It’s one thing to incorporate cutting-edge technology into art. If you think about it, it’s quite normal. The history of music, to take an easy example, is very much the history of technology – unless you’re improvising with your own voice, a capella, outdoors, you’re most likely leveraging some combination of physical instruments – the core tools for making music, architecture, writing, and, in the last century, electricity, telecommunications, and computing, to make your art. Theater, dance, and the visual arts all have these trends as well, embracing the maximum level of available technology as a natural part of cultural innovation.
But while it’s one thing to incorporate technology into art, it’s quite another thing to use it to explore, demystify, critique, and challenge that very same technology and its role in our lives. For the past quarter-century, the Builders Association have been doing just that. In 1994, long before we ever heard the term “Internet of Things,” Marianne Weems and her collaborators presented Master Builder – a modern take on Ibsen where the audience explores a technologically haunted house that doubles as the stage for the play. Long before outsourcing and the gig economy became topics of concern for presidential primary debates, the Builders’ collaboration with UK-based intercultural arts group Motiroti, Alladeen explores the world, lives, and aspirations of Indian call center workers who we regularly summon when we call an 800 number. And while most of us still basked in the pre-Snowden naivité that our data was local, private, and anodyne, and Facebook was still concerned with connecting Ivy League students, Super Vision (2005) showed us the ways in which overzealous border agents, long-distance video conferencing, and the ability of parents to make economic decisions in the name of their minor children can conspire to create data that can be weaponized, heartbreaking, and beyond our control.
Alongside these thought-provoking, radically ahead of the curve premises for theatrical expression, the Builders seamlessly integrate beautiful media into the live stage in a way that’s seldom seen. Their sets are theater-sized works of installation art that integrate with the drama – often immersive, sometimes interactive, but never a distraction that unnecessarily draws focus from the actors on stage. As one of the few live theater groups that explicitly treat mass media as a subject of study and creative exploration, their works are invaluable to our cultural moment, as the line between real life and performance becomes more and more permeable.
R. Luke Dubuois is Associate Professor of Integrated Digital Media (Tandon), Music Technology (Steinhardt), and Interactive Telecommunications (Tisch) at NYU.