Watershed Artist Residencies: dancing beer and magical fruit

While writing Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Had Wild survived till 2011, he may well have concluded that ours is an era of cynics. Everything we do, from putting on arts performances to running care homes must have a price, yet its value is often ignored. “Return on investment,” “monetisation” and “cost-benefit-analysis” are words of the day, too often applied to projects whose value for society far exceeds its price - community work, art collaborations, adult education.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to work with Watershed and Pervasive Media Studios in Bristol. Headed by Mark Cosgrove and Clare Reddington, Watershed and iShed projects secure funding for the adventurous to work together to explore ideas across different disciplines without the restraints of a direct business objective. In an age where the value of innovation is questioned unless it can be monetised, this is a rare and unique opportunity for artists and technologists to work freely on ideas that may otherwise have not seen the light of day.

We worked with Watershed earlier this year on the Media Sandbox scheme, and were delighted to be asked back to publicise this year’s artist residencies, discussed at a public showcase at Watershed on Thursday 9th June.

The first residency was the Music and Sonic Arts, awarded to the Guerilla Dance Project, led by Laura Kriefman, working together with composer Tim Bamber and gaming expert Robin Ray, under the advisorship of award winning composer Charles Hazlewood. The team worked across the disciplines of music, dance and games design to create an interactive dance performance using sensors attached to beer bottles - tracking the dancers’ movements, the beer bottles emitted their own music, to which the dancers reacted in turn - a surprisingly spontaneous way of performing. Developing the performance further, the team experimented with making it into a game, allowing audience members to to play with the bottles, and so influencing the music and the dancers’ moves without preconceived design or warning.

The seconds residency was a play called The Stick House - a collaboration between playwright Sharon Clark and technologist Tom Burton. A story about Marietta, a young girl sold by her father to pay off his gambling debt. Using pervasive media to immerse the audience in the play, Sharon and Tom experimented with technologies that interact with the senses, even playing with something called “magical fruit” that switched the audience’s tastes of sweet and sour.

The residencies in themselves are worth a thought, but it’s the scheme itself that really stands out, offering individuals from different works of life a chance to work together in unexpected ways. It was heartwarming to hear the participants talk about their experiences at the showcase. Robin Ray said she’d never want to work in a different way - able to bounce ideas off a multifacted team drawn together simply to explore. Tom Burton pointed out that the experience changed the way he approached his own digital media business - introducing more freedom and artistic expression when trying to identify solutions to creative and technological problems.

In terms of publicising the ideas, we were pleasantly surprised by the warm appreciation afforded by The Stage, The Wire, BBC and Culture 24. While some publications are limited in writing about concepts and experiments rather than final products, these journalists saw the value, rather than the price of free-from art and media collaborations.

To find out more about Pervasive Media Studio projects, visit www.pmstudio.co.uk

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