100 minutes of immersive terror

I interviewed Carl Guyenette, the creative intelligence behind The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience, for New Scientist, 23 May 2019.

It’s six years since the Martian invaders succumbed to a microbial infection, leaving us once again in possession of our planet. Carl Guyenette has repaired to The Spirit of Man to raise a glass to Earth’s victory, and to take stock of his new production, a 100 minute-long immersion in Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds.

The pub, which is part of the set and an integral part of the show, comes with its own meticulous backstory. On its walls, animated paintings record famous scenes from humanity’s first interstellar conflict. Remnants of Martian technology loom over the patrons. The effect is amusing for the first few minutes, but the aura of threat is unmistakable: pleasingly, the guts from one of the invaders’ war machines turn out to have been re-engineered to dispense gin.

Wayne’s musical retelling of H G Wells’s sci-fi shocker was released as a double album in 1978, and remains a hit, having sold over 2.5 million copies in the UK alone. There have been spin-offs a-plenty: video games, DVDs, stage shows, live tours. Nothing quite like this, though: “When I’ve been trying to explain this show to people,” says Guyenette, “I say it’s like walking into a cinema, except that once you’re there, you just keep on walking, into the screen. Into the movie itself.”

The full effect of Guyenette’s experiment in “layered reality” can only really be experienced at first hand. Nothing stays still, and neither does the audience, as it moves in groups of a dozen through over 2000 square metres of unlikely theatrical space – two floors of the old Metal Exchange in the City of London.

Visiting this venue mid-development, it had looked like somebody’s open-plan office: bad fluorescent lighting, grey carpet tiles; bins full of sandwich-shop litter; plastic water bottles in cardboard trays; laptops everywhere. Now, as the cast and crew set about unkinking the show’s phenomenally complicated logistics, the space is coming alive, fully dressed in both real and virtual light. Everything trembles. Everything moves, especially the air. Everything has a temperature. Everything has a smell.

Some of the experiences on offer in this show use VR headsets. Others use projection mapping. Some involve puppetry. Almost all manage to work in one of eight different holographic effects. Reality intrudes on the virtual world in unsettling and shocking ways. Things grab you – things you had thought were only in the headset. In VR, meanwhile, figures that seem to be fellow theatre-goers are plucked into the sky by Martian harvesting machines, their eyes meeting those of the participants (thanks to a neat eye-tracking algorithm) as they rise and perish.

Carl Guyenette talks about how he created the show.

New Scientist: What do they call you here?

Carl Guyenette: My job description’s a nuisance. When I called myself the CTO, the technologists on the show insisted I was actually the creative director. Then the creative people told me I’m a technologist. What I actually do is bring things together and makes new things out of them. So I suppose I’m an inventor.

NS: How did you come to work in theatre?

CG: I studied computer science, then joined the film visual effects industry, compositing for big Hollywood films. From there I moved on to making creative technological applications for the British Museum and other venues and festivals. I worked on Viens!, a virtual-reality piece by Michel Reilhac, which then went to Sundance and Cannes. This shot me into the centre of things. And now with the production company dotdotdot I’m trying to bring new media technologies and general audiences together through immersive theatrical experiences like this one. Not that we’ve worked at quite this scale before.

NS: Which of these new media are making the biggest impact on live performance at the moment? 

CG: Projection mapping is really interesting. There are systems now that will project images and textures over objects even as you move them. This is edging us towards VR experiences that won’t require us to wear headsets. And there are domes which you can projection-map from the inside which give you immersive video experiences. There’s a massive one that is going up in Madison Square Garden in 2020 which has a capacity of around 20,000 people: that’s going to be fun!

NS: How did you select the technologies for War of the Worlds?

Stability was essential. Because we’re splitting the audience up into groups of a dozen, and leading them from set to set, and from experience to experience, we’re effectively putting on 70 shows a day. The bottom line is, you want to be using kit that doesn’t break or fall over, so we’re using the HTC Vive Pro. We try out more exotic machinery in our prototyping and experimental work — everything from Hololens to Magic Leap, which I’d dearly like to use in a theatrical setting. But augmented reality systems are still a generation behind VR in terms of stability.

NS: Even with a workhorse VR platform, you’ve been able to mix the real and the virtual in clever ways. Was achieving that mix always an important aspect of the production?

