is the key point.”12 In sum, although a participatory theater lays equal stress on the audience’s experience, Human Party seemed to be more approximate to an immersive one.

NAXS Corp.’s Render Ghost accentuates the audience’s experience. Credit: NAXS Corp.; photo by Etang CHEN
Co-coism’s Unspeakable. Credit: Co-coism; photo by LEE Hsin-Che

Let’s take an overview of the articles on immersive performance in 2018. In her article titled “What is Caressed is not Touched,” FAN Xiang-Jun treated French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas’ famous quote: “What is caressed is not touched” (i.e., from the perspective of personal tactile sense) as the entry point, instead of starting from the immersive, experience-oriented spatial design. Covering three pieces of works, namely Zuò Zuò Tea House by Co-coism, Render Ghost by NAXS Corp., and The Serene Gallery by YEH Ming-Hwa, and referring to them respectively as “sensory stimulation,” “sensory simulation” and “sensory disturbance,” FAN’s article inquired into the essence of these senses- and experience-centered works, arguing that whether the spectators can perceive something is far more important than their senses per se.13

WANG Po-Wei’s article “Experience, Erleben” marked his interpretation of the keyword “experience” in the field of contemporary visual arts. Apart from distinguishing between the experiential and the empirical, he also employed Niklas Luhmann’s theory to transform “action/experience” into an attributing schema, dividing experiential arts into two different types: one sees “experience” as “action” (which does not necessarily refer to audience participation), and the other departs from “‘experience/action’ as a schema.” The former was exemplified by CHANG Yung-Ta’s art series Relative Perception Nº1[0º-Nº], TAO Ya-Lun’s State of Mind, and YiLab’s Infinity Minus One, while the latter returned to the field of performing arts (which was closer to the scope of this essay on immersive theater), examining how “‘experience/action’ as a schema” enticed the spectators to participate in the “events” by taking Co-coism’s Walking to the Moon and P.T.O. (Please Turn Over:) for example. Co-coism’s attempt also found vivid expression in other troupes such as Against Again Troupe, KING KONG WAVE Production, and Style Lab.14

WANG Chun-Yen’s review article “The Changes of Audience and Performance in Immersive Theaters” focused on Co-coism’s work Unspeakable, arguing that spectators have two inherent identities: people in real society and viewers in theaters; and that immersive performances increase spectators’ spatial agency. However, he also wrote that Unspeakable “involved the spectators’ ‘free, diverse and open’ participation with ‘encouraged’ spontaneity which was nothing if not paradoxical.”15 Furthermore, his article offered his observations about the commercialization and consumerization of immersive performances. “Players of escape games, competitive games or treasure hunting games have noticed the repertoires of these atypical troupes; the performances in the name of immersive theater have drawn a wider audience.”16

Hong Kong art critic TANG Ching-Kin’s article appearing in the Macau-based magazine Performing Arts Forum got straight to the theory of immersive theater.17 Treating textual translation and cultural interpretation as the point of departure, it differentiated between environmental and immersive theaters. The former relies on spatial modification, while the latter directly inscribes the imitation process on the participants’ physical bodies.” He claimed that the “audience” referred to by conventional theaters should be redefined as “participators” in immersive theaters—the latter is premised on the subject status of the participators’ mental and physical experiences. TANG believes that creators of immersive theaters actually possess absolute power over the mise-en-scène and structural control, be it involving the affect theory or the intervention of technology/installation; and it’s imperative to cogitate on how to use methods in line with local circumstances to accommodate the participants in a way that varies from person to person rather than turn them into the “theatrical cyborgs” acting within the rules.

