Words by:
As told to: Annie Parker

Inspired by FORWARDS Festival we’re hearing from thinkers and doers pushing music festivals forward.

FORWARDS is a new international music festival taking place in Bristol 3-4 September 2022. It aims to kickstart a new breed of inner city festival by committing to positive change with social initiatives at its core and forward-thinking conversations, side by side with an epic music line up. Find out more here.

Audiences at any musical performance are more or less always open to being taken on a journey. In fact it’s exactly what they signed up for. My job as a live audio-visual artist is to rethink the parameters of that experience, taking the narrative carried within the music and enhancing it through visuals, lighting, even temperature control. In the past I’ve worked with artists like Actress, The Bug and Matthew Herbert; labels like Ninja Tune and Kompakt; and festivals like CTM and Unsound to provide immersive experiences for crowds seeking to elevate that journey to another visceral level.

For many, recalling festival performances past will conjure similar images. The field of immersive audience experience begs the question: do such transactional performer/ audience member exchanges (you-perfom-I-clap) belong in festival models of the future? The way I see it, it’s a dynamic that begs revision. My work is a pursuit to uncover the ways audiences can feel more a part of a production. At times, that looks like multiple screens which extend across the whole venue so that the experience of those at the back of a crowd doesn’t differ to those at the front. At others, it might look like using virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to create a duality of space and time, so the performer exists both ‘really’ and ‘unreally’ before your eyes.

Courtesy of Sam Wiehl

I recently collaborated with London-based Kompakt affiliate Andrew Halford, better known as Lake Turner, on a live AV show that was streamed via the Kompakt Youtube channel. Using game engine technology – the software used to create dynamic digital environments in video games – I digitally rendered 3D sculptures designed by Barcelona artist Ana Drucker so that they became part of the performance’s ‘unreal’ aspect. At that point, the show represented multiple dimensions: the virtual world formed by Ana’s sculptures which I myself used a joypad to explore; the live depiction of us performing on stage; and the stream itself.

In the past couple of years, whether we like it or not, live-streamed gigs and music festivals have become the norm. Despite our acclimatization to remote consumption, by the end of lockdown most people I knew were gagging to be amongst other bodies, sharing in live music’s unifying allure.

Nonetheless, this time that craving seemed to come with a slightly changed outlook. People are beginning to approach hybrid models with less apprehension, showing a greater openness to productions which blur the lines between live and digital performance. Take the increase in virtually represented artists as an example – live audio-visuals experienced as if they were VR, but done so together as a collective.

Courtesy of Sam Wiehl

Myself and classical-composer-cum-electronic-producer Yann Tiersen recently created a show with two screens: a transparent one at the front of the stage and another at the back, so that two projections played at the same time and gave the show a 3D quality. People didn’t have to wear any technology for that experience (who is sober enough to don a VR headset at a festival anyway) but they could still immerse themselves in the production’s alternative world. The audience was faced with a physical performance live on stage, but also one that existed in real time situated in the virtual space, being coaxed between different dimensions and given the option of different worlds.

Our increasing attraction to AR and VR technology is symptomatic of this escapist desire, and an expectation of gigs and festival performances to serve as a means of transportation to that hyperreal world. We see that concept manifest in some form on the programme for Unsound Festival, which leads audiences between Kraków’s cinemas, trains sheds and underground clubs, giving each performance a specific feel which differs from the last. Of course, the attainability of curation at such a degree will depend on the festival’s capacity, with smaller festivals being granted a higher potential for innovation.

Courtesy of Sam Wiehl

But I think that’s exactly the direction we’re going in. Increasingly more, people are showing an appetite for small festivals which have the capacity for stronger visual identities and therefore a greater transportive potential. And that’s exactly where those hybrid experiences enhanced by AR, VR and 3D technology come into their powers. Audiences can exist in these virtual spaces together, not just digitally (see: live streams) but in real time.

Festivals have been a space for transportation for centuries. So the interesting question now isn’t how we can exaggerate this experience, but how we can use technology to create new configurations between the audience, the performers and the world they try to create together.

Much like AR and VR immersive experiences, FORWARDS is future focused. Looking to challenge what an inner city festival can be today with its debut in September, FORWARDS will explore how they can be a positive force for change.

Courtesy of Sam Wiehl