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.

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.

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.