Clare Brennan

Could arts criticism benefit from technology?

Due to this worldwide health crisis the performing arts have come to a standstill almost everywhere. This affects not only the work of the artists, but also that of the art critics. However, change creates opportunities. Suppose you could use this time of contemplation to think up a number of things: What changes in the role of art criticism (in relation to the performing arts) would be desirable? Could the international performing arts festivals play a role in this? And what do you hope to get more time and publishing opportunities for in the future as a critic?

What is the role of arts criticism, if not to stimulate and develop the constantly evolving conversation between performance and its surrounding society? In this sense, the role is unchanging and arts criticism stands in the same relation to the arts as a fixed point does to movement. The fixed point is the stillness against which the features of the movement are revealed; it allows us to perceive how one thing stands in relation to another. But the fixed point is not static – not, ultimately, ‘fixed’. As the theatre teacher Jacques Lecoq said: movement reveals the fixed point, which is itself also in movement (like the head of a bird in flight, which remains still in relation to the beating wings while being propelled forward in space by them).

If the role of arts criticism is a fixed point, its expression, the ways it communicates, the channels through which it communicates are (or should be) endlessly shifting and re-forming (as well as reforming). The present pandemic is, potentially, a catalyst for changes to these channels of communication. (It is also a terrible thing and poses great threats to all our futures, not only to the arts. That is a subject for another day.)

One immediate effect of the pandemic was to rupture the usual pattern of relations in the performing arts. The French philosopher and drama critic Henri Gouhier saw the identifying feature of live performances as the experience of artists and audiences ‘breathing the same air in the same bit of space at the same moment’. Social distancing makes such sharing impossible in countries and regions where public gatherings are no longer permitted. Artists are finding ways to produce work in these changed circumstances that also present potential opportunities for criticism.

Some artists have responded to changes by following established routes, using technological media to make available performances that already existed but were not generally accessible. Consequently, it is now possible to see an astounding range of work. Performances that used to be locked into coordinates of time and space, or were rendered inaccessible because of high-priced tickets, are now available to anyone with online access. Viewing figures show that online audiences way outnumber audiences for the same productions when they were presented in physical venues. How might arts criticism reach these new audiences? Mass circulation print publications (struggling to maintain readership) are continuing to shrink the space available to the arts; online criticism (whether in edited forms or created by individual bloggers) can struggle to make its presence known. What if critical responses were linked to broadcasts?

Some artists and companies are developing their work in new ways but then delivering it via the old, familiar formats. For example, socially distanced artists link up through a platform (such as Zoom) to rehearse a work (new or pre-existing) that is then recorded and presented online for audiences to tune into when they choose. The means of production is innovative, but its presentation – as a pre-recorded performance – is not. Is there a way for arts criticism to be linked in to the creation process, so that viewers can access a critical commentary – maybe following the model offered on some DVDs? Would artists be willing to share the platform in this way with critics? Might the new circumstances, imposed by the pandemic, reconfigure relations between artists and critics?

Some other artists are not only developing but also delivering work in new ways. They are using platforms such as Zoom to enable them to perform live, in front of a live audience, even though all involved are in different geographical locations. People reserve places (for free, for a price, or on a pay-what-you-will basis) for a production, featuring one or more performers, to be streamed at a pre-arranged time. All share the same moment but not the same space (an option not envisaged by Gouhier in the mid-20th century). In some instances, audiences are even invited to participate. Could arts criticism benefit from technology? Could techniques be adapted from gaming or sports broadcasting: Virtual Reality simulations to reconstruct patterns of movement, to illustrate alternative stagings and so highlight choices - made by performers / directors / choreographers / designers – of lighting, sound, etc. – and their consequences?

For arts criticism, the possibilities presented by artists’ responses to our new situation are exciting; the practicalities, however, can be frustrating. If people are turning more and more to the arts as they try to orient themselves through this Covid crisis, then the role of arts criticism - to stimulate and develop the constantly evolving conversation between performance and its surrounding society – is all the more necessary. Too often, though, criticism is marginalised, treated as a bolt-on extra to the artwork (by publishers, artists, audiences and readers/watchers/listeners). In order to fulfil its function, criticism has to be valued.

International performing arts festivals have a role to play in affirming the value of arts criticism and in developing the virtuous circle of critical communication. By their cross-cultural nature, festivals offer experiences of works that may not only delight but also surprise and challenge audiences and artists alike. In this context, the fixed-point benefits of criticism – describing, contextualising, comparing and contrasting, questioning – are particularly apparent. By integrating conversations between artists, critics and audiences into their programmes, festivals acknowledge the role of criticism and highlight its value. By constantly questioning how this is done, who does it and for whom, festivals and criticism can keep adapting to a world where, in the word of Jacques Lecoq, ‘tout bouge’ – everything is always in motion.

In future, as a critic, I hope to have more time and more opportunities to engage in discussions – via all available means - with audiences, artists and fellow critics who will challenge, enlarge, disrupt and share my ideas and feelings about performance.


If you could choose any production or artist from the initial Holland Festival 2020 programming to write about, or meet the artist, who/what would that be and why?

If I could choose any production or artist, I would choose Garin Nugroho and his production, The Planet – A Lament.

Why so? I would like to hear Nugroho talk more about the ideas behind the words he spoke in an interview earlier this year: ‘For me, all of that [tsunami, bloody conflicts, wild fires, etc.] is the path of lament, a story of suffering humanity to find the path of love and resurrection that must be lived when the world is so hard and vulgar.’ These words would have resonated at any time. Now, they hit with particular force. We are all enduring the effects of a worldwide pandemic. In countries across the world, Black People are rising to claim the right to equality, cruelly and unjustly withheld from so many for so long. People everywhere are battling monstrousnesses of oppression. There is much to lament, but there is the possibility of a path of love and resurrection. If we can find it and stay on it, another world becomes possible.

The Planet – A Lament is based on a Papuan myth and set against the background of a natural disaster. What attracts me about the production (from what I have read) is that the form seems to reflect the content. It is a multi-media mix of song, dance and film, created by participants from across the Indonesian archipelago and Australia, suggesting interweavings of multiplicities: of cultures, identities and forms of expression. Nugroho’s message, conveyed through the multi-faceted performance, appears simultaneously assured and tentative: 'Perhaps it is through the collective process of mourning that we can imagine new futures.' I suspect I am not the only one who feels they will benefit from the inspiration and encouragement Nugroho and his production seem to offer.



Clare Brennan (UK) has reviewed theatre around the UK for The Observer since 2005. Having studied dramatic theories at the University of Edinburgh and dramatic practice at L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq and with Philippe Gaulier in Paris, she spent a couple of decades directing / devising / designing / dramaturging with small-to-medium scale theatre companies in the UK and mainland Europe. Between productions, she worked in journalism, including writing arts-related articles for a range of national UK newspapers.