A few decades ago, everybody believed the future would be digital. New devices and inventions, from iPods and digital cameras to smart phones and social media, changed our lives significantly and for the better, we mostly believed. Dance has flirted with digital elements for years, with video projections, AI technology and social media finding their way into otherwise analogue performances, and cinema or open-air screenings reaching audiences in faraway places and from different cultural backgrounds. We embraced these new possibilities and collectively agreed that nothing could ever replace live performance. The digital world could, however, enhance our experience, broaden our audiences and create interactions with artists and new contextualising content around the actual performance.
Aerowaves first started livestreaming the 2014 Spring Forward festival in Umeå, Sweden, through a company set up specifically to develop live streaming for the arts, at a time when this seemed to have a commercial future. The high-quality live stream they produced was then deemed very avant-garde, and was fairly expensive for the small uptake from audiences. Nevertheless, for the opportunity of wider circulation of artists’ work, it seemed an experiment worth continuing. “Facebook put an end to all that,” explains Aerowaves director John Ashford. With anyone now able to stream from their phones, the average attention span drops – making it harder to justify the expense or effort.
When Enya Belak joined the Aerowaves team in 2017, fresh from an MA in film-making and working at the intersection of dance, choreography and film, Aerowaves’ use of digital media turned towards contextualising the festival performances through a series of interviews called Meet the Makers. Other discussion formats followed such as the 2018 Ice Hot live stream in Reykjavík, Iceland, which was set up to mimic daytime TV but for dance.
It was thanks to this early research and learning that Aerowaves was in a position to respond quickly to the new reality of Covid, and pull off Spring Forward 2020 in April of that year – an entirely digital festival hosted online.
At that time, most of us were still relatively new to digital meeting platforms such as Zoom. “Before, I used to hate Skype meetings, I would always prefer to travel just to meet face to face,” remembers Belak. “I stumbled into digital producing because Aerowaves had that need to take the festival online – but I didn’t really have a clue what exactly it was I would be directing. A week before we went online, I realised what a big responsibility I actually had!”
The experiment worked: 1400 people signed up, with an average of 200 people watching at any one time. Alongside the artist presentations and Q&As, ‘The Foyer’ was an online space to facilitate the casual connections and conversations people might strike up at the live festival. More than a year later it lives on, participants still meeting once a month for an international catch-up.
Still, Ashford is adamant that this format of festival will never happen again. “It was spot on for the moment in time,” he says, “but now that everyone is putting everything online, the last thing we want to do is livestream another festival.”
Now, in its 25th year, the emphasis of Aerowaves’ digital activities is directed towards Springback Ringside, which researches the possibilities of virtual reality (VR). Currently, the VR camera is used purely for documentation, to capture existing performances that cannot tour for various reasons. The process of filming with the VR camera is elaborate, and while the technology offers a new field to play with, it also has its own limitations. Performances have to be recorded in a single take, which requires a lot of preparation in advance: on average, thirty minutes of rendering is needed for just one minute of footage. The VR camera that Aerowaves uses has stereoscopic vision, like the Mars rover, which creates an image very similar to what the human eye sees. When performers get very close to the lens, they appear as if you could touch them, without any distortions. The technology is not yet, however, as advanced and crisp as HD TV: the longer the distance, the less sharp the image becomes.
Audiences, often discovering VR technology for the first time, have described their experience as ‘having the best seat in the house’ or feeling ‘as if the performer is there just for you’. It is an interesting hybrid between film, performance, an immersive personal experience and a collective event.
This collectivity is key. The filmed performances are not intended for individual use. They are to be experienced as an event, a group of audience members watching a show together in virtual reality and then meeting the artist on a two-dimensional screen in a Q&A with a Springback writer, with the opportunity to ask questions or share thoughts and ideas.
This new technology allows performances to travel across borders without anybody actually crossing borders. For works that require a big cast or crew, for countries that aren’t well connected or where travel is too expensive, VR offers artists an opportunity to be presented in places that would not otherwise have been accessible.
Ashford is convinced. “There are towns all over Europe where there is no facility for dance, but there is a venue where you can put twenty people in a room to watch a VR performance. As a first step into communities with limited mobility, as well as schools, hospitals, prisons or old people’s homes, VR is genuinely useful.”
Digital accessibility may also answer some of the urgent ecological questions we are facing. The twenty Aerowaves VR goggles cannot go on their journey completely unaccompanied – someone needs to be on hand to help the venue partner set up and instruct the audience – but one trained expert has a significantly smaller carbon footprint compared to a bigger cast or crew needed for a live show.
However, now in 2021 after more than a year of forced virtual life, enthusiasm for the screen is fading. “As we come out of Covid, I don’t think anyone will want to see anything on a screen ever again for a long time. They will want to experience the congregation, the social joy of being in the same space rubbing shoulders,” believes Ashford. Live performance, and the feeling of collective communal experience, seems almost more irreplaceable than ever. Where will the scales tip or balance themselves out between live and digital?
“I think digital is likely at its best when it is most interactive,” says Ashford. “I believe in VR, and I don’t see anybody else doing it yet. We’re ahead of the game again, like we were in 2014 for the first livestream, and in 2020 with Spring Forward online. It’s all about staying ahead of the technological game.”