Around this time two years ago, I found myself lying prostrate in a coffin; a surprisingly relaxing, contemplative experience. I suppose that’s the transformational power of art and design: the most macabre of situations are rendered thought-provoking, and the most mundane, everyday things can become, in a way, transcendent.
Activating the unexpected is at the heart of the ever-wonderful Frequency Festival, a biennial celebration of digital culture in Lincoln, a beautiful and strange little city in England’s East Midlands.
This year I’m not in a coffin, I’m in a dank, dead dreamland. I’m stroking leaves, tickling a tree and playing it like an instrument. But, most memorably, I’m standing on a table atop a plate of bloodied hearts, while a cast of crazed characters gorge on them around me; spilling wine and blood and hatred and lust on a white table cloth. Really, I’m in St Mary Le Wigford—proudly “the oldest church in Lincoln,” and more usually populated by pensioners and Christmas card salespeople than people who appear to have materialized straight out of a Lynchian fever dream. This is Whist, a piece by art/dance/theatre company AΦE that combines mixed reality technology, physical theater, and Freudian psychoanalytic theory.
Users wear a virtual reality headset and navigate their way around a collection of large psychical sculptures in the space, encountering a series of baffling and eerie scenes and people brought to life through superb choreography and powerful, disquieting sound design. According to the makers of the piece, it’s all about a journey “into the unconscious mind.” It draws on Freud’s definition (in The Interpretation of Dreams) of the unconscious as “the true psychic reality; in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as it is the external world by the reports of our sense-organs.”
The piece guides me (or seems to guide me) through a number of interactions mostly inside a crumbling old house, ricocheting between people including a rotund, creepy chap playing an accordion, a sexy woman who seems to be doing something rude from under a chair, a bearded man in a blonde wig and red dress, and a bloke in nothing but white underpants and scrawled tattoos.
At my first moment at a dinner table, facing a blonde man with piercing eyes and a toned torso, I have a fleeting thought of the picture I’m about to take, and the witty caption that would accompany it, about having “dinner with bae.” But of course, I can’t take a picture: this is VR, and maybe that’s the potency of such experiences. They can’t be shared by recordings and direct images; the experience can’t be succinctly captured in a neat screen-optimized square. Maybe, then, VR is the final bastion of something personal—if you want to share the experience you have to explain it as if it were a dream. And, like a dream, with Whist everything and nothing makes sense: the familiar and the uncanny seamlessly merge into one transient whole.
In the final scene, I stand in the middle of a white square, and in each corner the characters that have been with us on and off for the past 60 minutes form a tableau and gradually float out of sight across a dark, starry plane. The universe is beneath my feet as they slip away, and I’m helpless; suddenly the people who were once so eerie or irritating or alluring are ebbing out of my reach, and it’s weirdly heartbreaking. As the headset comes off, I feel somehow hollow and bereft, though it’s hard to articulate or comprehend why. Each visitor is given a number and these are shown on a dedicated Whist website that analyzes your path through the piece in vaguely psychoanalytical terms. “Its aim is not to provide any answers, but to inspire questions, reflections and insights into the unique meaning the performance may have for you,” explain the artists.
“In art, as much as in real life, our imagination is captured by people and things which resonate with our inner life.”
Back in the non-virtual world, I read that the piece is about choices, and how our unconscious instincts drive us towards or away from certain things. Until I learned that there are 76 possible routes through the piece, and as such, countless potential narratives, I’d assumed the technology was guiding me through—that the story was a prescribed route of which I had no control. That alone says something pretty profound about the nature of the work and of life itself:
If we don’t even know we’re making choices, are we even making choices at all? Who and what really design the clumsy footsteps we make as we teeter through our lives?
In a broad sense, the piece is about the nature of consciously penetrating the present to understand the past; a notion carried through to other pieces at the festival too. One such project is Trace S, by composer and digital artist Nicolas Canot and visual artist Gabriel-Marie Farey. The work started as a 1,200 mile bike ride Farey took between France and Lithuania, in which the artist pondered the idea of the digital traces we leave behind when accumulating data relating to the journeys we make. The resulting piece is one of the most moving, beautiful AV pieces I’ve heard and seen: users are faced with a large screen and wear gloves that generate abstract patterns and sounds through subtle movements. The sound design is extraordinary; gorgeously strange waves of sonic gesture that can be modified to build up sublime texture and atmosphere. The idea behind it all is that as users make their own “traces,” they erase those that came before them. “The past is present but with the present we can delete the past,” says Canot.
