Cybernetic Feedback Processes in Music-Theatre Practice: The Im-Medea Cycle

The Im-Medea cycle is a series of nine experiments/performances, based mainly on Heiner Müller’s text Despoiled Shore/MedeaMaterial/Landscape with Argonauts, conducted between 2014 and 2017. It was a series of technologically-aided audience-immersive music-theatre performances. The works relied on the distribution and management of information, behavioural and signal feedback between audience members, performers and technology. They were based on participation and therefore they were unique each time experienced. The experience also relied on the technologies that managed the flow of information that organised the performances.

Due to its interdisciplinarity, the research inevitably drew inspiration (in the form of a network) from different theoretical notions and art practices. The study was shaped by theories on posthumanism; systems theory and cybernetics. It was also informed by processes taking place in participatory performances, interactive installation art and immersive theatre. Our intention was to introduce elements of these different art practices and theories in a music-theatre context, to devise hybrid audience-immersive and interactive music-theatre works.

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1. On Orchestration

Opera and music-theatre have been defined as “orchestrated experience[s]” (Till 2014). This definition inspired and contributed greatly to the conceptualisation of this project. Orchestration can be understood as the combination of different instruments in a composition based on their timbre properties. Instruments are ever-changing: current approaches to instrument-making embed human-computer interaction, feedback processes and cybernetic principles. Methods of performer-technology interaction have been successfully applied in new music-theatre: Aperghis’ Paysage Sous Surveillance (2002), Machover’s Death and the Powers (2010), and Carl Unander- Scharin’s The Throat (2014⁠).

Another use of the term orchestration comes from informatics, and it describes the “mechanism that defines how web services work together” (David and Chalon 2009, 797). It can be understood as a system that arranges, coordinates and manages complex computer systems, a sort of system of systems. This definition also relates to feedback processes, cybernetics, and system theories. Being intrigued by this latter definition we embarked on observing the applicability of such concept of orchestration in music-theatre making. We started by contemplating how the music or the theatrical action could be the result of live computational operations and feedback algorithms, and whether such processes could be happening live in a music-theatre context.

Looking for possible processes that could be useful in our inquiry, we came along art models based on instrumented and responsive spaces that employ spectator-technology interactive models in different practices. In these works, the spectators are immersed in—real or virtual—spaces and offered a kinesthetic experience “orchestrated” by computational processes­—e.g. the installations N-Cha(n)t (Rokeby, 2001⁠), Map1 (Paine, 1997⁠) and Jordan Edge’s Acclimate (2017). In these works, the presence and movement of the visitors in the space are monitored through sensors. The data collected is sonified live, contributing to the visitor’s experience of the installation. In music performance, Jason Freeman’s Glimmer (2004) and Flock (2007) challenge traditional notions of music orchestration and instrumentation, as in these works music making is also based on spectator-technology interaction. Here though, the movement of the visitors in the space is used to generate the scores that the musicians interpret in real time. However, it is crucial to mention that there seems to be a lack of adaptation and appropriation of any of these processes in music-theatre.

2. Cybernetic Feedback Processes

2.1 Theatre and music

One of the most influential bodies of work that links cybernetics and performing arts is that of Gordon Pask (Pangaro 1993), and it is not a coincidence that Pask wrote a Proposal on Cybernetic Theatre (Pask 1964) theorising and experimenting on the application of cybernetic theory in narrative-based theatre performances. For Pask, the audience’s role in cybernetic theatre is first and foremost participatory. To achieve this participatory aspect, he envisioned the audience that should sit in armchairs with a control panel of two buttons that would work as remote controls. The audience could change the plot and direction of the play by controlling the “thoughts” or “actions” of a performer by conveying predetermined suggestions and instructions to them (ibid., 5). Cybernetic theatre would be based on already existing plays and custom-made works. Alongside Pask’s work, Jeff Pressing (Pressing 1990) and Christina Dunbar-Hester (Dunbar-Hester 2010) have argued that the historical continuum of cybernetics in music can be tracked from the post-war composers and the introduction of new composition processes that can be linked directly to cybernetics as “the idea of composition, involving formalized rules and plans, was challenged by experimental musicians and composers, who were not interested in orienting around a "product" that would be achieved by traditional composition but instead a process of creating music through the interaction of performers, audience, and environment [...] the entire process of composition and performance is conceived of as enrolling the performers, the instruments, and the audience into a ‘system’ of experience that is distinct, and experienced as subjectively unique, and yet is part of an ongoing process” (Dunbar-Hester 2010, 124—125).

