The following text is the first chapter of the research “Les Basiques : Arts de la scène et technologies numériques : les digital performances” by Clarisse Bardiot, a clear and complete overview about digital performance. The reader interested in the whole text can refer to the original source.

What are “digital performances”?

  1. Definition
  2. Are there other terms to refer to digital performances?
  3. Performing arts
  4. Analog/Digital
  5. Are digital technologies influenced by performing arts?



In 2007 MIT Press published a work entitled Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art and Installation. Today this work is considered as the main reference in the field of “performing arts and digital technologies”. The authors, Steve Dixon and Barry Smith, gave the following definition:

“We define the term “digital performance” broadly to include all performance works where computer technologies play a key role rather than a subsidiary one in content, techniques, aesthetics or delivery forms”. [1]
This definition emphasizes an important point: it is not the presence of a computer on stage that allows to define whether or not there is a digital performance (without caricaturing, with the rise of the digital control, we could say that today all forms of performing arts are digital performances). Things are much more complex than that. Digital technologies can indeed occur during the creation process, or be a model for writing. It is not the tool that really matters, but rather the thought. This does not make the definition of corpus easy, but avoids the pitfall of a technocratic vision of digital technologies.


[Translator’s note: In the original French version, the author explains his/her linguistic choice as follows:]

I will leave the expression digital performances in English throughout the entire text, not only because it is becoming more and more frequently used, but also because it has the advantage of considering the performing arts as a whole, without distinguishing between theatre and dance, thus avoiding fruitless discussions on genres and their boundaries. Note that in French, a special issue of the Anomalie magazine published in 2002 was also entitled Digital performance.
The French translation for “performance numérique” (digital performance) is inaccurate, the term performance in English does not have the same meaning as in French. “Arts de la scène et nouvelles technologies” (performing arts and new technologies) seems to be too vague about the historical context: there are some “nouvelles technologies” at all ages in the history of theatre, and these “nouvelles” technologies, namely digital technologies and networks, are not that new today. As for “arts de la scène à composantes technologiques” (performing arts with technological components), besides the length of the expression, it focuses on technologies designed as tools and not as thinking environments. “Représentation numérique” (digital performance) or “spectacle numérique” (digital entertainment) are not much used and they only evoke part of the field taken into account.



The artistic field of digital performances has been labeled with several names according to the technological, socio-cultural and artistic context. The most common are:

  • Cyberthéâtre (cyber theatre or cyber performance): it refers to networking experiences, performances in the “cyberspace”. We could also refer to online theatre works, as well as to distributed or networked performances.
  • Théâtre virtuel (virtual theatre): the expression echoes another expression, now familiar, which is “réalité virtuelle” (virtual reality). It brings together very different objects: 360° views of real places, immersive devices, processes of real-time motion capture to animate 3D characters, mental performance, filmed plays accessible on the Internet, staging of plays on and for the Internet, websites for theatre lovers, remote collaboration mode (videoconferencing), theatrical performance involving remote presence systems, theatrical performances combining virtual actors with real actors, interactive theatre involving characters with independent behaviors, stage design using virtual reality processes. This nebula of meanings is due to a linguistic misunderstanding: in English, “virtual theatre” refers to objects that are much closer to theatrical practices than cinematographic ones. For example, “movie theatre” refers to the cinema, so “virtual theatre” can mean “movie distribution on the Internet”.
  • Théâtre interactif (interactive drama): expression used by Brenda Laurel in her book Computers as Theatre, published in 1991 and subsequently adopted by many researchers in the field of video games. Interactive theatre (sometimes translated as “interactive drama”) refers to video games where narrative is predominant. The viewer plays one of the characters that he/she is leading in a digital world where other virtual characters interact with him.
  • Spectacle augmenté (augmented performance or augmented performing arts): it refers to performances that take place on theatre stages, sets, involving some digital technologies. We also use the term “augmented scene”.




