From VR warfare installations, to interrogations at the Venice Biennale about political violence, our work with the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab has produced 12 new works since the nineties. We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary by taking a look back at some of them.
Our development as a group of artists working with technology, has been made possible by, to our knowledge, the longest and deepest collaboration between an artists’ group and a university in the world.
The first ever work we made with MRL, started as research into the Gulf War and virtual warfare technology, and developed into Desert Rain (1999). The work took place in a virtual environment where six people at a time explored a night landscape in a warzone, to explore the ethics of virtual warfare. It toured the world for 5 years, involved 17 tons of equipment and several hundred kilometres of cable.
Desert Rain was nominated for an Interactive Arts BAFTA Award in 2000.
In the work Can You See Me Now? (2001) we were looking to identify the wider repercussions of when games, the internet and mobile phones converge.
Blast Theory’s Matt Adams explains: “Around the year 2000, I went to an event at the Royal College of Art and during that, someone said ‘in the future, there’s going to be a thing called 3G and when it comes, phones are will be connected to the internet’ and I can remember vividly sitting in that room going, ‘you what?!’ You know, the idea that a phone would have the internet on it, like, no one can even understand what that means because in those days the screen was black and white, 2cm by 2cm…What would you even do with that? That’s completely bonkers, so we were really excited to explore that and understand what exactly that would mean.”
Can You See Me Now? was winner of the Golden Nica Ars Electronica Award in 2003 and was nominated for a BAFTA in Interactive Arts in 2001.
In our third collaboration with MRL, Uncle Roy All Around You (2003), we wanted to examine what it’s like to create a situation where you have to trust people online and you explore what it means to trust people or not trust people. Artist Matt Adams explains how this work came about and the unexpected audience connections that were made through the work:
“At the end of Uncle Roy All Around You, you’re asked ‘would you be willing to make a contract with a stranger, that you’ll be there for them if they need support over the next 12 months?’ It was a social experiment, we wondered if people would do it and we wondered what would happen so we made a decision really early on that we wouldn’t track those relationships.
We thought it was really important that they were private and that people did with them in whatever way they wanted. So it’s especially exciting when – even years later – I hear about people who had powerful connections with their allocated stranger. I met someone at Sheffield Doc/Fest whose father died within a couple of weeks of taking part in Uncle Roy; they struck up an email dialogue with their stranger to help her through her grieving process that lasted months.
Uncle Roy All Around You was winner of the Innovation award at the Arts and Humanities Research Board, 2005, nominated for the Net Art Award at The Webby Awards and nominated for the Interactive Arts and Technical & Social Innovation awards at BAFTA, 2002.
Building relationships, swapping information, testing the possibilities of hybrid space, players of I Like Frank (2004) had it all. Blast Theory artists Matt, Ju and Nick, as well as two members from MRL, spent four months in Adelaide, Australia as Thinkers in Residence. During this time, I Like Frank, a game that used one of the world’s first 3G test beds, was developed and premiered.
“We collaborated with a whole bunch of Australian artists while making I Like Frank. It was fantastic, good fun. We used postcards where players on the street would go to a pub, ask at the bar and be given a postcard. You would then post it and those postcards would come to us. We would then address them out to other people who had played the game so there was this mail art element to the piece.
Like Uncle Roy All Around You it was a project testing community and trust on digital platforms so connecting strangers was important. Even though it was super stressful to make, I love that work.”
I like Frank (2004) is the fourth collaboration made with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham.
Rider Spoke (2007) developed from works such as Uncle Roy All Around You, and continued our fascination with how games and new communication technologies were creating new hybrid social spaces in which the private and the public are intertwined.
The work invited the audience to cycle through the streets of the city, equipped with a handheld computer. You search for a hiding place and record a short message there. And then you search for the hiding places of others.
It posed further questions about where theatre may be sited and what form it may take. It invited the public to be co-authors of the piece and a visible manifestation of it as they cycle through the city. It was precisely dependent on its local context and invited the audience to explore that context for its emotional and intellectual resonances.
Rider Spoke was first shown at the Barbican in London in October 2007 and has since been presented in Athens, Brighton, Budapest, Sydney and Adelaide.
For Karen (2015) we were keen to create a personal and intimate experience for smartphones in which you interact directly with the lead character. We wanted you to be challenged about how honest and open you might be and to experience the thrill of having your personality appraised.
We became fascinated with big data, and particularly how governments and large companies such as Facebook are collecting data on us secretly and using it without our consent. When we met Dr Kelly Page – an expert in this area – we learnt about the various techniques developed by psychologists to measure personalities. Researcher Geraldine Nichols spent a few months visiting libraries and archives in Wales and England to delve into the history. She helped us trace back to Assessment of Men by the Office of Strategic Services: a book published just after World War Two that helped the military recruit undercover operatives.
In this, our 20th year, we are once again working with MRL to create virtual museums in which visitors can engage with collections in personal and meaningful ways. Find out more about our new work with Mixed Reality Lab, GIFT.