Refereed articles

Information articles

Notes on contributors

Print friendly version

Performing Posthuman Perspective: Can You See Me Now?

Rosemary Klich


This paper examines the fusion of real and virtual space in Blast Theory’s Can You See Me Now? and argues that the simultaneous live and online participation implodes the duality of materiality and information. Rather than position such work as ‘virtual theatre’, and so reinforce the duality of the real and the virtual, this article addresses how such mixed-reality performances rupture the demarcation of the real and the virtual, creating an augmented space (Manovich 2002). Within this space, embodiment becomes ‘posthuman’ and this paper argues for an alternative analytical framework through which to address the nature of embodiment in multimedia theatre, based on Katherine Hayles’ map of the semiotics of Virtuality.

The polarisation of the live and the virtual within performance discourse dates back to the debate concerning live theatre and mediatised performance, initiated by the differing perspectives of Peggy Phelan (1993) and Phillip Auslander (1999). While Phelan asserts the authenticity of live performance, arguing that performance is non-reproducible, Auslander critiques the concept of liveness arguing that it exists as a result of mediatisation. This ongoing dialogue has established an assumed opposition of the live and virtual within performance studies. Matthew Causey explains, “the contemporary discourse surrounding live performance and technological reproduction establishes an essentialised difference between the phenomena” (1999: 393). In the augmented performance space of Can You See Me Now?, live and virtual performance are brought into conversation in such as way as to minimise the significance of definitive boundaries and undermine their distinction.

Can You See Me Now? disrupts the binary founded on the perception that the ontology of live performance involves the disappearing presence of the body, while mediated representation denies presence, presenting an absence of the body. In Can You See Me Now? participants access remote geographical locations in which they are recognised by other players as both present within the space, and of course, physically absent. Here the concept of presence is no longer associated with corporeality and the distinction between absence and presence becomes blurred. This paper suggests that the dialect of presence/absence, and by association the dialectic of live/mediated, have become limited frameworks through which to articulate the complexities of mixed-reality performance, preferring instead the analysis of mixed-reality performance through Hayles’ framework of the semiotics of Virtuality. Such an approach contributes to performance discourse by providing a different vision of the relationship between the live and the virtual, and by offering an analytical framework that avoids reinforcing their inherent opposition.
Can You See Me Now?

Blast Theory’s mixed-reality work Can You See Me Now? was produced in collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham in 2001, and has since been performed in a number of international locations. The work evolves from the familiar format of an escape-based computer game and participants are able to access the game online from various locations around the world during designated time slots. I had the opportunity to witness some of the ‘live’ component of this work in Cardiff as part of the May You Live in Interesting Times Media Festival, in October 2005, and also experienced the work as an online participant, in the April 2005 version of the work, performed in Cambridge, England.

I logged on to play this online multi-user game under various aliases at the scheduled time of between one and three am over a number of nights. Though not fast paced nor technically complex, the work evolves over time, and the participants’ level of engagement grows as they become more familiar with the navigation and communication tools. Before accessing the virtual environment a loose narrative framework is established that requires players to answer the question, “Is there someone you haven’t seen for a long time that you still think of?” At first this question seems superfluous, but it introduces the concepts of absence and presence as key themes to be explored throughout the work. Blast Theory explain: “this person - absent in place and time - seems irrelevant to the subsequent game play; only at the point that the player is caught or “seen” by a runner do they hear the name mentioned again as part of the live audio feed” (Blast Theory 2007).

Having received the introduction, participants can then access an online virtual environment constructed to replicate the actual streets of the selected city. As they navigate the virtual city they are chased by members of the Blast Theory team who appear as avatars in the virtual world. The remote participants must avoid the Blast Theory chasers; if a chaser gets within five meters of an online player, the player is “seen” and out of the game. When this occurs, the Blast Theory victor takes a digital photo of the real space where the participant was “seen” and this photo is displayed on the webpage. The online participants have certain tools at their disposal in the virtual world. The speed at which they can move through the virtual space is alterable though with a fixed maximum speed. They can access a city map view and can see themselves represented as a running avatar, as if through the eyes of other participants. Participants are also able to see the avatars of other players and runners, and can choose to exchange text messages with them. In my own experience, this messaging between participants was continuous and built a sense of camaraderie amongst the group, which was then further explored through the strategies and proxemics employed over time.

