The use of videotelephony software, such as Zoom, Facebook Live, Skype or Teams, for video and audio streaming of what used to be face-to-face engagements with artists and performers became the new normal in 2020, and will continue to be so in 2021 – perhaps forever. These virtual meeting have replaced the roadshows, in-store book readings, packed plays in theatres, appearances and recordings before live audiences, even in-studio podcast or radio recordings. Now everything is remote, with the audience sitting at their computers, or staring at their phones and tablets, while the performers are anywhere in the world. What does this mean for writers and their books?

Having participated in more than four of these “virtual events” in the past two months, I have to say they don’t do much for me. It’s not that they don’t work at all, it’s just that the limitations in the mediums and platforms must be compensated for, and this did not happen or was simply not possible.

The events included a corporate year-end party, a fund-raising event – including a virtual beer-tasting (you may well ask, what the heck?!), and a programme of art lessons. Also, I booked, and in some cases paid, to virtually attend a Vrienden Van Amstel LIVE! 2021 (meaning “the friends of Amstel”) music event in the Netherlands, a performance by talented UK folk band Ninebarrow, called “Zunshine in the Winter”, and a reading and Q&A session by poet Brian Bilston. And I contributed to and listened to a radio recording/podcast by author Sjón on BBC World Service.

I watched, with some dismay and a little amusement, how organizers jumped around like cats on hot tin roofs, trying with limited success to replicate the activities and atmosphere of real-world events. The experiences dissuaded me from making any more commitments to online events for the foreseeable future.

Nothing beats performing for a real audience

Here is why I am not enthused: Direct, face-to-face interaction between creators and their supporters results in deeper, more nuanced, and more responsive dialogues than those in virtual events, since the creators are able to observe the things that remain unseen on many virtual engagement platforms. These include the uncontrolled and unscripted reactions, facial expressions, body language, eye contact, vocal expressions, and positioning and interactions of audience members. Even that old thing of holding up a light and swaying to the beat at a live concert is no more, which is a loss because it connected the audience to the performers by showing that the audience acknowledges the performers, are fully involved and appreciative, and wants more.

Those were the good old days. (Pexels photo by Wolfgang, #2747448)

While full videotelephony (realtime, point-to-point video plus audio) is more effective that just audio streaming, it tends to have more technical problems, and one particular psychological one: “appearance consciousness” from being on camera. The artist might suffer from that even if the video stream is not being recorded. Even the audience members might suffer from it if their cameras are turned on. The burden of presenting an acceptable on-screen appearance is not present in audio-only communication – but there again is the problem of lack of visual feedback.

Is there anyone out there?

In these virtual sessions, three artists commented that it feels strange for them to perform and talk to an invisible audience. One band forgot they were “on stage” and once actually stopped their performance, retuned while muttering to themselves, and started again. Then they realized what they had done in the empty room and apologized…to the invisible audience.

The big music show, Vrienden van Amstel LIVE!, is usually held in a stadium with millions of screaming, singing, dancing fans. (And lots of beer.) This time it took place in a TV studio. The performers, despite the MCs being very hearty and upbeat, had to work hard to get into the groove, and even tried to get those at home to sing or clap along, since they couldn’t see or hear the fans doing that. There may have been some amongst the approximately 1.7 million people who were logged in who did. But who knows? There was no cheering to urge on the performers, no shouts and call-outs to drive the dynamics, no crowd surfing or surges of people towards the stage. Not a light (or a cellphone) held aloft to be had for love or money. Not even one fan getting to touch their idol and passing out from sheer excitement. You might as well have been listening to an album or watching a prerecorded TV show.

The authors in these virtual book discussions were aware of the strangeness of addressing hundreds of faceless fans with whom they could not interact directly. The calls and messages were coming in from the virtual attendees around the world, but since they were either pre-recorded, posted as notes on the screen, or relayed via the organizer or host, the authors could not actually have an exchange of opinion with the readers – as they would in a normal book reading. They responded to a question or comment as best they could, and moved on to the next one. These were not so much discussions as Q&A sessions.

The advantage of being able to connect with people from all over the world, simultaneously, is pretty much nixed by the negatives of constrained interaction and feedback.

Sjón, photographed for the Reykjavik Grapevine, published October 16, 2018.

A radio interview with Sjón

In late 2020, I was approached to contribute a question to a recording of an interview on the BBC World Service – World Book Club channel with the author, Sjón. It was a simple question on a complicated subject since the producer did not ask for questions about a specific book by Sjón but about his entire oeuvre. Later on, they narrowed it down to his novel Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, which I had reviewed a few years ago.

