Live Digital Art in Canada

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the first ever foldA — a festival of live digital art held in Kingston, Ontario. We’ve been fans of SpiderWebShow, the group behind the festival, since we heard about CdnStudio, the virtual rehearsal studio they developed. So we were happy to sponsor the festival and help them out with their website and branding.

The festival was comprised of conversations and performances at different stages of development. 

Two main threads wove their way through the week; the possibilities that digital technologies hold for artistic expression in a live context, as well as their use to broaden access to art.

We heard from a number of artists using podcasting, projection, apps and other digital interfaces to tell their stories. A particularly interesting session was from Vancouver’s The Electric Company, who were artists in residence leading up to the festival.

They used their time to test some VR equipment and think of how to use it to create companion pieces for a more traditional theatre experience. The most interesting challenge when creating work for VR is grappling with the disembodied feeling that is experienced, and how to take care of your audiences when you ask them to come into that space. 

Accessibility was the subject of a focused discussion involving both digital and non-digital ways of making live performance available and enjoyable to a greater range of people. The big takeaway from this one is that accessibility can’t be an afterthought – it’s something that should be part of the design and creation process from the beginning and in collaboration with audiences and communities.

I especially appreciated hearing from Colin Clark from OCAD’s Inclusive Design Research Centre on the concept of co-design and designing WITH not simply FOR.  ASL interpreters were also present for most if not all of the conversations and performances at the festival.

Performances were labeled with language from the software world to describe their level of development — Alpha, Beta, or Golden (with most in the Alpha or Beta stages). I won’t pretend to be a theatre critic here, but I’ll mention some of my highlights:

Pathetic Fallacy from Vancouver’s The Chop used a green screen and the CdnStudio technology to present a show about weather and climate change. To avoid the carbon footprint normally required of touring, it used a local stand-in blended with pre-recorded video. 

Good Things to Do was a calming antidote to the information overload we all experience today. A small group of us was guided — with our eyes closed — into our own cozy little tents where we received a story delivered on a laptop, with live musical accompaniment from outside the tent.

From time to time, we were able to communicate with the storyteller, and eventually, with the others in the group. When we left our tents, we were all treated to an analog memento of the story.

The Chemical Valley Project was an eye-opening call to action. Focusing on the struggle of Water Protectors from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ontario, a community smothered by the petrochemical industry, the show uses digital technology as a storytelling device but it’s also about how we discover, learn, research, and connect today. 

I’m really looking forward to seeing this festival develop and grow. If you’re at all excited about what I’ve just described, go support their IndieGogo campaign for next year’s festival, and check out the makers behind the festival. They’re ones to watch.

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