2007 - 2021

The Performance of Self on The Stage & Social Media

“I am not the “I” in my poems. “I” is the net I try to pull myself in with.”
– Toi Derricotte

Soon, it shall be August, and the capital will once again play host to the nation’s performers, plying their exuberant trades. After eighteen months of uncertainty and unemployment for the majority of musicians, comedians, actors, poets and dancers, this is a welcome, if tentative, return to live performance. It will necessarily be a different kind of Fringe this year – which might not be such a bad thing, Edinburgh in August was beginning to have the feel of an astroturfed, white picket fencing gin convention – but if there is one thing that all performers have been forced to do during the pandemic, it is to adapt. Audiences have, I am sure, greatly missed the glamour, suspense, intrigue, event, excitement and entertainment that only live music or theatre can afford, but what has it been like to be a performer without an audience or stage?

My last live, in-person gig was in early March of 2020. An almost unthinkable concept now: a packed out pub, full of people breathing all over one another with gay abandon, there to drink pints and watch poetry. Afterward, my merry band of enchanted revellers journeyed to the Jazz Bar, an Edinburgh institution, and danced, boob to back, to their house band of jobbing musicians. If we had known then that that would be the last Big Night, the last night that would even be possible for so long, surely we would never have come home…

But, of course, that is not really the ‘last time’ that I performed. Like so many, I have spent more time staring at myself through a camera lens in the last year than the government has. I have trained myself down to a zoom-shaped rectangle and become used to emoting to the green light on my laptop, like I’m bloody Jay Gatsby. Yes, almost all of my work has taken place on the information superhighway, that liminal land that we inhabit, the closest thing that we have had to a packed out public space for some time. And those of us who are willing (or who are unwilling but feel that they have no other option) to maintain some kind of online presence are performing all the time: performing an authenticity, performing a public persona of ‘ourselves’.

Self-performance is not a completely new concept to me, in fact, spoken word poetry kind of relies upon it. I spoke to Dr Katie Ailes about her research into the performance and perception of authenticity in spoken word poetry: “As I was getting really involved in the spoken word scene,” she says, “one thing that kept happening was that people would come up to me after the show and say ‘thank you for your honesty’, and it got me thinking: to what extent are audiences assuming authenticity, and to what extent are those assumptions correct?”

Of course, how one defines authenticity in artistic work is philosophically tricky territory, which begets questions surrounding autobiographical truth versus emotional truth, and this is particularly the case when it comes to any so-called ‘confessional’ work. One does not assume that an actor portraying King Lear is reiterating a ‘true’ story, per say, but one could agree that there is a truth to the themes and emotions of the play. However, in spoken word poetry, where the performer is often – at least allegedly – honestly sharing personal experiences in pretty emotionally charged environments, the boundaries between emotional and literal truth become more blurred. As Katie Ailes says, “authenticity functions as an aesthetic and moral quality within the genre.”

And this aesthetic of authenticity can relate to more than just the poetry’s content: “I ended up coming up with ten different strains of authenticity that I perceived. One of the big ones was what I called ‘authenticity of motivation’, the assumption that poets are performing for pure, true reasons – because they care.” Other strains defined by Dr Katie Ailes include authenticity of autobiographical self, temporal state and voice. (Perhaps the biggest untruth that I portray when I am performing my work is one of performative spontaneity: using timing, my voice and body language to insinuate that lines of poetry are just occurring to me organically, in the moment; like I am a character soliloquising, and not a mildly tipsy twenty-something reading a piece written years before and performed hundreds of times).

Katie adds, “I also looked at identity, cultural assumptions behind race and gender, ability and class, and how those are often inherently associated with authenticity.” And this is, I think, a really important point. In an art form that, due to the prevalence of slams, is often relatively competitive, and that values perceived authenticity so highly, a presumed hierarchy of subject matter can emerge. When we deem certain lived experiences to be, in some way, more “real”, that can put a pressure on especially new and younger performers to provide something confessional in order to be deemed authentic, and therefore, good. The exploration of trauma through art is, of course, a very human and beautiful compulsion. But as performers, we are aware of the protective boundary of the fourth wall – the facade. What happens when that boundary becomes less opaque?

During the pandemic, almost all art – and especially performance-based art – has had to move online. With little to no public, in-person artistic events such as exhibitions, festivals, gigs or theatre taking place, artists and performers have had to turn to social media in order to share and promote their work. This move has proved both useful, and, at times, incredibly depressing, with many complicated factors affecting the practice, livelihoods and mental health of independent artists. For example, the biases of algorithms, the pressure to give artistic work away for free, the blurring of life and work, the public and the private, and the commodification of the self.

Social media is all about engagement, and favours the users that post regularly. Therefore, maintaining an active social media presence has become yet another laborious part of the job of being a self-employed artist in the present day. We have essentially all become our own PR agents – as well as being our own secretaries and managers. There was a time when it was enough to simply be good at writing songs, or painting landscapes, but it is becoming increasingly the case that in order to succeed as an artist one must also have a great marketing mind, and be willing to perform, or market oneself, through social media. To blur the borders between the private and the public. Art and artifice, social media and the business of self-performance is a very timely topic indeed, recently explored to great effect by comedian and youtube star Bo Burnham in his latest special ‘Inside’. But one needn’t even be famous for these themes to ring, literally and emotionally, true. We may not have had access to stages, or audiences over the last eighteen months, not in ‘real life’, anyway. But what is social media if not a platform – a stage – from which to perform oneself, and one’s life?