For example, in Public Opinion Depends Upon The Demonstrators (1962), Robert Ashley “reads” the actions and movements of the seated audience as if they were the score, while he controls the mixing desk. Underlying the relation between music practice and cybernetics, more recently, Simon Waters wrote about autonomous musical systems, a series of “hybrid virtual/physical feedback instruments” (Waters 2007, 1). In his work he does not merely observe the interactions between performer and instrument, but also the interactions and feedback loops generated between instrument and social/acoustic environments (ibid., 3). In order to describe the interactions and intricate relations between performer, instrument and environment, Waters used the term performance ecosystems—a term originally coined by John Bowers. This notion of performance ecosystems gave a different spin to our creative research. It suggested the possibility of a music-theatre performance as an ecosystem, an ecosystem that includes audience and performers, a system of interrelations and negotiating dynamics between its composing parts.

2.2 Immersive performances

Immersive theatre is defined as a theatre practice in which the audience is asked to transit the theatrical landscape and often interact with the performers, in order to discover and contribute with their personal input to the plot and dramaturgy. The term “‘immersive’, developed from computing technology, [and] describes that which ‘provides information or stimulation for a number of senses, not only sight and sound’”(Machon 2013, 21). This holistic approach towards immersive sensing echoes the importance that Ascott gave to visual, tactile, olfactory and oral senses for cybernetic artworks which he calls behavioural environments and as in interactive installations, synaesthesia is extremely important also in immersive performances (Ascott 2007, 191, Stiles and Selz, 2012).

Immersive theatre aims towards offering an all-round experience to participants. Such experience can be one-to-one or involve large numbers of performers and audience members. The core of the practice resides in feedback processes and the relationships established between audience and performers, as well as similar processes between audience and their surrounding environment. Such performances are organised and developed by sympoietic and autopoietic feedback processes and therefore become unpredictable. Each performance is a unique experience organised by the behavioural feedback between the participants and the performance ecosystem.

For Erica Fischer-Lichte, the notion of an autopoietic feedback loop between audience and performers in immersive performance art practice is key for the emergence of the materiality of performance and the emergence of meaning, as “emotions strongly affected the feedback loop’s autopoiesis… [e]ach individual brings forth meanings according to their subjective conditions. What applies to the feedback loop’s autopoiesis in general also applies to the generation of meaning: everyone contributes to it and is influenced by it but no one controls it.… The meanings generated by the spectators in particular influence the feedback loop’s autopoiesis and trigger effects” (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 154).

The actual space in which the performance takes place has an equally great significance in this works. In that respect, immersion offers a deep sensorial and relational experience accentuating Gertrude Stein’s notion of theatrical landscape. For Stein the relational role of the theatrical landscape is a material-semiotic network between objects and subjects. Each object and subject is merely a node of the overall play, a node in the constellation of meaning: “The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have formation and be in relation one thing to the other and as the story is not the thing as any one is always telling something then the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or hear a story but the relation is there anyway” (Stein 1995, XLVII—XLVIII). Stein’s landscapes suggest the moment in the history of theatre when the attention to relations becomes the subject of the performance, a relation between objects subjects and events in the spatial-temporality of the play (Lorange 2014, 144). The presence in the theatrical landscape prompts the fusion of “feeling” and “understanding”, what Machon describes with (syn)aesthetics and preasence (Machon 2009, Machon 2013, 43).

And as Fischer-Lichte claims in these type of immersive performances “reality [is] not merely interpreted by the audience but first and foremost experienced” (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 16—17).

The audience experience in immersive theatre is the result of its own contribution. Audience members are observers, yet they have a strong agency in the performance, as they not only decide what to observe, but also how to behave in relation to the events. Such contribution from the audience in the process of observation suggests second order cybernetic principles and the participatory aspect of the observer in an observed system. Such artwork cannot exist “independent of its creator and recipient; instead, we are dealing with an event that involves everybody — albeit to different degrees and capacities” (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 18), an event constituted on cybernetic dynamics of feedback loops. Also, in immersive works the observer often becomes the subject of observation. In this context, the performance evolves navigating through the mutual responsibility and the constantly interchangeable role of observer and observed. Essentially, they are process-oriented rather than content-oriented experiences, as that relational process generates the actual content, offering possibilities for postdramatic practice.

