Part 1: Smoothing the visceral/virtual mix

Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter

Company in Space, The Light Room

Company in Space, The Light Room

A British prelude

Just as we started out on this 2 part survey of multimedia and new media performance works-in-progress and the attitudes of artists to the technologies they have embraced, 2 interesting and pertinent things happened. First RealTime became a party to bringing the UK new media performance and installation group Blast Theory to Australia, so we recommend you read the interview with them (see article). Then, British performers Robert Pacitti (of the Pacitti Company) and Leslie Hill and Helen Paris of curious.com spoke in Perth, Adelaide and Sydney on their way to Time_Space_Place, the national hybrid performance workshop held in Wagga Wagga in September (see RT 52).

Blast Theory and curious.com in particular reveal the numerous ways that new media allows them to engage with issues and audiences. The audience become active participants in a performance they are witnessing online (communicating with the performers, or responding to performer strategies) or, in theatres and other venues, crossing the line to becoming performers themselves. In Blast Theory’s Desert Rain, which the company will be presenting in Sydney shortly, 6 people at a time, for half an hour each, are the focus of the work as they play a VR Gulf War game. curious.com describe Vena Amoris as a work where a small audience wait in a bar to be summoned via their mobile phones and, one at a time enter the theatre where, alone, they have a spotlit phone exchange with a performer they can’t see. At the end of the performance they pass through a door at the end of a long corridor opened by a tall blonde, revealing another, identical blonde, and stand in front of a full length mirror through which they momentarily glimpse the performer who has been talking to them. Very David Lynch. Given that this was not a profitable venture, Hill and Paris are trying to re-work the concept to handle slightly larger audiences.

Aided by a 3 year residency at the Institute for Studies in Arts, Arizona, courtesy of the City of Phoenix, and working in a well equipped and staffed laboratory (“true R&D as opposed to grant-to-grant”) curious.com have explored the practicalities of “how to be visceral in the virtual”, the subject of much of this survey. They worked with a camera triggered by speech and by motion (“it will follow you, be with you, stalk you”), filmed each other and created virtual clones of themselves. The work is called Random Acts of Memory [RAM] and photographs they showed from it suggested an eerie world where 2 figures claim each other’s memories, go in for “head to head wrestling”, “encounter unreasonable facsimiles” and only interact with the other’s clone—“as if the mediatised world had taken over.” They are currently developing a work about scent and memory in collaboration with Dr Upinder Bhalla, an olfactory scientist in Bangladore, India.


A very strange place

Memory is virtual, so is the future. So are the ghosts in photographs, films, videos and sound recordings. Perhaps this explains why so much new media performance (and other) work is about memory, traces of incomplete recollection, individual and collective, and reconstructions. It’s also why these works have a sci-fi, ‘what if…’ quality, doubling, as they do, as adventures in the vertiginous pleasures of wild speculation and the anxieties of miserable distopias, often at once. In this oscillation between past and future, the present is a very strange place. It also explains why so much new media is about science and technology, as critique or engagement: it builds on the possibilities of the technological, it experiments, tests, wants in on the debate about genetic engineering and other issues, and reclaims prophesy for art.


Screening the virtual

How do you represent and project the virtual in performance? Shadow play and projections on screens and gauzes, the use of television monitors and computer screens continue to play this role in performance with theatrical deftness (as in Robert Lepage’s smooth blend of hi-tech and old theatre illusion) and in various combinations and permutations—the multimedia theatre of simultaneity where, as audience, we are expected to bring various literacies to bear. But screens are flat. Screens are substantial. Artists are finding their capacities insufficiently virtual. Therefore they go for screens that are there but not there: transparent screens—glass, perspex, gauze, walls of fine water, smoke (for that holographic effect), curved surfaces (the massive screen tower in the La Furas dels Baus production of Berlioz’s Faust at Salzburg), mobile and plastic screens. The transparent screen not only holds an image, it also allows it to spill and multiply, generating larger virtual spaces and figures. And for a screen both ephemeral and substantial, why not the body itself, a well-known receiver of projections of all kinds, and another piece of old theatre magic given very new life (see Jonathan Marshall, “Fusion: the body as screen”, RT 50, p 28).


