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.