So far this probably sounds like the familiar chase-based computer game. However, it quickly becomes apparent to the online players that the work is far more complex than a standard computer game in which competitive human-to-human interaction occurs in a virtual environment via network technologies. The online players can hear the verbal commentary of the Blast Theory runners via live audio-stream as they communicate with their team members via walkie-talkie.  The Blast Theory chasers are actually using GPS tracking devices to track participants within the streets of the real city, and the online players are able to eavesdrop on their strategizing and listen to the runners’ reactions as they encounter obstacles within the urban landscape. The continual audio stream emphasizes that there is an actual human referent behind the representational avatars.

While I am sitting comfortably at home in my pyjamas, I hear the laboured breathing of these people as they try to keep up with my online movements, and I sense the risk to their body as they dodge traffic and crowds. I am confronted with a bizarre sense of concern, even responsibility, towards these performers from whom I am physically remote, yet strangely intimate. And then it dawns on me, that I too exist somewhere in their physical environment. As I overhear mention of a certain landmark or street in the runners’ conversation, the same marker passes me by in the virtual space, and I have the uncanny realisation that I am running alongside these performers. I have become a material-informational entity that exists not only in the virtual world, but also elsewhere in the real world, and I recognise that actions in either one of these realms translate into consequences for other people in other space.

In a virtual reality, the participant exists in two dimensions only: as a body in the real world, and as an avatar in the computer-generated virtual reality. The doubling of reality in Can You See Me Now? places the participant simultaneously in three spatialities. They exist as a body in front of the computer, as a constructed identity in the online gaming world, and then they are also represented by the locative technology of the runners as a “blip”, a “data-body”, a disembodied entity moving through the streets of the city. The efficacy of Can You See Me Now? is based on this fusion of the virtual and the real that creates a different kind of material space. Can You See Me Now? explores the ubiquitous presence of the virtual in everyday spaces as a result of media technologies, offering participants the means to simultaneously experience the real, the virtual, and the osmotic inbetween, reflecting conditions of communication and posthuman existence in virtualised society.

Positioning Mixed-Reality Performance

There are many titles attached to performance practice that uses media to disperse the viewer’s point of view, some of the most relevant being “networked performance”, “cybertheatre”, “transmedial theatre” and “telematic performance”. Recently, all these forms have come to be referred to under the rubric “Virtual Theatre”, as outlined by Gabriella Giannachi (2004) in her landmark book Virtual Theatres: An Introduction.  Giannachi demonstrates how virtuality has become a major framework through which to understand the aesthetic concerns of digital arts practices, and she offers an extensive discussion of forms of media-enabled performance. Giannachi defines Virtual Art as where “both the work of art and the viewer are mediated”, enabling the multiplication and dispersal of the viewer’s point of view (2004: 4). In Virtual Theatre, the performance occurs via mediation. Giannachi’s contribution has been a valuable advance in performance theory as it provides a new language through which to articulate media-driven performance.

However, the complication of the boundary between the real and the virtual in Can You See Me Now? places it in an interesting position in theatre studies discourse. Although it utilises digital media to connect participants and create a virtual space, the work is not congruous with Giannachi’s descriptions of Virtual Theatre and does not embrace what Giannachi articulates as ‘an aesthetic of Virtuality’. Certainly there are elements of the work that may be positioned as virtual performance; a virtual world is created and the viewer’s point of view is multiplied and dispersed. However the performance itself is not mediated, but is located in the real world where information and materiality meet. In Virtual Theatre, “it is the viewer that constitutes the “other” real of the performance” (2004: 7), but in Can You See Me Now? the viewer, the performer, and the space are all real. The fact that the work is performed in real space also separates it from notions of performance that involve “telepresence”, which utilise technology to join real world locations. While telepresence remediates real space, the space of the performance remains virtual. Giannachi maintains that in neither virtual reality nor telepresence “is the environment actually there” (2004: 10).

Virtual Theatre, according to Giannachi, is constituted by a “carnival of hyper-real signs” (2004: 7), yet Blast Theory undermine Baudrillard’s notion of simulation by emphasising the corporeal presence of the runners behind the avatars. In Can You See Me Now? the relation of the real and the virtual should not be referred to in terms of hyper-reality or simulation, for the real does not disappear and the physical referent is emphasised. One of the forms of Virtual Theatre described by Giannachi as “theatre of the hypersurface”, does bear resemblance to Can You See Me Now?. Indeed, Giannachi describes the hypersurface as being “where the real and the virtual meet each other” (2004: 95). In theatre of the hypersurface, the presence of the viewer is doubled; Giannachi explains, “In performing through the hypersurface, the viewer enters the world of simulation while maintaining a direct rapport with their own environment” (2004: 95). The replication of reality however in Can You See Me Now? requires that the presence of the viewer is not only doubled, but tripled. The viewer is present in their immediate physical location, in the simulated reality, and in another physical location within the environment of the runners. Mixed-reality performance, a term borrowed here from Can You See Me Now? creators Mixed-Reality Lab, poses a direct challenge to current dramaturgies regarding multimedia theatre.

