Carolyn and Rowan exploring Horizons VR experience
Carolyn and Rowan exploring Horizons VR experience

A creative process can sometimes resemble a sound wave as obstacles are encountered and surmounted, with an artist’s greatest strength sometimes being the ability to adapt. Workshop 2 on 8 March embodied that challenging sound wave as artists learnt about immersive and interactive audio. …just not necessarily with the people first planned or at the times first anticipated… Initially planned to start with an introductory session that provided a springboard to practical workshops, the day was instead more discursive, as transatlantic flights and national trains prevented and delayed our audio experts.

Providing the bridge into thinking about immersive sound, Joachim Gossmann stepped in last minute to introduce our artists to grounding principles such as distribution of sound, localisation and colouration. Using a mindmap of spatial audio, he discussed electric-acoustic music, theatre, installations and movie soundtracks, finishing by highlighting tools for making such work. This provided an opportunity for discussions about binaural sound and the challenges and potential for live mixing of spatial sound. This was later complemented by a talk from Robert Thomas on his experiments with adaptive sound, using apps that adapt to ambient atmospheric sound, audio-visual installations responding to viewer’s brainwaves and machine learning in composition.

…and just as the day seemed pretty much done, there was one last chance to play with the Horizons adaptive VR musical experience…

The shifts in programme opened up gaps that allowed some of the collaboration established in the first three day workshop to continue as artists discussed incubating ideas amongst themselves and with some of the speakers. Alongside these moments of group sharing, each artist or artistic group consulted with the XR Circus research team so that their ideas could be matched to technical tools and expertise. Much as the day’s activities adapted to the challenges of disrupted transport, the research team are adapting to the emerging needs of the artists by tailoring resources.

If you want up to the minute on every development from XR Circus then make sure you follow @XRCircus and keep an eye on #XRCircus where we live tweet workshops and events.

Artists’ Reflections: Beginnings…

Working together in the Fab Lab
Working together in the University of Brighton’s Fab Lab

XR Circus is a project led by researchers but driven by performance practitioners who want to explore the potential of combining circus with new technologies. At key points in this project, this blog asks our artists to describe the experience of being an XR Circus creative. Following the first intensive three day workshop, this is an edited account of what they had to say…

On why XR Circus is important:

Rowan Fae: “My growing feeling is that both technology and arts need each other to move forwards. I sense that technology lacks the contextual and cultural meaning without creative input and that performing arts is in danger of just dieing out without harnessing the power of new technologies.”

Victoria Amedume: “The workshops have opened up a number of new possibilities and I feel like a baby again in a new world, which is for an artist an exciting place to be.”

On working together:

Paper-based ideas developed collaboratively

Carolyn Watt: “I was amazed by the richness of the groups ideas and how these came together! It was great to see everyone else bouncing off each other, yet at the same time we were all interested in some way in the audience experience/emotions/togetherness/community”

Thomas Jancis, Trajectory Theatre: “I felt a good sense of community within the various companies. Coming at it as a non-circus performer, it was incredibly beneficial to find artists using a different way of working/a different energy to their work. We all seemed to form friendships pretty quickly which is always nice for these kind of projects and also supported each other on social media outside of ‘the room’.”

On gaining inspiration from the team:

Making things happen using a makey makey
Making things happen using a makey makey

Roderick Morgan, Trajectory Theatre: “As someone who often works closely with immersive technologies I know how easy it can become to be disillusioned with the constant clamouring for advancement. …The same powerful customer demand that is driving high levels of investment, and producing real results that have for years been restricted to the realms of fiction, also see spiralling disappointment and a fervour for more. That is why it is incredibly refreshing to begin this process with a group of people whose excitement in this area doesn’t come from longing to see how the world will be transformed in 5 or 10 years’ time but how the world can be changed right now, and more importantly how they can use their art and their experiences to be agents of this change.”

Rowan Fae: “I loved being exposed to different interesting people and tools for making work. I found the workshops very interesting and rewarding, I felt nourished as an artist and producer – this is so important, it gives one the strength to continue on a path.”

Emma Cat: “As incredible as I found the technology we were shown, I don’t think I found the technology alone revolutionary. I found Kelly revolutionary- her honesty and emotion really enabled me to engage with the technical side of things and made being in a lab amongst this incredible technology feel accessible, not intimidating. …I found the woman [Rachael Henson] who created the cardboard AR hack revolutionary! I loved how she brought together basic old techniques with simple technology to created something super accessible, but super-extraordinary.”

On gaining inspiration from technologies:

Vicki experiencing VR
Vicki experiencing VR

Carolyn Watt: “I certainly became a lot more interested in sound and projections as a result of the workshops, than I had been before, partly because I felt this was very inaccessible and out of my realm of knowledge/access. …It was also fantastic to explore smart textiles, something I’ve been interested in since my textiles degree, however again this felt very inaccessible as I had no knowledge of electronics and was quite scared of trying some things. However Kelly [Snook] presented it in such a way and provided a whole host of different tools that I think it could be something I explore in the future.”

Emma Cat: “I suppose I have been traditionally limited in choreographing an act to a piece of music. It was pretty mind bending to consider that my movement could control music, lighting and visuals. In my previous work, I came to using video as a means of set design. I love a hand built and painted set/installation, but such production is incredibly labour intensive and limited in what it can convey, whereas video offers (pretty much) unlimited opportunities to create an immersive world.”