Hong Kong art critic Felixism CHAN was interested in the two subjects of theater-making—national government and the hoi polloi – mentioned by Katalin Trencsenyi in her book Dramaturgy in the Making: A User’s Guide for Theatre Practitioners. The audience-centered immersive theater is a contemporary incarnation of the view that theaters belong to people, which symbolized that theaters are weighing towards people (audience). From the people-oriented perspective, CHAN criticized TANG Ching-Kin’s translation of the term “immersive theater” into Chinese, and argued that it should be translated as “experiential theater.” Besides, by reference to his experiences of many “experiential theaters” during his stay in the U.K., CHAN held that “the sheer diversity in terms of appearance, content and scope of the works produced today under the name of ‘immersive theater’ or ‘experiential theater,’ and the freedom with which the term is used (it may even refers to a street show, a diner party or a guided tour), almost preclude it from having any meaning.” Finally, CHAN returned to his specialization in art critic, asserting that, in the era revolving around people’s experiences, we’re not truly judging and evaluating until we try to distinguish between art and non-art, until we begin to discuss whether a given work has aesthetic/artistic value or it is a mere commodity.18

Co-coism’s Provisional Alliance at the 2018 Taipei Arts Festival. Credit: Co-coism; photo by LUO Mu-Xin

Three Examples of Immersive Theater in 2018

This section will discuss three pieces of immersive theater, including Provisional AllianceSo Many Dreams in a Long Night, and A One-Hour Delay, and treat them as the cases that give a more comprehensive picture.

Presented in the Guangfu Auditorium of the Taipei Zhongshan Hall during the 2018 Taipei Arts Festival,19 Provisional Alliance linked the theme of the performance closely with the politico-historical particularity of the venue. It invited the participants to raise questions and take a vote, making itself a fictional event of parliamentary democracy in a real, historic space. It was quite paradoxical that, whether in terms of spatial or participatory design,20 Provisional Alliance failed to transcend the rigid confines of political realities (e.g., the mass media in Taiwan). On top of that, it held the issues up to ridicule for fun instead of highlighting them. Therefore, it didn’t meet the criteria of an immersive theater. The participants would not believe and spontaneously immerse themselves in the performance. Rather, they maintained critical distance from it. The sense of distance lingered for the entire duration.

It is noteworthy that Co-coism (an artist group founded by HUANG Ding-Yun, HUNG Chien-Han and CHANG Kang-Hua in 2016 and frequently mentioned above) has engaged deeply and actively in the experiments of this field. Discarding the hierarchical structure, its members tend to create works either with one another or with external creators, which carries their works beyond the limited horizons of conventional theaters. Family Romance, Co-coism’s non-immersive theater contribution to the 21st Taipei Arts Festival, constructs theatrical participation on the basis of personal feelings, which is indeed more powerful than Provisional Alliance to arouse the audience’s emotions without prompting them to question the gap between the work (theater) and reality (society).21

Dark Eyes Performance Lab’s So Many Dreams in a Long Night. Credit: Dark Eyes Performance Lab; photo by Etang CHEN

Dark Eyes Performance Lab’s So Many Dreams in a Long Night presented in December 2018 was also an immersive theater whose theme was highly relevant to its venue.22 Staged in the Ren’ai Building of the Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, this work enabled the participants to personally experience the life during the Japanese colonial period, the February 28 massacre, and the White Terror period. The producers included Stanley CHOU, Fangas Nayaw, and TAN Yu-Chiao, while the part of VR was provided by the team led by YANG Nai-Chen.

The traffic of the theater encompassed the entire building, in which everything seemed blurred and faintly discernible. Meanwhile, the real history of this venue—the original site of the Taiwan Garrison Command’s Judge Advocate Office—gave this space a sense of horror. In particular, the participants were sometimes blindfolded and carried along by the staff’s touch and guidance, perceiving the space with their hands, namely through tactile sense. Since they couldn’t visually perceive the spatial features, their physical touch and their hazy memories of the building’s interior and exterior spaces were transformed into the experience of involuntary confinement echoing the victims’ physical memories.

The design of So Many Dreams in a Long Night, including the physiological state when blindfolded, their groping about in the dark, the sound from the headphones, the role playing, the dance down the hallway, and the VR videos, allowed the participants to experience imprisonment, out of focus, disorientation, and interrogation via torture.

The performance comprised several parts that offered various experiences through different approaches. Roaming the diverse spaces, the participants might have synesthetic perceptions of the ghost of the historical trauma summoned and represented by the performance design. Nonetheless, the coexistence of multiple forms and approaches in a single work to some degree disturbed the participants’ cognition of it as a whole. The VR video in the VR room further detached the participants from the original context of the performance.