CG: More important for us was to make sure that the technologies worked well with the storytelling. At one point we place our audience in a small boat and set them afloat on a computer-generated sea. The graphics are just one element to the experience. The mechanisms that move the boat, the breeze, the drop in temperature: these elements are just as important. And timing’s the most vital element of all, not just to provide seamless experiences, but also to give the audience breathing space between experiences.

NS: A lot of the technology you’re using is old…

CG: I wanted this show to be an homage to old media: Pepper’s Ghost illusions, and zoopraxiscopes, pyrotechnics and animatronics. It’s a show set over a hundred years ago, after all, at the birth of photography and cinema. In The War of the Worlds, all these technologies feel new.

NS: VR was said to be a medium that would isolate us from each other but you’ve used it to create a social experience. Is this the future of VR?

CG: I think there’s still money to be made from the home VR market. But building something big, in a spacious venue, layering technologies together so you can let audiences do things they couldn’t do anywhere else, means that you can also add a social dimension to the experience. There are not many places where you can be with 12 people in the same room in VR, firing cannon at Martian invaders, fighting off tentacles, befriending and losing people as you struggle through a besieged city.

A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

Darkfield’s Flight: an immersive experience that leaves you half dead

Boarding Darkfield’s existentially challenged airline for New Scientist, 28 November 2018

There’s a shipping container sitting outside 14th-century Dartington Hall in south Devon, offering cheap flights to an unspecified destination. Even by the standards of today’s budget airlines, Flight, by theatrical production company Darkfield is cheap. How do they do it? Part of their winning formula, I think, must be the way they kill their passengers.

Because one thing is for sure – the plane I seemed to be on (mocked up to a high degree of realism, with seatbelts and overhead luggage bins and a safety card in the seat pocket in front of me describing what action to take in the advent of some difficult-to-parse existential disaster; then, once the lights went out, magicked from the absolute darkness of the shipping container by an immersive binaural soundtrack) that plane, as I was saying, most certainly broke up in the air. I heard the screams. Some of them may have been my own.

Afterwards, armed with a steadying pint from the nearby White Hart pub, I had to admit, however, that life had not altogether left me. Was I alive or dead? Had I flown on an orange airline, or a blue one? To steady myself, I dug out my laptop and began editing my interview with Flight‘s co-producer David Rosenberg.

Rosenberg and the Darkfield company are no strangers to Dartington Hall. Their first blacked-out and binaural entertainment, Séance, ran here in 2017. And while they’re a company known for pushing the boundaries of performance, their presence is by no stretch a novelty for the estate which, since its purchase in 1925 by social experimenters Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, has been attracting artists, educators and political philosophers in an effort to develop new ways of living.

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The work of the Dartington Hall Trust, which aims to maintain the estate as a place of radical experimentation, a model of rural regeneration, and a centre for progressive ideas and innovation, sounds hippyish – it is hippyish, in important respects – but that’s not to say it’s unserious. On the contrary. Important British institutions, including the National Health Service and the Arts Council, were conceived here.

A community devoted to self-renewal, the 1,200-acre estate is deep into ground-breaking experiments in land use, farming and housing, and artistic and social projects that involve the estate in the lives and aspirations of some of the most deprived communities in Britain.

“We want to be championing arts that are purposeful here, and have something to say about the world in which we live, whether through performance or the visual arts,” says Amy Bere, executive director of the Dartington Hall Trust’s arts programme. “We’re also looking for socially engaged and civic art, and for ways to reach those parts of our community who aren’t engaging with us yet.”

Darkfield’s offering is certainly likely to draw interest from all manner of people. Maybe not the timid, though. Scanning the transcript of our recent phone interview, I see that Rosenberg, a medical anaesthetist turned theatrical impresario, called the recent output Darkfield “a terrifying fairground of darkness”. He was joking. I think.

And of Flight – a 20-minute airline experience that leaves you inhabiting two worlds at once — one where you’re alive, and one where you very much aren’t — he said, “It’s not as scary as all that. Unless you dislike flying. Or you’re afraid of the dark. Or you have some existential terror about the way the universe is assembled.”

Simon Ings That’s a long list.

David Rosenberg But a short show. Glen Neath and I have been making performances in complete darkness using binaural sound for the last six years or so. But the commitment to sitting in a theatre for an hour in total darkness is a big one, so we’ve now begun making shorter, more intense pieces in shipping containers: pieces that would explore fear and anxiety in different ways.