3. The Im-Medea Cycle

This series of works was comprised of nine “phenomenological” experiments on new music-theatre. In a way they were a series of present-at-hand1, situations through which we were trying to decipher what the research findings actually appeared to be to us, to the performers and to those who attended them (Heidegger 1962). For the purposes of this article we will not present all the works developed, but only those that we consider more relevant and related to feedback processes and cybernetic theories.

All the performance experiments had a common point of departure, the abolition of the theatrical fourth wall notion; music-theatre spectators became voyagers in the performance landscape and agents in its making process (Stevenson 1995). They engaged in technological interaction and audience - performer interaction, whilst being immersed in the mise-en-scène. The spectator was envisioned to have a hybrid experience between music-theatre and interactive/immersive installation. Moreover, we strived to create a non-hierarchical environment between technology, performers, and audience. In this context, technology facilitated the hybridity of the performance environment. The environments were devised on rules-based algorithms, conditional/Boolean processes and flux diagrams of actions and reactions between these three entities (i.e. performers, audience and technology). Conceptually, the project was a “transindividual nervous system”, a sort of material-semiotic network between performers, audience and technology (Birringer 2004). Therefore, notions of interconnectivity and the multidirectional relations between humans and computers were crucial in the development of the experiences.


3.1 Experiment One

The first experiment involved Stephanie Pan, a classically trained opera singer whose vocal techniques extend beyond traditional practice (e.g. throat singing, multiphonics etc…). The first experiment investigated the relationship between technology and voice from the perspective of coexistence, interaction and synergy. We looked into the technical tools that would empower the audience to have a sympoietic role in the performance by controlling the processes applied on the singer’s voice and we observed the musical and dramaturgical possibilities offered by such synergy.

Initially, the singer was given instructions and written scores on how to perform text from Müller’s “Despoiled Shore”. She then worked with a controller glove through which she could regulate the parameters of audio processes taking place in SuperCollider that were applied to her amplified voice. When the voice was processed, the body became part of an extended hybrid system, through the use of strong amplification early in the gain chain structure, heavy compression, reverberation, granular synthesis and feedback algorithms (using the class InFeedback in SuperCollider). The sounds of lips, teeth, glottis and other fragile sound-making body-parts entered the foreground of the soundscape. When the voice was processed live, the focus shifted from the words to the fragile details of the sound and the aural signifiers that emerged from that process.

On the third day of this first experiment the glove was worn by members of the audience. The singer then initiated the computer processes and improvised on given musical instructions. The audience member manipulated the electronic sounds of her voice with the glove. This interaction lasted for 3 to 4 minutes and offered a one-to-one performance. The whole experience raised questions regarding whether the member of the audience had become a performer. Moreover, the scene offered interpretations related to power and control, as the participant had complete control over the electronically amplified and processed voice of the singer. The fact that an audience member could literally “lay hands” and control directly the most intimate musical instrument, the voice, brought forward allegories of power existing in Müller’s text, into a new dynamic standpoint. Moreover, in this experiment, a cybernetic relationship was established between the performer’s voice and the audience’s fingers, a feedback loop incorporated two people, linked and engaged in a homeostatic performance. As the distinction between observer and observed blurred, the performance roles became interchangeable in the system, a relationship echoing second order cybernetics. It was a closed system between two humans and a computer, a prototypical Human-Computer Interaction network in a music-theatre context.


3.2 The Impact Calculator

The second experiment took place during Always Already: Impact and the Everydaya symposium organised by the CCPR Group at University of Sussex. The aim of the symposium was to explore the relationship between creative practice and research, inside and outside the academia. The event focused on how experimental practice/critique/research partnerships address impact as an “always already” present aspect of creative and social practice. Our contribution to the symposium was a music-theatre performance, The Impact Calculator. It was a one-to-one performance with a sarcastic attitude towards the key subject of the symposium. 

One-to-one performances are short in duration, often shorter than fifteen minutes, but they rely heavily on the audience’s contribution. Each performance is unique, as each audience member is different, contributes differently to it. “In One to One performances the spectator is often invited to collaborate (to greater or lesser degrees) with the performer so that the two people create a shared experience – responsive and dialectic as opposed to imposed and prescribed. Participation in the performance event often triggers spontaneity, improvisation and risk - in both parties - and requires trust, commitment and a willingness to partake in the encounter” (Zerihan 2009).