In the wide terrain of multimedia theatre, which can be defined as theatre or performance that creatively utilises media technologies as an integral component, mixed-reality works such as Can You See Me Now? lie somewhere in between the domain of virtual theatre and postdramatic theatre as identified by Hans Thies Lehmann, which includes performance where media technologies are brought into the theatrical frame as a feature of the mise en scene. Yet Can You See Me Now? does not create a theatrical frame, nor does it occur in a virtual space, but instead is located across the urban landscape, highlighting the ways in which technologies are penetrating everyday material spaces. The performance traces a network pattern across the cityscape as performers follow the intersecting paths of the online targets. The work is indubitably live and occurs not only in a real space, but in public space, creating a kind of multimedia street theatre. Like street theatre, the performance of the Blast Theory runners can be spontaneous, often involving improvisation and utilising attributes of, and the complexity of, specific surroundings. The relationship between the performers and the participant involves a two-way flow of information and the parameters of the performance space are elastic.

This performance space is primarily real, however the runners’ relationship with their material environment involves the interjection of information signals via mobile technology, creating what Lev Manovich has labelled “augmented space” (2002). Augmented space is “physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information” so as to create a new kind of physical space (2002: 1). Manovich derived the term “augmented space” from the term “augmented reality”, although the two concepts are usually placed in opposition to one another:

In the case of VR, the user works on a virtual simulation, in the case of AR, she works on actual things in actual space. Because of this, a typical VR system presents a user with a virtual space that has nothing to do with that user’s immediate physical space; while, in contrast, a typical AR system adds information that is directly related to the user’s immediate physical space (2002: 5).

In Can You See Me Now? not only is physical reality translated into a virtual space to be accessed by the online participants, but this virtual space ‘leaks back’ into materiality; the GPS monitoring, the hand held locative devices, the mikes and earpieces project information across the material terrain, used to locate, connect, and eavesdrop. Involvement in the work makes prominent the issue of ‘access’, and illustrates how interactivity is embedded in everyday modes and means of communication. Multimedia theatre’s foray into augmented spaces is creating new forms of embodiment that challenge existing performance discourse. The complex level of human/computer interaction in Can You See Me Now? draws the participant into virtual embodiment, exploring the possibility of posthuman existence and confronting notions of presence in established theatre theory.

Posthuman Perspective and Performance

The relationship of humans to technology has long been an ongoing concern for experimental art and performance. It emerges now as the primary concern of the posthuman perspective, an important paradigm for the interpretation of new media art and contemporary multimedia theatre. The idea of a “posthuman age” in which the human is morphed with the technological is illustrated in detail by cybernetics and literary theorist N. Katherine Hayles. Alongside the cyborg social feminism of Donna J. Harraway, Hayles envisions the fusion of the human and the machine as creating a hybrid subjectivity that is continuously moving between the material realm of bodily agency and the dematerialised realm of digital information. In her influential work How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999), Hayles explores the human/machine interface and looks into the history of cybernetics to explain our journey into a condition of virtuality. She explores three interwoven narratives that expose the shift from the human to the posthuman: how information came to be separated from material forms; the construction of the cyborg; and the deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject in cybernetics.

As we become posthuman, the boundary between the body and the machine is seen as a permeable membrane and, “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation” (Hayles 1999: 3). The posthuman point of view constructs the human being so that it can be “seamlessly articulated” with intelligent technology. Technology becomes a prosthetic extension of the human body and interactivity between human and machine reaches its ultimate manifestation where separate activity ceases to exist, and is replaced by the co-activity of merged elements. Hayles argues that the concept of posthuman existence does not suggest that the body has disappeared, but “that a certain kind of subjectivity has emerged”, a subjectivity constituted by the interplay of the materiality of informatics with the immateriality of information (Hayles 1999: 193). This embodied subjectivity is not necessarily a body, or even an identity, but a configuration “enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment” (Hayles 1999: 196).

