A freelance cultural consultant based in the UK, Judith Staines has always been inspired by the issues of international cultural cooperation, artistic mobility and networking.  She is the European Editor for Culture360,  the Asia-Europe Foundation’s multidisciplinary Arts and Culture portal connecting Asia and Europe.  From 2004-2009 she was General Editor of On-the-Move, the performing arts mobility portal.  In 2008/09 Judith contributed to EU studies on cultural mobility.   She has worked on projects and research with many European cultural networks and foundations (including IETM, Culture Action Europe, LabforCulture, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Culturebase and European Pepinieres Program. In 2006/07 she co-authored Moving Art a bilingual guide to the mobility of cultural goods between Russia and the EU. She has also written handbooks for visual artists on marketing and working internationally.

1. How the idea for the study Excited Atoms was born?

The idea for a study on virtual mobility came out of a conversation with Mary Ann DeVlieg in 2007.  We were looking at new mobility research areas for On-the-Move and this was an obvious theme.  In fact the starting point for the research was about using new technologies as a possible substitute for physical mobility.  But when I began the research, the idea opened up into many more areas of artistic creativity, networked performance and interactivity with a whole range of different motivations.  It became much more dynamic as a subject and I discovered a wide spectrum of activity which I think will be interesting for readers.

2. Why you are personally so passionate about the issues around artistic mobility?

My first experiences of mobility were when I was a student.  This was in the pre-Erasmus days and my studies in French and Romanian language and literature in the 1970s gave me an opportunity to attend international summer schools in Romania.  These were amazing open international gatherings, bringing together people from around the world and it was a real cultural education.  We were there to learn about Romanian language and culture but of course our access to meeting normal Romanians was very limited at that time.  So we spent time with students from everywhere else:  Cuba, USSR, Argentina, America, France, Iceland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland and more.   Later I lived and worked in France and then started to work in the arts in the UK.  I knew the value personally of connecting with other cultures, through language and literature as well as everyday life, and this translated into a passion for and a deep empathy with artistic mobility.

3. The term “virtual mobility” is a challenging one and can cover many aspects. Could you give a simple definition, which reflects also your study?

Yes, it was hard to define.  I found it quite difficult to get into the research which was one reason why it took a long time.  In fact, I kept thinking I understood what it was about and then losing the thread and finding myself back at the beginning again.  But, instead of worrying about whether I understood all the technologies (which I actually didn’t!), I decided to put myself in the place of the reader – perhaps a theatre manager, festival programmer or an artist – who was also trying to make sense of these various evolving convergences of new media and performing arts.  So the definition of virtual mobility I came up with was:

  • the various practices of interactive networked performance where performers and audience can be in different physical or virtual places
  • the use of virtual channels in the creative process, enabling co-authoring and co-production of performance work by artists and producers in different geographical locations
  • new networking options in the performing arts (use of virtual tools for international mobility in training delivery, meetings & conferences)

This is a broad definition and the inclusion of virtual tools for training, meetings and conferences takes the concept beyond the artistic into management and communications fields already well developed in business and education.  Nevertheless, the core areas of exploration for Excited Atoms were the fields of interactivity, networked performance, and use of virtual tools for inter-authorship and co-creation.

4. New technologies certainly change the creative work in the performing arts sector, bringing lots of innovative aspects. Could you give concrete examples of projects and case studies to give a flavour on such changes?

There’s an interesting project going on right now called Long Distance Hotel .  A group of performers, a theatre director, designer, writer are making a theatre piece through a 100% online collaboration.  They come from different countries and haven’t met.  All decisions about the piece are made online.  Two days before the performance, they will meet for the first time, in the real theatre in Lisbon and the play will be performed in front of a real audience.  This is a good example of using online tools for creating, rehearsing, designing, writing through a co-authorship process.  Virtual mobility leading to actual mobility.

Blast Theory in the UK are getting a lot of attention for their work which links computer games, performance and audiences, turning the city into a huge stage where audience members are guided by their phones and GPS technology to follow the action of the performers, interact with them and influence the outcome of the piece.  As Julianne Pierce from Blast Theory says:  “These projects have posed important questions about the meaning of interaction and, especially, its limitations”.

At the IETM meeting in Berlin, I heard about the work of Dutch theatre director Dries Verhoeven who used cell phones in Trail Tracking to create an intimate one-to-one connection between spectator and performer.  The company are developing an ambitious live streaming performance linking the Netherlands and Sri Lanka this year.

