Ten years ago Tom Wexler and I conceived of Flock, an interactive installation in collaboration with Tom Sapsford (an ex dancer with the Royal Ballet and choreographers, Wayne McGregor, Will Tuckett and Michael Clark).
Flock combined sound and projections with live motion tracking technology to place pedestrians within an ethereal corps de ballet. It was based on music from the opening of Act IV, when - in a staged version - all the principal protagonists are off-stage - an absence which, in our digital representation, helped bring the impromptu pedestrian performers to the fore.
The piece was originally commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in association with the Royal Opera House and premiered in February 2007 in Trafalgar Square. The piece received extensive media coverage including a live broadcast of the launch on BBC R4’s PM programme and, in the words of the then artistic director of the ICA Ekow Eshun, ‘offered a whole new realm for ‘live’ artistic experience’.
When asked to revive the piece for this year’s Singapore Night Festival, itself celebrating its tenth Anniversary, we were faced with a choice; do we present an archived ‘original’ of the 2007 of Flock, or do we revisit it and, if so, how radically?
The question is perhaps a temporally compressed analogue of the debates about ‘authenticity’ in early modern theatre and music, amplified by the audience’s role in Flock, where they act as both audience and performers.
It’s clear that the people who engage with a 2017 version of Flock have a distinctly different set of expectations about a digital experience than their 2007 selves did and, as their responses and engagement drive the work, the only option we felt was open to us was to make a new work in the ‘spirit of version one’, retaining the original’s length (dictated by the choice of score) and sharing a similar thematic intention - of putting the audience centre stage.
The 2017 version of Flock is at the confluence of three principal sources of change from its ancestral source; 1. the development of Tom and my creative thought, 2. A decade of technological advancements, and 3. the piece’s staging.
Flock was one of our first interactive works. In it we first explored the possibility of a theatrical engagement with impromptu performers, and examined, for the first time, the fluid relationship between those who interact as performers and those who watch as audience. We have since made a decade’s worth of work that has developed these ideas. Meanwhile our vocabulary has been enriched by borrowing ideas and techniques from our parallel work in theatre and film. The result is that Flock 2017 is a genuine hybrid of theatre, film and interactivity.
The ten years of technological change since Flock's premiere are indivisibly entwined with the development of our ideas. Most of what we do now would have been impossible in 2007. Although the basics remain unchanged, (projection, sound and thermal imaging have all seen small, iterative developments), the speed of the computers that process the generative elements and the heavy media load have advanced exponentially.
Finally, the staging. This is is the first full-scale interactive work that we’ve produced indoors. The performance space is the wonderful atrium at the National Design Centre in Singapore. It will be interesting to see what effect moving the work indoors has on the demographic - there clearly will be fewer neutral bystanders to be drawn into the experience - but the most immediate benefit is that Tom and I finally have a rehearsal space, and some time to use it. All our previous installations have been produced in public spaces and required a crane or similar with 30m+ height, all of which means that there is absolutely no ‘back-stage’ and that by the time the equipment is all installed and night-time falls there are inquisitive recipients for whatever we produce (line-up grids, etc, all included). This discreet, precious rehearsal time is a huge luxury for us. Not constantly watching the weather forecast is an additional benefit...
We open to the public on Friday evening (the 18th August) and Flock runs every evening (from 7.30pm to 12pm) until the 26th August.
"Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody's piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading."
Tom Wexler and I were sitting by the fire one winter’s evening in my cottage in Coxwold, opening our second bottle of wine, when the subject of the film’s music first came up.
I knew that I wanted a score for Macbeth that would serve as a sonic signature for the film, setting an overarching mood rather than underscoring each and every emotional shift, and that I wanted the music to feel contemporary and distinct whilst cognisant of the play’s C17th origin. I knew what I wanted, but I hadn’t heard anything that felt close.
Twenty minutes later - thanks to Google and iTunes - we were listening excitedly to the opening bars of US composer Gregory Spear’s Requiem. I fully expected the serendipity of the moment to be broken by the next track, or to realise that the wine, and our increasing enthusiasm, was amplifying its possibilities but no, it was, and continued to be, perfect.
The next day I laid down sections of the Requiem into our rough edit and, for a few weeks, I lived with it. My affection for the music and my certainty of its place in the film grew. At the same time I became increasingly conscious of the entirely insubstantial cyber-relationship between our film and the potential composer of its music.
Fortunately, various emails, a Skype call, and a visit to New York to meet and talk in person all breathed life into the hyperlink. Gregory was charming and erudite and interested in the project.