Hypersurfaces: depth in flatness

Of course, there is the computer screen itself (whose images are increasingly relayed to all these other screens), not just a surface for receiving an image and showing it, but a hypersurface: “an interactive, intelligent surface…with a spatio-temporal dimension…[where]…virtual spaces are depicted through the continuously changing ‘matrix of physical pixels’.” Here Alicia Imperiale is citing Marcus Novak in her book The New Flatness: Surface Tension in Digital Architecture (Birkhauser, Basel, 2000) where she illustrates the depth that can be achieved in built surfaces, just as new media performance strives to create fluid virtual spaces (screens) for performers actual and virtual to inhabit.

Theatre artists speak of set design. Dancers sometimes describe generating space with their movement. Artists working in performance often speak of their performing space as architecture or sculpted space, as you’ll see in this survey, a reminder of performance’s strong kinship with architecture (think of Sydney’s Gravity Feed or Melbourne’s BAMBUco) and the visual arts. Architecture itself now embraces and embodies the virtual as buildings become screens, their surfaces embedded with technological outputs.


Staged subjectivities

In the cinema, point of view has primarily been third person, with most exceptions to be found in experimental cinema. An interesting development in new media and multimedia performance, especially in dance, has been an exploration of how to convey the performer’s point of view. This has been seen in filmmaker Margie Medlin’s work with Sandra Parker of Danceworks in In the Heart of the Eye; in Jude Walton’s Seam (silent mix) with Ros Warby (with the dancer wielding a tiny camera aimed at herself); and is, in part, the goal in new works described in this survey by Company in Space’s Hellen Sky and Mary Moore, one work dealing with memory and space, the other with the experiences of identical twins and how they see the world.


What are they doing?

The performers in the works we survey have a new multiplicity of tasks and roles. These can include being filmed in pre-production (virtually cloned, sometimes as themselves, sometimes animated), wearing motion capture suits (in the laboratory or in performance), triggering sound and image (via responsive cameras, mikes, lasers), performing with their virtual selves and others. Or they become screens. Or they play guides taking audiences into new realms of experience. And they can be relayed, as in the classic telematic works of Company in Space where a dancer in one space dances with another, often in a distant country.


What do we call it?

For convenience, we’ve used the term new media performance, It’s not entirely appropriate because some work is classically multimedia and not strictly engaged with new technology, however the delivery platform is increasingly digital and greatly facilitates the integration of various media. Then there’s the hatred of ‘new’ and the growing weariness at having to listen to people hating it. Of course, the technology is hardly new any more, nor some of the things done with it (the re-working of hallowed theatrical devices), but what is new is the ongoing experimentation, the yield of fascinating hybrids and the reworking of relationships with audiences. Perhaps it will, as some wish, all settle down into some form or other and the hype will pass, as it did for cinema in the last century, but this new work continues to offer excitement and provocation.


Getting a smooth outcome

Smooth exchanges, flow, continuous surface—these are the concepts that are ever-present in contemporary culture. Alicia Imperiale

What did we hear from artists as we surveyed the works they have yet to realise? What are they looking for? All kinds of balance and smoothness. This is nothing to do with the works themselves, which range from serene to cerebral to savage. It’s often about getting the mix right, smoothing out the relationship between ‘the visceral and the virtual’, not losing live presence to the seductions of the screen. Other tensions seeking resolution are to be found in oppositions often driving the emergence of these hybrids: desire (we love the technology) and critique (we worry about its effects); a tool (just another theatrical device) or a partner (its materiality for the artist cf language, paint).

There is also a tension generated by changes in the creative and collaborative processes with a number of artists comparing their approaches now with filmmakers. Working on the floor often has to be preceded or paralleled by significant conceptualisation, scripting and story-boarding (though these might not involve dialogue or plain narrative), for reasons aesthetic and often pragmatic given equipment costs and additional performer time for experimenting, recording and testing.

The resolution of these creative tensions is often sought in the proliferation of words like ‘liquid’, ‘fluid’, ‘balance’, ‘integration’, ‘synergy’, the appeal of ‘hybrid’ and ‘interdisciplinary’, and the practical correlatives of R&D, careful planning, story-boarding and time to develop.


