I am writing this on the train from Nantes to Eindhoven, where the next “sitatuation” begins tomorrow. Having two situations one immediately after the other has benefits in terms of reducing travel time and cost, and it's good momentum for those of us who are at both – but on the other hand it means we don't have much time for rest and reflection between the two.
Nantes' chosen situation was “Recycle a Boeing” – encompassing a range of air travel related issues from the controversy about a new airport in Nantes, to the environmental impact of and emotional responses to flying, and the actual recycling of airplanes. As a frequent flyer myself, these are issues that I face regularly, especially the very visible waste generated from passenger flights. Less visible are things like Co2 emmissions (for example, it's difficult for me to comprehend what something like 180kg of Co2 really means) or the long term issue of retired planes that are either recycled or left to rot on desert airstrips. With the increasing availability of cheap flights in the last 10 to 15 years, the western public has been conditioned to believe that flying should be easily affordable for everyone – yet what is the real cost of a flight, and why shouldn't we pay that? Happily, I'm able to do nearly all of the travel for this project via train; there's a perception that train travel is expensive, but that is only in comparison to falsely cheap flights. Of course travel should not be over-priced, but we should pay a realistic price that reflects the actual cost of the journey – including the environmental cost. Similarly with the e-waste situation in London, the environmental cost of electronic products should be included in the price.
After the London situation in March, we had time to debrief and talk about what worked, what didn't, and the things that we wanted to improve on. One important aspect was the streaming audio, as this time we were able to have streams coming in to the discussion from Eindhoven and Graz which we knew meant greater potential for feedback than the single incoming stream we had in London (from Graz). Managing multiple audio streams is very tricky: we are streaming, not using VOIP technology (e.g. Skype) which is between a limited number of people and not publicly accessible via the web. Those sending streams need to hear the streams of the others, but if you are streaming as well as listening to incoming streams then you end up restreaming what you are hearing. Headphones solve it – but only if no-one else needs to hear; in both Graz and Eindhoven there were gathered audiences in the space. Good directional microphones help, and having a setup where the microphone can be behind the speakers – however in a discussion the microphone needs to be able to move around the room; and not everyone has access to good quality equipment or has the possibility to arrange the space in an optimal way. Martin is working on a feature to mute individual streams within UpStage, which will help if someone is managing the streams and can mute and unmute the incoming streams in turn. But until that is ready, we need to ask the organisers in each location to mute and unmute their audio stream, and also to turn up and down the volume of their sound system. This doesn't sound very complicated, but when you are also trying to facilitate a discussion and pay attention to what's happening online at the same time, it becomes quite challenging. Ideally, we want to make it as easy as possible for the different locations to participate. We did as much testing as we had time for in Nantes, and didn't have too many problems once we got going, but it wasn't always as smooth as it could have been.
We also spent time planning how the discussion would be facilitated between the three locations, and developed a simple structure that included some points where each would speak in turn, and time in the middle for more open discussion. I created a “dial” graphic to signal which location was to speak, so that they would know when to unmute their audio stream and turn down their volume. This worked fairly well, but it was still difficult to have real discussion between all three locations. As had happened in London, the local audience in Nantes became most engaged in the discussion, and it wasn't often appropriate to interrupt this to bring in Graz and Eindhoven. However, the people in Graz and Eindhoven spontaneously began to play with images in their web cams – flying planes around a papier-maché globe, responding to each others' actions, and beautiful close-up filming of a dragonfly. It was fascinating to watch this collage of imagery alongside the discussion in Nantes. Afterwards, we wondered whether trying to have a “normal” discussion is the right thing: “We are artists,” said Eva, “not academics. Why don't we respond artistically instead of trying to have a discussion?” Ruth who was watching online gave almost exactly the same feedback. And to a degree, this was what had happened naturally: not able to fully enter the conversation, Graz and Eindhoven improvised creative visual responses to the theme and the performance. We will talk more about this idea in Eindhoven and experiment with this in the event on Thursday.
For the performance In Nantes, the performance structure was a flight: the arriving audience were invited to board flight WHAS2 from Nantes to the world, and as they entered the space they were captured on webcam and their image appeared as a negative image passing through a body scanner in UpStage. Next came a safety announcement, then take-off – a recording of close-up mouths making plane sounds. The in-flight entertainment included stories of people's emotional responses to flying, information about plane recycling and enviromental impact, and the story of a man who ate a plane – all in a collage of live stream, graphical avatars and audio files. Refreshments were served – a cake in the shape of the plane was sliced up and eaten by the Nantes audience, while facts and images about plane recycling were layered over the stream in UpStage. As we “landed”, paper planes were launched from Graz and Eindhoven, arriving in the space in Nantes with questions to being the discussion. This time the discussion was not the end of the programme – there was a short break and then a noise concert by local musicians to a score inspired by the theme of the situation. For those in Nantes this was a great end to the evening.
Now we begin again in Eindhoven; again, we hope to prioritise audio testing with the streams, and we will explore creative responses alongside the discussion. The “situation” is migration and mobility, which connects nicely to our explorations of air travel last week, and we are working in the public library where there is currently an exhibition about migration. Again, we have just four short days with the event in the evening of the fourth day – it is really too short; just one more day would make it better, in terms of having time to train any new participants, collaborate on the material, allow enough time for necessary technical set-up and testing, and properly prepare for the discussion element of the event. However both budget and people's availability make it difficult to have anything longer. Yes, it would be great to have more time and money, but it's also great to have what we do have, and to work within those parameters. As well as creating the situations, each one is a gathering of collaborators, a learning process, developing creative relationships that will extend into the future and open up many possibilities; our late night conversations roam from the “situations” to other projects we are involved in and ways to work together, support and collaborate into the future.