How COVID Has Inspired Digital Performance Art and Where It Might Go

performance art online during covid

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I have intended to get back to posting here regularly for quite some time. I haven’t done that for myriad reasons but a lot of things have inspired me recently, and I’m finally motivated to get back to it. Tonight I am watching Digital Witness: Performance in the Era of Online-Only, a Zoom panel discussion hosted by SOMArts. It’s a smart, articulate, intriguing, edgy discussion about how performance artists are adapting to a digital forum in the era of COVID-19.

Everyone Is Active On Screens Right Now

It speaks to something I have been thinking about a lot lately, which I haven’t quite really been able to think through well enough yet to clearly express my thoughts on it, but it’s been whirling in the air around me. I’ve been a little bit fatigued by the whole Zoom thing. When this first started, it seemed like everyone wanted to Zoom, Facetime, connect via screen to a much greater degree than ever before. It was far more contact (albeit screen contact) than I’m used to in my regular life. So I took a break. But in the past couple of weeks I’ve started tuning in to more talks and performances, and that really works for me, because it’s the interactive “feeling on” part that’s exhausting for me, not the screen itself being on.

Vau de Vire Mayday Performance

The first big performance art thing I saw was a couple of weeks ago when I “went to” Vau de Vire’s Mayday show. I love their in-person events (including Edwardian Ball) and was curious how that would translate to the screen. It worked in some ways and didn’t in others. They had some glitches, which were to be expected as we all learn to navigate this online world, and weren’t too problematic for me personally as a viewer. They had multiple Zoom rooms going at the same time including DJ-hosted dance parties, Tourettes Without Regrets variety show, erotic prose reading in a bathtub setting, an interactive BINGO game, and a “live” sketching event. It was fun. It wasn’t the same as doing those things in person, but that doesn’t mean it was worse (or better) just a little bit different.

theaters are closed due to covid

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

How Are Things Changing As This Medium Grows?

It, along with other things I’ve been watching unfold, made me very intrigued by this medium. It is amateur in a way and yet we have tools and background that mean some people make it more professional than others. And there’s been an interesting shift as shelter-in-place/quarantine impacts more mainstream performance, including live performance but also television. For example, The Voice and American Idol are both on this season and instead of watching performers on a stage on a screen, we watch them perform in their own homes, and it’s almost like just watching random YouTube performances, but there’s a slight edge of higher production that makes it just a tad different than that.

It makes me wonder how television, movies, video casts, performance art, museum shows and so forth are all going to change as a direct result of the fact that COVID limitations are causing people to innovate and create in this new way.

Things are changing. And I hope that when things go back to “normal” – meaning when we can once again gather in crowds and watch live performances together – that this new medium will continue to evolve and thrive alongside that in-person performance. I’m curious about the role that virtual reality might play in this. We could join in to interactive events via Zoom, utilizing VR and AR technology, to be able to feel more in-person when online … and when we perform in person we can also add a virtual element for people who can’t attend in person. I’d like to see more melding of those things.

artists making money during covid

Photo by Travis Essinger on Unsplash

Artists and Alternative Economies

One of the things that they are talking about on this panel discussion is the financial aspect of performance art done from home during a time when people can’t leave their homes.

Two people (Biqtch Puddin and Meg Chase) spoke from Digital Drag about how they have been able to give performing artists a platform to earn money during a time when they are seriously wondering how they are going to pay the rent or feed their families. They gave several examples, but I’m sure you can also think of many examples yourself. Artists are struggling but artists are also innovators and are taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and making a new economy.

One of the things that I find interesting is the way that this medium, as a new medium, isn’t exactly new because it so closely parallels the rise – so many years ago – of cam girls and webcam performances which have traditionally been pay-for-sexual-content but are not that different from pay-for-art-online.

Another speaker, Mica Sigourney/Vivvy from The Stud (which has such a rich interesting history as an innovative art space as well as an artist collective), spoke to the fact that in a way this also equalizes performance art. For example, they can host a drag show and invite well-known performers as well as little-known performers and they can pay them both the same. Then they can offer a tip function so well-known performers might ultimately earn more but it gives local performers a chance to gain audience while earning money.

I currently pay for Netflix, Philo, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. But I would be willing to cut back on those and instead pay local and indie artists for creative work viewed through the screen.

The Democracy of Online Performance Art

So in a way, it’s a democratic platform, and in a way it’s not. On one hand, there are so many ways in which it is so much more accessible to perform online. You can potentially reach a lot more people. But there is also some element of privilege, because you have to not only have access to decent Internet and technological tools, but you also have to have the ability (time, space, money, energy, education, etc) to be able to deal with the digital requirements of performing in that way.

anxiety of online performance during COVID

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Anxiety of Online Performance

Since one of my personal areas of interest is mental health, particularly how that intersects with art and craft, I’ve been especially interested by a part of tonight’s discussion that’s about anxiety in online performance vs. how that shows up as an in-stage performer.

One of the drag performers discussed how it’s one thing to have stage jitters but then you get up there and you do your thing and if you flub, particularly with lip sync, you can cover it up or move along. But if you pre-record your online performance and then edit it, you notice every single mistake, you see yourself differently, you might experience more perfectionism which itself is related to anxiety. So anxiety exists in both forums but in different ways. And I would guess that some people will deal with one a lot better than another.

I have written a book about Internet Addiction. And the whole selfie, curated life self-obsession of putting yourself out there online can become an addiction. So I’m personally curious how this – the medium of performance art growing online – will affect people in that particular arena. People are definitely turning to screens when they would otherwise be out and about, interacting with other humans, and it will be intriguing to see where that goes in ways both good and less positive.

I appreciated that they also discussed in this panel discussion how people are all handling the pandemic differently … that for some people creating right now helps them get through this tough time and other people aren’t motivated to create. I want to add that either extreme and everything in between are “okay” – be where you are.

There is a self-imposed – and perhaps culturally-imposed, pressure to make use of this time by learning a new skill or digging into your creativity. However, there’s a chance that your own mental health, dealing with the anxiety and stress and isolation of COVID-19, might have you in a place where you can’t do that, where that doesn’t feel good. You certainly shouldn’t shame yourself, or anyone else, for what they can or cannot, do or don’t, create during this time.

Where We Are, Where We Are Going

This panel discussion online addresses two different issues: what are artists doing right now today to stay afloat and creative in innovative ways through online performance art (interactive or one-directional) and then also questioning where that might go in the future, as a medium itself and also how to might impact individual and collective art in the future.

There aren’t answers. We don’t know. This is all emerging and evolving. But it’s fascinating. And even though I can’t quite articulate exactly what I think about it, it’s an area that I’m watching with a close eye right now, trying to gather my thoughts and immerse myself in it for more complete understanding.

People to Check Out From This Panel Discussion

If you’re interested in what people are doing in this medium then a good place to start is to follow the people who were part of this panel discussion I’m watching tonight:

If you like this post, then you might want to check out the book Artist as Culture Producer. And here are some relevant links:


Featured Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash


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