Punk Makers: Live Art in the Age of AI

Note: This blog post is a sequel to my post last year on the economics of Perth’s Fringe Festival. I was overwhelmed with the positive response to the article, which is still read every day and has been read over 10,000 times. The article sparked a nascent interest in the impacts of digital technology and platform capitalism on the live arts sector, and I’ve spent a year reading and thinking about these issues.

This piece represents a culmination of those thoughts. Here I deepen the analysis of how our digital and computational culture is impacting the live arts. This piece is written in the spirit of a dialogue, so comments and criticisms are always welcomed.


When Marshall McLuhan wrote that “The Medium is the Message,” the medium was television. Television involved faraway experts developing content for the new middle class. The medium of television involved a kind of transfixed spectatorship unimaginable to the newspaper reader or wireless listener. Television’s implicit message was that audiences were empty buckets, ready to be filled with entertainment and advertising.

Today, cultural production and consumption is largely mediated by the internet. Unlike television, it is non-linear, networked and participatory. The internet disrupted the hegemony of television by creating new platforms for people to connect and share content with one another. The internet turned the idle spectator in to an active creator.

In its early years, the internet had a dash of utopian potential through the wild spaces it opened. The nascent blogosphere and early social media promised that the internet would be a place where everything would be free and people could be better versions of themselves. 28.8kbps modems and immature business models limited this democracy of production and consumption to the written word, yet the promise of the internet was that technological progress would inevitably democratise all culture.

That was yesterday’s internet. What few anticipated was how the medium would evolve to corrupt this idea. The internet, as a medium of culture, has been transformed by three key factors:

  1. Plummeting costs of content production & distribution.
  2. The colonisation of digital spaces by technology giants.
  3. The rise of artificial intelligence.

The promised utopia of the 80s and 90s has gradually transformed in to a digital hellscape. The internet is no longer the disruptor but the thing in need of disruption. As McMahon encouraged us to do with television, we must now turn our eyes away from content —angry tweets, reactiongifs and selfies— towards the medium itself.

The utopians were correct on some fronts. Where it used to be that just about anybody could write a blog, now anybody can produce and edit a video. However, this proliferation of digital devices has turned the internet in to a vast Wild West of low-quality content, whether it’s Jordan Peterson lectures or Instagram booty models. As the weaver was displaced by the loom, artists are being displaced by the networked mob and their $18 iPhone cameras.

Erik Kessels FOAM exhibit — Twenty-four hours of Flickr photos

Most of this cheaply produced digital content is distributed through a small number of enormous, privately-owned technology platforms. Most troubling are the sprawling, advertising-driven platforms — YouTube (owned by Google) and Facebook. Google and Facebook are the owners of the digital highways. The price of driving is a constant stream of personalised billboards.

Both giants rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence (AI)— much talked about but rarely understood. You could be forgiven for thinking that the scope of AI is the “Recommended for You,” category on YouTube or personalised ads on Facebook. AI is much more. It is the new frontier of the internet.

AI’s impacts extend to not only what content we see, but what content gets produced. Netflix’s House of Cards was an early harbinger of data-driven production decision making, and Netflix now produces billions of dollars of content this way. Strange firms like the vaguely Lovecraftian “Epagogix” have growing influence over previously creative fields like script-writing and casting. AI can even write poetry.

The full implications of these three trends — low costs, ad-driven distribution monopolies, and AI — are virtually impossible to apprehend. Indeed, if the issue with television was worrying about who was in control, now the concern is that nobody is in control. Cheap content can be made by just about anyone anywhere and can be distributed through unaccountable digital monopolies driven by opaque artificial intelligences and unethical business models.

This trend is at its most garish in the realm of children’s YouTube, where AI-driven remixes reign like a sprawling serfdom over vulnerable minds.

AI generated content for children — see James McBridle’s TED talk for more.

If this video represents one extreme of cultural production: Entirely automated, rationalised and integrated with YouTube’s advertising business model — it is worthwhile to think through the converse; the world of human-led live production which resists digitisation. This motley crew prefers the stage over the screen, the ticket over the ad revenue, human intuition over data-driven decisions, and technology as a tool rather than a master. This group includes live bands, theatre, the ballet and the chamber orchestra, amongst others. This loose group of artistic misfits constitutes an unwitting counter-culture against digitisation. They are the “Punk Makers.”