Produced by HUANG Yu-Ching, Sean CHOU and Max LEE for the Taoyuan Iron Rose Festival in November 2018, A One-Hour Delay was advertised as “the world’s first immersive theater staged in an airport metro train.”23 This work integrated the real space of environmental theater. Instead of giving prominence to any specific building with nostalgic memories, it utilized a mass rapid transit system whose endless cycle of operation, rest and restart was viewed as a microcosm of the exhausting contemporary life occupied by humdrum routines.

In this performance, the headphones and docents produced an immersive sound effect similar to that by Rimini Protokoll in Remote Taipei at the Taipei Arts Festival (2017 and 2018). Nevertheless, A One-Hour Delay was distinct because it appealed to the participants’ different senses and urged them to introspect, to interact with the external space both physiologically and psychologically by means of the personality test, the docent’s guidance and questions, as well as the immersive sound from the headphones. In particular, the participants were embedded amidst an imbricated structure interlaced by the performers and many passersby who coexisted in the external real environment and the captivating magic show. This excursion, starting from wearing the headphones, walking from the Taipei Main Station to the A1 Station of Taoyuan Metro, and taking the train, the cityscapes along the way came to an end abruptly as the train arrived at the A13 Airport Terminal Station. How do we define a journey? Was this theater a real journey or simply a symbol of our life journey? The forward motion in A One-Hour Delay brought the participants back to their quotidian existence, creating a great physical experience they will remember and dramatizing their everyday routines.24

Actor Anan CHUNG at the exit of the A13 Airport Terminal Station, Taoyuan Metro in the coda of A One-Hour Delay. Credit: HUANG Yu-Ching; photo by Shephotoerd
A still of Remote Taipei. Credit: the Taipei Performing Arts Center

Treating participation, interaction or feedback as the entry point, immersive theaters in Taiwan revolve not so much around unabridged texts (e.g., the wholeness embodied in Sleep No More) as around the utilization of specific spaces, issues and environments. Given the number of theatrical performance and the cycle of stage installation in Taiwan today, achieving deliberate, audience-centered immersive space and stage design may be like herding cats. To put it another way, the current orientation of Taiwan’s immersive theaters towards environmental theater, promenade theater, sound immersion, and combination with VR devises is perhaps a result of such native ecology.

For Further Discussions on Immersive Aesthetics

Focusing on contemporary immersive phenomena, this article has defined and exemplified occidental immersive theaters, collated performance reviews (around 2018), as well as provided personal observations and analysis, thereby recognizing the uniqueness of immersive theater in Taiwan. Besides, this article noticed the developing, intermingled, and transdisciplinary discussions about immersion in Taiwan, be it in terms of wording (e.g., participatory, immersive, experience, and perception) or field (e.g., cinematography, visual arts, digital art, and performing arts). Nonetheless, there is nothing more certain and unchanging than the fact that immersive theaters will continue revolving around the experiences of audience/participants.

The ultimate objective of this article is neither to define immersive theaters in Taiwan (which is provisionally unattainable), nor to arbitrarily categorize the works in this field. My personal viewing experiences also confined the scope of case studies to only three pieces of performance in the same year. To sum up, what I attempt to achieve via this article is twofold: (1) to examine the status quo of the review and creation of immersive theaters in Taiwan from the angle of “immersive aesthetics;” and (2) to attract more practitioners to engage in related topics by putting forward my own modest ideas.

