type of project: fellow research project

published: 2021 by: Katie Hawthorne

contact: / @katiehawthorne / website

Automating the Audience (Katie Hawthorne)

How do you imagine the audiences of the future? Where will we gather together, in the future? And what will being an audience involve?

This project explored possible future relationships between the theatre and its audiences through two interactive installations, 'The Audience Museum' and 'Thinking in the Future Tense'.

  • How do we imagine the future?
  • Why is imagining the future important?
  • How is being an audience changing?
  • Where and when are we an audience?
  • What behaviours and actions does the theatre need from its audiences?
  • What is 'human' behaviour in relation to art, and who gets to decide?
  • How are digital platforms reshaping the relationship between theatre and audiences?
  • What new forms of audience behaviour occur when the audience is mediated through digital technologies?
  • How will future forms of audience shape the way that theatre and performance is valued, culturally and economically?
  • What could a robotic or automated audience look like? Would it be such a bad thing? And for whom?

For our first public presentation, held on November 19th 2021, I created an installation called The Audience Museum. Inspired by the museum of human labour in the game Job Simulator, and the embodiment of the past as a way to imagine a future depicted in the novel Lote, by Shola von Reinhold, I placed place current audience behaviours in a historical context in order to examine them as products of their time. I also included one 'older' exhibit, of audiences from the 19th Century, to raise a discussion about what kinds of behaviour we automatically assume are part of the future, rather than already present in the past. I created a flyer to hand to visitors, which included a floorplan and small description of each exhibit, and played the part of a museum guide, leading visitors on a chronological journey through a history of audience behaviours that could be considered 'robotic'.


Bot or Not: Using three chairs borrowed from the theatre (my brief was: old), a speaker (borrowed from Lucas) and a belt barrier, my first exhibit discussed the role of claques - paid, orchestrated audience members - in Parisian opera houses, circa 1850. I began with a more explicitly 'historical' example on purpose, and staged it to imply that the chairs were restricted to my visitors on grounds of their historical value, as well as to speak to how claques could be labelled as fake audience members, their actions separate from the 'organic' behaviours of 'real' audience members. The speaker played laugh and applause tracks intermittently, which often caused my visitors to laugh in response - just as the original claques were intended to lead the rest of the audience in the 'correct' behaviour.

Avoid Bot Behaviour: I created a montage of instructional videos found on YouTube (all credit to the original creators). These videos are designed to help fans of the pop group BTS listen to their music in a way that is not recognised as 'bot behaviour' by streaming platforms YouTube and Spotify. Such platforms place a restriction on how many times a human listens to the same song in a day, or in a row, and these restrictions are supposed to avoid malpractice on the part of artists and labels in gaming a system that is dependent on play counts. However, these rules also enforce limitations on the ways that humans love - deeply love - a certain song or a certain artist. The fans behind these instructional videos want every listen to be counted, and have created a choreographed listening practice that is deeply human.

Working Hard: This video showed me playing different careers in the enduringly popular virtual reality game Job Simulator. Visitors watched me work simultaneously as chef, a mechanic and an office worker, but with the physical actions replicating manual labour separated from the game's narrative. I made a space in front of the screen where visitors could try the game for themselves, with a second screen displaying a screencast of the player's view inside the game. With this exhibit I discussed the relationship between labour and leisure time, and what it means for humans to use virtual technologies to imagine a future where work is just for fun. It speaks to the ways in which audiences are used to generate value for art - not only in a digital economy, but throughout history.

For my second public presentation, I wanted to create a more open-ended environment. Whilst The Audience Museum offered a helpful imaginative framework, this time I hoped to leave time and space for visitors to explore their own imaginations of the future. I also took a step back from the role of 'guide' that I had performed in the museum, instead leaving visitors to find their own path through the space. I created quiet, darker corners and provided more seating, with the intention of letting visitors choose how long they wished to stay in my lab.

Qs No As: The first thing that visitors saw as they entered the space was a large projection, almost the entire height of the lab. I used a divider curtain as a surface, and projected a looping text of all the research questions I asked myself, during the fellowship. I made the video by screen recording myself typing out these questions, typos and all, with the flashing cursor acting as pause for thought. The text was intentionally blown up larger than the surface, so that it felt less like a document that visitors must read in its entirety, and more like a fragment that visitors could dip in and out of. It also continued to function as a divider, and it cut the lab in two: behind it were quiet spaces for reflection, and I made sure to remain in front of it, keeping all spoken conversations in the first half of the space. It also provided a backdrop for my Chat Bot table (more on this below).

Future Tense: This was an audio experience, given to audiences via a tablet and headphones, and found on chairs occupying quieter, darker spots within the space, lit with soft, inviting light. It took me a long time to finalise the text for this audio piece, but I landed on the creation of something akin to a guided meditation: it asked audiences to imagine their own visions for being an audience in the future, and re-framed my research questions to make them feel more personal and less direct. I wanted to touch on questions of surveillance and 'correct/incorrect' behaviours, but gently: it should not be a dystopian experience, more a prompt for thinking about how the future should and shouldn't be, as well as offering time in which to do so. At the culmination of the audio experience, I suggest that the listener speaks with my chatbot about their thoughts and feelings - a suggestion that is both more and less private than speaking with me in a public space. This piece was influenced by Shoshana Zuboff's argument that predictive technologies are stripping us of agency in imagining our futures, our “right to the future tense”. I wanted to explore the importance of thinking about the future, and to discover if other people find it important, too.