I also like the sound of the illicit, transgressive performances devised by Venzha Christ of the wonderfully named new media centre House of Natural Fibre in Indonesia. Performances have taken place inside illegal spaces such as an Intensive Care Unit of a hospital or a telecommunications hub so the only way the audience could attend was by virtual means.

The World Opera Project being developed in Denmark and Norway aims to create a distributed opera stage – real stages in different parts of the world – with artists performing in these different locations in the same performance at the same time connected to each other by high-speed computer network.   Audiences in the different locations will all see the same performance, some of the performers there on stage in reality, others as virtual presences.

Lots of other projects take place fully or partly in the global virtual community of Second Life.  There is a lot of dance activity there, even a company Ballet Pixelle which has 800 artist members who audition, rehearse and perform in the virtual world.

I commissioned Ghislaine Boddington of body>data>space in London to write an essay for the excited atoms study about her work in telematics and networked performance.  She describes their current education project Robots and Avatars which looks at how young people will work and play with new representational forms of themselves and others in virtual and physical life in the next years.

5. The study talks about “participatory strategies”. Could you please explain briefly what does this mean?

I was talking about those artists who use online tools and social networking sites to enlist participants and contributors to artistic projects.  There are many examples: developing sequences of linked choreography online, inviting responses to a silent music video, recruiting participants for a global choir or orchestra.  These are the participatory strategies of many artists now.  Susanne Berkenheger talked about “enlarging the action radius” which I find a very clear way of describing an artist’s motivation for working in this way.

6. Is virtual mobility in the performing arts supported by funders and governments across Europe? Is there understanding in the current cultural policy strategies and instruments that this dimension of artistic creation and cooperation needs support?

Well, there seems to be a lot going on.  Some of it is funded and some of it seems to emerge from self-motivated, unfunded or undervalued practice led by artists.  It’s not really called virtual mobility as such and it is often not even labelled performing arts.  There seems to be a problem for some companies and artists whose activities are not easily understood by funders and governments because they don’t fit into the prescribed funding categories, although some companies seem to thrive on the flexibility this offers.   I came across most projects in the field of new media (I was very inspired by what I saw at Transmediale in Berlin this year) and the area of dance-technology is well developed and networked through Dance-tech.net.  Some new media projects get EU funding through the Culture Programme.

I think that current cultural policy and strategy is desperate to keep up with new creative practices and there is a feeling that the younger generation is engaged on a totally different artistic pathway where networked, participatory practice is central.   However, cultural policy evolves much more slowly than new technologies.  What is needed is real experts with strong artistic and technological knowledge involved in both the policy making and the funding decisions.  Otherwise, there is a danger of funders and policy-makers being totally out of date and out of their depth, aspiring to Web 2.0 when we are already at Web 3.0, for example, or misunderstanding the technologies which are described in project applications.

There are lots of amazing technical resources in university labs and some good examples of collaboration.  That is an area definitely worth developing in terms of policy and funding, enabling artists to access some of the high end technologies and knowledge base to develop projects.  And yet at the same time there are incredible low budget options – live streaming performance via mobile phones is also possible.  This is why funders need expertise to understand what level of activity they are dealing with.  And artists need access to all levels of technology so they have choices in developing creation and cooperation.

7. Isn’t there a danger as a result of virtual mobility tools and projects? Performing arts by nature are “stage arts” and “life arts” forms, which require face-to-face interaction between audiences artists and the charm of this interaction is the essence. What are the reactions of performing artists on projects related to virtual mobility?

Yes, lots of the interviewees commented on this.  Theatre maker Tiago Rodrigues who is directing Long Distance Hotel said: “As a performing artist I am interested in the way the ‘virtual’ can interfere with the ‘live’ factor of performance. The constitution of an assembly in a performance venue is something I am profoundly interested in.”  Many people expressed the absolute need for face-to-face meetings with people in order develop trust before setting up a collaboration, which might later evolve online.

And yet, there is this seductive concept described by the telematics artists (who develop performances mixing reality and virtual worlds) as ‘absent presence’ or ‘telepresence’.  Sensing the presence of someone who is not physically there – it might be another performer or an audience member – and interacting with them.  There is a heightened intimacy, intuition and sensitivity that is part of these virtual performances and, for some, this is a new type of live connectedness that goes deeper than the relationship between performer and audiences in more conventional theatre stage environments.

I don’t see the virtual replacing the real any time soon.  But it’s definitely a powerful new dimension, a new arena for performing artists.  Audiences too are looking for other forms of connectedness.  As I say, watch this space!

Read the blog post also on LabforCulture, Resources for Research section.

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