Using the container means we can tour our material to places where audiences will engage with it in a different way – treating it a bit more like a fairground ride.

SI With this form of presentation, are you fated always to be exploring the uncanny?

DR I think we’ll be able to broaden our output as we develop. But for now, by putting people in an environment where they feel quite vulnerable, the uncanny plays a large part in what we do. Our first piece, Séance, dealt with our beliefs about death and the beyond. Flight began, obviously enough, with the fear of flying, but then we got interested in the work of physicist David Deutsch and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’s a peculiar interpretation of the many-worlds model, not very well regarded but irresistible, called the quantum suicide fallacy. Suppose all probabilities are played out in the quantum realm: then we will only have a conscious experience of iterations in which our consciousness survives. So, in this respect, it’s impossible to die in a plane crash. Of course it’s also possible to be the only survivor of a plane crash, or the horribly mutilated sole survivor of a plane crash, or the only person in the crash to be hurt, and so on: it’s maybe not that much of a comfort. But this is the game we are playing in Flight. You perish and you survive, at the same moment.

SI Why plunge your audience into darkness?

DR In most instances vision is our leading perception. We attach sounds to images, rather than the other way around. You can show this with auditory illusions in which people moving their lips in a certain way but the sound that you hear is related to the lip movements.

SI So we’re all lip-readers!

DR To some degree, yes. We wanted to make work that wasn’t led visually in any way, and to achieve that we need darkness. In the dark, we can start with the sound and create environments and characters and to allow the audience to create visuals for themselves, in their imaginations.

SI You first worked with Darkfield co-founder Glen Neath on Shunt in 1988 – the theatre company that pioneered immersive theatre in the UK. Why, with that background, did you decide to turn the lights out?

DR As we explore virtual reality and augmented reality we’ve begun to to notice that a lot of immersive techniques provide experiences that are are paradoxically less immersive than old media. “Immersive” has become an entertainment buzzword. I joked the other day about going to an immersive funeral: it was very sad, and it smelt a bit like bread.

Sure, we could reach a point where virtual reality is indistinguishable from real life; but then it would be real life. Quite a lot of popular virtual reality experiences involve doing incredibly mundane things. The human imagination, on the other hand is — or at any rate feels — limitless. I have been more immersed in a book than I’ve ever been in a 3D film. Immersion isn’t about drowning the senses. It’s about providing enough gaps for our imagination to fill.

SI Have you gone any further in exploring sensory deprivation?

DR We’ve used anechoic chambers to strip sound of all its reflections, so it literally becomes sound from nowhere. But we haven’t really thought of a way to bring that into a performance context. The problem is the body itself is incredibly noisy. As soon as you remove all the other sounds, then your body really makes a racket and you end up focusing on that.

For myself, I remember in the late 1980s I went to a sensory deprivation tank in Manchester that was set up in this guy’s flat. There was a bit of a vogue for the idea at that time. It was a very basic experience: a body temperature bath with enough salt in it that you floated, in complete darkness and quiet. Just before he closed the door on me, the last thing he said was, Don’t touch your face.

SI Good grief.

DR So of course I spent the whole time not touching my face, wanting desperately to touch my face.

SI That sounds horrific.

DR It was a bit stressful.

Ushering in the End Times at London’s Barbican Hall

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Mark Allan / Barbican

Listening to the London Contemporary Orchestra for New Scientist, 1 November 2018

On All Hallow’s Eve this year, at London’s Barbican Hall, the London Contemporary Orchestra, under the baton of their co-artistic director Robert Ames, managed with two symphonic pieces to drown the world and set it ablaze in the space of a single evening.

Giacinto Scelsi’s portentously titled Uaxuctum: The legend of the Maya City, destroyed by the Maya people themselves for religious reasons, evoked the mysterious and violent collapse of that once thriving civilisation; the second piece of the evening, composer and climate activist John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, looked to the future, the rise of the world’s oceans, and good riddance to the lot of us.

Lost Worlds was a typical piece of LCO programming: not content with presenting two very beautiful but undeniably challenging long-ish works, the orchestra had elected to play behind a translucent screen onto which were projected the digital meanderings of an artistically trained neural net. Twists of entoptic colour twisted and cavorted around the half-seen musicians while a well-place spotlight, directly over Ames’s head, sent the conductor’s gestures sprawling across the screen, as though ink were being dashed over all those pretty digitally generated splotches of colour.

