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.