So, in October last year (2016) Tom Mattinson and I listened as Greg conducted a small ensemble in the beautiful auditorium of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Harlem, NYC. This recording, along with sections from the Requiem, have created a soundtrack for Macbeth which delights me.
In the face of the gratifying but also troubling news that he has been made Thane of Cawdor, for Macbeth, ‘nothing is/ But what is not’. In other words, the only things that now seem to have any reality to him are the things of the imagination, the unreal things. Such a world – a world in which the imaginary specifically takes precedence over the actual - proved a particularly inviting one for me as a filmmaker.
Shakespeare's genius encompasses a deft and fluid ability to weave complex poetic threads that bind together the outer material story, and the inner psychological narrative. At one moment the audience understands Macbeth’s words as an expression of material reality, at the next, as an exploration of his inner consciousness.
Cinema makes us into spectators. However much we empathise or engage, we are always watching from the outside. By changing the language and (quite literally) the perspective of cinema our Macbeth uses the screen to explore the internal territory that Shakespearean language renders so powerfully.
KMA, aka Tom (Wexler) and I, are currently making our first major new piece since Congregation (2010). The seven year hiatus has been filled with the making of two films, alongside performances of existing KMA works.
Our new piece, The Space in the Middle, will be an amalgam of everything we’ve learned making and performing Congregation (and its ancestors) presented alongside filmed elements that borrow from our cinematic aesthetic, making it very much the first confluence of these two strands of practice.
The title the Space in the Middle point in three directions;
- The Space in the Middle describes an idea; a new dynamic relationship between art and its audience, one in which the audience are the performers and the generated aesthetic is jointly owned. There is no artefact, only a communal experience. How then should we redefine the audience, the performer, and the artist? The Space in the Middle questions those relationships.
- The Space in the Middle also describes the physical space, the temporary stage that a KMA work creates (usually in the centre of an urban environment). It’s a gathering place where unusual things happen.
- And last, but NOT least, The Space in the Middle is the theme of the piece. The brief moment of our existence. “our little life… rounded with a sleep.”
The Space in the Middle will premiere in Baltimore, USA, on 31st March 2017 and run until April 8th.
In June 2015 Tom Mattinson, Judith Buchanan, and I, were filmed days before we began shooting our green-screen adaptation of Macbeth. Nine months later, though still a work-in-progress, it’s now very much a ‘thing’; having developed a character and a shape and an atmosphere that were impossible to grasp back then but which seem inevitable to me now.
There’s still a lot of work to be done - the devil being in the detail - but the final version will be recognisable from its current ancestor. Value judgements will be made by others but I can say that it is extraordinary, in that it looks and feels like nothing else. I’m increasingly impatient to show the finished film.
If you’re reading this you probably are aware that Congregation - the conflation of light, music, and people that’s been resident in Pittsburgh’s Market Square for the last four weeks - ends tonight. Tom Wexler and I (who originally conceived the work back in 2010) came out to Pittsburgh for ten days in February to install and launch the piece but, since then, we’ve been back in the UK, feeling (appropriately but dispiritedly) half-a-world-away.
From our point of view Congregation in Pittsburgh has been the most wonderful experience and it's one that we’re truly grateful for.
Pittsburgh has a very distinct identity and energy, seemingly shared by all that we met, that completely seduced us. It’s a great place in general and a marvellous place for us to host the US debut of a KMA work. As will be apparent to you all, Congregation is a dialogue between the installation and its hosts. Just like a good conversation it cannot be one-sided. The enthusiasm, interest and openness with which the piece has been received by the ‘burgh has breathed new life into the work. And not only into Congregation but also into our desire to make new interactive public works in the future.
Congregation is a collaboration in the truest sense. The worlds of music, film, literature, fashion and theatre have a rich vocabulary to describe co-existing authorial positions. We’re not quite so semantically advanced, we have no ready terms to ascribe to our audience / performers, or to Kester, Mark, Cory, Renee, Jeremy, Leigh, Laura, Jen, Kate, Morton and all the others without whom there would have been no Congregation in Pittsburgh. Congregation is an ephemeral experience and, as of tomorrow, its presence in Market Square will be no more than a memory. We’re hugely grateful to Joe Seamans for his time, patience, and sensitivity in documenting its brief life in your city. We also were introduced to many other wonderful and engaging artists, bloggers, students and other fantastically open and interested types, amongst them; @DSKinsel @PittMommyBlog @APCollector Carl Cimini, Katie Castelli, and Maggie Lynn. As well as having many individual debts of thanks (many which I fear I’ve overlooked), we’re also hugely grateful for the collective desire, energy, and focus that the city summoned to help make the piece work, it’s been a huge collaborative effort, unprecedented in our previous experience.
