This July I conducted an eight day residency in Brazil with the digital theatre group ZU-UK – part of a new research project with Jan Lee called Waiting for a Grain of Sand to Leap into the Air.
Our work began in the mountains of Vera Cruz outside Rio de Janeiro, living and working in a remote residence detached from phones and internet. July is Winter in Brazil which gives warm sunny days, cold nights and dewy mornings. The landscape is dense and green, sat above a network of porous rock that emerges from the soil in places. And teeming with life – spiders, insects, woodpeckers, tics, cows…
We were on the Drift residency along with six other artists. Our time was divided between collective creative activities and our own research; Capoeira, Yoga, Qi Gong, drawing, writing with others then creating work each day to share in the evening. Individual work was often still focused around a constraint or structure, like working with a specific piece of tech, or developing something that realises another of the artist’s project. Each evening, everyone shares what they have made, followed by a delicately thought out session of giving each other feedback.
Halfway through the week, the group moved to an empty theatre in the mountain town of Miguel Pereira, spreading into the different rooms and spaces of the building.
Short iterations of drafting and sharing new material is common in the coding world. But the timescales were tighter than what I’m used to, often only a few hours. Compare this to something like Music Hackday for example where you would expect to have 10-20 hours before presenting what you’ve come up with. As the only coder there, I found this laid the pressure on.
Prototyping things quickly has been becoming more important in my work since working in the studio with a dancer. Choreography can be improvised, and communicating a new idea often happens through sharing a demonstration, and then refining through repetition. Coding is comparatively slow, and it can be challenging to keep tech and performance evolving in step with each other. It’s made it a priority for me to create more freedom to improvise in my working process. Working in a tenth of the timescale that I’m used to was a constructive challenge.
The collective sharing process produced its own liberation. Everyone worked in the same structure from their own practice. As someone who embraces chaos and complexity in much of my work, I found it striking how much material was presented that was simple, but focused, deliberate and strong; how effectively context was used.
Working at Drift showed up gaps in my process. One day I was making a quick video analysis sketch for a torch-controlled installation to find I had previously deleted the OpenCV binaries from the tiny SSD drive on my laptop. No internet and no time for a 45 minute rebuild. Other times SuperCollider (my current learning project) would stump me with a silent failure, or a lengthy but ultimately pointless error trace. These things don’t seem to happen to artists working with movement, words or over forms of performance.
It left me thinking about what my tools are and how much respect I give them. Each morning we had movement exercises, stretches, yoga, breathing, activities connecting us with our bodies. Dancers more than anyone I’ve come across seem to know how important it is to maintain this connection with their primary instrument of expression. Knowing how to do something isn’t the same as being ready to do it. It’s easy to miss this with code, mainly because you’re rarely under the same kind of time pressure. But for a practice that involves improvising with code, what are the regular routines to stay connected to your instrument?
And our work itself – Waiting for a Grain of Sand to Leap into the Air is research into sound, movement, story and interaction. How do we feel sounds in the body? How does context alter how a sound is heard? How do we make sense of interactive sound spaces where our movements are creating sound in an unknown way? I’ll write up more on the project soon.