Performance poets adopt the aesthetic of honesty and openness, but, in truth, they are editors, with control over how much of themselves they share, which details they wish to divulge and which details they wish to keep secret, how certain truths are told and from what perspective: how their lives are framed. Similarly with, say, an image shared on social media, one can choose what is in the frame, and at what angle the image is taken. The implication with both is that the audience is being offered a little window into another’s life, but these glimpses are heavily curated. I don’t need to tell you how damaging the perceived authenticity of everyone else’s successful, glamorous and definitely-much-happier-than-yours lives can be.

I did something incredibly scientific, in the name of research, and conducted a twitter poll – asking artists and performers whether they would have social media at all if it weren’t for the pressure to self-promote, and a resounding 85% said that no, they would not. I have a lot of sympathy. There is something incredibly unsatisfying, and even inhuman, about the hard work that one has put into a piece of art being rewarded with a handful of likes, and quickly snowed under on the infinite scroll by the millions of other pieces of so-called ‘content’ being shared at any given moment on this dizzyingly vast cyberspace-cum-shared consciousness that we inhabit. Of course, there is the option to not engage, but for those of us, artist or not, who have wanted to continue to find some way of connecting during the pandemic, this has really been the only option.

“I feel burn out from putting myself out there, sometimes, and like I need some time to recharge and just live privately,” said comedian Amelia Bayler (who, as it so happens, was on the lineup alongside me at The Last Gig), when I asked her about these pressures to perform. I was keen to talk to a stand-up, it being another medium that typically involves performative authenticity, and, indeed, a medium that relies so heavily on audience reaction. Amelia has found the streaming platform Twitch useful in achieving some sense of interaction, and has been performing on it regularly during the pandemic. “Online I often wear a lot of wigs and costumes, which can be a nice divide between online and offline. I’ve learnt that as a performer, it can be a protection thing, to create a persona. I used to over-share all the time, but now I feel the need to protect myself more. I definitely feel tempted to be more vulnerable during a live ‘IRL’ performance, as that is something in the moment, where I can see everyone in the room and really feel the subtleties in the energy. Online it feels like I’m being vulnerable without knowing the boundaries or feeling the energy from other people, so afterwards I feel really anxious.

Book designer at Stewed Rhubarb press, James T Harding, wrote a tweet recently that posed the question: who do people imagine that they are addressing when they write a tweet? In this case, I suppose it was me, for that rather profound philosophical question stuck with me. Who are we doing all of this for? Who do I even imagine I am addressing when I write or perform poems? It is not as simple as ‘the void’, there is an audience. But I suppose that in the case of social media, it is a little more akin to performing on a stage where the stage lights are so bright that you can’t see the reactions of the potentially hundreds of other consciousnesses perceiving you. They become kind of void-shaped.

A self is something so much more vast than an instagram story, or even a poem, can encapsulate. A life is something to be experienced, not performed or curated… But when your life is your work, and your work takes up the majority of your life, these boundaries between what is online and what is offline, what is private and what is public, what is emotionally true and what is emotionally false, what is performance and what is candid, what is art and what is artifice, can become incredibly ill-defined.

Comments (18)

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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    Philosophically speaking, ‘authenticity’ is a fairly straightforward concept. It designates the degree to which a person’s actions are congruent with their beliefs and desires. Those who enjoy a relatively high degree of authenticity are contrasted with poseurs, whose actions are more at odds with their beliefs and desires.

    Performers perform actions. In the performing arts, they perform actions that are prescribed by the work they’re enacting, whether that work is a story, a song, a poem, a dance, a carving, a concept or whatever. The question of the performer’s authenticity has to do with whether of not her performance is congruent with her beliefs and desires, rather than with something else; with the need to make money, for example, by pleasing an audience or satisfying a client.

    An authentic performance is one that is ‘heartfelt’ rather than mercenary or cynical. It can be a simple as that.

    Of course, a performance can be both heartfelt and exchangeable. Then the performing artist is in the happy position where her art and her business coincide and her authenticity isn’t compromised by its commodification. But that’s comparatively rare.


    1. Niemand says:

      The problem with this analysis and the focus of the article when it comes to authenticity is that it assumes authenticity is inscribed rather than ascribed. In fact one could say there are different types of authenticity and they are ascribed as such. The article does talk about different types of authenticity (10 I think it says) but the details given are all about what Moore describes as first person authenticity i.e. that which is all about the artist ‘telling it like it is’ for them and the audience believing that. This is what most people think when you talk about artistic authenticity – a ‘heartfelt’ performance rather than something ‘mercenary or cynical’.

