Annette Mees on A Live/Digital Theatre Salon

Coney Co-director Annette Mees reports on last month’s Live/Digital Salon. Bringing together creative minds with an expertise in the live/digital arena, the recurring Salon is a starting point for ongoing conversations and future collaborations. 

 

Why we organised the Salon
Coney, Goldsmith’s and Showcaster have been working on an experiment with a new kind of theatre – an experiment in live performance + online engagement. Throughout June 2014, we experimented with a 45-minute interactive theatre piece designed to be enjoyed both by a small live audience, and by an unlimited number of people online simultaneously. Blending elements from theatre, gaming and TV, this is an exploration of a new type of live event which generates drama by giving audiences online and in the physical space agency to influence the narrative world of the piece. We are very excited about the possibilities of this kind of work.

 
The word digital, live and theatre are linked to mean all sort of things at the moment which leads to a confusing landscape where multi-platform projects, live streaming, broadcast downloads, audience engagement strategies, digital art visual art pieces.

 
One way to divide the internet (and there are many taxonomies) is to divided it into two. The first side is The Library; the web as a holder of content and information that you can access at anytime. Everything from iTunes and Netflix to online encyclopaedias and relatively static webpages fall under that. The other side is The Social Playground. This includes online gaming, muds, irc, Skype, Facebook, Twitter; spaces in which people gather to meet and be with others and have live or real time interaction with others. While the on-demand side is well explored, the interactive live online event is a new territory.

 
Coney’s practice has always been about agency for the audience, placing the audience at the heart of the story, work that is responsive to the audiences that are there, where stories change due to their actions, where each night is different, where audiences connect to each other by sharing a collective experience that reflects them. Our practice maps very well on the social side of the web; a place of interaction, dialogue and play. So that is what we investigated when this opportunity for a Digital R&D for the Arts opened up.

 

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In our R&D Better Than Life we decided to throw the kitchen sink at this thing rather than paring down or targeting. We experimented in lots of different dimensions and see what happens (to see what happened). A bit like prospecting in a river – working through many ideas to find the gold. We wanted to come out on the other side with a good insight in the kind of live online event that people would show up for. What are the exciting dimensions of connecting from your own device into a live theatrical event that connects you not only to a place but also to audiences across the world.

 
Although we were exploring a very specific new territory – that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many people who have expertise in similar and transferable areas. We knew many others have been experimenting with online streaming and the mixing of live performance and online engagement. So we decided to host a small Salon for and with others who have experience with this kind of work for an evening where we can all share what we know already, we’ll imagine what might happen next. We invited a selection of theatre makers, funders, producers, digital experts, academics, digital storytellers and other interesting folk to have an evening of conversation.

 
We organised this Salon to move the conversation forward and open up discussion about different models of making live, digital performance and the dramaturgical toolbox. We wanted to explore what is most exciting, what are the biggest obstacles at the moment, who should be working together and what would change the playing field.

 

What we did on the night

 

The Salon was filled to the brim with people that have quite expert knowledge in this field. Rather than doing much presenting I wanted the room to talk to each other. So the format I came up with was half inspired by Pecha Kucha and half by Open Space – which I learned initially at Improbable’s D&D sessions. I invited three short provocations from smart people about what the future might look like. After that the Salon broke into groups to talk about these provocations and come up with some statements, questions thoughts or provocations of their own. After sharing those we broke for wine while I took the material from the first half and created themed tables. We shared at the end, after which the bar remained open for quite a while. The idea underpinning the evening was for it to be informal but informative and for as many interesting people to talk to as many interesting people as possible in a semi-structured way.

 

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The provocations

The first provocation was made by Jonathan May from LIFT. He spoke about how much digital storytelling is an ever-changing and exciting form and how it has the ability to connect people, to unearth truths and to subvert and occupy public space. That’s why we love it. That’s why we’re so excited about it. That’s why we’ve gathered here. There is a brilliant community of theatre makers, storytellers and games makers who are exploring, testing and supporting one-another making this work.

He posed that the next big challenge isn’t about the form. I think it’s about trying to create work to reach beyond our own risk-taking audiences. Tech and online platforms are almost without exception ubiquitous (he told a beautiful story about his grandfather’s use of his new smartphone)

His provocation was: How can we create new work that reaches a wider audience for the art we create?

Next up was Sam Hill of PAN Studio. He spoke about the integrity of play. Sometimes curated play can be enriched by having a message or agenda, but sometimes it can be severely compromised. As ‘Gamification’ has permeated the mainstream, playfulness is frequently being explored as a means to an end.

Using football and the McDonald’s ‘game’ he explored what happens if play and interactivity is used as a tool to affect stakeholder opinion and behaviours.

His provocation was: How can we avoid play – live and digital – being used as a tool only?
The final provocation was from Ghislaine Boddington, Creative Director of body>data>space and Research Fellow at ResCen Middlesex University. She set out that makers and stakeholders of digital online interactive work are pioneers working in a brand new territory. That requires a massive shift in the creative process; new teams, new processes, new expertise. Digital is not something that can just be added on to a classical piece of art and expected for it to work. She discussed the role of the artist and the art world in the much wider developments on digital platforms.

Her provocation was: Who can we collaborate with to enable great work and a win-win situation for all involved?

There were four broad themes that emerged from the first round.
The first one was around audiences for the work; who are the audience, what unique experiences can digital work offer to audiences, what is in it for them?
Secondly there was a strand about the festishisation of technology. We spoke about the novelty stop, and what is the value of art in the realm of technology?
The third theme honed in on the art of writing for digital projects. Do writers need to know the platform the work on? And provocatively the question: “Can you kill the story?” was posed.
The final strand focused on collaborations; it explored the role of the artists in cross-industry collaborations, the need for a shared vocabulary and an exchange of practice.

The topics of the evening ran far and wide, many new connections were made and longer conversations started. We are organising a follow-up Live/Digital Salon in Spring 2015. Please feel free to send in ideas, provocations, rants, introductions or anything else you think we should know about to knock@coneyhq.org.

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Here are some things that people who attended said:

“The Salon provoked some good conversation and questions for me that are still running round my head – Should funding agencies try and stay ahead of the digital adoption curve? If so, how should they do that? Or, should artists be better at explaining what they’re trying to do without talking too much about the medium that they intend to use? Surely a good artistic project is a good project despite the medium, so shouldn’t we just drop the need to talk about digital?”
Rob Ashelford
Digital Research and Development Fund for the Arts in Wales

“The salon was a great way to facilitate an open conversation between practitioners who might not normally meet. I was interested in the need of a shared vocabulary when we bring our different backgrounds to a collaboration. And once we have that, how do we call the things we are working on? In the discussion this sparked we wondered whether in our disciplines we are gradually climbing the same mountain top from different angles. Or is it a landscape of multiple hills we are navigating?”
Philo van Kemenade
Data & Analytics at Storygami and initiator of popathon.org

“The salon was extremely thought provoking. As someone with a background in technical implementation, it gave me the opportunity to speak to people with different roles in interactive theatre whose paths I may not necessarily have crossed otherwise.”
Andrew Price
Technical director at madebymoon.

 

Annette Mees

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