Rehearsals of a creative connection

October 20, 2006

The performing arts and e-Science are exploring collaborations, but there are still bugs to work out, learns Judy Redfearn

The performing arts have a long tradition of using cutting-edge technologies, so it is no surprise that performers, artists and researchers are now looking to see what e-Science technologies have to offer," says Angela Piccini, a Research Councils UK research fellow in the drama department at Bristol University. She has been running workshops to explore how grid technologies can be used for performance. The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the workshops to explore collaborations between e-Science and the arts and humanities.

The workshops looked at the use of the Access Grid (AG), a videoconferencing facility, in collaborative performances. Also under scrutiny were semantic web technologies to help in storing data about performances.

In the first workshop, a Bristol-based improvisation group performed three musical exercises in one AG room while a dancer responded with improvised movements in another room. Delays in transmission between the rooms disrupted and fragmented the performances, and the positions of cameras and lighting imposed some restrictions.

The performances were recorded using Memetic, a tool developed under the Joint Information Systems Committee's Virtual Research Environments (VRE) programme. "Memetic allows you to play back recordings of AG meetings in an intelligent way by enabling you to locate key items," says Michael Daw, Memetic project manager at Manchester University. "It gives a visual representation of a timeline of the meeting." A participant in an AG session can use Memetic to annotate a recording using symbols to represent events. For ordinary meetings, these could be ideas or decisions. For a performance, they could be particular movements or sounds. The annotations can be done at the time, with all participants agreeing them, or they can be added later by collaborators at a distance. Memetic opens up performance and documentation to collective debate.

An issue for the second workshop was this iterative aspect of performance documentation: what other annotations to add to the recording so it could be searched later for creative research? This is where the semantic web technologies came in. Participants were asked to try to find richer descriptions of aspects of the performance so the data could be pulled together from distributed sources.

The third workshop aimed to steer a path through some of these deliberations by engaging participants, including some from outside the UK, in practice. They were invited to collaborate in devising a performance and then annotating the devising process.

As well as helping refine research questions, the workshops introduced some in the arts and e-Science communities to issues they had not considered before. "E-Science is allowing a new type of collaboration between the arts and the sciences. There's a lot to be gained by both communities," Piccini says.

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