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How immersive technology could help artists reconnect with audiences

The way we work is changing, from how we collaborate with clients to the tech we use and how we reach our audiences. In our new lunchtime series FutureGaze, we chat with creative leaders about the innovations they’ve made to their own businesses during the pandemic, and ask which changes are here to stay.

When the pandemic first cut creatives off from their patrons last year, it was interactive technology that stepped up to plug the gap.

Virtual reality has been promising to shake up the arts for some time, but before COVID-19 it still felt relatively niche and was limited by prohibitive costs and digital skill sets.

Now hybrid events, VR, and augmented reality art are the norm. We’ve watched live theatre broadcast over Zoom, attended music festivals on Minecraft, and snuck live streamed glimpses through someone else’s window. As our technical know-how improves and audience expectations get higher, we’re all having to scratch our heads to create novel digital arts experiences.

Bright Side Studios are a group of immersive media artists who create experiential storytelling for brands and the arts. Co-founder Cristina Spiteri shared her thoughts with us about the evolution of immersive technology.

“I think that it's really positive that people are more open to grabbing new tech, using it and engaging with experiences,” she says. “I hope that that continues as the traditional formats come back. It’s all about connection really.”

Here are some key takeaways from Spiteri about the role of technology in reaching arts audiences going forward.

Artists get to the heart of data with storytelling

If you’ve found yourself tuning out of the news this past year, you’ll know that there is an avalanche of information to take in at any one time.

It’s overwhelming. It’s tiring. It’s too much to make sense of, and we probably won’t know precisely what happened through the pandemic until we get to take a retrospective look. That’s the nature of history, and it’s where artists can come in too.

“One of the things that is interesting is the amount of data that is out there that we are seeing day in day out around the pandemic. It's quite frightening often, it's very dry. It's not telling much story, other than to kind of scare you a little bit,” says Spiteri.

“But I think there are a lot of stories that could be told with that, and that art has a really important role in healing from things that are traumatic as a society,” she continues. “That data could be really interesting as the dust settles and artists start to mull things over and pick out bits of data, and start to tell stories in a visual way that reflects back to people what's been going on.

Augmented reality connects people across distance

Technology gets a bad rep for increasing feelings of loneliness, but that’s been complicated by our reliance on it to talk to each other through lockdown.

“I think that maybe what we've realised is that these digital tools that we said are ‘social’ - but maybe they were seen as anti-social prior to the pandemic - we've actually properly harnessed those,” says Spiteri. “Just thinking of video games as an example, something that probably seems a bit antisocial actually has been a great way for people to connect and speak with pals.”

The challenge now for creators, according to Spiteri, is to create a more meaningful experience online. Being imaginative and thinking up ways to evolve the traditional Zoom call could reap deeper feelings of interconnectedness between friends and family.

“So thinking about you being in a space,” she says, “and the lights are going, but it's the heartbeat from somebody in another city on the other side of the world who's holding those sensors. So you have that connection with that person.”

“Could we create an experience using haptic technology? A sense of touch," she continues. "Could somebody touch you from far far away? I think that it would be really interesting to see how we can create those real moments of connection.”

Mixed reality technology widens access to cultural institutions

The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre houses 1.4 million objects in its collection, yet only 2% are on public display. That’s just one example of the fraction of artefacts that are available for us to explore, limited as institutions are by their material space.

What if AR technology could increase what we get to see? Spiteri sees potential in mixed reality to expand exhibition spaces beyond their physical venues’ walls.

“Thinking about our cultural institutions, museums and art galleries, that have all of these amazing paintings and artefacts often stored away,” she says. “How could we maybe use those so that we've got the real life venue in all its glory when we can go and see it, but could we take that content, could that be a digital layer throughout the city? Or can we tell a story using augmented or mixed reality?”

Elemental by Bright Side Studios at the Edinburgh Science Festival c. Chris Scott
Haptic technology blends digital with a sense of touch in Elemental at the Edinburgh Science Festival c. Chris Scott

Constraints can stimulate creativity

Just before lockdown last year, Bright Side Studio was getting ready for their interactive media piece Elemental to be part of the Edinburgh Science Festival.

Using wind sensors, the original Elemental was designed so that an audience member’s breath could trigger a sensor - not the most COVID-proof idea, and one that would have to be rethought for a mid-pandemic exhibition.

But rather than hampering the piece, the conditions of the pandemic have sparked new playful and escapist elements for Elemental, which at last came to the Edinburgh Science Festival at Summerhall in 2021. “We developed the creative further to be even more beautiful, more otherworldly, slightly more surreal, because it felt like we needed that and it felt like the audience might need that escapism,” says Spiteri.

The idea of blowing on a sensor has been replaced with hand fans, which trigger four sets of elaborate visuals representing the four elements.

You’d need four audience members to trigger each sensor, which lent the piece well to family bubbles while social distancing restrictions were still in place.

“Before, you might have gone with a friend, but it could have been four strangers in the space, so that changed the experience slightly,” says Spiteri. “We had hoped to encourage collaboration between people that had never met. But actually, the bubble means that people are probably a bit more comfortable in the space to play with it.”

Monetising digital arts experiences

One difficulty for artists showcasing their creations online through the pandemic has been money.

While audiences see the value in a physical artefact or attending an in-person event, we are less used to paying for apps, or social media, or accessing digital content. When something is more ephemeral, it’s hard to convince audiences of its financial worth. As a result, many creatives have turned to the donation model for raising funds during the pandemic.

“I think the dream is that we could get people to pay what it actually costs to create these works, because it's a lot of work and technology is expensive,” says Spiteri. “I think the more that people see the value and get used to doing that they could pay for that, rather than it being funded through an arts council or something, it could open up a lot of doors.”

What are some good examples of hybrid events and augmented reality art?

The most interesting use of immersive technology, according to Spiteri, is that which bridges the gap between our physical reality and the virtual to create something truly hybrid.

“What I would like to see, and I hope is an area that is explored, is the space between the venue - the traditional venue - and the screens that we've been using in our homes. This big space in between where we could be layering artistic expression and digital storytelling into the environment around us, into the outside world, using our handheld devices,” she says.

Here are some of Spiteri’s favourite examples of artists who have explored that “space between”:

  • Nowhere To Call Home (National Theatre) - stories of climate refugees from Bangladesh and Sami people in the Arctic, captured in film and photographic portraits that were projected onto buildings
  • Blindness (Simon Stephens) - a socially distanced sound installation adapting José Saramago’s 1995 novel for the stage
  • Window Swap - a website where you can randomly flit between the view from other people’s windows, all live streamed in real time
  • Bicycle Built For Two Thousand (Daisly Bell) - recordings of over 2,088 human voices imitating the same sound, all collected using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk web service

The next FutureGaze talk will be announced later in 2021. In the meantime, catch up on our first session with MadeBrave where we asked CEO Andrew Dobbie how employers can create hybrid offices that cater to a flexible work environment.

Featured image c. Chris Scott

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