The recorded interview is long at 49 minutes and 10 seconds, fairly rambling, and difficult to absorb and respond to since the BBC World Book Club does not provide transcripts for any of their podcasts. (As far as I’m concerned this is an unforgivable omission.) We’re back to the problem of discussing writing while not being able to read it. This mixup between modes of communication is similar to attempting to write about music: “…writing about music is like dancing about architecture“. It doesn’t really work.

Only talking about books is tricky

Audio streaming – in the form of radio interviews, podcasts, or audio recordings of interviews, do have meet specific requirements in order to be effective, particularly when they are about books. (Here is a guideline.)

In particular, as the writers and producers of the Welcome to Night Vale series have demonstrated, you need to use language very carefully indeed because the programme deals with written text, while being auditory in format. Therefore the written text, which is the subject of the discussions or the contents in its entirety, cannot be referred to – unless – ideally – the listeners are sitting with the book in their hands.

The World Book Club compromised by having a voiceover artist read three short passages from Moonstone, and following each one with questions. IBM’s Watson Speech to Text service which I used to transcribe it, turned the audio into something was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea, sorry, Moonstone. (Apologies, Douglas Adams).

Think speaking in an audio stream is difficult? Try reciting poetry

With the online event on Jan. 25, 2021, which was the launch of poet Brian Bilston‘s new poetry collection, Alexa, what is there to know about love?, there was a royal stuff-up with the book itself. The advance signed copy that I had bought as part of registering the event some weeks before, had not yet arrived. I could not order it from Amazon to reach me by the time of the event, since it is only due to be published on March 16, 2021. There was no transcript or subtitling available, nor any on-screen display of the text in the book.

Brian Bilston tried his best to perform each poem with feeling and with pauses and emphases in the right places, so that the listener could understand the form, which obviously contributes to the meaning. But unless you are a so-called Spoken Word Poet, used to performing poems (which he is not) it doesn’t really work. At times, particularly with the prose poems, I lost track of the meaning. You can imagine how difficult it is to try to understand a poem which is being read out loud by someone else, rather than seeing it on a page where you can at least figure out the form, rhyme scheme, lines, stanzas, and so on. Can one even conceive how to perform an acrostic poem, for instance? How are you going to get the reader to understand that the first letter of each line spells out a word? (And Mr. Bilston is quite fond of writing acrostic poems.)

Alexa, what is there to know about love?, by Brian Bilston (Publisher: Picador; publishing date: March 16, 2021; 96 pages)

One way is to mitigate this problem of having no text to refer back to, is to show the artist’s face onscreen, which means that the viewers/listeners can at least lip-read and face-read a bit (as people have noticed, this is tricky when you wear a face mask). But for authors who write under pseudonyms and have hidden personal identities, like Brian Bilston, this becomes tricky and results in the person on screen (whoever it actually was) giving all sorts of odd explanations of who they are, and why they look or sound like they do.

Zoom says this man is Brian Bilston, the author. The man on-screen said he is standing in for Brian Bilston who keeps his real appearance a secret. Maybe he was being funny. But he did say that with a straight face. He seemed to be too knowledgeable about Mr. Bilston’s life and work not be be the man himself. But who knows. His cat was missing, as well as his pipe, but on the other hand, this person (if it is him) is a kindly-looking, handsome man of indeterminate age and rather nice blue eyes. He had a sweet print of a heart in the background, perhaps because of the title of his new book. I’m not quite sure why he would want to hide his identity, unless he does not want the people in his past life, in which he apparently got laid off from his job, to know what he does now.

An artist may be camera-shy

Videotelephony events are also made more complicated by the fact that not all artists are actors and comfortable with performing. Some are not comfortable on camera (that “appearance consciousness problem”), some do not have pleasant voices. These stumbling blocks to the effectiveness of the conversation or performance have to be addressed by whoever produces the event. Sjón had a fairly strong Icelandic accent and it was a good thing that I was familiar with all his books and characters, otherwise I, like IBM’s Watson, would have got the wrong end of the stick.

In short, many things can go wrong in virtual book discussions, and probably will.

Next time:

The fine details of the interview with Sjón will be in a separate post to avoid the T.L.D.R. reaction.

*T.L.D.R.: Too Long. Didn’t Read.

2 comments on “Performing to an empty room – Is there anyone out there?

  1. Dis altyd dubbeld en dwars die moeite werd om jou artikels te lees! Vir uitvoerende kunstenaars voel Zoom seker soos die vagevuur.

  2. Dankie, Fran – ek’s bly jy geniet die artikels. Ja, dié digitale uitvoerings is nie vir almal nie. Definitief nie vir my nie!

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