The piece is housed in the mildly dystopian yet disarmingly apt setting of Ruddock’s, a former family-run stationary shop on the High Street. In that same space—a monument to the death of the traditional high street and a symbol of England’s struggling independent businesses and increasingly fractured communities—is a piece that looks to remedy that, bringing people together through the power of connectedness that art and design can foster. That piece is Living Sculpture (Virtual) by French artist Laurence Payot, who worked with coding whizz and digital artist Ashley James Brown to create a work based on Peppers Ghost trickery, brought with a bang up to 2017 with the use of holographic forms. Users place their hands within a structure and see floating star-like particles react according to their own movements, responding simultaneously to another user’s own twitches and waves to create a piece that only truly lives and breathes through interaction.
“Touching these ghostly dots felt like catching snowflakes,” says Payot. “The moment they land in your hand and you think you can catch it, it melts away and you can never grasp it. We felt connected by some sort of electric field, as it was the magnetic forces between us being made visible.”
The beauty of Frequency’s projects is their bloody-minded unwillingness to be categorized; and this is no more evident than in Deep Data Prototype, a project housed in the unlikely setting of the damp, underground, former vault of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Merging science, data, design, and art, the work by Andy Gracie takes the form of three “prototype” pieces that consider non-terrestrial life by creating microcosms from various plant cultures housed in boxes that mirror conditions in outer space. “If we want to find out how organisms behave in space we have to recreate that here,” explains Gracie. “These are flower cultures grown by real and imagined lighting conditions on various planets,” he says, pointing to a piece that’s as visually beguiling as it is scientifically impressive. “The aesthetics of science are so heavily influenced by science fiction. They’re experiments and science but presented as art objects. It’s that fuzzy art/science/technology relationship—there’s a real commonality of practice.”
From outer space, we travel to Dreamland, through a piece called Worldless by Tony Richards, David McSherry, and Steve Judge. Combining set design that creates a forlorn, decrepit site with a video installation, the work is based on Nara Dreamland, a now-abandoned Japanese theme park that opened in 1961 and closed in 2006. In its heyday, the place was, as the artists put it, “a dreamy duplication of a then-boundless American way, as Japan emerged out of the long shadow cast by the twin atomic bombs.” Since being shut down and apparently forgotten about, it metamorphosed into a sad monument to past pleasure.
The piece’s creators used contemporary archive and blended materials to delineate that space between the park’s former life and its gradual disintegration. The piece reflects on our collective ideas around “ending, an ending that looks to be on its way, as nature itself is finally reclaimed without witness.” It’s an obvious trope—an (il)logical extension of ruin porn blogs—
but then, what’s more poignant than a decaying Dreamland; a theme park’s detritus strewn deathbed?
Where many digital design and art collaborations in the past have focused on the terrors of social media (we get it) and a sort of latent fear of machine’s impact on man, the joy about Frequency is its sidestepping of such territory in favor of seeing digital as pure medium rather than something to be feared: we see the confluence of human and tech as a bringer of community and an adjunct to life that has the potential to be beautiful. It manages to do so while acknowledging the pitfalls of technology, too; the limitations of the digital world to truly manifest human emotion and mirror human touch jostles next to our own inadequacies in the face of screen-driven perfection.
This is something at the heart of Jake Moore’s stunning exhibition Future Body at Lincoln’s The Collection museum. Moore’s show presents five audio-visual installations which consider “the inadequacy of the human form in the face of our increasingly ubiquitous technological climate” through computer animation, video, and sound. Many of these pieces display the artist’s endeavors to construct “a newly synthesized digital body; a labor towards a machine-like perfection in form, surface, and movement.” The odd distortions of human body and visceral sound accompanying the pieces is equally thrilling and unnerving; the show is one deserving of as much visitor time as you can give it, and you leave in a delicious trance that makes you consider your own body in relation to the simulated ones we find all around us.
It ties in nicely with the broader aims of the festival’s founders, Threshold Studios’ Uzma Johal and Barry Hale, who say that this year’s event “sought out to showcase works that playfully interrogate” ideas around how our “sense of identity has always been closely rooted to place and shaped by the culture that surrounds us,” as well as the role of the digital realm in shaping the physical one, and our place within it. They add that the works collectively look to “displace the imagination, to reinforce or subvert our expectations of ‘place,’ and encourage audiences to step into the shoes and lives of others or to explore other versions of themselves.” And boy, did they achieve that.