In Can You See Me Now?, the technology extends the presence of the spectator so that he or she exists as an informational entity that has physical location in the material world. The participant is constructed as posthuman, as a “material-informational entity, whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (Hayles 1999: 3). The participant’s actions in the virtual world have very real physical effects on the presence of others, and as users invest themselves within the technology, they become enmeshed in a system that enables them to move beyond the limitations of the interface and to impact upon material reality in new ways. The embodied subjectivity experienced by the user is no longer a discrete body, but a composite configuration. In an interview with Gabriella Giannachi, Stelarc argues that technology “allows us to extrude and extend, extrude our awareness and extend our physical operations and the Internet becomes the medium through which the body can do this” (Stelarc in Giannachi 2004: 61). In Can You See Me Now?, the internet not only extends the body of the participant into virtual reality, but also extends their presence in the real world. Stelarc suggests that the posthuman realm:

…may not simply be in the realm of the body or the machine but the realm of intelligent and operational images on the Internet. Perhaps connected to a host body, these viral images may be able to express a physical effect and so the idea of a virtual and actual interface (2004: 62).

Can You See Me Now? brings this vision of the posthuman realm into existence, exploring the juncture of the virtual and the material with participants hosting an online image that is capable of producing physical effect.

To understand the nature of the dispersed embodiment experienced by online participants in Can You See Me Now? in relation to performance theory, we need to avoid adhering to theories of performance that reinforce the binary of the material and the virtual. Mindy Fenske in her article The Aesthetic of the Unfinished: Ethics and Performance (2004) argues that current interpretations of the body and performance within various contexts reproduce the dialectic of materiality and virtuality in problematic ways.  She argues that discourse fails to discuss the relationship of the real and the virtual without “reproducing a binary and unidirectional relationship wherein humans either act upon technology (in order to assert agency) or technology acts upon humans (a sign of loss of agency)” (2004: 6).

In performance theory, Fenske argues that this failure is manifest in discussions regarding performance ontology, referring to the debate epitomised on the one hand by Peggy Phelan’s argument that the ontology of performance is based on its non-reproducibility, and on the other, by Phillip Auslander’s attempt to undermine this position through his critique of “liveness”. Fenske argues that this debate reinforces the dialectic of the real and the virtual:

The arguments for and against the ontology of performance, in other words, circulate within the dialectic in their attempts either to articulate the value of presence in terms of materiality and agency or to negate the value of presence through digitality (2004: 7).

Can You See Me Now? does not negate presence through digitality, but it does complicate it, translating and dispersing it across both material and virtual space. As discussed, this work does not manifest an aesthetic of Virtuality, and framing this work as Virtual Theatre reinforces the binary of information and materiality. Yet neither does the work adhere to the valuing of presence in terms of materiality, as is traditional to theatre discourse based on Phelan’s ontology of performance. To understand the relationship of the real and the virtual in Can You See Me Now? and to examine the nature of audience experience in such works, it is necessary to avoid an analytical framework that reinforces the opposition of the real and the virtual. As multimedia theatre explores new forms of posthuman embodiment and interactivity, a new dramaturgy is required that does not emphasise the disparateness and incompatibility of materiality and virtuality.

Towards an Alternative Analytical Framework for Multimedia Performance

The idea that information and materiality are not discrete concepts is the premise of an emerging cultural paradigm that Katherine Hayles has labelled our “condition of Virtuality” (2000), a condition she asserts is now inhabited by millions of people. She defines virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns” (2000: 69). This definition, notes Hayles, plays off the separation of materiality and information, a duality that emerged as a historically specific construction in the 1940’s and 50’s. However in our condition of Virtuality, information and materiality are no longer viewed as discrete concepts, and developments in multimedia theatre, such as the advent of virtual theatre and mixed-reality performance, may be considered in light of this cultural shift.

Our “condition of Virtuality” as outlined by Hayles stems from the common perception that information is displacing and pre-empting materiality (Hayles 2000: 78), and as such, Hayles asserts that the dialectic of pattern/randomness, the basis of information, is beginning to develop prominence over the dialectic of presence/absence. However, Hayles explains that it would be a mistake to view the dialectic of presence/absence as no longer having relevance, for it “connects materiality and signification in ways not possible within the pattern/randomness dialectic” (1999: 247). Both dialectics are central in the formation of the posthuman point of view. Working with the concepts of information and materiality as a foundation, Hayles develops what she labels the “semiotics of Virtuality”. She begins by placing the dialectics of pattern/randomness and presence/absence as two axes of a
“semiotic square”. She then proceeds to make all possible connections between these four terms, producing the four synthesising terms materiality, mutation, information, and hyperreality. Together these synthesising terms produce the dominant characteristics of the posthuman condition and create a semiotic framework that shows the key perspectives in our condition of Virtuality. These perspectives are potentially encoded within contemporary art and performance.