Company in Space

The Melbourne-based Company in Space describe their new work in the 2002 Melbourne Festival, The Light Room, as “an immersive filmic opera, that showcases innovation in cutting edge digital technology and performance art, by skillfully integrating live music, spoken text and dance with video animation and interactive set designs.” It’s the result of a 3-year collaboration, “a synergy of media. One that is comfortable combining cutting edge technology with traditional art forms, such as pure operatic voice and dance.”

The choice of the words “integrating”, “synergy” and “comfortable” and the cutting edge/tradition opposition are perfect examples of new media and multimedia performance’s urge for synthesis, True to the history of performance, the substantial nature rather than the illusory effects of this 3 metre high glass installation (it is never referred to as a set) is made clear. Located in Melbourne Museum’s Australian Gallery, it is “a stand-alone interactive installation that can be accessed during museum opening hours and an operatic performance, staged at night.” There is a persistent reference to architecture in the artists’ notes and, in a show about memory and space, “Past, present and future interweave…in this ephemeral house of the future.”

Director Hellen Sky puts it more explicitly: “For me new media is a language that can speak of memory and life journeys through the choreography of sounds, images and the body within an architectural space…It is like imagining that the iron on your ironing board is a scanner and you can see, hear and feel the experience of the cloth.” Librettist and performer Margaret Cameron makes a case for new media as something more than a theatrical device, while seeking to maintain the visceral/virtual balance. “The interconnectivity of new media makes it a ‘partner’ not a tool in exploring how we make visible the experience of the body in the physical world; how the body experiences architectural space and how it might experience virtual space. Technology is a new medium but to interpret it as a poetic of experience, rather than a replacement for experience, is a particular thing.”

Architect Tom Kovac, who is creating the glass tower, writes how “The translucency and liquid quality of glass is extremely well suited to use with this new technology. It…can carry the ephemeral, transient qualities of digital light. The glass surfaces have made this unique futuristic stage structure a giant luminescent realtime screen…” And, sound designer Nigel Frayne writes of “a sonic architecture created from computer software and electroacoustic design elements. Sound and image are used like memory trails, tracing the steps of the performance’s 5 main characters.”

Asked what we’ll see, Hellen Sky says: “An environment like a glass house made liquid by images from 9 video projectors and a large, rear projection screen 3 images wide” used to create “single panoramic scapes.” A black gauze hangs in front of this screen so that it can also take images forward projected. “It’s like a film set. The projections on the glass create spaces and divisions inhabited by the performers.” The performers are not replicated (as either themselves or responsive animations as they have been in previous CIS works by being telematically relayed or working from motion capture suits). They dance, speak, sing. “They also engage with interactive systems”, tracking devices that “allow them to influence projected text…zooming in on or re-shaping words, making them more or less visible or opaque…Transducers, sensing devices that the performers activate, change the shape of the virtual environments.”

What are these environments? The products of 3D modelling, they include “rooms, corridors, a bridge, a virtual pier, a virtual library…” The performers appear to occupy these spaces on the glass screens. Not only that, but those environments are seen “as if from the point of view of the performers. They suggest remembered places.”

What is it about the frequent association of new media with memory? Sky thinks it’s the facility to play with time. It’s the capacity of new media to manipulate film and video documentation and, she says emphatically, “to layer it and to evoke the haptic relationship to space.” The Light Room focuses on “the senses and their relation to space, to architecture. The text and the libretto emerged from looking at forms…and how the senses work across ageing. The material is drawn from specific experiences but in the process of editing and sifting it has become less specific and more theoretical.” Sky sees the glass architecture as evocative of “the ephemeral…of our complex relationship to space” amplified by “glass’ capacity to reflect and refract.” She comments on the tendency in modern architecture to embed glass with other technologies.