Everything, on paper, pointed to an evening that was trying far too hard to be avant garde. In the execution, however, the occasion was a triumph.

The idea of matching colours to sounds is not new. The painter Wassily Kandinsky struggled for years to fuse sound and image and ended up inventing abstract painting, more or less as a by-product. The composer Alexander Scriabin was so desperate to establish his reputation as the founder of a new art of colour-music, he plagiarised other people’s synaesthetic experiences in his writings and invented a clavier à lumières (“keyboard with lights”) for use in his work Prometheus: Poem of Fire. “It is not likely that Scriabin’s experiment will be repeated by other composers,” wrote a reviewer for The Nation after its premiere in New York in 1915: “moving-picture shows offer much better opportunities.” (Walt Disney proved The Nation right: Fantasia was released in 1937.)

Now, as 2018 draws to a close, artificial intelligence is being hurled at the problem. For this occasion the London-based theatrical production company Universal Assembly Unit had got hold of a recursive neural net engineered by Artrendex, a company that uses artificial intelligence to research and predict the art market. According to the concert’s programme note, it took several months to train Artrendex’s algorithm on videos of floods and fires, teaching it the aesthetics of these phenomena so that, come the evening of the performance, it would construct organic imagery in response to the music.

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Mark Allan / Barbican

While never obscuring the orchestra, the light show was dramatic and powerful, sometimes evoking (for those who enjoy their Andrei Tarkovsky) the blurriness of the clouds swamping the ocean planet Solaris in the movie of that name; then at other moments weaving and flickering, not so much like flames, but more like the speeded-up footage from some microbial experiment. Maybe I’ve worked at New Scientist too long, but I got the distinct and discomforting impression that I was looking, not at some dreamy visual evocation of a musical mood, but at the the responses of single-celled life to desperate changes in their tiny environment.

As for the music – which was, after all, the main draw for this evening – it is fair to say that Scelsi’s Uaxuctum would not be everyone’s cup of tea. For a quick steer, recall the waily bits from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That music was by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was born about two decades after Scelsi, and was — both musically and personally — a lot less weird. Scelsi was a Parisian dandy who spent years in a mental institution playing one piano note again and again and Uaxuctum, composed in 1966, was such an incomprehensibly weird and difficult proposition, it didn’t get any performance at all for 21 years, and no UK performance at all before this one.

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2013) is an easier (and more often performed) composition – The New Yorkermusic critic Alex Ross called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”. This evening its welling sonorities brought hearts into mouths: rarely has mounting anxiety come wrapped in so beautiful a package.

So I hope it takes nothing away from the LCO’s brave and accomplished playing to say that the visual component was the evening’s greatest triumph. The dream of “colour music” has ended in bathos and silliness for so many brilliant and ambitious musicians. Now, with the judicious application of some basic neural networking, we may at last be on the brink of fusing tone and colour into an art that’s genuinely new, and undeniably beautiful.

Shobana Jeyasingh: Shaping Contagion

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Discussing Jeyasingh’s 14-18 NOW dance commission for New Scientist, 11 October 2018

It still sounds mad – 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, commissioned a dance piece about the global flu pandemic. Why did you take this tragedy on – and how on earth did you shape it?

Shobana Jeyasingh    I began by looking at the smallest element of the story, H1N1, the virus responsible for the Spanish flu. The mechanics of virology appealed to me from the moment I began my reading and research. I spoke to two experts at length: Wendy Barclay, at Imperial College, and John Oxford at Queen Mary College, both in London.

All the strategies the flu virus has for penetrating the cell fascinated me. How it battles past the cilia on the cell’s wall is only the beginning. Once inside the cell it has to find the nucleus, and because it has no motive power of its own, it must hitch rides on transport proteins which themselves are unidirectional, so the virus must leap from one protein to another in search of its target like someone leaping on and off trams.

It’s a strange and amazing narrative, even before the virus starts harnessing the cell’s machinery to churn out copies of itself, which is surely the strangest twist of all.

