Immersive virtual soundfield, fragmentary acrobatics, ghosts and iPhones: this is circus the Skye Gellmann way
"It can be really heady, actually," says Skye Gellmann about his latest hybrid circus work, Blindscape. Or, not about the work itself, but rather some of the thinking that sits behind it.
"We draw on the idea of glitch, which we are applying in different ways to movement."
This "idea of glitch" is a reference to something called "glitch art", a visual arts genre which uses actual or simulated interruptions to a flow of information to break through conventional expectations about artistic representation.
The medium for the glitch artist is traditionally digital, but by broadening the definition of glitch to encompass any kind of disruption to a performance, whether the performance is technical or social, the glitch gains a more general metaphorical value.
"Glitches are kind of paradoxical," explains Gellmann, "because the glitch that is produced by a glitch artist can't really be called a glitch, but they're important as metaphors, as a metaphor for how failure leads into something new."
But what does this borrowing from the visual arts have to do with circus arts?
"In acrobatics, failure can be quite catastrophic," says Gellmann, who has in recent years produced some of Australia's most innovative, edge-of-mat circus art, "so we try and push it to that tipping point where catastrophe is possible, but not actually imminent. That spot where you're thinking about the possibility of failure, which can lead to different kinds of creative thought."
In practice this means an improvised acrobatics that "deconstructs" itself. "Slicing it up," explains Gellmann, "so you see the parts of the trick." But it's in the way that this deconstruction is framed that things get really heady.
Rosa Menkman, the leading theorist on "glitch art" has drawn up a stimulating manifesto for glitch studies, and one of her demands is that artists compel their audiences to undertake an audio-visual journey.
"Create conceptually synaesthetic artworks that exploit both visual and aural glitch (or other noise) artefacts at the same time," Menkman implores. "Employ these noise artefacts as a nebula to shroud the technology and its inner workings and to compel an audience to listen and watch more exhaustively."
Gellmann response to this is unexpected: iPhones.
When you arrive at Blindscape, the first thing you'll receive is an iPod Touch – the non-telephonic version of the iPhone – loaded with a specially designed Blindscape app. You'll also be shown how it works. When the lights go down, you use the app to enter a virtual audio world at the same time as you enter the physical performance space.
Using the phone's touch screen and gyroscope, you explore the virtual environment in search of light. When you find the it, the screen of your phone starts glowing and you're able to light the circus performance.
It's a game and a performance – you have to play one in order to experience the other. But is it possible to lose the game and miss the performance?
"It's not possible to lose," says Gellmann. "But it's possible to have an experience which is less rich. You can just stand there in the dark and watch other people engage the game and use their light."
The app is designed by Dylan Sale, a games programmer from Adelaide, and also draws on Gellmann's interest in designing computer games. "It's mostly as a hobby, but with an emphasis on immersive and engaging games."
There are four "levels" to the performance-slash-game, and each level corresponds to a different circus theme.
"It's complex," admits Gellmann, "but I think this use of the technology is already there in the subconscious of a lot of people. I think if did it a year ago it would have been the wrong time. The great thing about iPhones is that my parents love it – the technology is not intimidating."
Though the project has been in development for eight months, Gellmann was only recently able to raise the funds, using an online crowdfunding platform, to purchase enough of the iPod Touch to gear-up the nightly audience of 30.
Blindscape premieres as a part of the Next Wave Festival at Arts House Meat Market.