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The Future of Live is Immersive Participatory Placemaking

The Future of “Live” is Immersive Participatory Placemaking

When Covid19 hit the world the performing and live arts sector was devastated. I and many others had been talking for some time about the oncoming tsunami of change and the need for arts to be the space where we could model and create a new paradigm. Covid hit and brought the wave of change crashing through our lives with unprecedented disruptive power. The Space for evolutionary change and modelling was trashed in an instant as survival kicked in. I likened the trauma of losing our place for connection, community and identity, to the expulsion of a people to a wilderness where their sense of being and belonging was in chaos. I reached out immediately to my community across the world and as they surveyed the wreckage around them, they displayed their resilience, resourcefulness, and adaptability in the face of challenge. Furthermore, they demonstrated their ability as imagineers, agents for change and shaman, who will guide us to our new horizons. The resilience energy and direction of the sector has revealed a hope that may just burgeon into an opportunity if we are ready to seize it.

The Future of theatre is immersive, participatory, placemaking, hybrid-digital, cross art form.

For artists to seize this opportunity I suggested in a previous blog that

We must rest and give in to our metamorphosis, we must listen so that we can hear, we must be formless so that new forms of liveness can grow……we must be silent because the next sound we make will be the most important in our lives. ”

I was reacting to the plethora of live streams and a mass migration to the land of zoom. I found the transition onto screens deeply troubling. This expulsion from our land of connection and identity resulted in a mass migration to the digital world. Any migration leaves generations in the wilderness until they find new lands to settle in. Where might we travel to? What tides and winds might carry us to new horizons? How long will it take until we find a home? What might we carry with us on this journey? To answers these questions, we must first know the wilderness and find guides who will show the way.

If the artists and audience’s wilderness is digital, we notice as we travel through it, we are bombarded by strange rituals and cultures and forced to learn new skills of survival. Our first attempt at survival is to find shelter and safety to place what we have carried with us in a context that feels secure. Artists and organisations deftly and heroically shifted their modes of creation and sharing into the digital world. They became the guides, though they had no map.

I saw new communities being born through the global reach of the digital platform, e.g the International Teaching Artists Climate Collective or the Transcontinental Education Artist Collective for Humanity, or my own “Conference of the Birds” collective . I saw new modes of access being pioneered- from simple things such as captioning and signing facilities on zoom, to delivery of a play in a box- see Vanishing Point Theatres production of Brite Theatres “Deliverence” or National Theatre of Scotlands “ Coming Back out Ball” social dance sessions . I saw new hybrid creations using augmented reality and bi-naural sound immersion, and a cross fertilisation of art forms on an unprecedented scale. A global awareness of the displaced artists and audiences was growing.

As an artist who has been experimenting with the interface of live and digital, visual, and performative art for decades, I got excited by the potential of these new forms gaining traction but was painfully aware that the sense of “live,”- the visceral communion of connecting in space and time, of consciously participating in making the experience unique to the moment and sharing it with whoever is gathered there- was being left behind. I was not worrying about our “home” being forgotten, I was worried that we were setting up a home in a wilderness and forgetting the foundations of what makes a home.

Like any displaced peoples we hold on tightly and dearly to our past and try and find room for it in the new lands we travel through, perhaps yearning for the time we will return. Our new land was/is digital, and it appeared to hold a promise where we could build a new way of making our art and connect to communities on a global basis. It looked like it had no borders or boundaries and that we could not only settle, but pioneer in new virtual lands. Whilst I have not let go of my optimism and enthusiastic belief in any new opportunity, I noticed that many of the shifts into the digital world relied on attempting to recreate a sense of live by holding a digital mirror or window to the experience. As artists matured into the new mediums, the films they created began to grow in quality and find aesthetics that were not in competition with Netflix but were moving closer to that model. I have long held the belief that we can share our stories and art in a digital medium, but to do so we must respect and hold dear the aesthetics, the interface and relationships between artists and audience that are held in the digital experience. The foundations of our live/lived experience were being edited and curated into the digital paradigm.

No attempt at “Liveness” could be achieved through a digital screen interface.

So, what of “liveness?” Where might we build our sense of Home, of belonging, of communing in space and time where each of us gives something that makes the experience live and shapes our view of the world because it is shared?

How might we evolve our live art in a covid and climate crises that will be with us for generations to come?

The answers are shaping on the horizon, and if we peer long enough through the fog of chaos that is blinding us, we can faintly see the structures of new and reimagined architecture of the live arts appearing.

Before we step towards this horizon, before we leave the digital wilderness/frontier, we must look around and back on the horizons we have left or chosen not to travel to and ask why. Why is “live” so important?

I have a two word answer to that question-

Connection and Empathy.

