On the 2D surface of the screen, TV reporting might seem straightforward: an event takes place, a reporter tells the story, we watch and learn the details. But PROMPTER renders a more complex ‘reality’, live in the studio. It’s a many-headed fusion of broadcast and performance – an immersive, interdisciplinary work dubbed ‘magic-political-realism’ by creators, Perth’s Hydra Poesis.
The premise is this: you’re in what looks like a TV studio. A foreign correspondent, with his ‘fixer’ – a local who acts as conduit, connector and translator – is reporting on an unfolding event. But the chain of connections reaches out further: you’re also watching an online ‘chorus’ of viewers streaming themselves live from their bedrooms as they, too, watch and react to the remote event. Somewhere in the middle is the teleprompter; feeding gathered information from the newsroom back to the reporter on the ground, who then reads it back to the camera.
Increasing use of broadcast technology on location and the ability to stream live data into the newsroom are creating a “collapse” between the act of reporting and the field, says PROMPTER director and co-writer Sam Fox. “We’re at that point now where all the artifice that was once confined to the studio is now out in the world,” he says.
“And so you have people like [CNN’s] Anderson Cooper – he went to Palestine earlier this year and was reporting from Gaza, but he is not on the front line, and he is still reporting in a very glitzy commercial kind of fashion, because you can move that stuff around [so easily] now.”
PROMPTER’s journalist–protagonist is more of a “failed correspondent”, says Fox, “beefing up the sound levels of the distant explosions to make the scene more credible”.
“We’re definitely playing with performativity – that’s where we tie the journalism to the chorus performers, and I suppose the YouTube generation,” he says, referring to the self-filming of PROMPTER’s online ‘characters’.
“It’s just like bearing witness or vigil – or a compulsion – and that actually grows and becomes more and more performative,” Fox says. “Performance is becoming something that we all do, to show our ethic or show our politics…we call it ‘performative psychosis’ in the work.”
In a sense, Fox is describing another ‘collapse’ in the traditional media landscape – between the makers and the at-home consumers of ‘news’. It’s a further, looping layer in the convergence of media events, actions, reactions and knock-on effects that PROMPTER explores.
“We’re exploring the ethics of performance as well as the ethics of empathy and solidarity and internationalism, and how you respond to media,” says Fox.
PROMPTER interweaves narrative theatre, performance art, broadcast, video, dance, an immersive set and, Fox says, surreal, allusive imagery. It’s been a while in the making, he says – the trajectory spans the years from the “cameras on bombs” era of the Iraq War to the recent Arab Spring. An intensely collaborative process included working with TV producer Richard Fabb, researching media history and current practice; and sparring with co-writer Patrick Pittman, a long-time correspondent, magazine editor, journalist and broadcaster.
“[My work with Patrick] is a truly high-level, enmeshed collaboration, where we built a world together,” says Fox. “We built action and characters and argued about politics…”
“Patrick had a very journalistic framework – he’s really interested in truth and the nature of the story; whereas I’m more interested in power. It was really nice dynamic – we’d write over each other’s scenes [until it became] very hard to tell where each other’s work begins and ends.”
The idea of a chorus of observers, separate from the action, is of course an ancient one, dating back to the Greek tragedies.
“This work sits halfway between devised performance and written work,” says Fox, “so I think we’ve naturally dodged genres a bit. But definitely the chorus does allude to the Greek chorus.”
“And we do play with the question of whether the chorus – and by extension the global audience –are actually changing or setting the stage, or creating the stage for more conflict to occur in the narrative… The expectation is that when you have so many people watching something, something will happen…”
Fox describes the reporting of breaking news as a phenomenon that moves with increasing speed nowadays – closer and closer to terminal velocity.
“We’re in that game of ‘guess-what’s-happening-while-it’s-happening’ reporting, which is the outcome of the acceleration via technology of storytelling to a point where it’s in real time. There’s no time for any reflection or investigation – it’s just describing what you’re seeing, and speculation… It can’t really get much faster unless we’re getting predictive…”
Embedded in a meshed environment of online/offline events, mediated by the ubiquitous teleprompter, are we watchers or actors in PROMPTER’s performative web?
“We’re playing with converging disaster and that counter-transference of ethic and empathy that happens with media when you’re watching something far away. Are you really indulging your own concerns?”
“We’re interested in the tension of power, and I think the events of the world that parallel this work are showing that people do have agency. PROMPTER is pretty big, with degrees of visual spectacle, and I think it has a high currency of rigorous ideas that play out in action – so I hope that people come out quite charged.”
Arts House, Meat Market
Fri 9 – Sun 18 August, 2013