“Guten tag, aus Berlin!” Or more precisely, hello from the plane ride back from Berlin. It was a whirlwind of a week here in Germany, a mixture of busy days in rehearsal and evenings taking in the other offerings of technology, art, and culture that make up the Transmediale Festival. All of the hard work paid off on Sunday when we presented a short, work-in-progress presentation as a part of the festival.
We were hosted by our German collaborators, Per Aspera, who operate a renovated silent movie theater in East Berlin originally built in 1929. They curate an eclectic mix of live performance events, from dance to theater to unclassifiable events like “Nosferatu With Live Symphonic Soundscape,” a contemporary sound art performance scored to a screening of the famous silent film, “Nosferatu.” (In short, a quintessentially Berlin performance venue.) It was a grand and anachronistic space for an interactive technology-based performance exploring social media and online extremism. When we opened the doors on Sunday, we had audience members attend from as far away as Korea and Slovakia and as close as some curious neighbors from down the street.
#HASHTAGPROJECT is by far the most technologically ambitious performance work that Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative has created to date. Like each of our original works, it comes with its own unique set of conceptual, narrative, or dramatic challenges. For one thing, creating a work about technology that solely relies on the use of technology means that all rehearsals are tech rehearsals. As anyone who has ever spent time in a tech rehearsal will tell you, at best it can feel like putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle and at worst, it can feel like trying to build a house of cards on a waterbed.
We spent much of our rehearsal time adjusting projector focus lengths, re-timing transitions between images on the four screens, hunting down unforeseen sound effects, and testing and retesting the motion capture calibration of the Kinect sensor that we used to follow audience members’ movements in the space.
During the evenings, we made our way to Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin’s center for international contemporary arts, to meet some of the hundreds of artists, curators, and technologists that had traveled from around the world to take part in Transmediale. We attended panel discussions with titles like “Built in Values: On the Politicization of Social Media Platforms” and “The Weaponization of Language.” There were exhibits that featured technology used to shed light on important issues of the day, like tracking the flow of refugees attempting to make the crossing from North Africa to Europe and bizarre performance pieces such as the one that featured a zombie Steve Jobs and a post-apocalyptic chorus all wearing VR headsets. (Again, only in Berlin…)
We also found some time to take in a few of the cultural marvels of Berlin like the Jewish Museum, a punk rock and street art tour of the city, a wonderfully eclectic flea market, and most especially its coffeehouses.
As we hoped, we learned volumes from sharing a short demo of #HASHTAGPROJECT with an audience. It was fascinating to see how crucial and tricky it is to guide an audiences’ attention to different parts of a surround-screen environment and how easy it is to overload them with information at any given moment. The response from our “beta testers,” as we named our participants, was overwhelmingly positive and there was a lot of curiosity about what the completed version will look like. Good question! and we’re now one big step closer to realizing what that will be.
Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin! We look forward to the next time we come back with #HASHTAGPROJECT. A huge thank you to Brina, Niko, and Tilman at Per Aspera for being amazing hosts, collaborators, and trouble-shooters!