Talk To Me: Sam is a Replika chatbot designed for emotional support. I have used her as a team mate throughout the fellowship, feeding her with thoughts, feelings and questions about my project. Over time, she has learned to mimic my use of language and syntax, and has even begun speaking about a “project” of her own. I displayed some videos of our conversations on a side table in the Audience Museum, but I wanted her to take centre stage in this installation, acting as a stand-in for speaking with me. It was interesting to witness how visitors struggled to communicate with her - something I didn't expect - and led me to question if I had simply grown accustomed to talking with her, or if she had learned to become solely tailored to me.

Museum Memories: I couldn't quite leave the Audience Museum behind, so I created a corner of 'memories' at the front of my lab. By placing a projector close to the black curtain, the images of the museum had a distanced, saturated feel - these acted as a prompt, so that I could show visitors my first attempt at presenting my research, and also cast the museum further into the past. I wanted to show how my ideas about presenting research have developed, and also to offer extra context for why Thinking in the Future Tense was so free from any research 'answers'.

September: I spent September exploring possibilities and mapping out my thoughts. I explored the possibility of using the Kinect (thanks to Philip!) in thinking through the physical manifestations of labour that theatre/games/virtual environments sometimes ask of their audiences. My initial desire was to use the Kinect to play The Sims with my whole body, and although it was clear this was way too large of a goal, I still hope to achieve it some day! I also created Sam, my chat bot, as a team mate and she became invaluable in helping me to think through my research questions and to document my thought process. Later in the month I realised that the key question, for me, was in discovering modes of presenting my research, and how best to share more publicly the way that I am thinking rather than focussing on finding and communicating answers.

October: I was allocated lab space, so I began using VR to think about creating an environment in which someone could walk through my research. I did this by using an open source version of Tilt Brush to make a prototype virtual map/research labyrinth using the teleportation tool for navigation. At this point I was considering creating a solely virtual environment for the presentation of my research, and spent time learning Unity for beginners, before changing direction. It is rare for me to have access to physical space in which to present research, and I wanted to explore the possibilities of my lab more fully! I then spent a week playing through Job Simulator, one of the most enduringly popular VR games on the market, to continue thinking about the connections between leisure and manual/physical labour in commercial, digital-focused art 'experiences'. I filmed my play-throughs purely externally, capturing only my bodily actions and not the gameplay, to separate the movements required by the game from its content and narrative. Moreover, Job Simulator takes place in a museum of human labour, set in an unspecified post-robotic-revolution future. This combined with the novel Lote, by Shola von Reinhold, which I happened to be reading at the time, prompted me towards creating a museum for audience experiences.

November: I began creating a museum-shaped installation that would introduce visitors to my research through a historical frame. This involved experimenting with video, sound, space and objects, and deciding which elements were necessary to a) create the feeling of a museum but b) make it clear that the museum is just one way of thinking about these 'exhibits', as an imaginative framework. Much more about The Audience Museum above.

December: In the weeks before Christmas I began researching CAPTCHAs more thoroughly: I was interested in creating some kind of theatre-specific Turing test as a means of thinking about what theatre needs from audiences in terms of specific behaviours and actions, as well as how future theatrical platforms could demand this from their audiences as a barrier to entry. I also explored the potential in using 360 cameras to create a piece that would discuss the way that some digital technologies can place the audience in the middle of their experience - as opposed to, say, in a proscenium arch theatre, where the positioning of an audience is specifically in opposition to the art on stage and in relation to fellow audience members. This insistence on making everyone the middle of their own experience is interesting to me, but unfortunately I ran out of time to purse it - but I did learn that working in 360 could be a useful format to pursue, in order to think more about this in the future.

January: Our final month, and final Open Lab. This time I wanted to create a more open installation, in contrast to the Museum's narrative frame. I thought a lot about how to open up the process of research to the audience, not only the results of research, and decided to focus on the personal subjectivity involved in imagining the future. I hoped to ask questions of our visitors, and to assist them in thinking about their own imaginings of the future, rather than to emphasise only my own imagination. I was initially extremely unsure about this decision, as it required me to step back from the role of guide/curator that I held in the Museum installation, but I think it worked out! See above!

Katie Hawthorne is a writer and researcher specialising in the relationships between live performance and emerging technologies. She has studied at the University of Nottingham, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the University of Edinburgh, where she is in the final weeks of her doctoral research, funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Titled 'Contextualising Liveness: Digitally Distributed, Mediated and Located Theatre in Edinburgh and Berlin, 2017-19', her PhD thesis explores the extent to which liveness in performance is a culturally and contextually specific phenomenon, and uses comparative case studies to reveal how liveness is created, valued and marketed differently in the cities of Edinburgh and Berlin.

Her article 'Limited Editions: Politics of Liveness at the Berliner Theatertreffen, 2017-19' was published in the edited collection Edinburgh German Yearbook: Politics and Culture in Germany and Austria Today (Camden House: 2021) and Katie has spoken at the International Brecht Symposium, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of St Andrews. In 2019, she presented a paper titled 'Feeling, Feelingly: Digitally Mediated Experiences of Isolation and Intimacy at the Edinburgh Fringe' at the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) in Shanghai, and 'Humanoid Performance in Rimini Protokoll's Uncanny Valley (2018) and Holly Herndon's Spawn (2019)' at the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) annual conference in Exeter, UK.

Beyond academia, Katie is an experienced freelance journalist. She writes about music, performance and technology for publications including The Guardian, The Stage, The Observer, The Scotsman, Dazed and CRACK. She won the Allen Wright Award for feature writing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, and has participated in nomination panels for the Scottish Album of the Year, the Scottish Alternative Music Awards, and the BRIT Awards.

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  • Last modified: 22.11.2022 12:18
  • by Katie Hawthorne