Sky has always wanted to work with glass and now she’s got it: no easy task she says. Getting the funds, negotiating with an architect, glass engineers and sponsors, engaging with video-gaming engines and the sheer longevity of the project have made her feel not unlike a film producer. I ask if, like some other new media performance creators I’ve spoken to, the process has been like directing a film. “I’ve tried to keep a story board like Spielberg—live material matched with projected space, sound, light—so there’s a megascore but it changes on the floor. The rehearsal period is only 5 weeks and not all the performers will be there full-time. As the computer interface designer, John McCormick, explains, they won’t know how it all works until everything is installed: a classic example of the conflation of research & development with rehearsal, an inevitable outcome of costs.

McCormick calmly tells me about what sounds like a monumental task of working with Sky and the performers, filmmaker Margie Medlin, 3D modeller Marshall White and programmer Ricardo Zorondo on the task of integrating the components of the work. Some are relatively fixed, like composer David Chesworth’s score (though that is then mediated by sound designer Nigel Frayne) and the lighting, though that has to take into serious account not messing with the projections. Sound and lighting in turn have to be amalgamated with film, 3D virtual worlds, and the voices, gestures and footfalls that trigger the emergence and merging of virtual objects.


Mary Moore

Adelaide-based Mary Moore, a talented theatre designer, has become the creator of a series of significant multimedia works including Exile, a striking work for solo Butoh performer in a virtual world constructed by light, screens, film and animation. Moore describes her latest venture:

“The new work I am creating is The Twins Project (working title Double Vision), a mixed media performance work created by artists, all of whom are twins. The inner kernel of my vision for this project is drawn from my own experience as a twin. It began with a simple question: How do identical twins create separate identities from a shared experience? And it has developed into an exploration of similarity and difference, separation and merging, and the gap between the subject and the ‘other’: with all the possible ramifications implied by these terms within the global flows of people and customs.”

In the following account of her intentions, Moore addresses the issues of live/virtual balance and the flight from flatness, but also makes a strong point that it is no mere matter of focusing on the performer but of creating or ‘sculpting’ the space for them.

“Fundamental to my work as a designer is the creation of 3 dimensional performance spaces and I am continually interested in using projected images to create these spaces. Whilst it is always my intention to focus the performer in a performance work my obsession has been to liberate the projected image from its usual position as a flat screen placed at the back of the performer. I look for ways to sculpt space through projection and place the performer inside the image.

“Earlier this year I worked with Wojciech Pisareck (see RT 52) and Paul Jennings (both of whom are twins) on the creation of a 3D virtual world that can be projected to create a 3-dimensional playing space and can interact with the live performer. It involved the creation of computer-generated imagery and the testing of these images within the 3-dimensional playing space. We have been able to conduct laboratory experiments within the Flinders University digital studio using full size suspended surfaces and 6 video projectors. We used 3D Studio Max software and applied realtime animation as well as images rendered to video.”

Moore continues, raising the potential of conveying performer subjectivity: “My objective was to develop architectural images moving in real time to give the illusion that the acting space is a reflection of a performer’s point of view as he or she travels through the streets and alleys of a city. The most difficult challenge was to create moving perspectives that match the vanishing points on the multiple projection screens, and relate to the physical movements of the actor. The intention of these visual experiments is to create a doubled perspective that will express the individual spatial awareness of each of the twin actors.

“In a few weeks, I’m embarking on the next stage of the creative development with identical twin performers Brendan and David Rock, identical twin film artists Paul and Tony Jennings, and fraternal twin, digital animator Wojcieck Pisareck.”

Moore and her collaborators have benefited from working at the Australian Performance Laboratory (APL), established at Flinders University in 2001 to formalise the links between the Drama Centre and the independent artists and companies using its research laboratory. APL specialises in creating ‘real time’ solutions for the integration of digital technology into live performance, without overwhelming the visceral with the virtual. The centre is running a symposium on the performer and new technology for the Shanghai Festival as part of Celebrate Australia 2002 in November this year with stelarc, Company in Space, Mary Moore, Wojciech Pisarek, William Yang and Chinese artists.


David Pledger, NYID

For NYID’s latest project, artistic director David Pledger has enjoyed the “liberating experience of writing a script” rather than his more usual practice of creating a scenario of images and actions to be choreographed on the workshop floor. The process has taken some 2 years including a 2 week development workshop courtesy of MTC and script development support from The Studio at the Sydney Opera House (where Pledger hopes the work will be shown in 2003 after its 2002 Melbourne Festival premiere). Inspired by Kafka’s The Trial and contemporary issues of surveillance, a mediatised world and globalisation, Pledger’s script is not an adaptation of Kafka’s novel, rather, he says, it’s a response.