This is an incredibly dark subject to tackle

That’s what I said to John Oxford, who was part of the team that researched the shape of the H1N1 virus. But his work had made him feel very differently. He’d embarked on this huge archaeological project, looking for the best-preserved tissue that might be infected with the virus. Tissue from people buried in lead coffins, or in Alaskan permafrost.

And he found the families of these victims still recalling how their dying had been cared for. People knew they were in danger, if they nursed somebody with the flu. But, regardless, people gave that care to their family, their spouse, their child. And their everyday heroism was being remembered, even now. It’s a dark story, yes, but Oxford showed me that story in an incredible, wonderful light.

The way your dancers personify the virus is frankly terrifying. They’re not “robotic” but at one time they move like nightmare quadripeds – columns of flesh armed with four extrusions of equal power and length, like RNA strands

At this point, they’re not portraying living things. A virus is a sinister code more than a lifeform in its own right. It’s a strategy, playing itself out in opposition to the body, by recruiting the body’s own forces. It’s not “attacking” anything. It’s far more subtle, far more insidious than that. What killed you, once you were infected with H1N1, was not the virus itself, but the violence of your own immune response. Just the drama of it was fascinating for me.

The medical profession doesn’t get much of a look-in here?

Doctors recognised what kind of disease the Spanish Flu was from its symptoms, but they had no idea that viruses even existed. How could they? Viruses are so small, without an electron microscope you can’t even see them. Several suspected, rightly, that the disease was airborne, but of course filters that can screen out bacteria are no defence against viruses.

So the work of helping people fell, not on the medical profession, who were powerless against what they couldn’t understand, but onto the women – nurses, mothers, wives, carers – who risked their own lives to look after the sick. The last section of the work, “Everyday Heroes”, is about nursing: the irony that while men were either winning or losing on the battlefield, women at home were fighting what was mostly a losing battle against a far more serious threat.

Why was this threat not properly recognised at the time?

Nobody knew what caused the flu, or why the youngest and the fittest seemed most prone to die. The onset was so sudden and dramatic, people would fall sick and die within a few hours.  Someone perfectly healthy at lunchtime might be dead at teatime.

In Manchester, the man who was in charge of public health, James Niven, woke up quite early to the fact that flu transmission shot up when people were gathered together. He tried to ban the Armistice Day celebrations in his city, but of course he was overruled. There was a huge spike in flu cases soon after. There are so many fascinating stories, but in 20 minutes, there’s a limit to what we can explore.

Contagion is not a long piece, but you’ve split it into distinct acts. Why?

It seemed the only way to contain such a complex story. The first section is called “Falling Like Flies”, which was the expression one Indian man used to describe how he lost his entire family in the blink of an eye: his little daughter, his wife, his brother, his nephews.  This section is simply about the enormity of death.  The second, “Viral Moves”, explores the dynamics of the virus. The third section, “Cold Delirium”, is about, well, exactly that.

What is “cold delirium”?

It’s a name that’s sometimes given to the virus’s neurological effects. One of the things we’ve begun to appreciate more and more – and this is why the official death count for the 1918 pandemic has risen recently – is that Spanish flu packs a huge psychological punch.

A lot of people who committed suicide in this period were most likely suffering the neurological effects of the virus. It triggered huge mental problems: screaming, fits, anxiety, episodes of aimless wandering.

And this wasn’t fully recognised then?

People noticed. But there was no means of reporting these cases to give people an idea of the shape and scale of the problem. Flu was not a reportable illness, like typhoid or plague. At the turn of the 20th century in Mumbai they had a plague that was fully documented and shaped the provision of public health. But in the case of flu, milder forms were so familiar, people didn’t really take much notice until the sheer numbers of the dead became unignorable.

And remember, in 1918 communication was not so effective. In Alaska, 90 per cent of a village community died, but there wasn’t any way to connect this episode to 20 million deaths in India. The connected global map that we carry around in our heads simply did not exist.

Contagion‘s set is a series of white boxes, arranged neatly at one end, and at the other end rising up into the air chaotically. Do they represent blood cells or grave markers? 

You’re on the right track, though the idea first came from looking at pictures of hospital beds. Hospital beds tend to be ordered and in lines, and then this huge event comes along to disrupt everything, and sweep everything before it.

