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Economies of Experience

Ben Murray spends the day at ZU-UK's Economies of Experience conference in East London.

I step off the DLR at East India station, descend the stairs to the street below and am immediately hugged by a person wearing a gorilla suit. Further down the road is another gorilla, then another. Ten minutes later I find myself standing next to a car shaped like a pineapple.

Within half an hour, I am ‘speed networking’, sat opposite a total stranger discussing the myriad creative possibilities offered by the conjunction of art and digital technology.

I am at Economies of Experience, a conference put together by Anglo-Brazilian theatre company ZU-UK, which is being held at Trinity Buoy Wharf in Docklands, an industrial area overlooked by the 02 and Canary Wharf. The setting seems most appropriate given that one of the main themes of the event is how participatory digital art forms might work in privately owned public spaces.

'I step off the DLR at East India station, descend the stairs to the street below and am immediately hugged by a person wearing a gorilla suit.'

A variety of sessions throughout the day will tackle this conundrum, but before I come to that I need to talk about zombies. One of the questions that the organisers have asked their speakers to consider is “what can zombies teach the arts?” What follows are some slightly nebulous interpretations of the brief, but they are nonetheless stimulating.

The undead, it turns out, provide a perfect metaphor for many things, from the arts establishment itself, to the audience, to the content – but in what is perhaps the best analysis, the zombies turn out to be, well, zombies.

James Wheale is a writer/director for Slingshot, a company that specialises in making and touring real world games. Their biggest success has been 2.8 Hours Later, an immersive street theatre experience in which participants must try and survive the zombie apocalypse. The rotting hordes are formed of volunteers who ruthlessly pursue the paying ‘audience’.

With more than 1,200 signed up, and more than 60,000 players in three years, it can claim to be the world’s largest street game. What’s more, he explains, many of those taking part turn up with GoPro cameras and turn their experience into content to be shared online, so that the event derives the majority of its marketing from its users.

'What can zombies teach the arts?'

But it’s not just about ‘actual’ zombies. Verity McIntosh, from the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed in Bristol, sees the streets in a not dissimilar way to Wheale – as a canvas for the work, whatever its form. Playable City is a concept born of the desire to reconfigure public space and make it fun, surprising and exhilarating.

This year’s winning commission was called Shadowing, a work created by Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier that uses infrared devices placed on street lamps to capture and then project the shadows of people walking beneath them, bringing back what was a passing moment and reanimating the streets, as more people pass and interact with the replayed images. During the course of the project more than 100,000 shadows were recorded.

The challenge initiatives such as this might offer are to the purely utilitarian development of the ‘smart city’, which trades on data flows to make public and private space more functional, more allied with our role as consumers, as members of the ‘zombified’ body politic.

'Playable City is a concept born of the desire to reconfigure public space and make it fun, surprising and exhilarating.'

In this alternative conception of urban space, the city becomes a locus for play, a place to engage with art installations, with data channelled for cultural purposes, and with each other in a spirit of irreverence and community.

Perhaps no one at Economies of Experience embodies this spirit better that Roger Hartley, Artistic Director of the Bureau of Silly Ideas (he of the pineapple car), whose stated mission is to “create inspired madness and controlled chaos in the public realm”. The Bureau has worked on a range of madcap projects over the years, my favourite of which involved a giant squid bursting out of a broken water pipe in Brighton’s Jubilee Square.

But this fun-filled approach is accompanied by Hartley’s far more serious reflections on the role of privately owned public space and how this is managed. He is somewhat sceptical regarding the corporate control of these areas, and expresses concern about what some perceive as a ceding of sovereignty by the Government to commercial interests through trade agreements and various legislative changes.

In fact, he has been asked to contribute to the Farrell Review, which was initiated by Ed Vaizey MP in 2014 and reported its findings earlier this year. It examines the current state of the built environment in the UK in relation to policy around architecture, design and cultural heritage. His specific task is to look at the role of the arts and artists in relation to the implementation of the review. Not bad for a man who turned up to the conference in a giant piece of tropical fruit.

This view is partly echoed by Jon Dovey from REACT, an organisation that funds collaborations between arts and humanities researchers and the creative industries. But for him, the argument over whether the arts should collaborate with corporate interests or offer subversive strategies against them is not a binary one.

This debate continues in round table sessions that follow the presentations. Dovey sees both approaches as possible. He talks passionately about ‘ambient literature’ and imagines a world where the data space is also populated by stories, poetry and drama; where people are able to have writers as guides to the urban environment; where narratives enrich the experience of moving about our towns and cities, spanning the full spectrum of private, public and private-public spaces.

A pioneering example of this is the Talking Statues project, which uses QR codes and near-field communication technology to allow people to hear statues in Leeds, London and Manchester talk to them on their mobile phone, with Prunella Scales voicing Queen Victoria, Russell Tovey as Alan Turing, or Simon Russell Beale as Sir Isaac Newton.

Emma Quinn from NESTA explains to us how the initiative is backed by a variety of public, private and municipal organisations, and demonstrates just how this kind of collaboration can work.

Similarly, a new venture from National Theatre Wales called Bordergame (winner of The Space Prize) sees participants travel from Bristol into Wales by train, and required permissions from Network Rail and the individual rail companies.

NTW Artistic Director John McGrath appears via mobile video from Temple Meads station to explain how this was achieved and what the production involves. Combining live action with input in real time from a secondary ‘audience’ online, Bordergame is stretching the boundaries of what immersive theatre can mean and how it can utilise digital technology to explore new creative territory.

This is just a small part of what went on down in Docklands today. Where Economies of Experience really triumphed was in combining serious discussion and debate with irreverence and levity. Because the delegates were at ease and enjoying themselves, the conversations and ideas flowed.

What transpired was a dialogue between practitioners, funding bodies, academics and commercial creative companies, unafraid to examine the future challenges those in the arts face. This was evident in terms of how practice develops in the digital world and how people engage with the owners of private-public space in order to keep producing new and innovative artworks to thrill and inspire the people that occupy them.

Ben Murray is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter via @tracysface. The Economies of Experience conference was organised by ZU-UK and was held a Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London on 6 November 2014. This article was first published in February 2015.