      But what about the receiver? It is they who really ascribe this authenticity and second person authenticity is where the artist tells is like it is for the audience. It matters not what the integrity of the artist really is – if it authenticates the receiver, then it is authentic for them. Hence a manufactured pop band is very authentic to the young fans who love them but not to others because it validates their experience. Third person authenticity is authenticity of style and adhering convincingly to the expectations of said style / genre.

      I find these delineations much more useful when thinking about authenticity than the relentless focus on how ‘honest’ a performance, or whatever, is, as if it is somehow inscribed in the work itself (and that is different to integrity of creation). All art is artifice and performative to some extent, especially as the author says, when something is performed again and again but if the audience feels authenticated, it is authentic in one important sense as they ascribe it so. There is no single, pure authenticity inscribed in any work of art.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yes, I agree; I think all value (truth, justice, utility, authenticity, etc.) is ascribed rather than inscribed, and we always ascribe it in accordance with some or other set of evaluative criteria.

        (A big part of philosophy is making explicit the evaluative criteria implicit in our value-judgements and then testing them for their congruence and coherence. The reflexivity of such an enterprise is what makes philosophy so queer.)

        These criteria vary from critic to critic. Thus, for the artist, the authenticity of a performance might be ascribed according to how congruent it is with her own beliefs and desires; for her audience, it might be ascribed according to how congruent it is with their life-experience; for the connoisseur or critic, it might be ascribed according to how congruent it is with the canon.

        Authenticity is not an absolute; it’s contingent on the evaluative criteria by which it’s ascribed to performances, which is in turn relative to the concern of whoever’s making the judgement and the interest they have in making that judgement.

  2. Barry Graham says:

    I wonder how necessary social media really is for artists; since quitting all surveillance capitalism some years ago, I haven’t noticed any difference in my book sales or acceptance of my work for publication in magazines.

    Regarding the self that performs, “I” like Lacan’s view that the I which speaks and the I which is spoken of are not the same.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Yep, the ‘I’ that speaks does not exist, while the ‘I’ that’s spoken does. Therein lies the difference.

    2. Mouse says:

      Lucky you. Try an ‘online orchestra rehearsal’. It’s soul-destroying, it’s pointless, it takes forever, and it’s a waste of life. And you’re probably doing it after you have been sacked a long time ago. And that’s been it for 16 fucking months. Because of some respiratory ‘flu.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Sounds like your orchestra needs a more skilful conductor.

      2. Wul says:

        “Because of some respiratory ‘flu…”

        You’re not in the wind section then? Do you know anyone whose had ‘flu for 16 months? Not funny when your lungs stop working properly.

        1. Paula Becker says:

          Wul, I’m struggling to make sense of your comment. Are you referring to ‘Long Covid’ ? . Are you saying that orchestras can never again play together, live , in front of an audience because of ‘Long Covid’ ?

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Who’s saying that orchestras can never again play together, live, in front of an audience? I’m sure at least some will choose to do so again once we have achieved sufficient control over the spread of the virus (i.e. when the pandemic ends), just as we did in relation to ‘flu pandemic a century ago.

  3. Barry Graham says:

    I think this cartoon from The Oatmeal makes a good point: https://social.tchncs.de/@Blort/106600323671807196

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Shame he’s not at least adopted an open social network, which relies on word-of-mouth rather than algorithms to grow itself.

  4. Mouse says:

    ‘what has it been like to be a performer without an audience or stage?’

    What a stupid question.

    It’s been exactly like stacking shelves in Tesco. Begging on you-moronic-tube.com doesn’t work. You would get better paid blogging about nationalist-art-socialism-nationalism.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      But performing via digital media does work, in exactly the same way that performing via analog TV and radio works. The salient difference is that digital media are far more accessible to performers.

      1. Paula Becker says:

        Mouse is talking about playing as a collective, in the same room – as orchestras should play. And preferably with an audience in the same room too.

        (But of course you know this)

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          Yes, I see the problem. But it’s a technical problem that relates to how you can replicate virtually the physical space in which an orchestra performs. This is a problem that’s being actively addressed by many communities of interest, and not just orchestras. My eldest lad’s a freelance sound designer. He tells me his industry is awash with money in search of technical solutions to this very problem of enabling musicians to perform together ‘live’ in virtual spaces, to audiences who can share that virtual space, and who aren’t excluded from ‘live’ performance by constraints imposed on them by their physical location.

      2. Mouse says:

        It only works one person at a time. It’s physically impossible to record 12 people playing a piece of music online without doing it one at a time. Which is really dire. 12 people sitting at home, playing with others at stage volume can’t work because everyone bleeds the whole noise x 12 when they’re recording. It can’t work through headphones, because there wouldn’t be anything to hear apart from you. It only works with a dispiriting click track. One at a time. Then mixed at a future date. It’s mechanical. Check out youtube and it’s almost always solo stuff, unless they were allowed to get on a stage together back in the day.

        1. Niemand says:

          Yes I get this but I think you exaggerate. Some good stuff has been done ‘one at a time’ that resulted in a great end product and had a genuine level of satisfaction for the performers. It is a lesser substitute for sure, but not like stacking shelves at the supermarket. And in fact leads to a new type of performance video for the virtual world.

          Like this for example:


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