Given his themes, especially a long term preoccupation with surveillance, it’s not surprising that the camera should play a pivotal role in this production, “but as just another theatrical device which is there to communicate, otherwise we wouldn’t use it.” Pledger is emphatic that his use of screened live and pre-recorded images is “neither decorative nor aesthetic.” A bank of small, industrial monitors set low on the stage and a group of larger television monitors above frame the live performance while a large screen/wall to the side reveals large images.

Pledger says that the production is not about performers engaging with their virtual selves. Although they might watch themselves at certain points, and while they have to be aware of their relationship to the screen, this is not something Pledger wants his performers to be conscious of; “it’s something they learn and then forget.” Of the 7 performers, 5 have worked with him before, their impressive shared physical vocabulary was on show in the NYID-Gekidan Kataisha collaboration during Next Wave in May this year. Pledger says that this continuity is vital, and given the limited 4 and half week rehearsal period for K, is vital. Similarly his script for K has the screenplay quality of being very precise about what Pledger needs from his film and sound team in terms of images and duration. When asked about the relationship between script, performance and sound and image, Pledger says that the dialogue cues “aural trademarks”, rather like motifs, that then drop into an accumulating sound bed and subsequently have their visual correlatives revealed on the screens.


Gideon Obarzanek, Chunky Move

Closer, a commission of the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI), is an interactive dance installation created and produced by Chunky Move. It has been previewed at the antistatic dance event at Sydney’s Performance Space in September and will premiere at ACMI in December. Obarzanek writes:

The relationship is reciprocal, with the choreography endlessly modified by the actions of the audience. The audience’s actions are in turn shaped and defined by the installation, which calls upon them to touch, throw or press their bodies against upholstered, torso-size, sensor pads mounted on the walls in the installation space.

Obarzanek sees Closer as a choreographic instrument, an investigative tool, in which “bodies are pushed into a kind of physicality that is especially unusual in a traditional gallery context. They literally impact on the work.”

He describes how he started work on Closer. “This was 2 years ago and it was a slow process. I mapped out the possibilities with Peter Hennessey (Interactive and Visual Design) and worked with the dancer, Nicole Johnston, for 2 weeks in the studio on movement phrases. I had a camera: it was irrelevant to just use the eye. I focused on it moving with or away from the dancer. Most of the movement deals with the collision between a dancer and a surface. I shot a lot of material on video before we started working with Cordelia Beresford. She was using a 16mmm movie camera but we did it on video first and she came up with very good suggestions, what would work and what was practical—a strong influence on determining the menu of possibilities. It was an expensive shoot over 2 days, so we had to know exactly what to do. We worked with a padded wall and a padded floor and shot some of it from above to give the impression of falling, of impossible impacts. It all looks like a wall when you see it in the installation. Actually, you don’t see the wall, but the shock wave is seen in the body in the inky blackness.

“We ended up with a small amount of footage, but there had to be a massive amount of coding—Peter really kicked in—for lots of options and it required huge amounts of RAM. Darrin Verhagin, the composer, was there right from the beginning because the audience also influence the sound. There are 4 tracks running. One track is fixed but the others can be altered by impact with the pads. The testing period showed us how important sound was going to be for the sense of user involvement.”

* * *

Part 2 of our survey of new media performance will continue to focus on the issues explored here but will extend to animation and the virtual thespian, telematic performance and the significance of new media communications for collabarations between communities within Australia and internationally.

The artists and companies to be surveyed in Part 2 are Kate Champion, Wojciech Pisarek, Sarah Neville, Samuel James, IGNEOUS, Keith Armstrong and the transmute collective, para//elo, Hill & Nash (ex-Men Who Knew too Much), Cazerine Barry, Tess de Quincey, skadada and others.

See also, Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter, “Is any body really there?”, e-volution of new media, Artlink, vol 21 no 3, 2001.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002