Life through a lens: Why I like my live performance live

Reading this fascinating article by first BFI ambassador actor Tom Hiddleston, I was particularly struck by his description of the audience armed with smartphones — hundreds of blinking, bright, white lights facing towards me… each creating their own, subjective, digital narrative.


It made me reflect on where the urge comes from to mediate a live event through the lens of a smartphone, and what the reasons are for doing so.

Is it to film and share as a proof of attendance? A souvenir or memory-trigger to return to in the future? Or is the very act of filming and online sharing in itself a validation and essential part of the whole experience?

To be honest, I don’t know and suspect I never really will. Hiddleston’s Wikipedia age is 34, and assuming this is reasonably accurate, we’re both from a generation who, in the main, didn’t get a mobile phone until our late teens. Our ways of receiving and experiencing live events were laid down before the technology came along.

I bought my first mobile when I was 17 with a staff discount from my Argos weekend job. It was a now brick-like but then sleek-looking, monochromic Nokia with very exciting snap-on snap-off covers. In my first year at university we all marvelled that meeting up was so easy because we could text one another. My first encounter with a digital camera was via the Japanese students in my 6th form and all through my childhood photos were restricted to 24 precious snaps – and you had to wait for the prints to see the results. My whole attitude to filming and recording was shaped in a different medium and a different world. Sharing was a phone call, an email, or a text. (Rarely a letter – that was for an earlier generation!) Narrative was created afterwards, not an instantaneous send.

So it’s hard for me to project why recording and sharing the live image is so pervasive. When I go to the theatre, in particular, I want to see, hear, smell and experience with my own senses, not via a screen. Admittedly, a lot of my reservations are created by the annoyance factor. I hate seeing glowing phone screens around me when I’m trying to experience live theatre or any other event. It’s distracting and disruptive. But the way the technology is going, it seems likely that filming will become less and less obtrusive and sharing will become more and more discreet. Will I still feel the same when I don’t have a clue if the person next to me is filming or not?

Somehow, I still suspect I’d consider myself a superior consumer of culture by ‘doing it live’ rather than mediating through the smartphone. And perhaps this is ultimately an old-fashioned and rather arrogant view to hold. Maybe the concept of ‘live’ in this age of lip-synching popstars and virtual performers is a shifting thing. Maybe live theatre suffers so much when it comes into conflict with smartphone mediation because it’s an art form originating from before this technology started to change the way we as human beings relate to our environment. Perhaps new art forms need to grow that embrace, mingle, and co-exist with digital culture. It’s easy enough to refute this for the next 5 or even 10 years, but what about in 50 or 100 years time?

Of course, I like to think that the human appetite for liveness will always be appreciated, recognised and felt. It’s inconceivable, and quite sad, for me to imagine a time when I’d prefer looking at my tablet or phone to the exhilaration of experiencing the thrill of live event sans screen. But is this genuinely the privilege it feels like, or is my entire understanding of this issue coloured by limitations I don’t even perceive?

On the other hand, as part of a generation who was young enough to become au fait with the technology, and grow with it as it developed, but old enough to remember a time without, we are in a unique position to mediate between a dependence on technology, and a willingness to allow it to bring us to places we never imagined. One reason I find new technologies so exciting is because I appreciated the thrill of holding a slender, beautiful ipod or tablet for the first time, and remembering a time when this was a futuristic picture in my mind, not a reality.

Even if nothing does compare to the ecstasy of the lived, live experience! (And that’s something I’ll tweet anytime…)

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