I’d also like to offer up my thanks to less visible forces.
Taking our work to any new space is always a step into the unknown; So much of the work is created at the time of performance, by the people who attend, that we can never be sure of the outcome. The technology that underpins it is our own hotchpotch combination of the grossly mechanical and the crash-ably digital combined in a manner that would make Heath Robinson blush. There’s also something deeply primitive about being in thrall to the elements, a meteorological unwillingness to collaborate can be terminal for the piece, and although the extremes of a Pittsburgh winter presented us with new challenges it could have been so much worse. Even as a resolute humanist its hard not to try to attribute one’s dependence on the weather and one’s trust in the reliability of breakable things to fate, or luck, or to other unseen forces. Having a large symbolic primitive human form - representing just such attributions - at the centre of Congregation does nothing to allay my sentimental attachment to similarly reassuring imagery.
So when, whilst out on a Sunday stroll with Tom and Kester, I saw this yellow road sign on North Shore I felt that I’d found Congregation’s protecting Pittsburgh Angel. He (she) seems a prefect combination of the prosaic and the sublime, wearing the urban yellow of the city’s bridges, and carrying what appears to be a board-rubber in one hand - and - although the descending arrow maybe suggesting a less than heavenly destination (which Kester and Tom appear to be contemplating), having safely overseen such a wonderful experience I would happily follow her anywhere.
So I’d like to raise a glass now to the Pittsburgh Angel of North Shore for her protection, to the many people of Pittsburgh who I now consider as friends, and to the city and its people for their generosity. Thank you all.
Pittsburgh’s reaction to Congregation reflects the warmth, open-mindedness and adventurous spirit that we have found characteristic of the people we met in the city. The location, physical surroundings, and even acoustic qualities of the Market Square site offered up a near perfect impromptu theatrical space that was populated by a wide and diverse audience. The atmospheres that were generated ranged from the intimate to the exuberant. Congregation is a catalyst for human interaction, and every culture, group and individual bring their own approach and interpretation: for our first American show, we have been blessed to find such an ideal location.
Thank you Pittsburgh.
I was recently asked about how we document KMA's work. The short answer is badly, if at all. But the question got me thinking;
A security camera high above a library reading room documents the passage of time, the comings and goings of readers, and their most basic disposition (their engagement with reading, doodling, their phone, other people etc...). It may be a useful document in a number of ways; It says a lot about the size, shape, and layout of the room. It may be used to help prove the popularity of the library, to describe the demographic of its users, it may illustrate how long the average reader stays, and other equally dull but potentially useful statistics. With luck it might even support an alibi or expose an indiscretion. It may do all of these things, and more, but it records almost nothing of the real activity that is taking place under its lens. It would, in short, be impossible to deduce anything from the recording about the activity taking place in the readers’ minds, about the relationship between their minds and the texts in front of them, about the real reason for their presence.
As someone who makes live work in which the focus is not some external spectacle but a spontaneous empathic engagement between strangers, I’m as frustrated with lens based documentation as an author seeking a response to their work might be in the library analogy above.
Being brutally honest we document KMA's work (in so far as we do) to trigger our own recollections of the moment, to prove we made the work, and to show that people came and were engaged. We can do little else.
That said those documents do, as in the library example, say quite a lot about the mechanics of the work and its historical development. They help fossilise otherwise ephemeral moments and make it possible to see developments that might otherwise be forgotten in the haze of memory.
I’ve often thought about more interesting and effective ways that we might record the work. So far I’ve always rejected them. I think I rather like the momentary nature of what we do, of making things that resist being recorded accurately.
Since our earliest ancestors so much cultural endeavour has gone into the act of not-forgetting, of finding ways of fossilising the now, memorialising the past so that it (and we) can live on.
And now, for the first time in history, we are living through a truly extraordinary shift.
We are the first human beings in history for whom forgetting is now becoming harder than remembering (Internet, social-networking, tagging, ubiquitous camera phones etc).
KMA’s works come out of a background in performing arts where pretty much everything now gets photographed, filmed, blogged and recorded. In this field there’s always a subject to point a camera at. It’s a small contribution to the cultural debate I know, but I really like that our work (though large and occasionally spectacular) has no subject and, like the library analogy, resists being understood by a lens. It requires a sentient present mind.