Artist Reflections: now the dust has settled…

Word cloud
Words used by XR Circus artists to sum up their experience

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. Now that our creatives have has a chance to reflect on what it was like presenting their XR Circus work to audiences, we’ve asked them to share some of their thoughts. This is an edited account of what they had to say…

On the XR Circus team:

Alfa Marks performing for Upswing Aerial on rope
Upswing Aerial, Alfa Marks on rope

Thomas Jancis, Trajectory Theatre: Working with XR Circus I have found the variety of passions from the various practitioners to be greatly inspiring. … I think having a team has been incredibly useful as a support structure and soundboard for ideas.

Emma Cat: It was inspiring getting to meet and work with people like Kelly and Robert, to learn about the incredible projects they are working on… [and] the other artists on the project 

Carolyn Watt: Its been really fantastic being able to bounce ideas of fellow XR-ers, test things out on the spot (such as the head set experience in Great Yarmouth with different choreo) and also see how others approach the different types of technology.

On the process:

Victoria Amedume: Working hands on with software and equipment made available to us, supported by expertise of digital practitioners, has been brilliant but challenging. The focus on the circus artists creating content ourselves initially felt difficult, I went back to feeling unskilled and clumsy as a maker. However, without rolling up my sleeves and trying stuff myself I don’t think I would have reached the point we are now. I have surprised myself by how much I have been able to use software to produce short programmes, edit 360 sound and video.

Trajectory Theatre preparing outside Spiegeltent
Trajectory Theatre preparing

Emily Martin, Trajectory Theatre: Having not spent much time working with technology, the project has introduced me to new ways of thinking, and broadened the possibilities for future work. There have been some challenges along the way, like how to mo-cap a person to make them look like a horse… but with all the challenges have come new ways to solve them …because of the expertise in the room.

Emma Cat: the only new technology used in the performance were the interactive projections that Mark was making for me, but the first time we tried that was during my performance… I was obviously completely occupied with performing my routing, so won’t be able to tell what it looked like until I get to see video from the show.

Carolyn Watt: originally I had planned to live stream the 360 as a projection which would then just be viewed by the audience in situ, however as the technology wasn’t available for this, we went down the live streaming route, which actually engaged with more people and offers an entirely different experience. …this was certainly an unexpected positive.

Rowan Fae, Full Tilt Aerial Dance: Our experiences in the fablab really opened up a world of hands on, super geeky making to me. I fondly remember holding a circuit board in my hand in one of the early workshops and thinking I get it

On the artistic challenge:

Nome Hunter performing for Full Tilt Aerial
Full Tilt Aerial Dance, Nome Hunter

Emily Martin, Trajectory Theatre: I think the biggest challenge …was to not loose the focus of the story telling and human connection in the experiences; we needed to keep a tighter hold on the narrative and story behind the technology to ensure that the final product was not just a show of computers, but …interactive and engaging as well.

Emily Cat: I ended up having to work in a way that I wasn’t used to. I like to plan ahead and give myself time to develop ideas, but …it wasn’t possible to explore and experiment as I would have hoped. …I think that the combination of the venue not being suited to the screens/projections I required coupled with … the developmental process led to me feeling like …I lost some of the creative clarity of my work

Rowan Fae: I dreamt of a beautiful avatar that shifted from formed to losing form and into formless, telling a tale of the loss of self within a world of the hyperreal where the virtual and real become entwined. …There seemed to be barriers to achieving my artistic vision using the more complex technology, someone had to program and generate the beautiful avatars I imagined. …an awful lot of time spent getting computers to talk to each other. I did learn a lot from the process and could see that with more time and tweaks the more challenging ideas could too come to fruition.

On skill:

Emma Cat: Learning to use and working with Ableton was interesting but difficult and led to a few bleary eyed sleepless nights. …I surprised myself by creating the soundscape for my routine …the process has confirmed to me how important the audio element is in creating an immersive world

Victoria Amedume: Even with the frustration realising, that like circus, to achieve what I want to required a far higher level of skill with digital media than I could reach in the time; this stage of XR Circus has enabled us to generate a strong vision for the connection of digital to our circus practice.

On the practicalities of the event:

Carolyn Watt and VR experience participant
Carolyn Watt and VR experience participant

Carolyn Watt: on the day, we realised… our only option was Facebook [livestreaming] …And actually Facebook was a really effective platform, as it allowed external audience members to comment live, use emoticons etc. So although it didn’t quite go to plan, it was useful to work out that Facebook is perhaps a better platform for this work over YouTube.

On audience response:

Rowan Fae: Interestingly the showing and the subsequent commentary on social media highlighted that the ‘simple’ ideas that I found to be most effective were also enjoyed most by the live audience.

Thomas Jancis, Trajectory Theatre: The feedback for ‘Circus in a Bottle’ has been wonderful with audience members calling it “beautiful” [and] “simple but great”

On future development:

Roderick Morgan, Trajectory Theatre: The showing for us threw up the usual things; stuff that should have worked but didn’t, stuff that shouldn’t have worked but did, stuff that wasn’t even in the performance but somehow became a central part of it. …Though we had spent a great deal of time finding interesting circus history stories to present, what we needed, and what we will be doing in the next iterations of this project, is finding a way to place these anecdotes in a wider story that involves our audience.

On future practice:

Emma Cat performing on rope
Emma Cat performing on rope

Roderick Morgan, Trajectory Theatre: This project has really made me consider the point at which fiction and non-fiction meet. We wanted to represent the often harsh and unfortunate lives of a group within society who make their livings based on their feats and triumphs. We had to look at providing the audience with both of these facets simultaneous[ly] whilst still making work that played in to the wonderful and amazing. I don’t think we hit this right but we have a better idea of how to do this in the future.

Victoria Amedume: It… opened up thinking about how we can become better storytellers, finding way to layer stories between different media and discovering how different media can communicate, interact and support each other to create-multi-textured experience. …we now have the language and understanding of the potential to dig deeper into those ideas and realise them more fully.


*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 hear about how the XR Circus continues to develop follow @XRCircus and keep an eye on #XRCircus.

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.


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.