Thursday 15 December 2016

Welcome to Blast Theory

Artist Ju Row Farr's most welcoming smile
This November and December I’ve been working as a volunteer with Blast Theory, a 4-times BAFTA nominated art collective based in Brighton. Their work uses interactive media and live performance to explore social relationships, contemporary culture and politics, and the boundaries between fiction and reality.
Despite being around since 1991, winning a long list of awards and being internationally renowned, I’ve noticed that there are still many people with interests in art and digital technology who are yet to be acquainted with Blast Theory. Here, I want to introduce you to the community by sharing my experiences of their work over the past year – as an academic, an audience member, a participant, and now as a volunteer.
Guiding you through the moments in which the group’s work has shaped my life in these different roles, I’ll be demonstrating how Blast Theory has something genuinely constructive to offer everyone.                        
My first steps into the world of Blast Theory were slow and inquisitive. Starting my new Art, Performance and the City module during my Masters, my attention was instantly drawn to the title of one of our upcoming seminars – ‘Playing the City: Performance, Technology and the Public’ – with none other than Blast Theory’s Matt Adams as a guest speaker. The seminar promised an exploration of how play, games and their associated technologies can expand our understanding and experience of cities – a topic that magically welded together my budding academic interest in video games with my earlier work on public space.
I was filled with that buzz of anticipation that is the addiction of countless researchers and knowledge seekers. Eager to find out more, I couldn’t resist taking an early dip into the seminar’s reading list, where I discovered a couple of papers written directly about Blast Theory’s work by digital media scholar Marcos Dias.
The subject of these papers was A Machine to See With, a Blast Theory production from 2010. This locative performance sees participants become protagonists in a live heist movie as they walk through the city. Using mobiles to make and receive calls from an automated phone system, they are guided through a series of ethically questionable tasks towards the eventual fictitious objective of robbing a bank, believing that every action they take is being filmed.
Mindful of the fiction behind the event, participants scrutinise everything they encounter in the real-world urban environment: hyper-aware of the smallest details in their surroundings, the subtle acts of strangers, and their own performances as they are being filmed. Yet at the same time, the participant is made aware of the limits that this technology imposes on interacting with the city. The automated voice on the end of the phone is oblivious to the predicaments participants face as they negotiate the urban environment in real-time, including potential dangers, mishaps, and even past participants attempting to interrupt the story for others. By the time the event reaches its climax, the real and the fictional are blended almost beyond recognition. It becomes a performance for the participants themselves.                            
The themes from this piece are reflected in much of Blast Theory’s repertoire. The artists are keen for participants in their works to interrogate the interactive potential of technology, encouraging them to explore the intricate relationships between the virtual and the material, anonymity and surveillance, agency and control in our mediated social experiences.
The critical ethos behind their work is strengthened by how the content of their projects often engages with current social and political issues, encouraging people to re-think what worlds are possible, probable, or indeed morally desirable. Taking place shortly after the financial crisis, the bank heist story in A Machine to See With was in part an exploration of the agency that individual citizens can have in the face of the seemingly impervious forces of global capitalism.
So although their methods are playful, it is mostly play in the sense of re-imagining; momentarily allowing people to loosen the rigid boundaries that govern their social interactions to illuminate – and potentially change – how they are conventionally understood.
Our seminar with Matt Adams in March introduced me to more examples of this, including the live storytelling productions of My One Demand, a film broadcasted in one continuous shot; and The Thing I’ll Be Doing for the Rest of My Life, during which a team of volunteers push a 30-tonne boat through the streets of Nagoya, Japan. I was intrigued by the way that Blast Theory used interactive methods to allow people to share experiences in ways I’d never seen or considered before, with such striking and enduring impacts on those who participate despite the short-lived nature of the practice itself.
I became increasingly keen to experience a Blast Theory project for myself.
So later on in June I downloaded Karen, Blast Theory’s ‘life-coaching’ app in which users take part in short ‘sessions’ each day, answering questions posed by Karen, your life coach. It soon becomes clear, however, that your relationship with Karen goes beyond the considerate professionalism you’d anticipate. As she shares some quite personal details about her own life, her interest in you also becomes unnervingly intimate. She seems to know a little too much.
This is because Karen uses your answers to build a profile, based on a series of psychological profiling tests, which then determines how she interacts with you. When you complete the experience, you are given the option of buying a data report generated from the answers you submitted, which exposes how the intricate systems used by the app created your personality profile.
Like so much of Blast Theory’s work it was an unsettling yet revealing experience, uncovering how digital and data-based communication profoundly affects our interpersonal relationships and our identities – the ways we understand ourselves and others. Although I’ve used a wide range of helpful apps for information, entertainment and communication, I learnt more about the boundaries of my relationships with these technologies and other people through Karen than any other app has taught me.
I didn’t wait long before making my next foray into the familiar unfamiliarity of Blast Theory territory, having learnt that Operation Black Antler – a project that previously took place in Brighton – was coming close to home in Chatham for three days in late June. This would be my first live Blast Theory event, and one that immediately sent me outside of my comfort zone. My task: to play the role of an undercover police officer at a party, attempting to win trust and information from members of an extreme right-wing group.
