The Society of British Theatre Designers

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Juliet's Balcony
  • The Heights modelbox
  • Mary Stuart
  • Anne Boleyn, Act 1
  • Muhammad Ali and me
Staging Places: We Are The Storytellers Now - open until March 13, 2020 at V&A London

From the Liminal to the Visceral:

The Liminal Screen co-production residency at the Banff Centre New Media Institute (BNMI) in Canada, is an annual five week long peer selected residency for professional artists from a range of disciplines whose intention is to further connect ‘screen based’ activities to real life. The co-production facility offers the artist the opportunity of working with the BNMI production team of computer programmers, video editors, digital animators and television post-production specialists, to assist in realising their project aims. Having developed a practice over the last ten years of performing with the on-screen double in mostly comedic encounters, my intention was to introduce into my performance process, sensor based triggers and multiple selection paths that would allow the live performer the opportunity to interact more spontaneously with their on-screen counterpart. Up to this point the performances had relied on the slavish response of the actual performer to the relentless pace set by the recorded presence.

Working with computer programmer Kenny Lozowski and under the peer guidance of chairwoman of the Leonardo Education Forum Nina Czgledy, Canadian Video Artist Willie LeMaitre and Australian visual artist Kate Rich, this luxurious working process began with several layers of experimentation. In terms of the physical design of the work, I had been experimenting with the moving screen, a development from the usual static projected image. I had taken a work in progress video of an earlier experiment, first conceptualised during the Solo Artist’s international Residency at Dartington (July 2008) in which I had tied a rope round a television and let it swing from the lighting rig. Filming my head upside down and playing directly onto the television I performed a short dialogue in which I had, pushed, pulled and kicked my inverted self giving the ‘appearance’ of a spontaneous interaction by resorting to my usual working process of intensive rehearsal and speaking into the gaps left by the on-screen performer. It is these absurd impossible relationships that have driven the work to date, where technology is serviced to achieve such ends rather than using technology for its own sake. The residency at BNMI however was to challenge my work patterns, fore-fronting as it did the use of the random trigger from the outset of the project.

Two different works were attempted, the first built on the suspended head project was to create a movement responsive television monitor. The Nintendo Wii controller was chosen as the most affective sensor, the continuous narrative re-scripted into sections and filmed. This was a somewhat ridiculous affair in itself as I lay on a table with my upper torso hanging precariously over the edge, the programmer doubling up as camera man, inches away under the table, as I screamed, moaned and cursed my way through forty two different phrases whilst trying to keep my head still. After editing and exporting, each new line (response) was then assigned a particular movement quality that would be triggered by moving the television with different levels of force. MaxMSP was used as the structural base for the encoding, with the ever accommodating BNMI programmer working tirelessly to refine the pathways of this mathematical programme to ensure maximum sensitivity. Alongside, what for obvious reasons Kenny Lozowski now christened the “Screaming Head” I was developing a multiple path narrative script that would invite the audience to make the scene selection. The Wii stick would be employed again, this time as a remote control. Due to time constraints the more ambitious plan of filming several characters and locations was abandoned in favour of using just one. I had arrived with several kinetic toys with comic potential, one such was a wind up swimmer with a large body in 1950’s swimwear that had an uncanny resemblance to myself. Selecting the character of the Swimmer and her double as my starting point, the visual research focused on another repeated theme, the iconic female image on screen. This time I explored grotesque Hollywood emaciation, dietary disorders and with the planned synchronous presence of the digital double I gathered video footage of the bizarre perfectly timed actions of synchronised swimmers. Knowing that repetition was inevitable I built in mimicking actions that would cause the live performer to be over-stretched whilst her on-screen double would remain constantly fresh. Alongside the displaced movement vocabulary of swimming on land there would be the swift consumption of glasses of coke, bowls of popcorn eaten aggressively and whole apples eaten as fast as possible. Recorded as nine different scenes, the programmer then used the ‘Screaming Head’ MaxMSP patch system as a basis for the less complex nine response modes structure ready for the addition of the Wii Controller to trigger the scenes at the whim of the audience. However, at a test run attended by several invited peers the audience declared their reluctance to ‘control’ the performance. The decision making gaps between the scenes slowed the performance to the point where it lost its comedy dynamic. In direct response the computer was re-programmed to play in random selection mode.

The new works were presented in proximity, the monitor containing the ‘Screaming Head’ was secured firmly to a trolley rather than the lighting rig, for obvious reasons in a theatre studio with an eight metre drop. The audience were encouraged to push, pull, kick and hit the object which responded with four collections of phrases; from weeping inconsolably when stationary, screaming for help and pleading for the audience member to stop when pushed, to shouting violent abuse at the audience member if they pushed or punched aggressively enough.
In comparison the newly named “Swimmers” was a much more gregarious but equally torturous experience. The live performance element incited the involvement of the audience, requiring them to feel the revulsion and the visceral strain of endless consumption juxtaposed by the pressure to maintain a certain image, punished by bizarre exercise fads. Throughout the performance the on-screen doppelganger teases and beguiles her on-stage imperfect counterpart with her random actions and relentless replay. The timing of the digital double is always perfect, she never misses a beat, her image practiced, posed, cruel in her repetition delivered at the whim of a stupid random program.

By the end of the process I had arrived at two different working scenarios. One which took great strides towards the creation of a responsive virtual presence but which has yet to be tested within my own performative process. It has however shown me that there are other applications for the development of effective script based narratives that can have a much broader application within both exhibition and the commercial interactive marketplace. In ‘Swimmers’ I was further enslaved to the whims of the digital double. The fact however that I was the one that decided to do this to myself, gives the performance relationship a greater pathos and creates a stronger audience empathy with the actual performer. By literally challenging my own physical capabilities one of the other by-products of this adventure was the discovery of a new detox diet.

by Mary Oliver