Emily Martin, Trajectory Theatre: “I felt a little overwhelmed at times; so much creative stimulate can get you carried away with grand thoughts that were out of this world… then again this is what it was about! I was particularly intrigued about the number of new technologies that are easily accessible to any artist, educator or child which makes creating virtual, interactive worlds and media possible from your bedroom”

On sensational possibilities:

Rowan Fae: “I found the VR experience ‘the plank’ to be very effective and was shocked by how long it took me to recover emotionally particularly as someone that has done all kinds of crazy things at a great height.”

On moving forward:

The XR Circus team
Team XR Circus’ researchers & practitioners

Thomas Jancis, Trajectory Theatre: “While our final task didn’t ‘work’ I feel we all got something from it. A different way of creating and approaching the tasks we have been given. Now we see what we can actually achieve in the time given. Ultimately it gave me a chance to experiment. Also to put wires in a flapjack which at the end of the day might be my greatest scientific achievement to date.”

Victoria Amedume, Upswing: “My fear was that with immersive and digital content you are not working with the physical laws that bind circus, creators can build the kind of ‘impossible experiences’ that circus artists have traded on for years without the need for circus bodies. This project has provided the perfect opportunity to begin to explore methods of integrating the performer with technology in a way that will not only expand the physical possibilities of the form but also evoke an emotional connection. The most exciting thing has been the realisation that digital is not some impenetrable world and could be a useful addition to a creative tool kit and like any tool I need to learn how to wield it skillfully and sparingly.”

Rowan Fae: “I loved getting hands on with the technology when we made our catsuit, I thought yes I can do this, I felt inspired and empowered to go exploring in my own time, learn how to do some of these thing independently, buy a soldering iron for example and star making circuit boards. I really left feeling like anything was possible and reminded me how you can learn to do anything”

*Carolyn Watt’s PhD is part funded by the Interreg 5A France (Channel) England Research project PONToon, June 2017-November 2020, led by the University of Portsmouth, CCI

If you want up to the minute on every development from XR Circus then make sure you follow @XRCircus and keep an eye on #XRCircus where we live tweet workshops and events.



Making the Impossible Feel Possible Together

Group 1 playing presenting practical work
Group 1 playing with projection and proximity

From 21-23 February circus artists Rowan Fae of Full Tilt Aerial Dance, Upswing Aerial Theatre led by Victoria Amedume, Carolyn Watt*, Emma Cat and a newly formed group of theatre practitioners led by Roderick Morgan under the auspices of Trajectory Theatre, learnt about new technologies through a variety of practical sessions. This was the first of three workshops that will lead up to scratch performances on 21 May. These experimental works in progress will combine the sensational art form of circus with new technologies that facilitate sensational experiences.

Before the artists even had an opportunity to encounter the technology able to inspire their imaginations, collaboration was placed centre ring. Research leaders Helen Kennedy, Sarah Atkinson, Kelly Snook and Donna Close explained the scope of the project, whilst industry partners described the support on offer and artists reflected on their most positive collaborations with technical experts.

Group 2 presenting practical work
Group 2 triggering applause through wearable sensors

Integral to the temporary community set up in the room was Kelly Snook’s passionate description of her
own relationship to the relatively recent science/art divide and her invitation for participants to dream big. Inspiration was provided by Kelly’s description of technology available and by a visit to Wired Sussex’s Immersive Lab. Here they encountered talks on 360 video by Nick Driftwood of Driftwood Productions and Jeremiah Ambrose, researching the possibilities of 360 video film making and virtual reality technologies, as well as being given the opportunity to experience the exciting technologies that Immersive Lab members are working with. This included experiencing Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Holo and other technologies that combined the analogue and digital worlds. Walking away from the Immersive Lab, the feeling was that this visit itself could plant the seed for future collaborations.

Group 1 working collaboratively
Group 1 working collaboratively

Forming two groups our artists worked together to develop two projects that were shown in the last session on the third and final day of the workshop. Themes integral to circus such as community, harnessing the power of movement and proximity were experimented with, as well as ideas that exposed the hidden reality of circus bodies. As artists worked within the University of Brighton’s Fab Lab space, they took on the space’s ethos of asking if they could make something happen through the iterative process of doing, rather than closing down possibilities by defining parameters too closely, too early. One group even set themselves the task of only continuing with an idea if they didn’t already know how they could achieve it. The Fab Lab and research team assisted the workshop participants to put ideas into practice that both translated the conductive power of bodies and sensors ability to recognise movement to trigger sound and light. As with any creative process there were moments of frustration and excitement, as well as learning through experimentation.

In the end two ideas were presented: a wearable costume that responded to the body bends of contortion to trigger applause and visual projections that responded to arm movements using proximity sensors. These two outcomes were a great achievement within such a short time, but what was more fascinating was seeing the ideas played with and discarded in the process of making.

Group 2 working together
Group 2 working together

As outsiders looking in, it appeared that our artists did shift the frame of what was impossible for them on
day one to what was possible on day three, acquiring skills and potential inspiration for their individual final works. The shifting relationship between the possible and the impossible, brought to mind Ron Beadle’s talk at our launch event. It remains to be seen how the personal wishes and dreams sealed in envelopes on the workshop’s first day will be realised in performance in May, and whether this relationship with possibility will be permanently reconfigured for our artists by the new technologies on offer.


* Carolyn Watt’s PhD is part funded by the Interreg 5A France (Channel) England Research project PONToon, June 2017-November 2020, led by the University of Portsmouth, CCI

If you want up to the minute on every development from XR Circus then make sure you follow @XRCircus and keep an eye on #XRCircus where we live tweet workshops and events.