A short reflection on live broadcasting our creative process during confinement and the discoveries we made.
I’m one half of the art group Genetic Moo. In collaboration with Tim Pickup, we create immersive interactive experiences in public spaces which encourage people to experiment and play. Our art is made for and needs audience engagement, in fact, we think of agency as our medium. In March 2020, however, as the UK went into its first ‘lockdown’, we had to ask ourselves, ‘what is interactive art without an audience?’
Fortunately, we were encouraged to address this question almost immediately. In mid-March, the UK-based participatory theatre company, Spare Tyre gave its 12 associate artists a small bursary to create something to share with each other online. We decided to build our large-scale, immersive exhibition Microworld (typically 100 sqm) in our 16 sqm lounge. Taking all our technical equipment out of our cupboards, we transformed our little room into both a creative control centre and performance space, one superimposed on the other. We populated it with our interactive digital creatures, their sensors (microphones and webcams) set to look at one another. Microworld@HOME was born.
Once a week, between late Mar 2020 and Jan 2021, Tim and I climbed into our control stations and live-broadcast 2-hour programmes on our YouTube channel. Initially, the programmes were a window onto our creative practice, running digital ecosystem experiments and collaborating virtually with other artists; from week seven onwards, they had a TV show format, including a theme song, an introduction, credits and us speaking directly to our small audience. We also hosted four Microworld@HOME events within other online shows and festivals in the UK and USA.
Microworld@HOME placed us inside our art and gave us a taste on a small scale of what might be possible on a big scale. We discovered the absolute pleasure of being immersed within a digital realm that you are affecting. It accelerated our understanding of how amazing Microworld could be.
Every broadcast saw us experimenting with code; battling with signal strength and dealing with stage fright. We were handling multiple computers, cameras, sensors, streaming platforms and plug-ins as well as a variety of contributions from other artists. At any one time, it could all fall apart. We often felt we were surfing that chaos but sometimes we fell in.
Taking so many different types of technical risks, at the same time as trying to learn something about the coding we were doing, not only made apparent our enthusiasm for problem-solving it also revealed the excitement of experimentation.
Literally the day after a broadcast, we would be thinking about what we were going to be doing for the next one. We would each develop little things that we could surprise each other with and we reached out to other artists to collaborate with us. We had people sharing their online apps, sending videos or live streaming performances which we would add into the mix. Every week we spent several hours a day getting ready for the next broadcast. We wrote loads of computer programs and designed lots of experiments that we could dip in and out of. Some things appeared just once and some things we returned to and developed. Microworld@HOME was our test space, where we could constantly tweak things.
Our Digital Ecosystems
In the early days of Genetic Moo, we exhibited individual interactive pieces, such as Starfish, at group shows, usually surrounded by works not intended for any type of interaction. This all changed in 2012 when in collaboration with artist and systems theory enthusiast, Sean Clark we started exploring how artworks might be designed not only to respond to the audience but to each other. We created ‘creatures’, as we call our artworks, whose output, e.g. a sound, would trigger a response from another creature, e.g. the colour red, which in turn would trigger a response from another creature. We were engineering cascades. The resulting exhibition, Symbiotic, was the start of our digital ecosystem project: Microworld.
Along with the computers, projectors, sensors, programs and electricity, humans (the artists, the audience, invigilators, the technicians) play a major role in keeping these digital ecosystems alive.
However, during Microworld@HOME we became interested in trying to establish a cascade where we could sit back and let it take care of itself. To get to that moment when the system you have set up comes alive to you. It’s just a bunch of pixels and programs but it creates a space in which you can start to build narratives.
We achieved this in Microworld@HOME 16: The Lost Aquarium episode [Fig. 3 and Fig. 5]. It was a fairly simple set-up: a piece projected onto a central wall which was then observed by itself and also the programs on the side walls. We started by fiddling with things, changing settings and changing the camera positions. A wave generated by perlin noise was introduced into the space; and then it happened, everything was kicking off, the starfish was responding, the wave was sending information out and suddenly the space began to change colour, going through a blue and pink cycle. Within about 5 minutes we were aware that we could sit back, there was all of this agency. It felt like it was genuinely happening; it was pulsing. We could have fiddled some more but decided not to. It felt like we could have sat back for several days and it would have carried on going.
We would love to produce such a cascade in a public show, but it is a really difficult challenge. You can create a feedback system quite easily, e.g. by pointing a camera at its own output producing video feedback. But we are trying to incorporate creatures into that effect and the audience so that it doesn’t get out of control. We need to add in some kind of homeostasis or homeorhesis – to allow the room to expand and contract, to breathe. It is important to us; it is like the rhythm of life.
One of the things we loved about Microworld@HOME was that it was like being in a spaceship. We had this deck of buttons. It clarified for us the importance that agency has for us as a medium, leading to the development of our programme SeaPeople which puts consoles in the hands of the audience so that they can have a more finely tuned interaction and be able to make sense of it.
It is the connection between the human and the digital, responding to what they sense, being involved and making choices. We want future shows to have much more direct agency, direct control of the screens not just changing a slider up and down but completely changing the space.
It is like jamming with the space. That’s what people want now. The traditional art model of “this is a piece of genius look at it and just see it as a piece of genius” doesn’t interest us. We want to enable people to be creative in the space, to physically engage in a way that only interactive art allows.
Trailer for Microworld@HOME
Cascades in episode 16: The Lost Aquarium (extract). Sound Julia Schauerman