York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

The dancers performing Strange Stranger at this year’s inaugural York Mediale (tagline: “Art, Meet the Future”) weren’t just moving about in the shadows. They were leaving shadows behind them, thanks to wrist-worn tracking devices and a complex, computer-driven LED-lit set. And over the course of the festival, which ran from 27 September to 6 October this year, visitors were able to explore the set and leave their own shadows in the air.

Alexander Whitley and his dance company have caught our eye before with 8 Minutes, a visceral and surprisingly true-to-fact dance about the internal processes of the sun. Their new piece is a play on the concept of the “data shadow” – a digital profile formed from all the information we unintentionally leave behind through our routine use of technology. That Whitley has turned to the dark for Strange Stranger says something about the eeriness that’s been slipping into contemporary art for some while.

It’s a mordant piece, and perhaps technically not quite there yet, because the dancers aren’t just leaving shadows; they’re actually getting lost in shadows. The net effect of all this energetic movement, then, is a sense of creeping powerlessness.

The same mood – part melancholy, part anxious – also marks Strata Rock Dust Stars, the flagship exhibition at this new media arts festival, which, it’s just been announced, is due to return in 2020.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, director of Liverpool’s FACT gallery, the exhibition runs until 25 November. Melancholy notes are struck by David Jacques, whose installation Oil is the Devil’s Excrement (2017) reveals by degrees that we have never been in control of the oil that powers our civilisation: it’s oil that has been in control of us. (You don’t have to take his word for it, either: the title of the piece is actually a quote Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founder of OPEC.)

Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds is another powerful hymn to our fatal misreading of our own values. Shot in a remote region of south-east Iceland in 2015, it juxtaposes luxury goods with jewel-like icescapes and ice blocks and advertisement-shiny waterfalls. Ice, it transpires, is the ultimate luxury good being celebrated (or mourned) among these multiple video panels, by a glamorous isolated figure (Vanessa Myrie) who, we can only suppose, has consumed everything else there is to consume.

Like every other living thing on this planet, humans are destined to expand to exploit all resources available to them, at which point they’ll plunge off a demographic cliff. There’s no tragedy in this. The tragedy is that we know it’s happening. We know the destruction we’re causing. We know what the consequences will be.

Strata Rock Dust Stars offers the visitor various coping mechanisms by which we might deal with this realisation. Liz Orton’s The Longest and Darkest of Recollections (2016) fuses geology, photography and memoir in a museum-like display that captures perfectly our poignant struggle to assign meaning to a world far older and bigger and dumber than ourselves. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s on-going obsession with moon-dwelling geese (the conceit of the 17th-century bishop and proto-sf author Francis Godwin) offers fancy and absurdity as a palliative for our tragic condition. In a delicious parody of all those Anthropocene maunderings, her latest venture, Moon Core (2018), asks whether the droppings and egg-shells of moon geese might not have entered the lunar geological record.

When fancy and imagination collide with the real world, however, the result is not always charming. Worlds in the Making, an early video work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make work under the name Semiconductor, creates, if you can picture such a thing, a sort of paranoid geology, perfectly false and perfectly believable, and a dreadful reminder of how much we rely on trust for our understanding of the world.

Another way of coping with the tragedy of the human condition is to laugh at it. Away from the flagship exhibition, I stumbled across a new work by Rodrigo Lebrun, a young Brazilian-born artist who has very little patience with the seriousness of much contemporary art. “It’s just another way of ostracising the public,” he told me, as he unlocked the shipping container where his barely finished video installation, Green (Screen) Dreams, advertises the apocalyptic charm of Sunthorpe — think grim Humber Valley Scunthorpe rebranded as a tropical holiday destination minutes before a collapsed ice shelf-triggered tsunami arrives, coincident with the entire planet bursting into flame.

Hijacking the hyperbolic visuals of television advertising, Lebrun has created an advertisement for the future: a world in which the vagiaries of environmental collapse afford us little pockets of tremendous commercial opportunity in the seconds before Armageddon, and where all the difficult questions about population and pollution, environmental integrity and resource depletion, are breezily crammed into an eyeblink-fast on-screen reminder that “Terms and Conditions Apply”.