The advent of digital technology in the field of performing arts is a phenomenon that is part of a global context: the increasing computerization of our societies requires indeed to reconsider their functioning, as well as our ways of living and being in the world. In theatre the use of digital technologies crystallizes the most virulent debates between enthusiasts of the “tréteau nu” (bare stage) and technophiles.
Special issues of an increasing number of magazines and symposia have followed these debates [2], with this issue and its corollary in the background: are we going towards a digitization of performing arts? Would digital technology be responsible for their death? Indeed, the current thought opposes “performing arts” to computer technologies, as if live (from the French “spectacle vivant”, here translated as “performing arts”) and digital were contradictory, as if the presence of one implied the disappearance of the other. Digital technology implies the existence of the code, the symbol, that for many people are synonyms of abstraction, coldness, lack of “live”. This “live” in the theatre is, for many people, the interpreter in flesh and blood, in the here and now of the performance; its presence could not be reduced to the digitization nor its absence associated to a non-theatre. Introducing technology in performing arts would mean “de-substantializing”, disembodying – that is to say, announcing the imminent death of the (“live”) performing arts.

According to Philip Auslander, the term “live”, which in French is used in the expression “spectacle vivant”, appeared at the time of the creation of recording. It allowed to distinguish between live music and recorded music, so that “’live” is defined as “what can be recorded”. [3] In other words, the expression itself of “spectacle vivant” is related to a comparison of performing arts with technologies of mediation, “reproducibility”, to use Benjamin’s term. In the time of cyborgs, prostheses and biotechnologies, the definition of live, generally speaking, follows some deep changes having a certain impact on the “live” of performing arts, and even more on the interpreter’s body.



Digital is the opposite of analog, “which relates to a method of calculation that uses, for solving the problem, its analogy with continuous measurements of physically different phenomena” (Le Petit Robert, 1993 – in the French version). The fundamental difference lies in the relation with reality: unlike digital, analog technology involves an existing referent, a continuous object, which creates an object from a calculation, a symbolic language, and it consists of discrete, discontinuous elements. If analog objects are necessarily correlated to real objects, digital objects are completely autonomous.
Therefore, despite the clarity of these definitions, one of the main difficulties regards the confusion between digital and analog, fueled by the overall issue of the relationship between “performing arts and new technologies”. “New technologies” gather both analog and digital technologies without taking into account their specificity in the analysis of the works. Chronologically, these “new technologies” were first analog before being digital: videos, sound capture and broadcasting systems were the analog techniques mostly used in theatre. Thus, works on this subject have essentially highlighted the relationship between theatre and analog technologies.
A second source of confusion between analog and digital is the fact that many analog processes are digitized or simulated. Thus, the digital camera is located at the convergence of digital and analog. This type of camera is now used in many performances: the cost of equipment has been democratized, it is easy to bear. Therefore, analog technology has often been supplanted by digital technology for economic and practical reasons. In this Basiques, I will not consider performances which employ the “analog-digital” [4] methods – certainly digital – that are a mere continuation of the experiments carried out with analog processes.
compared to video, often digital technology does not basically change usual practice; it simply provides a greater flexibility of implementation and reduces the costs. Let us beware of a linear vision of the history of twentieth century theatre. The use of digital technology and digital performances are not the logical continuation – at least from a chronological point of view – of the “écrans sur la scène” (screens on stage), to borrow the title of a book published by Béatrice Picon-Vallin[5]. Appeared in the 1960s, digital technology has become increasingly used in theatre starting from the mid-1980s. Simultaneously, the use of video in staging has become more common. This coincidence would therefore tend to link the two phenomena, as if the use of the computer served the image projected on stage. Certainly, this is the case for many types of staging, but in those cases, digital technology itself is not behind major aesthetic changes.


