Image credit: Andrew Testa
Blast Theory is renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting. Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group’s work explores the social and political aspects of technology. Drawing on popular culture and games, the work often blurs the boundaries between the real and the fictional.
Blast Theory is based in Brighton, UK.
Early works such as Gunmen Kill Three (1991), Chemical Wedding (1994) and Stampede (1994) drew on club culture to create multimedia performances – often in unusual spaces such as film studios and accompanied by bands and DJs – that invited participation. The crime reconstruction installation Invisible Bullets (1994) was first shown at the Fete Worse Than Death in Hoxton. Something American (1996) treated the USA as the Wild West, quoting freely from Hollywood films on a billboard sized projection screen.
1997 was a major step forward: a nine month residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin coincided with a proposed performance called Succumbing suddenly shifting to become Kidnap (1998), in which two members of the public were kidnapped as part of a lottery and the resulting event was streamed online. Desert Rain (1999), a large scale installation, performance and game using virtual reality marks the first output of our collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. An Explicit Volume (2001) is an interactive installation using page-turners to control nine pornographic books and is part of a sequence of works that use found imagery and/or sexual material such as Choreographic Cops In A Complicated World (2000) and Viewfinder (2001).
Can You See Me Now? (2001), a chase game played online and on the streets, was succeeded by Uncle Roy All Around You (2003) in which players searched through the streets for Uncle Roy using handheld computers and a virtual city. As Thinkers In Residence in Adelaide the group created I Like Frank (2004), the world’s first mixed reality game for 3G phones.
Day Of The Figurines (2006) is an SMS game for up to 1000 players set in a decaying English town occupied by an Arabic army. Rider Spoke (2007), also made within the auspices of the Integrated Project on Pervasive Games, is a participatory work for cyclists. Blast Theory has two permanent installations in museums; Exploratron (2004) at the Science Museum, and Hurricane (2013) at the Red Cross Museum in Geneva.
In the context of the global financial crisis the group made a series of explicitly political works, starting with Ulrike and Eamon Compliant (2009) at the Venice Biennale, continuing with a bank robbery via phone in A Machine To See With (2010) and a live interactive film about unrequitedness in Toronto called My One Demand (2015). We have repeatedly engaged with the history of Northern Ireland notably in Fixing Point (2011) which documents the case of Seamus Ruddy who has been missing since 1985.
A research project into the future of Outside Broadcasting gave birth to the online video streaming game I’d Hide You (2012). Continuing this strategy of engaging a diverse public through diverse means, we made My Neck Of The Woods (2013) and Too Much Information (2015). We worked with a large team of volunteers to pull a fishing trawler from the sea in Nagoya as part of The Thing I’ll Be Doing For The Rest Of My Life (2013).
Ivy4Evr (2010) – commissioned by Channel 4 – told the story of Ivy over the course of a week through text messages. And Karen (2015) is a lifecoach on a smartphone. Both projects feature conversations between you and a fictional character.
Blast Theory has been a lead partner in a number of major research projects. The Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming (2004-2008) included partners such as the Swedish Institute of Computer Science, Sony and Nokia. Participate, explored how mobile devices may be used as part of a mass participation campaign, included the BBC, British Telecom and Microsoft Research. The group developed Prof Tanda’s Guess-A-Where (2007) – in which a character on your phone asked you cheeky questions – as part of this project. For Digital Voices (2012-13) and Live Transmission (2013-15) we worked with the Patching Zone in Rotterdam and Translocal in Helsinki.
The group has won the Golden Nica for Interactive Art at Prix Ars Electronica, an International Mobile Games Award, three Lovie Awards and The Hospital’s Interactive Art Award among others.
Internationally, Blast Theory’s work has been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, the Venice Biennale, ICC in Tokyo, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Biennale, National Museum in Taiwan, Hebbel Theatre in Berlin, Basel Art Fair, Dutch Electronic Arts Festival, Sonar Festival in Barcelona and the Palestine International Video Festival.
We make collaborative, interdisciplinary work that is innovative in its process and execution. To maintain this practice requires long rigorous periods of development followed by international showings over several years that are usually context specific.
Innovation and risk is central to our work. Blast Theory has a track record of taking major artistic risks – in Kidnap (1998), for example – and has tackled themes of violence, pornography and politics. The group has made major innovations in the use of technology, in working methods, and in our business model. The uses of locative media and mixed reality in works such as Can You See Me Now? (2001) and I Like Frank (2004) have had wide impact.
Our collaboration with the University of Nottingham has grown and deepened since 1998 and, to our knowledge, is the longest and most productive partnership between a university and a group of artists anywhere in the world. It has yielded four BAFTA nominations, a Prix Ars Electronica and academic papers of international significance at world leading conferences in computer science, computer human interaction and ubiquitous computing. This dialogue between scientific and artistic research now forms a core thread of Blast Theory’s practice.
The group has been acknowledged as innovators in games, winning the Maverick Award at the Games Developers Conference and being represented by Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles as games designers. The group’s game projects have probed the fundamental laws of games and of play, posing questions about the boundaries between games and the real world that also have ramifications for art, performance and virtual worlds. The artists have contributed extensively to debates about the development of games as an artform and how games may be conceptually, intellectually and emotionally demanding while also engaging a wide audience.
Blast Theory’s early work was in the field of live art. From Desert Rain (1999) onwards the relationship with live art and performance became less apparent and it is perhaps notable that, for example, the group’s participation in Live Culture at Tate Modern was as curators of a video programme. However there has been a recognition of the group’s work in relation to performativity, presence and site specificity which led Matt Adams to become a Visiting Professor at the Central School of Speech and Drama and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Exeter. Books such as Mixed Reality Performance by Gabriella Giannachi and Steve Benford and Digital Performance by Steve Dixon have highlighted the group’s groundbreaking intermingling of the real with the virtual, the ludic with the performative and the playful with the serious.
In works such as Karen (2015) we have explored how technology creates new cultural spaces in which the work is customised and personalised for each participant and what the implications of this shift might be for artistic practice. How are the economically and culturally disenfranchised engaged amid a culture of planned obsolescence and breathless futurism? The group’s expertise has led to frequent invitations from the television industry as creators, mentors and speakers. Soft Message (2006), a 30 minute commission for Radio 3, was a dialogue between the artists and radio listeners on their mobile phones. Channel 4 commissioned Ivy4Evr (2010), an interactive SMS drama for teenagers.
Blast Theory’s building at 20 Wellington Road in Brighton has four studios, an edit suite, a meeting room and a residency space. Our residents are regional, national and international practitioners in games, locative media, mobile applications, experimental performance, interactive art and technological innovation. We host tests, works in progress, talks, demonstrations and seminars such as Act Otherwise.
Most particularly, Matt, Ju and Nick have systematically explored the role of the audience; from Can You See Me Now? (2001), which places the audience online alongside Blast Theory runners, to Day Of The Figurines (2006), where the audience themselves populate an imaginary town and guide its outcomes. Works such as Rider Spoke (2007) and Uncle Roy All Around You (2003) use the real city to invite new roles for the audience. Uncle Roy All Around You prompted transgressive actions by players as they were asked to explore the offices and back streets of the city while Rider Spoke embeds personal recordings made by the audience into it and gives the audience license to find any path through them. In Ulrike and Eamon Compliant (2009) and A Machine To See With (2010) these questions have pushed further into the realms of ethics and political engagement. Cumulatively, these projects have posed important questions about the meaning of interaction and, especially, its limitations. Who is invited to speak, under what conditions and what that is truly meaningful can be said?