The reason “live art” is an absolute essential to life is,

“It is the space where time and bias are suspended in a liminal moment of unique collective creation so that we might connect and create empathy. It is what I call “The Necessary Space.”

Connection and empathy are what define us. We do not exist unless in relation to something or someone else. If we are not empathetic, we are the epitome of the worlds worst modern vice, which is apathy. In the live act we give and receive and in doing so we create the moment. We collectively and consciously share in joy, tears, laughter, energy, sound, movement, atmosphere, feelings, sensations, euphoria, dissonance, mood, excitement, and the tangible and intangible sense of being as one and having a singular experience of it.

In this digital wilderness/frontier I fear for our sense of connection as we pursue the dopamine hits of tik tok, as we scroll through or pause the video versions of great classics to get the quick hit of the climax scene or replenish our wine glass, as we ignore calls in favour of swapping voice mails on what’s app, and I am terrified by how quickly apathy sets in as big issues drown in a sea of learned helplessness.

Where might we go from this landscape?

I returned to the artists I reached out to at the beginning of the crisis and expanded my exploration for pioneers who were shaping the new paradigm and was inspired by their vision, resilience, tenacity, and belief in the arts as a platform to shape our futures and change our lives.

As governments of the West and NGO’s struggle to contain the virus, address the urgency of the climate emergency, develop an economic “recovery” and now, at this very moment rattle their sabres at Russia and China they must not lose sight of what the recovery is for. They must not forget that “global” does not exist unless in relation to “local.” Furthermore, “local” is a result of the cultural and lived experience of people- of giving and receiving in real space and time, it is personal. They must not ignore the life and liveness of community. As we speak of “New Normal” we must ask, as artists have been for millennia, is this what we want?

As we imbibe the news from mass and social media, through digital forums and zoom rooms we become ever more isolated and alone and are overwhelmed by the demands and choices of where we might find meaning and purpose. When we are overwhelmed, our nature is to seek out connection. We need local and global connection in this new paradigm.

In my search for good examples of how local can connect with global and keep live experience live I found several great examples. Through networks such as British Councils “Momentum” (jointly delivered by British Council, Creative Scotland and Festivals Edinburgh” programme and ITAC’s Collaborative I was heartened to see the response that artists across the globe are shaping the new paradigm that will follow in the wake of the twin crises of Covid19 and the Climate Emergency.

I shared some deep conversations with Clothilde Cardinal, the Director of Programming for Places Des Artes in Canada, to help shape my explorations into this new paradigm.

Clothilde spoke of the need to democratise culture and for a cultural democracy. She advocated for local autonomy, citizen empowerment, on the ground connection and creation, and has set her sights on a cultural recovery at the heart of crises management and sustainability. Clothilde has long been a champion of the place of participatory arts in the programme that she curates. Whilst she sees that the future of arts will forever be changed, she sees the values of participatory arts playing a more significant and vital role in recovery because in her words “they bring intimacy, humanity, purpose and meaning to lives and communities that have been blighted by social disparity.”

Clothilde suggests the impact of Covid close downs have allowed us access to time we never had and to new ways of working. She laments the loss of elders and a generations knowledge gained through lived experience. She likens it to a loss of our collective cultural memory but is optimistic that the challenges ahead will be met with innovation and clarity about the purpose of arts. She sites the explosion of awareness and activism around BLM, First Nations challenges and Climate emergency as a shift in our collective responsibility and a shift in focus that compels us to let go of privilege and power, to listen and respond, to shape new narratives and bring the emotional intelligences to play in designing our future. She talks of the capacity for arts and sciences to tackle the challenges that face us and the need for places of congregation for conversation that is not led by mainstream media or the dominant culture.

What might this new paradigm look like ?

In India

I am working with Puneeta Roy, a Momentum alumni, and the Yuva Ekta Foundation

Supported by a British council grant, Yuva Ekta are reaching into communities blighted by covid, poverty and climate crises. These communities do not have the digital access we take for granted. Using a wide range of techniques and hybrid experiences they will create a body of work to be played in what we call “safe Live” encounters. They have commissioned a poet and musician to work with communities of migrant labourers who find themselves displaced because of Covid and will make a musical theatre journey. It is in this space that the migrant workers find new community and communion. Working with youth in the rural village of Bassi in Rajasthan Yuva Ekta will create a performance that maps the challenges of that community in facing up to Covid. It is in this space that they will share narratives that create a sense of shared effort and belonging. Using Playback Theatre techniques, they will bring master facilitators to create live theatre for small audiences and record it digitally for sharing with a global audience. It is in this space they will give context and meaning to their personal and collective experience. Working with an art gallery in Dehli, they will explore the plight of “period poverty” amongst young girls. They have commissioned 10 choreography workshops leading to a short performance of a hybrid classical Kathak and modern dance aesthetic exploring ideas of what unifies us in times of crises. In a similar vein they are marrying the best of ancient puppetry techniques with modern digital storytelling to preserve the historical craft and bring it to a new audience. Finally, they have commissioned one of India’s most celebrated artists to work in a community to involve them in the creation of a canvas that will map their journey through Covid.