Punk Makers are important because it’s difficult to criticise a system that you’re operating within. Think of Black Mirror, the most celebrated modern meditation on the apocalyptic potentialities of our digital age. It manifests its own criticisms — the cracked screen of the introduction is the screen of our own television. It leaves us in the very state of diffuse despondence that is essential to the creation of the worlds it depicts. The medium is the message.

However, although Punk Makers do not use the internet as the primary medium for their art, they are enmeshed in its logic in complex ways. Just as television changed radio and print, the internet is changing live performance. I consider the three biggest impacts to be:

  1. Dependence on data-driven advertising to sell tickets.
  2. Producing shows with advertising algorithms in mind.
  3. The trap of live performance as nostalgia.

Whilst live performance has not been fully colonised by modern technologies, advertising has. What this means is that a performance which rejects digitisation must nonetheless market itself through audience members’ phones. It’s “phones off,” once you’ve bought a ticket, but “phones on,” until you have. Artists may one day long for the impenetrable logic of arts reviewers once they have been replaced by the impenetrable logic of the smartphone.

The irony runs a little deeper. Conventional logic is to develop a show and then consider how to market it. However, savvy producers consider the AI-driven landscape first, and then develop shows second. This is the recursive logic of YouTube. We’re going to find out what you like, and then give you a hundred minor variations on that theme. How many successful theatre shows have you seen of the form “Pop Culture Reference: A Musical” or “Thing You’ve Already Seen: The Play?” The human appetite for the familiar isn’t new, but the algorithms satiate it better than the most creative producer. What good is theatre if it must embody the logic of that which it intends to defy?

Finally, the rebellious quality of the live performance is part of the problem. People see live performance as a means of escape from the aforementioned “Wild West” of low quality content produced in our digital age — podcasts, YouTube sketch, Twitch Streams, Facebook Live, Instagram stories, giphys, memes, selfies, kinder surprise unboxing videos and Snapchat pornography. Live performance therefore takes on the quality of artisanal soap, a nostalgic longing for simpler times. Live art is enjoyed not for its intrinsic qualities, but for its brief reprieve from the alienation of mass culture. It is not taken seriously.

It is tempting to give the audience this nostalgia, but my argument is that live performance is at its grandest when it refuses to. I feel this is particularly true for theatre.

The theatre is one of the few spaces where disengaging with the digital is a condition of entry. It’s no longer abnormal to eat a meal, read a book, watch a TV show, attend a work meeting or lie in bed with your partner without some engagement with your phone. Only weddings, funerals, theatre and sex demand we turn our phones off. Live performance requires shared engagement with a piece of work — one made with naturally human blindness and naivete, and therefore a capacity to stumble in to the blind spots of our computational culture.

Sustained, critical attention is the spice melange of our modern economy. Our minds are hooked on dopamine and intolerant of boredom. An audience that willingly parts with their devices for an hour to see a performance is making a sacrifice they don’t have to make with Netflix or Spotify. It is a significant cost, surplus to the price of admission. Such a sacrifice must be honoured with the greatest art we can muster.

Punk Makers must therefore engage with the digital as a subject matter. The association between theatre and nostalgia must be broken. We should ask the audience to disengage with their devices not in order to see themselves as they once were, but to see themselves as they are.

Live performance is a gift and its failure to be incorporated in to our great digital colonies is a strength. The digital quietly endures in our pockets during live performance, sending unheard notifications like a mute banshee. Punk Makers must use these moments of digital reprieve with the urgency of a detective in a noir film, to apprehend the viewer and hold up a mirror — to show to the audience that we are already cyborgs, that our apocalypse is becoming.

Would Black Mirror not be more powerful on the stage, in the theatre — ending not with the lonely resonance of our living rooms but the raucous applause of an audience? A thunderous, hopeful applause — given promise not only by the work but by its medium, a medium that values solidarity over recursive personalisation, and possibility and hope over certain death?

Could we even call it a black mirror, were it made not of pixels and glass but of flesh and heat?