The aim of the experiment was to further explore the potential of one-to-one experiences in music-theatre. We also wanted to devise a strategy that would enthuse the audience to engage in technological interaction with the performer, aiming to observe relational and cybernetic aspects in it.

For the performance, members of the audience had to queue outside a black box theatre space. Once the door opened the participant would come in, welcomed by the performer dressed in a lab coat. At the centre of the space was a table, with many different objects including a large screen with digital code, software, oscilloscopes, etc. Next to the screen were a couple of computers, interfaces, cables, a data glove and a printer. At the other side of the table there was a constellation of everyday objects from cutlery and ladles to dildos, and next to the table lay a double bass. After the participants entered the space the performer would claim to be a scientist working on the subject of “personal and social impact of art” and to have devised a machine that calculates that impact on any person. With the participant’s consent, the performer would equip them with the data glove. The participant was told that they would be “exposed” to free improvised music played by the scientist himself, who claimed to be a world class double bass performer that had to leave music for science “to pay his bills”. The participant was told that during the improvisation they should react with hand gestures inspired by the music. The performer claimed that these gestures would provide information about the impact art had on the participant. During the interaction, the audience’s hand gestures actually controlled the electronic sounds processes applied on the sound of the improvising double bass. Performer and participant were contributing to the aural result, one by playing the double bass and the other by playing the electronic sounds. The music created was the result of a mutual observation, listening, negotiation and adaptation. After the end of the performance, an automatic sort-of “medical report” was printed out: an A4 sheet containing data values from the glove sensors. Among these data were scattered words such as “cutting-edge”, “romantic” and “post- modern”. The performer then proceeded to highlight some of these words on the report, giving his interpretation about the impact that the art experience had on the participant. The report was the result of a computer-generated process unique for each performance —and therefore for each participant, and the performer had to improvise his interpretation of the report.

This experiment was an interactive music-theatre scene, based on the processes of the previous first experiment on voice. The participants accepted the invitation with openness and curiosity, whilst becoming part of the immersive experience’s own world (Machon 2013). They also used the glove musically without having previous experience. For the audience this experience was more an exploratory journey, which phenomenologically, could be described as a present-at-hand situation (Heidegger 1962). The whole performance was the result of a cybernetic synergy, a mutual responsibility, a constant interchanging of roles between observer and observed during the establishment of a performance system or extended2 “performance ecosystem” (Waters 2007).

3.3 Im•Medea

This experiment took place during a residency at Blast Theory. In the performance Im•Medea, the aim was to explore different processes of interaction. Here we followed two completely different approaches regarding technological interaction and use of space. We developed two scenes: a one-to-one performance based on Despoiled Shore and another for two performers and a small audience based on Landscape with Argonauts.


3.3.1 Landscape with Argonauts

For this scene, we worked with the musician Nikos Ioakeim and the performer M. Eugenia Demeglio. Together we devised a four-hour durational experience. The work took place in a small, fenced terrace. Long translucent plastic sheets were hung, breaking down the space into smaller rectangular spaces. Eleven IRs3 were placed on the walls of the space and were connected to an Arduino micro-controller, which in turn was linked to a laptop. The information on body movement in the space gathered by the sensors was processed by an algorithm that controlled the occurrence of sound events, and essentially the overall soundscape of the performance. One of the performers wore a wireless lavalier microphone. The microphone’s on/off states and the audio processes applied on these sounds were also determined by the same computer processes. The music events were directly proportional to the human density and movement inside the space. This human-computer interaction was not perceived as direct: there was not an obvious action-reaction between someone passing in front of a sensor and a sound being generated or altered. The whole process was subtle: the computer gathered the information, assessed it and adjusted the musical density accordingly. The ubiquity of the technologic processes prevented the audience from realising the interactive aspect of the experience, as they did not see directly how they effected the musical environment. Furthermore, the changes in sound density (the occurrence of sounds or silences) were cues for improvisation tasks for the two performers; they reacted to sound as if reading an aural score, produced by the presence of the audience in the space. The performers were becoming part of the extended computer algorithm that was controlling the sound. However, the movement and the position of the performers in space could cause audience’s movement, which in turn could generate sound changes. These changes would then be interpreted by the performers, generating a loop of actions and reactions. Thus, the entire performance was a feedback system; both the audience and performers were part of and feeding into a reactive space, which was used as instrument and score. The music, also derived conceptually from the study of systems, was all based on feedback algorithms realised in SuperCollider, where sounds were feeding back into their inputs and ending up modifying themselves, creating “fractal” sound events. The entire performance therefore was a large cybernetic feedback system, operating from a macro to a micro scale.


