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July 27, 2004

More about Blast Theory

cy_paul_profile_sm.jpgMatt Adams of Blast Theory posted a comment of encouragement to the blog's opening and I'd like to follow up with more about Blast Theory and a call out to Matt to respond to some specific questions about their work.

Blast Theory, comprised of Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr, and Nichols Tandavanitj, describe themselves as 'an artist group whose work explores interactivity and the relationship between real and virtual space with a particular focus on the social and political aspects of technology. It confronts a media saturated world in which popular culture rules, using video, computers, performance, installation, mobile and online technologies to ask questions about the ideologies present in the information that envelops us.'

This is evident in a survey of their work over the past decade. Formed in 1991, a chronology of their work from 1994-2004 is available on their website where the themes and explorations of technology range from video in live performance to interactive installations with the most recent using a pda or 3G phone to enable a mixed-reality game-based experience.

Beginning with their 1999 work Desert Rain and continuing on to the mixed reality works Can You see Me Now (project website), Uncle Roy All Around You (project website), and I Like Frank (project website) they have collaborated with the Mixed Reality Lab (MRL), an interdisciplinary research initiative at the University of Nottingham which brings together leading researchers in Computer Science, Engineering and Psychology to research new technologies that merge the physical and digital worlds, focusing on playful, artistic and educational applications.

The projects with MRL are clearly interactive in their game structures and use of mobile, networked technologies. The hybrid online/live action approach was explored in Kidnapped (1998) and interactivity has been a component in the early work since Stampede, (1994) in which the audience triggered how the piece unfolded via pressure pads.

Their work has been described as 'somewhere between theatre, performance art, installation and club culture' by Lois Keidan, Director of Live Arts, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. In reviews of Uncle Roy in 2003 a direct link to the content and approach of their work can be found - a group of friends with various creative backgrounds get together to form a theater company. This comes through in Matt's initial comment to the blog in which he claims his excitement for recent developments in networked_performance, despite the backward looking stance of many traditionally moored theater and dance practitioners. Blast Theory is freed from any prior history in a single discipline by having a group comprised from various practices across which they draw to create their work.

Some Questions
Matt, firstly, correct any inaccuracies in the above. Would you tell us what are the backgrounds of the members and elaborate on the evolution of the group from the early years till now. What led to the formation of the group and why theater? It seems that BT has always had an interest in media and technology born of club culture perhaps. What is the importance of the 'live' and 'performance' aspects of your work? As opposed to addressing the same social and political themes about technolgical impact on culture by focusing solely on interactive installations, such as in An Explicit Volume, for example.

How did the collaboration with Steve Benford and MRL evolve? How has the relationship with MRL influenced BT's work conceptually? You might also elaborate on how the collaboration has enabled your work to evolve technologically as well. Can you speak about the offshoot of the BT / MLR collaborative endeavor, EVERPRESENCE and your project Vicinity to which you've been able to apply these joint efforts? It appears to include aspects of the mixed reality game-based works and a reality-tv episodic, perhaps. What's the timeline for presenting this work?

You also mentioned in your post that there is lots of interesting work happening in networked_performance. What's out there that you currently find interesting and why?...

Posted by michelle at July 27, 2004 08:13 PM


That's a truck load of questions, Michelle! One error: the project in 98 was Kidnap not Kidnapped. Some very quick responses to some of your questions: the group was started in 91 by a group of friends who worked at the same cinema as bar staff and cashiers. We saw clubs as a new cultural space and wanted to explore that by bringing the rigour of dance and theatre into that arena. Our work almost always has a performativity to it (TRUCOLD is a notable exception) because we are compelled by the dynamics of the here and now. I believe that there is a social and political potential to any situation in which powerful ideas are being received by a group of people at a particular location: in essence, this is the irreducible fact of live performance. Our work on Can You See Me Now? and other wireless projects always operate on this relationship and, for me, are within a theatrical tradition (though Ju and Nick - who come from different backgrounds - see this differently). Even An Explicit Volume which is ostensibly an interactive installation was designed with a performative frame of view. For example, only one person can operate the touch screen at one time but there are four seats in front of the work which are placed touching one another. In testing the work we paid attention to what kinds of verbal and physical relationships were established between the viewers of the work: as they looked at hardcore pornography how did they negotiate the decisions as to which book to turn next? In that sense, the work is performative.

We have worked with the MRL since 97 on Desert Rain, Can You See Me Now?, Uncle Roy All Around You and I Like Frank. Like Blast Theory, the MRL is a collaborative interdisciplinary team. Unlike us their approach is research based in which measurable outcomes are crucial and it took about 18 months to bridge the gaps in process and vocabulary between the two organisations. Because Blast Theory have always been very focused on reaching new audiences we have a tradition of recording who came to our work and why; this meant there was already some areas of shared interest. Both Blast Theory and MRL have sought to learn about how the dynamics of these new hybrid spaces (reality/virtual reality/mixed reality/augmented reality) may function as social and cultural places.

Everpresence is a spin off company comprised of some key Blast Theory and MRL personnel that aims to take our work to wider audiences and into commercial contexts such as gaming and TV. Vicinity was a two year project with BBC Interactive to develop a TV/Internet project from which we have recently withdrawn because of irreconcilable differences (!).

I hope that answers some of your questions and perhaps opens up further threads for discussion if you wish.

Posted by: Matt Adams at August 5, 2004 06:50 AM

There is a great interview with Professor Steve Benford at the Mixed Reality Lab at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/shootinglive/shootinglive1/blasttheory/mrl3.shtml.

In our efforts to define categories in this world where everything slips and slides between, Professor Benford provides a clear-cut definition of "augmented reality." It involves "overlaying a virtual world on your view of the real world so that you experience both at the same time." He then goes on to say that handhelds are one way of delivering this kind of experience and mentions a recent example where the shadows of avatars were projected onto the streets, and another involving use of payphones. "An avatar approaching a virtual payphone causes the corresponding physical payphone to ring so that anyone answering it will hear audio from that point in the virtual world."

It's fascinating reading, and I wish BlastTheory all kinds of success in their collaboration with Professor Benford and the lab.

Posted by: Helen Thorington at August 5, 2004 04:02 PM

Here's a review by Ophra Wolf: http://www.thefitnesscommunity.co.uk/core/reviews.php?action=show&key=160

Posted by: Jo at August 18, 2004 06:19 PM