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.



Looking Backwards and Forwards from the Margins

XR Circus Official Launch
Sarah Atkinson, Donna Close and Helen Kennedy launching the XR Circus project

How do you launch a project that investigates the creative and sensory potential of combining circus and streets arts with new technologies? In 2018, the 250th anniversary of Philip Astley establishing the circus ring, you invite artists, academics and industry partners to celebrate the future whilst looking back at the rich and vibrant past of circus.

On Tuesday night project leaders Helen Kennedy, Donna Close, Kelly Snook (all of University of Brighton) and Sarah Atkinson (King’s College London) welcomed this diverse audience to Lighthouse Arts, Brighton to celebrate the start of this new AHRC and ESPRC funded ‘Immersive Experiences’ project. Describing the project as a ‘controlled collision’ between haptic, sonic and visualisation technologies and the artistic process, they described their excitement as the opportunity to put cutting edge technology into the hands of an artistic community often marginal to the policy discourse around innovation.

Professor Ron Beadle of University of Northumbria then picked up on this concept of circus as marginal in describing some of the tensions academics have often highlighted in their writing. A particularly strong trope is the idea of a community that exists within society yet as its own temporary community, at the margins. He then went on to describe some of the hidden histories of circus such as the erasure of Lena Jordan performing the first triple somersault on the flying trapeze and Con Colleano’s performance of his Aborigine identity as Spanish. He finished by touching on how circus performs both the real and the impossible, playing with this relationship for audience members.

This was followed by a talk by Professor Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield) – founder of the National Fairground and Circus Archive – who demonstrated the vibrant visual and performance culture of circus. In talking about circus history she highlighted how female performers have always worked in the circus, including Patti Astley who performed with her husband, the originator of the modern circus. The imagery she presented was a tantalising glimpse of acts, whose detailed sequences generally haven’t been recorded for posterity. Toulmin’s work as a historian is to reconstruct those where it is possible. She described incredible women such as the female Fakir Koringa who mesmerised crocodiles and the mixed-race aerialist Miss Lala who shot a canon from between her thighs.

Our contributors spoke to a sold-out audience, highlighting the incredible history of circus as a sensational entertainment that created temporary communities. This provided a positive backdrop for this new collaborative project that investigates the creative potential of a form that has sometimes been marginalised and overlooked with new technologies that are emerging at the very edges of academic and industry research.

We were also delighted to introduce our five successful artists: Emma Cat; Rowan Fae of Full Tilt Aerial Theatre; Upswing; a newly formed team led by Roderick Morgan including Thomas Jancis, Emily Martin and Chris Leaney; and, Carolyn Watt whose 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.

The industry partners who support this project are Freedom Festival Arts Trust, Seachange Arts, Without Walls, Driftwood Productions and Lighthouse Brighton.