There are plenty of reasons I prefer to see a performance live rather than watch it on a tiny phone screen. Aside from the obvious higher resolution of real life, there’s the atmosphere, the aura, the audience. Sadly, this said audience can sometimes be a downside too. At a recent performance in the Staatsoper, I was astonished at the sea of smart phones hovering within my eyeline. More than enjoying the moment for what it was, certain audience members seemed more concerned with preserving it for all eternity on a flash drive. I could see the zoomed-in, pixelated, poorly-lit photos and videos they were trying to take in front of me. And the irony is: they were all shit.
Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that mechanical (in this case: technological) reproduction devalues art, withers its unique aura: its presence in time and space. In my case, a rainy Monday evening in December on Unter den Linden. But while Benjamin made many astute observations on technology and art, he could not have foreseen our late-capitalist frenzy of digital reproduction: the Snapchats, Instagrams and Facebooks. Paradoxically, social media becomes highly antisocial within the context of theatre.
Back in the Staatsoper, my mind was racing with questions: what is the real motive behind these terrible photos? How often will people actually look at them? Does the pleasure of knowing they have a crappy photo outweigh the uninterrupted pleasure of the performance? Are they aware that most venues have a large archive of professional press photos on their website? Do they have an endless album of terrible photos from theatre evenings backed up on a cloud somewhere and, if so, could I persuade them to showcase these photos in an exhibition? I suspect the real answer has something to do with vanity and egotism: people don’t really want to document the performance, they want to document they were there.
The Staatsoper’s bowtied ushers quickly caught wind of the situation and politely glared from the aisles at any daring offenders. It was a respectful, non-confrontative approach that somehow suits the desired poshness and civility of the Staatsoper. But this only deterred a certain category of digital culture voyeur, the kind of person who obliviously holds their phablet high above their head with a stupid grin on their face. There is, of course, also the stealth photographer: those that know full well what they are doing is a sin in the world of supposed high culture, those that are in fact so good at secretly filming things that I begin to wonder in what context these would-be private eyes have attained such sleuth-like skills.
Different theatres have different approaches against home movies and theatre snapshots: Gorki displays simple crossed-through camera logos on both sides of the stage before each performance. I’ve never seen anyone filming or photographing at Gorki but I put this more down to the audience than a particularly effective anti-photo strategy. Other venues such as the Komische Oper favour an announcement with an explanation: filming performances may constitute copyright infringement and phones hinder a pleasant listening experience for everyone. At least the former part of the announcement seems to scare the obedient, rule-abiding German audience into submission. The Friedrichsstadt-Palast surely takes the gold here though. Diligent ushers are stationed around the audience armed with highly luminescent iPads sporting large “no photo” symbols. At regular intervals during the performance, they jolt down the aisleways and hold their tablets high for all the audience to see, not unlike Moses holding up the ten commandments. Paradoxically, their sting operations disturb the performance far more than any snap-happy audience member could ever manage.
Sometimes, hobbyist filmmakers manage to completely disrupt the performance. During a performance of Falk Richter’s anti-right production Fear at the Schaubühne in 2015, which samples far-right speeches by the AfD politicians and also sees Beatrix von Storch haunted by her grandfather, a minister in Hitler’s government, the AfD’s spokesman Christian Lüth was filming from the audience without permission and started to heckle. A cast member told him to stop and threatened to throw him out. Lüth retorted with the threat of legal repercussions and the AfD subsequently took the Schaubühne to court over the performance – and lost the case. Talk about breaking the fourth wall: what could have better underscored the entire point of Falk Richter’s piece than a ranting AfD member in the audience, disrupting the performance by attempting to film it? If I were Richter, I would have incorporated this element into the show. Had the said audience footage then have been projected back on to the stage, it’s hard to see how Fear wouldn’t have been invited to that year’s Theatertreffen.
But for all those of you who don’t wish to provide a Brechtian meta-representational level to the performance you are seeing, I would simply advise turning off your phone when visiting the theatre. You are not a cyborg, you are a human enjoying a performance. And your photos suck.