Info
DATE2020.03.30
TEXT LO Chien
public engagementImmersive AestheticsPerformance Art
Footnote
01
For details please visit the official website of “Welt ohne Außen”(retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019). For related article please see Cheng-Ting Chen, “Welt ohne Außen: Immersive Spaces since the 1960s,” Performing Arts Review, no. 309 (Sep. 2018), p. 16.
02
See the introduction to Rain Room on the official website of Random International (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
03
An interview about Render Ghost at the 10th Digital Art Festival Taipei. See Zheng-Fang Gao, “Metamorphosing into Render Ghost, Entering the Virtual World Created by CBMI,” Qbo Performing Arts Forum, 26 Nov. 2015. For the creative philosophy, please see NAXS Corp., “An Experiment on Virtual, Immersive and Transdisciplinary Theater - Render Ghost v2.0,” Digiarts, 13 Dec. 2016, (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
04
The event announcement on the website of the National Museum of Fine Arts in 2018 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019). For the review of the performance, see CHANG Yi-Wen, “Artificial Reality ‘Render Ghost’,” pareviews website, NCAF, 23 Apr. 2018 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
05
See the video “Punchdrunk: Making a Show as Addictive as Candy Crush” on Youtube, 1 June 2016 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
06
Collated by the author. See Stephen M. Eckert, “What Is Immersive Theater?,” Contemporary Performance, 9 Dec. 2017 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019)
07
Poorman, “Two Performances of Immersive Theater,” ARTALKS, 20 June 2017 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
08
Poorman, “The ‘Human Party’ of Magic Realism,” ARTALKS, 5 Jan. 2018 (retrieved on 30 Sep. 2019).
09
See the repertoire of 2017 New Points on Stage@Lab-Human Party (retrieved on 1 Oct. 2019).
10
Kyle CHANG, “Idling Revelry: ‘Human Party’,” pareviews website, NCAF, 19. Dec. 2017 (retrieved on 1 Oct. 2019).
11
The webpage of the nominated entries for the 16th Taishin Arts Award (retrieved on 1 Oct. 2019).
12
Hui CHANG, “You Set the Trap and I Fell into It: A Conspiratorial Experience - Director Kyle Hong x Professional Viewer/Producer Ping Sun,” Performing Arts Review, no. 308, (Aug. 2018), pp. 88-93.
13
FAN Xiang-Jun, “What is Caressed is not Touched,” ARTouch, 29 May 2018 (retrieved on 1 Oct. 2019).
14
WANG Po-Wei, “Experience, Erleben,” Digiarts, 30 May 2018 (retrieved on 3 Oct. 2019).
15
WANG Chun-Yen, “The Changes of Audience and Performance in Immersive Theaters,” ARTMAP, 27 Dec. 2018. (The original text was published in art plus, no. 81 (Dec. 2018-Jan. 2019), pp. 26-29 (retrieved on 3 Oct. 2019).
16
Ibid.
17
TANG Ching-Kin, “The (Un)translatability of General Mental and Physical Experiences—A Preliminary Study on the Theory of Immersive Theater,” Performing Arts Forum, 43:5 (March 2019), pp. 24-27.
18
Felixism CHAN, “The Aesthetic Experience of People’s Theater,” Performing Arts Forum, 44:6 (June 2019), pp. 17-19.
19
The introduction to Provisional Alliance on the website of the 2018 Taipei Arts Festival (retrieved on 4 Oct. 2019).
20
With regard to the method and technique employed in Provisional Alliance for audience participation, please see my review article “I Participated in Provisional Alliance but Felt I Didn’t,” pareviews website, NCAF, 20 Aug. 2018 (retrieved on 4 Oct. 2019).
21
For details please see my review article “Situated Participation as a Mirror: On the Three Domestic Immersive Theaters at the Taipei Arts Festival,” pareviews website, NCAF, 20 Aug. 2019 (retrieved on 4 Oct. 2019).
22
For review articles on this topic, please see Anniel HAO, “I’m Already Dead as I Come Out (part I): So Many Dreams in a Long Night,” Qbo Performing Arts Forum, 22 Feb. 2019 (retrieved on 04 Oct. 2019); WU Zheng-Han, “The Beckoning Virtuality and Its Boundary: On So Many Dreams in a Long Night,” Performing Arts Review, no. 315 (Mar. 2019), pp. 84-85; LAN Zu-Wei, “A Slap in the Face Evokes the Memories of White Terror: A Smelly Immersive Theater,” The Liberty Times Talk, 23 Feb. 2019 (retrieved on 4 Oct. 2019); and Qiao ZHONG, “The Fiction or Truth Nearby: On So Many Dreams in a Long Night,” pareviews website, 30 Nov. 2018 (retrieved on 04 Oct. 2019).
24
For details please see my review article “About Time, Loss and the Significant: The Immersive Mobile Theater A One-Hour Delay,” pareviews website, NCAF, 20 Nov. 2019 (retrieved on 4 Oct. 2019).
Author
LO ChienAn art critic, editor and member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Taiwan), , LO’s research covers the issues concerning contemporary images, space, performance, mobility and corporeal perception.
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