3.3.2 Despoiled Shore

This performance was a one-to-one experience. It was an interactive peepshow, based on an arcade-like game with a coin-receptor and a joystick. The audience member was given a coin which once inserted into the coin-receptor, triggered the sound and the video projection. The use of the joystick allowed the participant to control the parameters of both image and sound. Aside from the feedback processes within the audiovisual algorithms, there was a feedback process taking place between performer and participant. When the performer sang, her voice was processed, and the participant controlled the sound processes through the joystick, and therefore the singer interacted accordingly. The performance was sympoetic, as it was co-created by both performer and participant, an extended instrument performed simultaneously by two people.


3.3.3 Two approaches

Both Scenes were studies on cybernetic systems applied on performance, or what one could define as performance cybernetics. The study endeavoured to observe how audience members could—intentionally or unintentionally—become part of a performance system by having a technologically aided agency on the development of it. The experiment obviously related to the Proposal for a Cybernetic Theatre, even though Pask only used an intentional type of interaction, operating through a hypermediated interface, and the audience was not immersed in the theatrical landscape. Nonetheless, in both scenes, the use of media and processes implied the concept of performance cybernetics, the notion that all elements of a performance form together a larger cybernetic body that evolves through conditional algorithms. The performers became part of an extended computer algorithm that was controlling/dictating their actions, the human interface of a computational process, thus making prominent the posthuman notions described by Katherine Hayles (Hayles 2000).


3.4 the landscape may be a dead star

For this durational immersive performance we worked with Arthur Leadbetter (cello), Nikos Andonopoulos (guitar) and Theresa Elflein (guitar). The text material of this music-theatre piece derived from Landscape with Argonauts. Here as well, the work was based on a computer-aided cybernetic system that reacted to the presence and movement of audience in the space. However, the IRs data output managed a computer-generated system of instructions and graphic scores. In this work we designed conditions to harvest the performers’ own creative ideas; we wanted to empower the performers to dwell in very personal contemplations on text, music and actions.
The performance was based on a database of 127 tasks and scores for solo performers and 19 “tutti” tasks and scores. Some tasks involved the audience, with the performer(s) requesting their assistance in order to be accomplished. The performers could interpret the instructions with their voice, their musical instruments, or their body. The understanding of the score or the task as information here was fundamental in relation to cybernetic notions of “autonomy of information” and the subjective aspect of information, rather than the notion of information as a means of objective communication. This approach echoes Luhmann: “humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate” (Luhmann and Rasch 2002, 169).
Also here the performance space was divided with translucent plastic sheets hung from the ceiling. A network of three computers was set; each one stationed in a different corner of the performance space. The computers were linked using a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) transmitting Open Sound Control (OSC) data to each other. The digital environment was based on Max/MSP. Nine IRs were hung in the space, collecting data on the audience’s movement in space. The algorithm had a set threshold that defined how many changes of IRs’ states should happen before it triggered new instructions on the performers’ screens. The tasks assigned to the performers were based on a chessboard scoring principle. When the threshold value was met, the algorithm grabbed a snapshot of the on/off states of seven (out of the total of nine) IRs. That resulted in a binary number of seven digits e.g. 1011011. This binary number was converted into a decimal number, e.g. 91. As a result, task number 91 appeared on the screen of one of the performers. The process for choosing the performer to execute the task (e.g. 91) or whether the task was going to be a tutti was similar, using the states of the other two IRs that were not used in the previous calculation. Essentially, when audience members hung around in certain spaces more than in others, it was much more probable that a certain task would be repeated again and again until a change in the system —i.e. a change in the audience position in space. The audience was free to roam, enter and exit the space as they pleased, and thus the dynamic of the performance was audience-dependent. The performance in these four hours varied and evolved as a natural organism following the rules of the system. The whole system for the performance was inspired by the influence that humans have on their environment—being aware or unaware—, the notion that we all, performers and audience, belong in the same fragile system of co-existence.