In all of these ambitious projects, at the heart of it is the idea to shape and model “a society where every individual has dignity, self-worth and the power to express, irrespective of any barriers or stereotypes. There is also the unique experience of live co creation which opens the relationship between artist and audience into a new experience.

In Brazil

I am working with the Nucleos Des Artes Integrades (NAI) led by the brilliant Renato Rocho NAI, in its own words aims to create

interfaces between visual arts, performance art, happening, site specific, technology, word and immersive and performative experiences, where the spectator is invited to the center of this thus creating by cognition his own dramaturgy, and consequently his work.”

The devastation in Brazil due to Covid19, coupled with the urgency to respond to the climate emergency and the decimation of indigenous people’s lands is a bleak backdrop to the work that NAI are undertaking.

The company is a collective of artists created for the Home Away Festival I created in Glasgow in 2016. They are fiercely political and pragmatic in their approach to highlighting the inequalities of communities in Favellas and in indigenous lands. With the support of a British Council Digital innovation grant they have commissioned ten artists to create ten short films in indigenous communities and favellas. The films will capture the lives of the communities and become a testimony to their plight, their resilience, and their place in the world as models of cooperation and living with nature. It is hoped the films will be featured as part of a programme at COP26 in Glasgow. Additionally NAI have set up home in Rio’s Behring Factory- a former chocolate factory which now houses a large community of artists, artisans, activists, sculptors and painters. From here they will fashion a programme of work that will create disruptive live performance art interventions in the streets and favellas of Rio. The works will involve the communities and be a forum for expression of the visceral fears and frustrations they experience in the face of Covid and climate change.

It is here in the spaces they create, that a process of self-expression will lead to shaping identity, unity and purpose. It is here that their voices will be heard above the clatter of the digital interface.

In the USA

I spoke with Irfana Noorani, an alumnus of the British Council Momentum project and an independent producer and consultant who uses art and placemaking to revitalise communities and tackle inequality. Irfana was involved in the 11th street bridge project in Washington.

The bridge project is yet to be built but its intention is glaringly practical and metaphorical. The bridge will literally unite diverse and underserved communities with the city and its many opportunities.

It is both an elevated thoroughfare and a destination, a clear moment of intersection where two sides of the river converge and coexist.”

On either side of that river, you have some of the poorest and most wealthy residents of Washington. Their opportunity to co create a space and a programme like NYC’s Highline, will give them a platform where they share the same purpose, and build new communities around the appreciation of live experiences of the performances, public art, and environment.

Irfana has moved on to another inspirational project in Fort Worth. The “Transform 1012” project has great ambition- they are engaging communities in

radically transforming this building into a center and museum for arts and community healing as an opportunity for reparative justice. The Center will be named after Mr. Fred Rouse, who was lynched in Fort Worth in 1921. The 1012 Leadership Coalition models a pluricultural and shared leadership approach to acquiring, managing, and programming the center. This adaptive re-use project returns resources to the communities who suffered at the hands of the KKK and who continue to be targeted for systemic racism and oppression.”

“This building is a spatial manifestation of our national legacy of violence and racial terror. As the United States moves towards dismantling systems of oppression, this project is an opportunity to declare our collective agency in designing a just future for all”

Irfana, understands the power of placemaking, the value of the arts in tackling big issues, and the need for live intersectional exposure to diverse communities so they share the same space and shape their common futures- locally so that it impacts globally.

In Canada

I am working with an indigenous elder called Duke Redbird and Erica May Wood, a teaching artist who introduced me to the National Access Arts Centre

Together we are co creating a project that reaches out across 7 countries and brings disability arts to the centre of an exploration of how communities deal with Covid and Climate crises.

Duke Redbird brings a distinctive perspective on the twin crises of Covid and climate emergency. His indigenous heritage gives us a view of a world that was always destined to arrive at this juncture. The genocide, assimilation and oppression of a culturally diverse nation of tribes and the imposition of a mono culture have led us to the point of annihilation. There is hope in that the wisdoms, beliefs and behaviours of the indigenous peoples could offer us a platform from which to rebuild a more just, beautiful and sustainable way of life. Duke brings this possibility to us through live connection on his boat on lake Ontario and broadcasts it to the world.

The NaaC work with the most vulnerable in society. The connection and community they have built for people living with disability is a defining part of their life. As we know the interface with digital for many in this community often exacerbates their challenges, so finding “safe live” encounters to maintain that sense is paramount to recovery. It is through necessity that innovation leads to aspiration. NaaC have ambitions to be the leading arts access centre in Canada as a result.