The distribution of embodiment in Can You See Now? suggests that the notion of authenticity and the conceptual dialectic of presence and absence associated with the physical is inadequate to describe the nature of embodiment in this work. Peggy Phelan argues that in performance the body is metonymic of presence (1993: 150), however in Can You See Me Now? the participants are recognised as both present, and physically absent, within the same space, and the concept of presence becomes disassociated from the body. When this occurs, the distinction of presence and absence can no longer be identified and they become obsolete concepts. Yet neither does this work completely transcend the realm of materiality upon which the concepts of presence and absence are based, for these present-absences are spatially located and grounded in material reality. Hayles’s arrangement of the dialectics of presence/absence and pattern/randomness as not opposed, but as complimentary and interactive, provides a different analytical framework through which to address the nature of embodiment in multimedia performance works such as Can You See Me Now?. This framework provides a potential basis for a new dramaturgy of multimedia theatre that does not reinforce the materiality/information polarity that has been a feature of performance analysis.

Presence, Pattern and Posthuman Embodiment

In Can You See Me Now?, the participant exists in a hybrid space as neither present nor absent but as simultaneously both. The potential doubling of the self challenges established notions of presence and absence, which perceive the virtual world as involving the absence of the physical and the real world entailing physical presence. For when the virtual self is no longer limited to the virtual world, but becomes a functioning double spatially located in material reality, the participant simultaneously exists in the real world as both a physical body and as an informational pattern. Here the physical cannot be regarded as absent, but rather as other, for the user’s pattern exists alongside their physical body in the real world, illustrating how materiality can be “interpenetrated by information patterns” (Hayles 1999).

As information consists of both pattern and randomness, there is always the potential for disruption in the stream of informational pattern. Hayles explains that “Randomness tears holes in pattern, allowing the white noise of the background to pour through” (1999: 248). Not only do the online participants hear the voices of the Blast Theory runners, but they hear other, often unidentifiable sounds that create a layered texture to the transmission. The crackle of the walkie-talkies interrupts the flow of the verbal communication, disrupting the sense of presence established between the remote partners. Within the complex communication system established in Can You See Me Now? there are unpredictable elements that impact on the direction of the work, and a heightened awareness of the potential for chance creates a sense of anticipation and tension. Hayles posits:

If pattern is the realisation of a certain set of possibilities, randomness is the much, much larger set of everything else, from phenomena that cannot be rendered coherent by a given system’s organisation to those the system cannot perceive at all (1999: 286).

As Can You See me Now? takes place within the public sphere, utilising public spaces and information networks, it is embedded within a larger system of complexity. As such, there is always the potential for unforeseeable, and uncontrollable, elements of this system to impact upon the material and informational conditions of the work.

Can You See Me Now? illustrates how the perceived multiplication of existence across different media spaces results in a posthuman convergence of pattern and presence. When the boundary of the physical self becomes viewed as permeable and the self exists as an “informational/material entity”, information and materiality can no longer be perceived as discrete domains. This work plays with the slippages between pattern and presence and exploits our confusion between the two. We see the transition from presence to pattern, whereby the representational image of the body loses connection to the physical referent when it enters into the virtual realm, where image becomes pattern, to be re-patterned and mutated by randomness. Yet at the same time, as pattern infuses materiality, we see how pattern can permeate and intervene in material space, and enable new manifestations of presence. 

To reflect upon the nature of embodiment in Can You See Me Now? we must, as Hayles suggests, think beyond the opposition that previously associated presence with truth, and absence with simulation. This opposition has been an ongoing undercurrent within performance discourse, and this paper has argued that to theorise works such as Can You See Me Now, analysis must avoid adhering to a framework that connects the live with presence, and the virtual with absence. A framework based on the intermingling of the dialectics of presence/absence and pattern/randomness offers a new lens through which to holistically view the complex processes of communication and posthuman embodiment, disembodiment, or re-embodiment in multimedia performance. Such an approach also offers performance theory a new strategy with which to formulate the fluid relationship of the live and the virtual within performance.


Auslander, P. (1999) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatised Culture, London: Routledge

Blast Theory, Can You See Me Now?,, accessed February 15, 2007

Causey, M. (1999) “The Screen Test of the Double: The uncanny performance in the space of technology” in Theatre Journal, vol. 51 no. 4, pp. 383-394

Fenske, M. (2004) “The Aesthetic of the Unfinished: Ethics and Performance” in Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 24 no. 1 (January) pp. 1-19

Giannachi, G. (2004) Virtual Theatres: An Introduction, London/New York: Routledge

Hayles, N.K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press

Hayles, N.K. (2000) in The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, P. Lunenfeld, ed., London/Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Manovich, L. (2002) The Poetics of Augmented Space, updated 2005,, accessed February 16, 2007

Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London/New York: Routledge