3.5 the impostor’s syndrome

This work took place as part of a series of site-specific performances Transitions, happening on Kalamata’s public buses during the 22nd Kalamata International Dance Festival. The performance was devised in collaboration with Nikos Ioakeim (harmonica, voice), Nikos Karydis (trumpet, voice) and Alexis Kotsopoulos (trombone, voice). In this work we explored audience-performer interactive processes by devising a system that does not rely at all on computational technology, yet it explores cybernetic notions of causality, feedback, interaction and conditional processes.
For this work we used different Greek poems from the 20th and 21st century. They were surrealistic, expressionistic literature works by Miltos Sachtouris (1919–2005), Epameinondas Gonatas (1924–2006), Takis Sinopoulos (1917–1981), Tassos Leivaditis (1922–1988) and Kostas Karyotakis (1896–1928). The works were either short stories or free verse poetry, in their majority they depicted semi-absurd personal situations. The text was not put to music; instead, the music accompanied each sketch underlying the narrative with intradiegetic and extradiegetic sounds and melodies. All scenes of the impostor’s syndrome were solos. They all had approximately a similar duration (i.e. five to ten minutes). When the performers finished their scene, they gathered in the middle of the bus for an intermezzo act, a tutti task-based sound improvisation for trombone, trumpet and narration. After the intermezzo, they sat in different places to engage the audience in a scene.
The performance was first and foremost relational, a cybernetic experience between performer and audience. The interactive processes in interactive theatre4 were based on the causality of closed and open questions5. Each scene started with the performer asking a closed question towards the nearest passenger to initiate a discussion; a question about the weather, predicting the passenger’s positive reply. Meanwhile, the performer started doing some slightly unusual actions, such as polishing their trumpet with their tie. Then they continued with an open question, trying to establish an actual conversation: “excuse me, are you from around here?” and then continued, “I’m asking because I need to go to X place, and I do not know where to get off”. The place in question was not in the bus route, so the passenger started explaining to the performer that they should get off immediately, take a different bus route et cetera. When a conversation was established, the performer started making squeaky sounds with the trumpet or played a melody that articulated the reply of the passenger. If the passenger seemed perturbed because of the music, the performer entertained and comforted the passenger’s impression by saying: “I love traveling and playing music, do you mind? Would you like me to stop?” Then the performer would return to the conversation about the place X: “As I told you I like travelling or even walking and playing my music. Once something amazing happened to me whilst walking and playing my trumpet.” And then he threw a closed question: “Would you like to hear what happened?”, which brought the performance at a conditional “crossroad”. If the passenger replied positively, then the performer continued telling the story about a giant ray fish flying over the roofs of the buildings, articulating their narration with music. If the passenger said “no”, then the performer would reply: “Oh I’m sorry, I won’t bother you then, I’ll carry on playing my trumpet if you don’t mind”. A few seconds later and after a bit of music the performer would say again: “Well last time I was in place X, I saw something really strange ...” continuing with the story about the ray fish. In other cases, the performers would go back in the process, starting again with open questions that lead to different close questions, ending up telling a different story. These interactive scenes were based on improvisation and conditional processes that were giving a feeling of agency to the interlocutor.


3.5.1. Process, Decision, and Action

All scenes were based on three main nodes: the process, the decision, and the action. The process was always set and predefined. In the previous example it was the story of the flying ray. The decision was a simple one-level conditional stage, a closed question which would lead the scene to the next stage. Actions were open, they were based on the improvising abilities of the performer to deflect the attention of the audience from a topic to another until they arrived back to either a decisionor a process. Actions were co-created by both audience and performer, they were physical actions or conversations.
This was a short work. However, the outcome from this experience was a deeper understanding of non-computer-based relational processes of causality: how the notions of process, decision and action may contribute to the development of an interactive/conditional performance, and how these suggest systemic processes and relational cybernetics. The path the experience followed (i.e. what would happen and what would be said) was part of a mutual responsibility and a process of interaction between performers and audience.

