The future of the arts: from 3D printing to VR, we speak to people bringing cutting edge tech to age-old formats

Steve Dinneen
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Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination,” said sociologist Daniel Bell, “[They] are not separate realms walled off from each other.”

The convergence of these two forces is age old, but the pace of innovation over the last decade, with the emergence of viable virtual reality and 3D printing, has given a sense that technology could be about to disrupt the arts in an unprecedented way. How will stories be told as our lives become increasingly digital? How will we consume them? What will they look like? We asked three people making or curating art using cutting edge technology about their experiences.

David Kaskel, Founder, Breaking Fourth

David Kaskel is the founder of the world’s first dedicated virtual reality theatre company. His five-strong start-up released its first play on the Oculus Rift earlier this month, after hosting a series of “live” performances that combined aspects of traditional and VR theatre. Kaskel believes he’s at the forefront of a new medium that has the potential to take the theatrical experience into millions of homes. At first glance, Breaking Fourth’s debut play Ctrl, a domestic abuse drama set inside an online e-sports arena, appears to owe its heritage to video games. But Kaskel says it’s closer to traditional theatre.

“The difference between a game and a drama is that in games you, the viewer, are the protagonist. Your decisions make a difference, even if you’re playing a minor character. In a film or a book, you’re rarely the protagonist. In what we’re making, the choices you make aren’t going to affect the outcome of the piece.”

In fact, he says, the closest analogue to what Breaking Fourth is doing are the immersive productions championed by Punch Drunk Theatre Company, in which you can freely wander around a vast set in which actors play out their scenes simultaneously, whether or not anyone is there to see them. Breaking Fourth isn’t quite there yet – its debut production allows the audience to spin on a 360 degree axis, but not move from a pre-determined spot. But as the technology develops, Kaskel hopes to give audiences more autonomy to explore.

“Imagine you’re watching Hamlet, and on top of the core play, you could move through the castle, see the scenes in a different order, follow the actions of different characters. We’d bring in writers to flesh them out; you could see what’s going on in Ophelia’s life in the moments before her death, or what happens to Gertrude off-scene. We’d have to create more material than you could see in a single viewing, so it would be a 12-15 hour piece – that’s why we didn’t attempt it first.”

He admits there is one teensy problem with being the first VR theatre company: “There’s no existing audience, per se...” Most of the battle, he says, is getting people inside the virtual world for the first time – “Once they’ve experienced it, they tend to love it.”

Tim Marlow, Artistic director, Royal Academy

The Royal Academy recently embarked on a project called The Veronica Scanner, in which it used a state-of-the-art 3D scanner and printer to create busts of visitors. “On one level it’s radical,” says Marlow, “but on another level, it’s part of the age-old classical tradition of the portrait bust. I don’t think these objects have the same cultural value as a Roman marble bust – there’s more to portraiture than realism – but it does seem to be the beginning of something that artists will take in new directions, ones we don’t totally know or understand yet.

“When photography was invented, painters began to look farther afield, to see what else they can do that photography can’t, or to build on the possibilities of photography. Artists have always been open to technologies. They have a symbiotic relationship.

“But for me, the most exciting possibilities opened up by 3D printing are in the field of preservation and restoration. It could be fundamentally important. You could scan ancient artefacts and objects that you can then see as they were in September 2016 and compare the natural decomposition over 10, 20, 100 years time. You could have a record of things that are subsequently destroyed by lunatic organisations like IS.”

Andrew Melchior, Project manager, Third Space

Melchior worked on the recent Bjork Digital exhibition at Somerset House, which showcased a series of the singer’s VR music videos. These short films placed the audience in scenes including the Icelandic highlands and the inside of the singer’s mouth. “Bjork has always been a pioneer,” he says.

“She was one of the first artists bringing electronic music from the dance scene into the mainstream. She was working with CGI, making amazing videos with Michel Gondry, really pushing boundaries. She’s a self-confessed nerd but she’s careful not be completely consumed by it. We have to be cautious we don’t use new technology for the sake of it – it needs to be effective in telling a story.

“The idea of a computer being able create real-time graphics to represent you is pretty profound and creates challenges in itself: do you give people “hands”? Do you allow them autonomy? Bjork’s idea was a bit like Plato’s cave – having interactions with things but remaining static. Interestingly, in terms of story-telling, the wheels seem to have turned full circle. I studied Shakespearian drama and it feels that a lot of the challenges and opportunities of theatre are reemerging. Instead of linearity – a director just showing you a fixed view – we’re actually harking back to more theatrical methods.”