‘An extraordinary circus’ is the notion behind this project exploring the realms of possibility when new immersive technologies collide with circus and street arts.
Led by the University of Brighton and Kings College London, in collaboration with research partners Without Walls, Freedom Festival Arts Trust, Driftwood Productions and SeaChange Arts, the team behind XR Circus also explore how the resulting work could extend to potential national and international markets, as both live experiences and digital products.
As part of a 2017 Immersive Experiences Partnership Call funded by the AHRC and EPSRC, the project looks at ‘What innovative creative content and emotionally impactful audience experiences are possible by bringing together academics specialising in haptic, interactive and immersive technologies with circus and street arts directors and performers,’ as the project overview explains.
This evening of entertainments was the culmination of a series of intensive workshops, creative encounters, collaborations and development activities. A process that exposed our selected artists to the very latest technologies, allowing them to expand their ideas of how new technologies might augment their practice. Importantly, this event put their prototypes and creative experiments in contact with the last vital component: an audience. As audience experience was a major research question that drove the project, the responses gathered as part of this evening will be vital for the future direction of the individual works and research project as a whole.
First up was Vicki Amedume from Upswing Arts who introduced her presentation by discussing the value of the XR Circus project to the company she leads. The work Upswing produce is about telling stories in interesting and creative ways and the technologies they explored as part of the project clearly held future potential. The fragment Vicki and, aerialist, Alfa Marks presented used a projection of water rippling as a backdrop. At the core of this experimentation was a watery audio soundscape that provided a poetic and expressive aural illustration of a rope artist who appeared to swim through water and gasp for breath. Vicki highlighted that the binaural experience was best experienced via headphones, offering the invitation to the audience to enjoy the audio later via headphones and in the private seclusion of a watery environment, such as a bath.
This was followed by Carolyn Watt*, who presented a romanticised version of an aerialist as she climbed silks whilst displaying her body. Rather than being one immaculate body in the live performance space, this representation of an aerialist was disrupted by different perspectives of her body refracted across media: a camera mounted within her glittering feathered headdress replayed her perspective against the screen behind her, whilst this was live-streamed again as video 360 on Facebook. Another iteration presented separately later saw Carolyn provide individuals with their own VR video 360 experience of being ‘her body’ in the air. This rooted them in both the real and virtual worlds through holding the silks she climbed. Both experiences sought to empower audiences by giving them different experiences and insights into an aerialist’s body.
— Donna Close (@donna_close) May 22, 2018
Emma Cat presented her environmentally-driven experience focused on the interaction of insects and plants. Her projection was presented across three screens. The central screen displaying coloured images of plants and insects, with white line representations across the two screens flanked her. Her movements were choreographed against an orchestral score supplemented by the sound of insects such as crickets. Emma later described how this atmospheric soundscape formed her central experimentation and a possible area for development.
— Ewan Kirkland (@EwanKirkland) May 21, 2018
The final performance within the tent was a series of explorations into how a live body could interact with projections and a central object: a white cube. Directed by Rowan Fae of Fulltilt Aerial and performed by Naomi Hunter, these took the form of: playing with shadows, live projections fed with a delay to create silhouettes and refracted images of the performer’s movements, dancing with a pre-recorded version of herself and images controlled by the dancer’s movements as picked up by a Kinect. This latter experimentation was rendered as an angular body that, at times, also refracted. The same technology was also used to control geometric patterns through proximity and gesture.
This year we got involved in @ahrcpress @CE_Programme research project led by @uniofbrighton and partnered by @FreedomFestHull. We looked at a #newgeneration of #immersive experiences for audiences and made this #screendance #short @pholieaerial #wanttoshare @xrcircus pic.twitter.com/wvaAdmeEh0
— Freedom Festival Arts Trust (@FreedomFestHull) August 13, 2018
Outside the tent, and throughout the evening, a smaller circus structure plied its wares by entertaining small audiences. Trajectory Theatre, presented one-to-one performances of a special miniature circus whose narrative was driven by Augmented Reality. Enticed into a small white wooden box by a sideshow barker, their circus presented snatches of circus history that required the audience to interact with the team, technology and their structure. Audiences looked, held, pulled and pushed objects within the space using flaps, switches and pulleys to trigger three stories from circus’ fantastic 250 year history.
— Sarah Atkinson (@DrSarahAtkinson) May 21, 2018
Throughout the evening each individual artist or group spoke about their XR Circus experience. They described a process of learning and development that suggested XR Circus had provided new experiences and tools, whether that was new technology or an introduction to another performance medium. Yet, at the same time as this was exciting for our artists, they also highlighted the frustrations of bumping against the limits of their technical understanding or of viable technologies.
The XR Circus project was one of 32 projects funded by AHRC and EPSRC as part of the £2m Research and Partnership Development call for the Next Generation of Immersive Experiences.
The call supports the development of early-stage research partnerships that will explore the creation of new immersive experiences addressing three key themes: Memory, Place and Performance.
Source: University of Brighton XR Circus blog
Photo © University of Brighton