3.6 a magnificent crossbreeding of protein and tinplate

The very last experiment of the cycle was a work based on Heiner Müller’s complete Medea Sequence. It involved eight performers (Stephanie Pan, M. Eugenia Demeglio, Nikos Ioakeim, Friso van Wijck, Gonçalo Almeida, Arthur Leadbetter, Theresa Elflein, Katerina Konstantourou) for a four-hour durational performance that combined elements from all previous works. It also featured a computer generative audience-activated operatic scene using vocaloids and VSTis banks of classical instruments. Moreover, the entire performance structure was organised by an algorithm operating through a WLAN network of four computers that were exchanging Open Sound Control messages. This performance explored the cybernetic principles of “structural coupling”  and emergence, and in its essence, it was a cybernetic performance ecosystem (Maturana 2002). For this experiment, we had access to the entire ground floor of a large performance venue and decided to create different music-theatre landscapes by using the different rooms and pathways of the space for the audience and the human/non-human performers to interact. We assigned a different space to each of the scenes of the Medea Sequence: Medea Material, Despoiled Shore and Landscape with Argonauts. In this work the technology was the orchestrator of the experience, as it managed simultaneously the events of all three different rooms. Essentially, the performance was controlled by a computer network, which changed its states by “observing” the movement of humans that attended the experience.


3.6.1 The three spaces

Each space had its own dedicated computer that managed and directed the local performance actions and events. In the Medea Material space there were two computers; one of the two acted as the main server of the network and hence of the entire performance. This computer detected any human presence in the space through a motion-capture system, and its algorithms determined whether a change in the structure of the overall performance should occur and what should that change be. It then sent that information to all the other computers and the information was announced to the performers through a text-to-speech algorithm via the PA system situated in each space.

3.6.2 Landscape with Argonauts

The same computer generative text-to-speech system (devised in SuperColliderand Unix) assigned codified performance tasks to the performers of Landscape with Argonauts space. The performers did not know the duration of the tasks, nor their occurrence. Many of the tasks had a relational character, as they required interaction with audience members or with other performers in order to be accomplished. Moreover, the soundscape in this performance space was based on generative feedback-based algorithms.

3.6.3 Medea Material

The first impression the Medea Material space gave was that of a room without sound. When an audience member entered the room the motion-capture camera picked up their movement and initiated a computer-generated song featuring a Vocaloid, and symphonic library instruments. The overall performance had a strong operatic character, suggesting late romantic/early expressionism aesthetics,while the music material was based on probabilities and tendency-masked shapes. Moreover, the lyrics of the song would scroll on the two screens that were placed in the room, facing each other, in the fashion of a dialogue. The lyrics were actually the dialogue of Müller’s Medea Material. The performance would go on for as long as a member of the audience was in the room. When the last member of the audience left, the Vocaloid and the music would stop and the screens go dark until the next person entered. Being live-generated, every time the process started the song would be unique.

3.6.4 Despoiled Shore

The motion-capture system in the Medea Material space had a counting system, and after the nth visitor the computer network would shut all the processes in all spaces, and text-to-speech announcements went through the PAs of all the spaces. The member of the audience that had caused the structural change in the performance (the nth person that had been captured by the motion capture system) was brought by the performers to the Despoiled Shore space to experience a one-to-one performance. Such performance lasted for three to five minutes, and it was different each time. The performer of Despoiled Shore did not know in advance when the performance would take place and which performance task would she have to execute, as both the “when” and the “what” were computer-generated. During the entire duration of the one-to-one performance no other events were happening in any of the other rooms. Only after the end of the one-to-one experience in Despoiled Shore, would the computer situated in that space send a message to all the other computers to reset their processes and therefore the performance in all other spaces would resume.


4. Structural Coupling in Performance

Essentially, a magnificent crossbreeding of protein and tinplate was a computer network, as the ubiquitous performance-machinery controlled its structure and event occurrence, based on the audience flow in the space. The performance encompassed principles of sympoiesis between machines, audience and performers (Dempster 2000, Haraway 2016). Sympoiesis derives from the biology-based cybernetic principles of “autopoesis” and “structural coupling”, the latter being the “structural dynamics” between two systems (both human and non-human) (Maturana 2000, 14). In their dynamic relations both systems are open for changes, either as “state changes” or as “disintegrative changes” (ibid., 16). In other words, structural coupling are the changes of states between two systems when they interact. For Maturana “living systems and their non-living medium change together congruently, forming a biosphere as a multidimensional network of reciprocal structural coupling” (ibid., 17).

In the context of this performance, structural coupling was established between humans and machines, suggesting an extended performance ecosystem in which the dynamic relations between the two changed each other’s states either emotionally or experientially, in the case of audience and performers, or structurally in the case of the machinery. The durational and ever-changing state of the performance echoes Husserl’s notion of becoming: “[t]his life, as personal life, is constant becoming through a constant intentionality of development. What becomes, in this life, is the person himself. His being is forever becoming” (Husserl, 1970, 338). In a similar way this performance was a constant process of forever becoming, as it was continuously altered through the changes of its states.