Since the late 1990s, symposia, seminars and articles on the reconciliations between theatres of memory and computing have increased. In Germany, a research group named “Computer als Gedächtnistheater ” led by Peter Matussek, specialized on the reconciliations between theatres of memory and computing. In France, workshops entitled NT@M (New Technologies and Arts of Memory) were held at the University of Valenciennes in 1997 and 1998.[6]
Referring to the theatres of memory, a practice that dates back to ancient Greece, becomes a commonplace in digital art studies (for example, Camillo 2.0: Technology, Memory, Experience, organized by the University of Utrecht in May 2011). Following the publication of the book by Frances Yates devoted to the art of memory in 1966[7], digital works started to be directly inspired by these processes: Memory Theatre One by Robert Edgar (1983), Memory Theatre VR by Agnes Hegedüs (1997), City of News by Flavia Sparacino (1997).
The art of memory is a memorization technique used before the development of printing. Legend attributes its invention to the Greek Simonides (approximately 556-468 BC). At a banquet, to which he had been invited to sing the praises of the householder, Simonides went outside a few moments. During his absence, the roof of the banquet room collapsed, killing all the guests. The poet, remembering everyone’s place, allowed the identification of the victims. After this event he developed the principles of the art of memory, which is based on the combination of two elements: places and images. It involves the construction of a mental journey through different places associated with images which evoke the knowledge to recall. When we mentally visit these places, always following the same order, images evoke memories. This process was used in ancient times by public speakers (including Cicero, who codifies it) to memorize their speeches.

This tradition passed into the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, two important personalities, Giulio Camillo in Italy and Robert Fludd in England, imagine the theatres of memory. The process is not internal anymore and it no longer takes place “in the head”, but rather on the outside, in front of the person, who needs to remember. Indeed, it is no longer about developing a mental journey but it rather entails having the whole knowledge in a real place, namely a theatre. In fact according to Greek etymology, the theatron is the place where we see. During the Renaissance, the theatre becomes the metaphor of the world. It is therefore the most appropriate place to combine images and encyclopedic knowledge.

According to Frances Yates, Camillo built a wooden model of his theatre in the sixteenth century. In this theatre, the actor is absent. It is the spectator, who finds himself on stage, or rather where stage should be, namely facing the semicircular room, whose positioning was inspired by Vitruvius’ writings. The Theatre of Camillo, whose functioning was to be revealed only to the King of France, allows to make the whole knowledge available to the audience. However, it is much more than a universal library: the images it contains are endowed with magical efficiency. They may represent the hidden links between the divine, celestial and terrestrial worlds.

In the early seventeenth century an English philosopher, Robert Fludd, designed a theatre of memory which was no longer based on the Roman theatre model, but on the Elizabethan theatre model. Even though it had not been built, the drawings that accompany the writings of Fludd allow to understand its functioning, which is based on ten areas (five columns and five doors). Unlike Camillo’s Theatre, the theatre of Fludd maintains the point of view usually devolved to the spectator: he/she looks at the scene. This scene belongs to the Globe Theatre in London (the “Shakespeare Theatre”), as shown by Frances Yates in her work.
The theatres of memory and the invention of the computer are connected following two points of view:

  • the art of memory, associated with combinatorics, is instrumental in the creation of the binary calculation attributed to Leibniz.
  • the use of icons for manipulating digital objects is related to the tradition born with Simonides.


Regarding the first point, Frances Yates concludes her book with a chapter entitled “The art of memory and the development of the scientific method”. She shows how the art of memory and combinatorics has influenced thinkers in the seventeenth century, including Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz:
“The effort of Leibniz, who aims to invent a universal calculation using combinations of signs or characters, certainly appears to be a historic offspring of the Renaissance efforts to combine lullism and the art of memory”. [8]

Signs stop being letters or pictures to become mathematical symbols, whose combination generates infinitesimal calculus and binary arithmetic, on which computers are based. The goal, as in the theatres of memory, is to systematize knowledge.
The link between theatres of memory and computing is significantly strengthened much later, in the late 1970s. From 1976 to 1978 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), within the “Architecture Machine Group” (which will become the Media Lab in the mid-1980s), two researchers, Richard Bolt and Nicholas Negroponte, developed the Spatial Data Management System (SDMS). This group was primarily interested in the creation of architectural CAD drawings and research on data management in space. The SDMS is inspired by a 3D prototype devised by ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency), one of the Pentagon agencies that financed the creation of the first computers. In the Spatial Data Management System there is no text but images, that allow a visual navigation in the projected dataland. Dataland is the name given by the team to the fictional landscape that appears. In this landscape, which is soon to be called “desktop”, some images – “icons” – represent functions or data. For example, the program managing the user’s calendar is represented by a calendar image. This is the first time that such a visual interface is developed. Moreover, authors wanted to create a “Simonides effect”[9] in the user. Directly referring to the art of memory, they transposed its principles into the man-machine interface. The space of the screen becomes a principle of visual data organization.