In Bangladesh

I am working with Theatre Cycle to engage communities based along the longest beach in the world and blighted by rising sea levels. They will create installation art, performance and film that captures the plight of these communities who rely on tourism and traditional forms of sustenance in equal measure. The communities will work with their environment and map the catastrophic impact of climate change, that will, in turn explore local solutions that can be shared globally.

In Scotland

As part of the recovery programme, our enlightened government invested funds in what we call the “Culture Collective.” It is a project that invests sizeable amounts of grants in local arts, culture and placemaking initiatives. The idea being that we will rebuild community and connection by commissioning artists to create live, digital and participatory arts experience. Twenty six communities have begun a journey out of covid, led by artists who are co creating new works and offering local platforms that bring people together in shared expression and communion around the art.

It is in these spaces that we explore and articulate the global impact on our local and individual lives, our sense of well being and our capacity for hope and progress.

Across The World

I have been active in networks such as the International Teaching Artists Collaborative (ITAC) , the ITAC Climate Collaborative “Impact” and the Community arts Network as well as the Transcontinental Teaching Artists Collaborative for Humanity (TEACH).

The ITAC mission is to build

A world where every country has artists working in the heart of communities and learning. Where these artists are continually improving, internationally connected and well supported, and the potential of the practice and its transformative power is visible and valued.

ITAC allies its mission to address the UN sustainable goals

and invests in artists and organisations that can impact locally and affect global agendas. They have just launched the Climate collective where artists from across the world are meeting virtually to affect policy change and secure the future of the planet.

TEACH has similar ambitions and is convening a conference for artists working towards climate action.

New Horizons

There is a multitude of emerging practice and a tangible new land shaping from the efforts of artists, networks and organisations who are building new paradigms and setting new courses to travel towards horizons we have had in our sight for some time- see the UN sustainable goals. There is also a multitude of sympathetic and competing forces in the digital world. We must learn to discern between what helps and hinders our purpose as artists.

For example, there is a burgeoning market for VR and AR experiences. These experiences are perhaps the closest to “live” that we will encounter. The digital wizards who create the content and means through which you can have a haptic experience at concerts, events and fantasy realms are as close to the creators of live art as you can get. Their skill sets are similar in that they are creators of experiences that are designed around escape from the current reality and immersion in another. What we must discern is how these new realms of immersion and suspension of disbelief serve our purpose and design for connection and empathy. Our creative industries have long been built on the ability to suspend our disbelief in our current reality and immerse in another for pure escapism and or pure enlightenment and catharsis. In live encounters we are not only witness to, but participants in that moment. We suspend our disbelief to connect in collective consciousness. It is the “Suspension of disconnect” that makes the difference. In the digital realm we are disconnected from a full sensory experience. Our connection is filtered through an interface that literally cuts us off from our environment and community and is brought to us through digital imaging and vibration of sound. We are not present to contribute to the moment- we are witness to it, but not participating in it. We are not suspending our disbelief in reality, we are surrendering our hippocampus and giving our consciousness and responsiveness over to experiences that are all together the antithesis of reality and connection. This is new and unchartered territory, and our digital natives seem to be very comfortable in this paradigm. I often wonder if this is the future as I see more and more “zoned out” behaviour in front of screens and headsets. Of course, we can argue that we are “zoned in” to the digital realm with an intensity that is far more focussed than reality.

As an older artist and citizen, I witness the colonisation of our minds and communal spaces by digital pioneers. I see the burgeoning of a monoculture that is being adopted by our children and communities and am powerless to respond. I do not recognise the magic with which they are able to capture minds, create trends, and build new virtual worlds where we spend most of our waking hours. I can see that, like any colonisation, it is complex, seductive, and led by new powerful forces that are few, opaque, and disconnected from the realities of life in the face of real threat. This is terrifying for me.

As an artist who co creates with and within communities I witness this colonisation as totally inevitable and try and imagine how our lives may shape up with our competing digital and natural realities.

I have no set answers but am driven by optimism because I believe in the people and organisations I have mentioned above. There are a million more like them and I am encouraged to hear their voices, values and volition being amplified. I have seen the birth of new relationships between the real and virtual worlds of arts and activism. I see the meeting of minds and purpose in the wilderness of the Covid years and feel the coalescing of artists and innovators around a greater purpose than entertainment. I see the pioneers and guides who have a vision of a future where “live” will be participatory, immersive and placemaking.

I feel the onset of an adventure towards a new paradigm, where collective purpose is led by artists creating “the necessary spaces” for us to reimagine a future that is designed other than default/digital.

Footnote; conference of the birds is now live @confotbirds

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