As Haacke wrote, “a ‘sculpture’ that physically reacts to its environment is no longer to be regarded as an object. The range of outside factors affecting it, as well as its own radius of action, reach beyond the space it materially occupies. It thus merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a ‘system’ of interdependent processes” (Haacke 1968). Similarly a performance that is organised according the audience’s movements and actions is no longer a performance, but an extended performance ecosystem or a cybernetic performance.


This practice-based research focused on creating new immersive music-theatre experiences, involving novel interactive and cybernetic methods between music, technical system, performers and audiences. Its substantial original contribution to knowledge is the development of a series of methods for devising cybernetic and ecosystemic music-theatre performances based on behavioural interactions between performers, audience and technology. Through the new aesthetic and dramaturgical possibilities that emerged from these works, the research contributes a theoretical understanding of the phenomenological and experiential aspects of these interactions. The performances relied on the establishment of a transindividual network between actors⁠ (audience and performers), whilst being mediated by non-human agents. They were generative performances orchestrated by computational processes, in which the author became decentralised, giving space to a process of shared responsibility between technology, participants and an initial instigator.
What emerged prominently during this series of experiment was the second wave cybernetic notion of the observer of a system becoming part of the system observed. The audience, traditionally acknowledged as the observer of theatre or music-theatre became the subject of observation6, as either the technology (IRs, motion-capture) or the performers reacted to them by observing their actions. This feedback loop of observations underlined the co-dependency of all elements (audience, performers and technology) and the responsibility they all bore for the development of the performance. The interaction of the audience with this environment suggested ecosystemic and biology-derived cybernetic notions. Moreover, the change of states of either humans (audience - performers) or machines as a result of the dynamic cyclical process of interaction suggested the notion of structural coupling.
Essentially these performances were structured upon fractal-like layers of feedback, contributing to the experience’s self-organisation. These feedback loops contributed towards the homeostatic nature of the performance. They were sympoietic ecosystems that run according to certain pre-defined rules, and evolved autonomously through the interactions of their parts. In that respect the performance “[was] not a given but rather [was] produced and defined by the system, [the result of the] continual movement between self-reference and hetero - reference” (Rampley 2009) of its participants.


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31 January 2022
Review status
Double-blind peer review
Cite as
Polymeneas-Liontiris, Thanos, and Eugenia Demeglio. 2022. "Cybernetic Feedback Processes in Music-Theatre Practice: The Im-Medea Cycle." ECHO, a journal of music, thought and technology 3. doi: 10.47041/XVRO7587


  • 1 Present-at-hand situations are moments of observation, in which we try to decipher and understand our role and the role of the objects that participate in it without expectations or having knowledge through similar previous experiences. It is a moment of definition of relationships and roles. 
  • 2 The term extended is used here to reference the audience's inclusion in the ecosystem.
  • 3  Infrared Sensors
  • 4 This information derives from the Greenhouse workshops: The Lab Collective.
  • 5 Closed questions can be replied to with "yes" and "no", whils open questions require a more elaborate answer.
  • 6 The word theatre derives from ancient Greek θεάομαι (theáomai=to observe)

1 comment


Hello Thanos and Eugenia,
I've just read your interesting article as a music-theatre specialist (one of my PhD supervisors was Johannes Birringer). It raises many questions for me, such as: how can we extend the roles of objects, humans and technology within this essentially intermedial environment to become not purely functional but carry other more ambiguous and theatrical meanings? (ie. eye contact rather than screen contact). One way is to cross over terminologies between the disciplines involved and allow them to create other relationships between them (see the work of Heiner Goebbels). In a public space the kind of contact between musicians and audience depends largely on the former's ability to engage on a corporeal level as a body in space, the instrument or technology then following suite as an extension of this. A social situation of mutual trust then becomes possible. Why use outmoded forms of music theatre such as opera with its embedded 19th century aesthetic baggage? (ditto poetry, narrative, song). New technology opens the door to new aesthetic parameters if one allows the tools themselves to suggest these. PaR in new music theatre has to involve people from multiple disciplines if these borders are really to be crossed, this through dialogue and the evolution of a shared, understandable language.

Dr. Caroline Wilkins

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