An XR Circus Cabaret of Curiosities

Alfa Marks performing for Upswing Aerial on rope Laptop generating graphicsNome Hunter performing for Full Tilt Aerial

On 21 May 2018 XR Circus reached an important milestone: four months on from the first set of workshops our five groups of artist-practitioners presented works-in-progress in the Brighton Spiegeltent. Their exploratory work was made possible by a collaborative research project that brought technologists, practitioners, researchers and industry partners together. Funded by the AHRC and EPSRC research councils, this University of Brighton and Kings College London project was supported by Driftwood 360, Without Walls, Seachange Arts, Freedom Festival Arts Trust and Lighthouse Arts.

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.

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.

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 Nome 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.

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.

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.

It will be interesting to observe how this XR Circus experience expands the coordinates of our artists’ practice…


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 Sensation

Working at SeaChange Arts
The XR Circus team deep in the creative process at SeaChange Arts

Over three days, five different creative pathways unfolded in the final intensive XR Circus workshop. Hosted by SeaChange Arts at the Drill Hall in Great Yarmouth our five artists and companies made the most of three intensive days focused on experimentation. Initial sessions included sharing the vision of each work and presentations from Giles Thacker (Shared Space & Light), George Butler and Andy Baker (two of the Immersion Lab residents at Fusebox).  This set the tone for explorations that focused on visual technologies and included projection mapping, 360 film, motion-capture and working with Unity.  The heart of the three days was about doing and making; about finding ways to create the work that will be presented in Brighton in less than a month’s time. The team also included our aerial rigger Milo Foster Prior from Hightop Circus/ Brighton Spiegeltent and resident project creative technologists Jeremiah Ambrose (University of Brighton) and Nick Driftwood.

This residency saw the XR Circus team make the most of the space and the time afforded, working long hours together to explore what was possible and what was impossible. It saw different strategies of making arise in the room as new material and methods collided together: for some this meant focusing on planning and absorbing knowledge, then doing; whilst for others it was the very interaction with the technology that led their ideas to develop through challenge or inspiration. Lessons were learnt by the project team, the technical experts and the artists that forced visions to be adapted through discovery that was, at different times, frustrating and exciting.

The place for reveals and revelations is in Brighton on 21 May and not on this blog. But, what we can tell you, is that over the course of these three days: fabric was lashed to bamboo and rubber to create structures that were built and discarded; paper was taped to walls and water was splashed in a child’s paddling pool to make projectable surfaces; a bicycle helmet was adapted to hold a 360 camera; and, cardboard boxes were used to reveal objects that were heavy with hidden stories. In the space artists continued the collaborative atmosphere of earlier sessions by assisting each other find the material that worked, whether that was pouring water or contorting in a motion capture suit.

Watching our artists and technical experts engage in this creative and collaborative process from the side lines leads to a sense of promise. In less than a month’s time there will be work that combines the sensory potential of circus and new technologies. Expect to see, hear, touch and feel.