Last night, I went to a Creativity and Technology masterclass hosted by Creative Warwickshire. It was a hot night and I was running late. I couldn’t find a parking space so arrived late, frazzled and dreading walking in to a room of judgmental tutting. I was pleasantly surprised. On arrival, I was given a glass of wine and soon after the food was brought out. My stress levels came down a few notches and I was ready for the evening to begin.
It was my first Creative Warwickshire event, an organisation that is passionately providing business support aimed at creative and digital freelancers. When I saw the event pop up on my Facebook feed I knew it would be great to come along and meet some like-minded folk. The host Sally introduced the speakers Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Sarah Jones, Deputy Head of School of Media & Performing Arts at Coventry University, who between them have a dazzling array of accolades including top influential women in Tech. The aim of the evening was to discuss the role of digital technology, which is increasingly central to the creative process; from creating content to reaching new markets and audiences, technology is transforming how we work, live, create and consume, from VR, AR, AI and new developments and how we harness the power of digital technology. This was the pitch and I still managed to come along with the wrong expectation. As it was advertised as a creativity and technology masterclass I did think that it would be more of a workshop on how to harness technology to better promote creative work, rather than it being the work itself. This perhaps indicative of my preconception that technology is a tool to aid creation not the creation itself. I am pleased to report that both speakers challenged this view.
Up first was Sarah Jones the storyteller, artist and academic researcher to talk about the immersive experience of VR and her own quest for ‘Smelly VR’ to bring a stronger sense of place and narrative to the medium. The impassioned way she talked about her work and the collaborative process was infectious. She began her talk by taking a 360 degree photograph of the room which you can see at the top of this post. Sarah uses 360 technology and virtual reality too create immersive storytelling. The Guinness world record for living in a VR world is 50 hours but Sarah thinks that the passive viewing of a virtual world is not virtual reality at all. Reality is after all something to be experienced ‘warts and all’, which led her to live in VR for 48 hours with a colleague. Not sitting on a sofa with a VR headset until your skin fuses to the fabric but actually living. In her headset Sarah set about her daily life but within VR from crossing the road to boxing.
Sarah is passionate to promote these tools within educational scenarios to foster experiential learning through VR. Interestingly she spent more than a decade working as a television reporter covering everything from the US elections in 2008 to being in Sex and the City. Throughout the talk she spoke often about the barrier that happened when reporting, the disconnect with the audience to what she was experiencing verses how the report was received. Immersive VR has allowed her to bring people outside of their own bubble and transport them to a new world complete with wind in your hair and pungent smells. To translate this into her practice she created her own low tech ‘Sensorama machine’ and invited people to watch VR in a heated tent with wafts of garbage, curry and sweat to add a visceral quality to the viewing of a busy street scenario showing on the headset.
Sarah moved into academia and works at Coventry University, happily spending her days immersed in a virtual world. She is the co-founder of @VRGirlsUK and an active champion of women in technology. It is unsurprising that she is listed in the top 100 of global influencers in VR.
I’ll be honest at first I was very sceptical, undoubtedly it was creative in a sense of play and experience but I kept thinking to myself is this the future of art? And if it is, do I like it? But it was her images of her trip to Texas that reeled me in. On a teaching residency in the States she had visited a ghost town on the old Route 66. I have always been drawn to this kind of imagery of decay and neglect. I think perhaps it’s a hangover from GCSE art where everyone at some point does a project on rust…. I digress…While visiting the site she used 360 technology to capture the setting to allow others to experience at their will and that really is the extraordinary nature of VR. For an artist interested in storytelling it must be frustrating to immerse someone in the environment and not want to direct their experience, instead in VR it is up to the viewer to uncover the story as it appears to them in real time. Food for thought.
My observation of Sarah Jones’ art practice was that at the root, technology was both cause and effect. In this I mean that it was a sense of disconnect caused by technology that pushed Sarah to explore the VR world. It was her ten years as a presenter with all the frustrations of not being able to convey the full experience that fuels her desire to create true immersive experiences. The thing I found most interesting was that it seemingly came from a desire to make people appreciate the wonder of the world we actually live in by immersing them in a strange sense of disconnect where a strawberry can appear magical.
With the VR headset on in the Mumbai market scene, with the bustling crowds and acrid smells, it is ablaze with colour and humanity. To the unartistic eye this presentation is a wonder filled experience full of joy and play as they test out new boundaries and grasp the air in front of them, trying to pick up objects that are not there. I would argue however, this has been the role of artists for a millennia, to guide the eye to the wonder that is around us. If VR helps some people to appreciate what’s already in front of them, then wonderful. If it helps school kids visit the masterpieces in Rome and spark their imagination while in a deprived comprehensive school, then great. VR is a tool to be used. I just don’t think it will be one I will be using personally, as I enjoy getting my hands dirty in the real world too much.
Next up was Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital for the RSC. Her talk surrounded the development of the Ariel avatar in last year’s production of The Tempest. A performance I was lucky enough to see in the beginning of the year. While the performance itself was truly a spectacle in every sense of the word, I hadn’t appreciated at the time the effort that had gone in to it behind the scenes, with it’s cutting edge technology. I always think that it is a testament to an expert when they make whatever it is they are doing look seamless. When I saw The Tempest with the live actor on stage dressed as Ariel and the syncopated movements with the 40ft projection of Arial, I had simply assumed that the actor was syncing his movements to a pre-recorded performance. It was fascinating to hear that it was in fact the opposite.
The performance was a result of an amazing collaboration with Intel and Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium Studios. The story of how it began is mind-blowingly simple for something so complex. Sarah had seen on YouTube a key note speaker from Intel use a similar technique involving a blue whale and decided it was worth a cheeky email to see if they could perhaps collaborate to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare. Not knowing anyone in Intel meant that the cheeky email had to be sent to Intel’s customer services team. Amazingly two weeks later she had a response and the wheels were set in motion that would lead to her winning many awards. Andy Serkis and the team from Imaginarium got involved to train the actor in motion sensor live acting. There were many hurdles along the way from costume design to projectors creating too much noise in the auditorium. No hurdle was insurmountable and the combined effort lead to an incredible seminal performance that will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come.
The most interesting take away from her talk however was the description of the shared theatrical experience we all know so well; the rushed entrance and stressed and anxiously checking that the phone is on silent ten times all in the run up to the start of a play, then as the lights go out, silence. We are all connected and ready for whatever is about to come next. I couldn’t help but remember my own flustered entrance earlier in the evening.
It truly was a thought provoking evening. Personally, I struggle with artwork purely born out of technology, while I can admire the creativity as displayed by the teams that created the Ariel avatar in The Tempest, I do feel a sense of loss for the un-material nature of it all. I enjoy creativity as a messy and tactile sport and I find technological art all a bit sterile. That said what Sarah Jones spoke about made me realise is that while the methodology is different, it is the desire to draw attention to that which can be overlooked in the real world that is at the heart of nearly all artistic pursuits.
Technology is another tool to add to the ever expanding tool kit the creative mind has to work with.