This principle will be fundamental for new computers. Indeed, the adventure continues: the computer user interface created by Apple from 1978 to 1983, Lisa, was directly based on this research.[10] Steve Jobs wanted his new computer to be fun, easy to use and customizable. Instead of communicating with a text interface, Lisa proposes to the user an image of his/her office, where he/she can manipulate icons (it also evokes the universe of an office, with files, documents, calculators, trash bins) in order to send commands to the computer. Today, all mainstream computers integrate this operation. Thanks to visual interfaces, the spectator is placed in front of a “scene” (not a page, for example) where he/she can manipulate images evoking data or actions. The influence of the theatres of memory on computer design is useful to explain, in part, the abundance of theatrical metaphors used to describe digital objects. Brenda Laurel will make it the center of her book Computers as Theatre.[11]



Anomalie Digital_arts, « Digital Performance », n°2, janv. 2002.

Auslander Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, London : Routledge, 1999.

Laurel Brenda, Computers as Theatre, 1991, Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley (édition revue et augmentée, 1993).

Dixon Steve et Smith Barry, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press, 2007.

Picon-Vallin Béatrice (sous la direction de), Les écrans sur la scène, Lausanne : L’Âge d’Homme (coll. Th XX), 1998

Salter Chris, Entangled. Technology and the Transformation of Performance, Cambridge (MA) : The MIT Press, 2010.

Yates Frances A., L’Art de la mémoire, traduit de l’anglais par Daniel Arasse, Mayenne : Gallimard (coll. Bibliothèque des histoires), 1997 (première édition en français : 1975 ; titre original : The Art of Memory, 1966).



1 Dixon Steve et Smith Barry, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, Cambridge (MA) : MIT Press, 2007, p. 3. Traduction de l’auteur.

2 Cf. le dossier « Théâtre et technologie », in Théâtre/Public n°127, 1996 ; Séminaire La Création théâtrale et les nouvelles technologies, Thecif / Métafort, Aubervilliers, 29 nov. 1999 ; colloque Théâtre et (nouvelles) technologies, Université de Besançon, 16-17 novembre 2001 ; « Création numérique. Les nouvelles écritures scéniques », festival Résonances, IRCAM / Centre Pompidou, 24 octobre 2003.

3 Auslander Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, London : Routledge, 1999, p. 51. Traduction de l’auteur.

4 Couchot Edmond et Hillaire Norbert, L’Art numérique, Paris : Flammarion, 2003, p. 222.

5 Picon-Vallin Béatrice (sous la direction de), Les écrans sur la scène, Lausanne : L’Âge d’Homme (coll. Th XX), 1998.

6 Actes publiés en ligne sous le titre : Nouvelles Technologies et Arts de la Mémoire, 00h00, 2002,

7 Yates Frances A., L’Art de la mémoire, traduit de l’anglais par Daniel Arasse, Mayenne : Gallimard (coll. Bibliothèque des histoires), 1997 (première édition en français : 1975 ; titre original : The Art of Memory, 1966).

8 Yates Frances A., L’Art de la mémoire, traduit de l’anglais par Daniel Arasse, Mayenne : Gallimard (coll. Bibliothèque des histoires), 1997 (première édition en français : 1975 ; titre original : The Art of Memory, 1966), p. 407.

9 Bolt Richard A. : Spatial Data Management ; Cambridge, MA : MIT, 1979, p. 8 ; Nicholas Negroponte rapporte ces événements in Negroponte Nicholas, L’Homme numérique, Paris : R. Laffont, 1995 (édition originale : Being Digital, 1995), pp. 138-141.

10 Cf. Ludolph Frank, Perkins Rod et Smith Dan, « Inventing The Lisa Interface », in Laurel Brenda (éditeur), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Addison-Wesley, 1990.

11 Laurel Brenda, Computers as Theatre, 1991, Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley (édition revue et augmentée, 1993).

© Leonardo/Olats & Clarisse Bardiot, février 2013

Republished by under permission of author and editor in ottobre 2015.

Transation by: Wording s.a.s.