A small woman of indeterminate age is standing in front of a monitor reading a script. She has wires from her head and hands, and is stood in a brightly lit studio space installed in the middle of Manchester Art Gallery. This is the first of three rooms devoted to Ed Atkins' "Performance Capture" at Manchester International Festival. The second room looks more like a control booth with a server rack and rows of computers running video capture software. In the third room, behind a black curtain, a giant screen has an avatar - just face and hands - with voice and movements altering every few minutes or so as the performers in room 1, rendered in room 2, inhabit the art work in this final space.
Reading the blurb about "Performance Capture" as you enter the gallery ("Please switch off your mobile phones as they could interfere with our equipment") or in the MIF brochure is unhelpful. Better to spend some time there. See what is happening, be present at the process. The words are Ed Atkins own. I hadn't realised but he is also the writer of the piece - that is important and I'll come back to it. In the script you can buy in the shop it looks like a poem, a long freeflowing loose narrative that keeps returning to certain themes, and at some points intersperses songs - finishing with the Elvis Presley associated classic "Always on Your Mind." The "story" is a future narrative set in a "render farm" where we are the pieces of meat. Although "poetry" - and the free flowing juxtapositions would be familiar to readers of avant garde poetry, like Robert Shepherd, Tony Lopez, Keston Sutherland (or even my own "Juxtaposition #4"), the monologue sounds more like a fractured prose - I'm particularly reminded of Ben Marcus and his late 90s "The Age of Wire and String." Catching a few minutes of the piece - it seems hard to grasp - images of animals, meat, politics, zoom by - and the sometimes difficult or obtuse language creates an added layer of difficulty for the "actors" in the piece.
A few years ago I was at a seminar in Cambridge which was looking at how motion capture software and hardware could be used for different purposes - say, in business, or the arts - than for what it had already been used. The technology was there - an actor would have wires on their head, maybe on their hand - and the "motion capture" cameras and software would create an electronic frame which indicated the movement. The professor had come from Weta in New Zealand, world leading centre of motion capture because of the work Peter Jackson had done there on the Lord of the Rings movies. The actor Andy Serkis - namechecked in Ed Atkins piece - has since turned what was primarily a technical challenge into an acting one. Atkins' hardware, though impressive, is not so different than what I saw back then. Whole body capture, the kind you see in films, is more complex. Yet at the other end we are seeing technology available to an artist with a laptop and the right software. But like Michelangelo's trainee sculptors, there are banks of volunteers learning how to use the captured information and tweak it so that the end result - the face that we see speaking, appears somewhere near human.
I went on the final day of the residency and saw Atkins read his whole narrative - lasting just less than ninety minutes - almost the length of a film. It was compelling. The non-linear narrative had some kind of sense to it - then would drift off. You concentrated on the words, then on Atkins, then on the screens with the avatar voicing them. This is a kind of puppet play. Atkins coughs and takes a drink of his beer; the avatar makes the same shape, tilts his head to one side, but he is only a head, there is no beer. Though the aim of the piece wasn't a solipsistic performance - I'm glad I caught that. I think it may make more sense than the eventual end piece - where the story is a monologue told in voices. It felt like it should be one voice not a a cacophony. But its a work in progress. This end "performance" felt more intimate - a turning of a massive endeavour back into its components, a text, an actor, a camera, an avatar.
Like a lot of media art, there are questions about the end result. The putting different voices into another head - is that any different than the Gillian Wearing piece "2 into 1" from 1997? In this case, the text seems crucial - it is contextualised with the work. A "render farm" seen from the future - what does it mean? What happens when we become our avatars? Digital art, now that it is available, rather than has to be invented, sometimes seems to be reconstructing past tropes rather than creating its own, its needs meaning, needs a writer. The end result of all this endeavour - and it was an endeavour, a large team of volunteers, expensive kit provided by Cisco and others, three rooms of the gallery taken up, a massive list of contributors included a 3D company and Salford University - will be the finished art work. There is something compelling and fascinating about the avatar - partly because, like all CGI, its not quite able to replicate the human enough - there is something uneasy and unreal about it. (Its why motion capture in movies gives us Gollum or King Kong - transferring human emotion or movement into something unreal.) The head speaking seems a descendent of Beckett's "Not I" or the poetic monologue has echoes of "The Singing Detective."
Manchester International Festival remains an enigmatic success, enigmatic in that it has created a sort of big event culture in the city, with a kind of P.T. Barnum-like showmanship; yet dig a little deeper, and artists, when asked to do something here, are suddenly being given big budgets for work that is - if not avant garde - often more complex than the mainstream. This, Alex Poots last year, seems to have an emphasis on process as much as end result - and in a particularly contemporary idea of participation, where the public are invited in, but have very little agency over the work. There is also, it has to be said, quite a defiant political strand - whether in Maxine Peake reviving the Skriker, or in Atkins' future-text. Given that part of MIF's success has been its showmanship, I wonder if this tendency - in contemporary art and performance in particular - towards exploring and showing the process is going in a different and more interesting direction; its as if Oz has swivelled round, opened up the curtain, and said "hey, its all mirrors, kids."
I felt that Atkins writing - the monologue - was key to the success of this piece in that if there hadn't been some genuine content - then the whole endeavour would have just fallen flat, as a technical exercise. The idea of a "render farm" with its echoes of "Animal Farm" seemed powerful, and his poetic language, his willingness to interrupt his own narrative make it a frequently compelling word soup. When I attended that motion capture seminar a few years ago I could see the potential, but also that it was less about the technology (technology is always improving) but about the expertise: that what a business or creative would want from the university would be the knowledge and experience of the people who'd been working with the software and hardware. The end result of "Performance Capture" may actually be the experience of those working with Atkins on the finished piece; apprentices to the master stonemason.
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