It was the day after the EU referendum result. Wandering through unfamiliar territory in Chatham town centre, on my walk I encountered a stumbling, drunken middle-aged man who slurred a futile request: could I educate him? The sodden streets still tender from the fiery rhetoric of the referendum coverage, I felt disconcertingly out of place: a university-educated arts student in working-class Chatham.
I received a text telling me to meet the rest of my team outside the Argos on the high street, where we were silently shepherded into a nearby abandoned building. Splitting into small groups with people we’d never met before, we were briefed on our targets, the event, and our objectives. We only had a short time to devise our undercover alter-egos before being swiftly thrusted into a poky bar a short walk away, barely remembering the details we’d heard only minutes previously.
It was an uncompromising introduction to life undercover, and one that taught me as much about my moral compass as the fictional far-right group I’d attempted to infiltrate. Unlike watching a documentary or reading a news article, I had to come to terms with the ideology by living it; spending time with its advocates, sharing their spaces, and taking on a new persona. It radically expands your perspective when you’re forced to argue from – and empathise with – a point of view that you’re not acquainted with, or maybe even opposed to.                         
At the end, the groups came together to decide if a full-time undercover operative should be sent in to monitor the group. We now had to judge whether the kind of people we’d pretended to be, and had socialised with for an hour, were dangerous enough to warrant such invasive surveillance.          
This is interactive art’s superpower. By putting you in situations you wouldn’t normally encounter and inviting you to participate in them – whether by playing roles, making decisions, or taking actions – Blast Theory are giving you the chance to learn about and develop your unique sets of instincts and moral boundaries as an individual. It is a process of rediscovering yourself.
Around this time I’d been carrying out research for my Masters dissertation on video games, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the crossovers between Blast Theory’s work and the interactive artworks I was studying. Both typically involve assuming a different identity or role, entering new environments, and interacting with what you find there to guide your experience. Though in the likes of Operation Black Antler and A Machine to See With, this identity play manifests more as a process of provoking the transformative potential in existing, real-world people and places than attempting to create whole new fictional worlds with their own distinct characteristics. This is why such experiences are often referred to as ‘augmented reality’ – an area in which Blast Theory has been widely recognised as a leading light, long before the fanfare that accompanied the recent arrival of Pokémon Go.
I’d been fascinated by augmented reality for a while, writing a whole coursework paper on the subject earlier in my Masters study. Though it was through Blast Theory’s work that I became acutely aware of how this area of interactive art seemed to encapsulate my academic interests in studying the relationships that make places meaningful; yet also inspired me creatively as a powerful method through which these stories could be told in an immersive, engaging way.
So when I saw Blast Theory’s callout for volunteers to work with them between July and December, I realised how the programme was an exceptional opportunity to learn how such creative projects are developed on a day-to-day basis, and draw on this experience as I pursue a path towards making my own interactive art.
Being accepted onto the volunteer programme felt like the most encouraging welcome I could possibly receive as a newcomer to working professionally in the arts sector. After all, Blast Theory is a registered charity, and their commitment to supporting aspiring artists and innovation in the creative industries is clear to see from the range of talks, mentoring, and other opportunities they continue to provide both inside and outside the studio.
Since I began volunteering in early November, I’ve come to witness this benevolent impetus in their creative work first-hand. Blast Theory’s most recent project, A Place Free of Judgement, empowered a group of 30 young people to live broadcast a 9-hour takeover of three libraries. Exploring and celebrating storytelling as an art of sharing experiences – and libraries as sanctuaries for this practice – the young participants led viewers through their imaginations of these spaces; directing the camera, having fun, and sharing something of themselves. Online audiences were able to contribute their own stories, which took creative physical form in the libraries as our performers read aloud, drew pictures, sang, and wrote the words to hide between books.
At a time when funding for both libraries and the arts is dwindling, Blast Theory have sought to use their artistic endeavour to enable, support and inspire others to cultivate their own creativity. That is an art to be admired in itself.
It’s also a motivation that extends beyond the short-term impact of single events. In upcoming project 2097: We Made Ourselves Over, the group is aiming to encourage conversation about our collective future over the coming century by teaming up with Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017. Workshops are being hosted with residents young and old in each city to hear their ideas about what the future of our cities could/should look like, alongside insights from experts attempting to answer these questions for issues as broad as climate change, infrastructure, and spirituality. What is our capacity for self-determination in an uncertain future? What can our minds and technologies offer us as we plan for the forthcoming decades?
In this role Blast Theory are like toolmakers; intricately crafting the instruments with which people can discuss, design and build their ideas of the future.
Making art can often seem quite a selfish pursuit. Not only do we devote significant quantities of our own time and resources to expressing ourselves, but we sometimes ask for other people’s too. In this respect, maybe the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt from Blast Theory are the ways that art can be selfless. While their projects are perhaps the most visible sign, this spirit reaches out continually through the Blast Theory community, a vast but close-knit network that draws from and works with artists, researchers, organisations, freelancers, and keen participants from all walks of life.
I’m touched by how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this community over the past year, and I hope that this piece can encourage others to join in the experience.
Believe me – you’ll get as much out as you put in.