What does liveness and togetherness mean in the current context?
by Rachael Burton, illustrations by Jazz Thompson
We began the Expanded Performance Pathfinder a couple of weeks ago with our first workshop on zoom. The mingling of excitement, nerves and hope for the collective potential of this group was palpable. Before the workshop, everyone shared a short video to introduce themselves and their work in lieu of a luxuriously long day of presentations in a physical workshop room. We asked Jazz Thompson to watch the videos and translate some of the themes and questions in a series of illustrations. You can see her brilliant work throughout this article and the full illustration here.
I thought it was important to start the first workshop by returning to the theme, Expanded Performance, and I will do the same here. This is the thread that ties all of our questions and research together in a chaotic, knotty and interesting way. We’re exploring theatre, dance, live music and technology. We believe Expanded Performance is about the experience of liveness and togetherness within performance. I told everyone to get ready, they’re going to hear those two words so many times over the next few months.
As technology advances we are looking to the future of the live performance sector, in some cases these advancements have accelerated over the last few months due to lockdown and some have slowed. We are interested in the affordances of technology, and creating space for artists and creatives to be involved in the early-stage development of hardware and software so we can play and iterate with it and ultimately make it better and more human-centred.
Some of you might be expecting us to lead with the technology, actually it often takes a back seat to start with. We are about people, art and interdisciplinary collaboration. Technology is an important part of this conversation, but often it doesn’t come first, it comes at the right time.
We are interested in the messy, complicated and behind-the-scenes stuff - how do we make together? How do we play together? What makes our process better? How can we be radically inclusive? How do we share it with our audience early on? How do we co-create with communities in a meaningful way?
Within the pathfinder we have expertise and current research in audience behaviour; intelligent visual technology (eg. motion tracking); embodiment; immersion; narrative; storytelling, the promotion of emerging technologies and commissioning world-leading performance. We hope by bringing this cohort together we can better connect the research and industry practice across Bristol and Bath and share our learning back with the sector.
When we were designing the theme we said - ‘We aim to amplify experimental work in Bristol and Bath, supporting festivals, venues and arts programmes by funding co-designed, relevant R+D. We want this Pathfinder to catalyse new productions, performances and products, encouraging further cultural and commercial investment and ticket sales.’ These aims are still important for looking to the future of live performance, but they will necessarily shift as the context of the world and the cultural sector has changed overnight.
The fellows and partners research questions are looking at the long term future of the performance sector and we will absolutely hold onto the ambition of this. However, we know that Covid-19 will affect all of our lives for the coming months, possibly years, and of course it is having a drastic and damaging impact on the cultural sector. The astonishing activism work lead by Black communities that has taken place across the world before and since the horrific murder of George Floyd has been a catalyst for change. Bristol has been in the spotlight in the last few days, and some of our cohort are at the forefront of this incredibly important work. We need to thoughtfully consider how we reflect and learn from both of these pandemics in the context of ‘togetherness’ as we look to the future of live performance.
This is the framework we are operating in. Redundancies, venue closures and lack of opportunities and support for independent artists surrounds us and is likely to get worse. How do we navigate this pretty bleak landscape? What will the cultural business models of the future look like? Liveness and togetherness may take on new definitions, as we seek to find ways to inhabit the same spaces at the same time in this new context. We have already seen some beautiful examples of this, the gaming industry particularly is one we can look to. Gamers have been using Animal Crossing to hold funerals for their loved ones so they can gather in an embodied way and have a virtual space to return to mourn.
We have seen many musicians and theatres move their work online, to varying degrees of effect. Personally, I have really enjoyed Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Friday Kitchen Discos. Some incredible theatre has been made accessible to people in their homes, such as Complicite’s The Encounter, and Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams (both unfortunately no longer available). Musicians have been writing and recording songs in lockdown. Mike Large, our partner at Real World Studios, particularly recommends former REM singer Michael Stipe’s new song No Time for Love Like Now, and I recently watched a beautiful live stream of Imogen Heap performing with her MiMu Gloves, developed by fellow Tom Mitchell and his team, to celebrate the SpaceX and NASA launch. Moving work online that is designed for an audience and performers to be in the same space of course doesn’t offer the full intended experience, but it does remove some of the barriers. What can and should we hold onto when venues reopen and business resumes? How do we create work in a time of social distancing? What might liveness and togetherness look like then?
As people respond to and move through our current context at different speeds we have all been firefighting, grieving and reimagining. Of course no one knows what the sector will look like in the next couple of months, let alone the next few years, but while the industry recalibrates and reconsiders its future, as a cohort we will collectively have a voice in that. It would be useful to keep returning to the question - what does liveness and togetherness mean in the current context? We think space, time and money to play, think and collaborate across sectors will be more essential than ever.
You can read more about the cohort here, they will be writing about their process over the coming months.