As Digital Thinker in Residence at the National Theatre of Scotland Dr Harry Wilson has spent the past year researching innovative uses of digital technologies in the context of theatre and performance. Here he reflects on his experiences in the post, and the unique encounters that can happen in the space between theatre and virtual reality technologies.
For the past year I have been in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) as their Digital Thinker. I have been embedded in the organisation: writing and reflecting on the artistic programme; presenting research to staff and board members; running workshops for theatre artists and curating practical Research & Development (R&D) activities. The role – a postdoctoral placement funded by the AHRC and supported by the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts & Humanities, NTS and the University of Glasgow – has been intellectually and creatively stimulating, and has allowed me to explore some of the mutual benefits of hosting academic researchers within cultural organisations.
My main focus during the project has been to research innovative uses of digital technologies in theatre and performance contexts and to map these emerging practices in order to inform the development of NTS’s artistic strategy. This focus has led me towards performative installations using virtual reality headsets, as in the work of Marshmallow Laser Feast, as well as app-based encounters and mixed reality performances using the Augmented Reality (AR) technology in your smartphones to create a layering of actual and virtual performance worlds, such as in Robert Walton’s Child of Now.
As immersive technologies become more sophisticated and, crucially, more affordable, their uses and future applications have gained increasing attention in academia. Researchers are experimenting with hardware and anticipating cultural implications as digital technologies become more integrated into our daily lives. At the University of Glasgow, virtual reality (VR) and AR technologies are currently being explored by a range of researchers across the institution. The Immersive Experiences Lab, for example, and the im/material network, bring together colleagues in disciplines as far reaching as computing science, archaeology, music, philosophy and film through their shared interest in the applications of VR and AR in their respective fields. The School of Culture and Creative Arts recently organised a public event around the film and VR experience Notes on Blindness (Middleton & Spinney, 2016) and an accompanying workshop around altered perception in VR in partnership with the charity Deafblind Scotland.
In this cross-disciplinary context, the theories and practices of theatre and performance are well placed to contribute to the emerging discourse. Over the last twenty years – and at least since the widespread incorporation of video projection into live performance works – theatre studies scholars have been productively thinking around ideas of virtuality, immersive/ interactive spectatorship and uses of new media in live performance.
The extension of this work to the increasingly popular field of virtual immersive experiences seems a timely and productive intersection. Thinking about digital technologies through theatre and performance also allows us to examine these virtual experiences as live encounters between an audience and a media(tised) performance, and to continue to re-assess fundamental questions about where theatre takes place and related questions around liveness, embodiment, presence and immersion.
As an artist-researcher, I was keen to explore these ideas practically. For the culmination of my residency I curated three practical R&D projects exploring the uses of VR/AR in live performance. In August and September 2019, we brought together theatre artists – Kai Fischer, Leonie Rae Gasson and myself – with creative technologists, digital designers and computing science researchers to explore strategies for incorporating these emerging technologies into live performance works.
I worked with the visual artist and theatre designer Rachel O’Neill and Dr. Julie Williamson from Computing Science at the University of Glasgow. My starting point was a formal exploration of the intersections between one-to-one and intimate performance and the intimate encounter of many of the virtual reality experiences I had encountered over the last year. Responding to John Berger’s 1984 book and our faces, my heart, brief as photos we started to conceptualise a performance for a small audience that would translate some of the textures, structures and ideas of Berger’s book into an intimate performance experience.
The resulting 25-minute performance focussed on the liminal spaces between actual and virtual worlds. We developed a pre-recorded audio narration that sought to tie together ideas around modes of perception, intimacy and distance and gently ease the audience into the virtual encounters. An audience of eight people was then invited into two rooms – one black and one white – where they put on headsets and interacted with newly created VR content. In the black room: the night sky, constellations and interactive voices reading excerpts from the book. In the white room: a CGI cat with blue eyes and a tree blowing in the wind.
Initial audience responses suggest that the work successfully opened up a space for reflection on perceptual experience, that it played with the liminal spaces between physical and virtual environments and allowed for reflections on the simulated and virtual aspects of everyday experience – whether they involve digital technologies or not. Audience members commented on the simplicity of the work and how it drew attention to aspects of live and mediated experience and the role that the imagination plays in interactions of this kind.
My reflections on the findings of these works are still in the early stages, but the experience has given me greater insights into the potential of theatre and performance methods when developing virtual encounters, and of the possible affordances of VR when incorporated into live performance. At this stage, it seems clear to me that these technologies are most exciting not when they immerse us in an unreal world, but when they remind us of our various modes of embodied spectatorship; when they emphasise something of the (a)liveness of the theatrical encounter.
About the Author
Dr. Harry Robert Wilson is an artist and researcher who teaches Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow. He has shown performance work at a range of venues and festivals from Chicago to Easterhouse and has collaborated with theatre companies including Glas(s) Performance, Untitled Projects and Magnetic North. He has a practice-as-research PhD on performance and photography.