“Instead of creating solutions, we’ve been creating these weird alternate realities,” Lebrun says, “CGI-driven entertainments to numb the senses.” His installation blows the gaffe on this confidence trick. It’s frightening, and funny, and above all it’s energising. Commissioned by Invisible Dust, an environmental arts charity we last encountered driving a gigantic mobile cinema around the Scottish coastGreen (Screen) Dreams gets its next outing At North Lincolnshire Museum from 19 January next year. But that’s surely only the beginning for the piece and for Lebrun himself, whose combination of wit and savagery seems as rare, these days, as a moon-goose’s teeth.

When science becomes performance art

The great storehouses of our culture are now, for good and ill, in the cloud. Good: a museum can print an archival-grade sculpture or painting to inform an exhibition. Bad: no one can remember the password.

Watching David Morton’s play The Wider Earth at London’s Natural History Museum for the Financial Times, 19 October 2018

The physics of dance

Visiting a rehearsal of 8 Minutes, Alexander Whitley’s Sadler’s Wells main-stage debut, for New Scientist, 17 June 2017

IN A basement studio in south London, seven dancers are interpreting some recent solar research from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. They are tackling the electromagnetic properties of the sun’s surface, and have got themselves, literally, into a knot. “Something about your grip here is stopping her moving,” frets choreographer Alexander Whitley. “Can we get his hips to go the other way?”

Bit by bit, a roiling form emerges. Imagine a chain, folded in on itself, stretching and reforming. Its movements are coherent and precise, but wildly asymmetrical. This is no tidy, courtly dance. At one point the chain abruptly unwinds. The relief is palpable as the dancers exploit their few seconds of freedom. Very quickly, the chain kinks and folds in on itself again: a folding problem intensely claustrophobic to watch, never mind perform.

Whitley formed his dance company in 2014, and 8 Minutes will be its debut on London’s Sadler’s Wells main stage at the end of June. It is named after the time it takes for light from the sun to reach Earth. “If you imagine travelling this distance at the speed of light, and you subtract all the relativistic effects, it’s quite bizarre,” muses Hugh Mortimer, Whitley’s collaborator and a researcher at Rutherford.

Mortimer designed climate change-detecting spectrometers for the Sentinel-3 satellite, and a sea-surface temperature monitor currently operating from the Queen Mary 2 liner. He hopes to build space-based instruments that analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets. But quite another fascination drew him into collaboration with Whitley’s dance company: the way the most abstruse science can be explained through ordinary experience.

He continues his thought experiment: “For 6 minutes, you’d be sitting in darkness. By the 7th minute you would notice a point of light looming larger: that’s the Earth. You’d arrive at the moon, pass by Earth, and a few seconds later you’d pass the orbit of the moon again. And the point is, passing the moon and the Earth and the moon again a few seconds later would feel intuitively right. It would feel ordinary.”

However difficult an idea, someone, somewhere must be able to grasp it, or it’s not an “idea” in any real sense. How, then, are we to grasp concepts as alien to our day-to-day experience as electromagnetism and the speed of light? It’s a question that has cropped up before in these pages, although seldom through the medium of dance. In 1988, for example, computer scientist Tony Hey wrote about his lunch with US physicist Richard Feynman, who explained particle spin “using the belt from his trousers” (New Scientist, 30 June 1988, p 75).

As for Whitley, he says: “We grasp quite advanced concepts first and foremost through movement. That forms a semantic template for the complex thinking we develop when we acquire language. Right, left, up, down, front, back – also the idea of containment, the concept of an inside and an outside – these ideas come through our bodies.”

This is especially true in children, he argues, because they don’t yet have fully developed rational capabilities. “I think there’s strong potential for using movement to give them a different understanding of and engagement with scientific ideas,” Whitley says.

Mortimer discovered the truth of this idea for himself quite recently: “Alexander runs a creative learning project for 9 and 10-year-olds based on our collaboration. Sitting in on some sessions, I found myself thinking about solar-dynamic processes in a new and clearer way.”

Will the audience at the work’s premiere leave understanding more about the sun? From what I saw, I’m optimistic. They won’t have words, or figures, for what they’ll have seen, but they will have been afforded a glimpse into the sheer dynamism and complexity of our nearest star.

Shakespeare and the machines

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Here’s a review of the RSC’s production of The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Through a combination of editorial tightening and big claims (I’m saying Shakespeare’s last play was a masque, not a drama) I make it appear here as though two fully grown polar bears once starred in its production. Please no one correct me: with a following wind this nonsense could become canonical.
for New Scientist, 21 November 2016