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Zen and Virtual Reality: Investigating the Explosion of ‘Lockdown Live’ Performances and Virtual Festivals

26 August 2020

16:00 - 17:00 hrs (GMT+7)

Research by Sir Roger Penrose, the Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and a number of other eminent physicists into the quantum based origin of consciousness, elided with thinking around Object Orientated Ontology, as expounded by Graham Harman and others, and led to a paradigm shift in our conception of the relationship between Universe and Mind.

Penrose and others have demonstrated that consciousness is inherent in all things and the long assumed human monopoly of it is fallacious. Harman and OOO have also expounded on and explored the independent agency of objects, and the manner in which these objects come into awareness of each other (‘encounters’) from a philosophical perspective.

These explorations together reveal that elements within a performance are necessarily active rather than passive agents. A live performance is an encounter between agents that collide, influence and interact with each other. Some of these ‘actors’ are frequently and habitually acknowledged, while others are less celebrated. Some–and for me this is most interesting–are tacitly admitted. ‘Every performance is about the audience.’ This is a folk wisdom epithet that is demonstrably true, since the real time interactions between listener/s and performer/s demonstrate clear agency within the encounter. Instruments too, are active–‘every guitar has songs in it’ is another epithet (here I am quoting singer Harry Styles). This tacit acknowledgment of influence suggests that instruments are not dead matter in the hands of performers but declare and exert their own subtle influence in the performance encounter. In popular music this is called ‘mojo.’ In art music it is evidenced by the conferral of totemic status on certain instruments and makers. A similar influence is exerted by architecture, acoustics, staging and embellishments.

Since a performance relies on the interaction and collision of these ‘objects-with-agency’, what are the effects when they are removed or distanced during a virtual concert? Streamed performances (‘lockdown live’) constitute a shadow-play flicker of charge across light emitting diodes/plasma cells and are demonstrably not the same as an actual experience of a performance. What can we understand about the nature of this difference? How does a virtual experience of music differ ontologically from a live one? How can we apply this to our own endeavours?

The tension between presence and absence in real and virtual performances is intriguingly consonant with earlier writing in Zen. Obaku, in the 9th century CE, throws a revealing light: 

“The foolish embrace thought and eschew phenomena, The wise embrace phenomena and eschew thought.”

Virtuality, most often evident in our sliver thin screens, is an extension of what Obaku calls ‘thought’ and is a realised projection of imagination, the survival- necessitated human imperative to investigate possibilities/dreams. We create models of systems in order to understand their behaviour, predict their actions and thereby control them. A herd of animals, for example, though faster and stronger can be understood, controlled by us and exploited. A consequence of this propensity for modelling, as many Zen writers point out, is that imagination is both wild and wilful–many of our models are necessarily flawed, inaccurate and broken, creating a thousand imagined (virtual) worlds in which we may lose ourselves. Phenomena in Zen act as locators–fixed points in the flux of imagination that locate us within our extant experiential context. Zen practice (archery, flower arranging, tea making, rehearsing an instrument) is designed to reinforce this locating behaviour by centring us in our deep minds (away from imagination) and bodies. What happens when these locators are absent? Is there actually an element of risk in any shift toward the virtual? What are the dangers and can we avoid them?

Drawing on these insights from physics, philosophy and zen, this paper will examine how ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ are folded into current tensions around the presentation and consumption of music. Through many examples of  ‘lockdown live’ performances we will examine how promoters, filmmakers and performers have reacted to the sudden, complete removal of performance-to-audiences in venues in most territories worldwide. What do their strategies reveal about the melange and collision of performers, spaces and objects? What does the experience of wide scale lockdown suggest about future trajectories for performance and the dissemination of music?

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