Flick through the Adelaide Fringe programme (the old dead tree printed copy) and you get a sense of the weight of the 1200 plus shows on offer this year.
Starting at the front are the predictable fat sections of comedy, cabaret and circus; a skinny bit of dance. At the back lie the dwindling genres of traditional theater and music. And smack bang in the center is the slender but cutting edge way forward for live performance; interactive.
Leading the charge at this Fringe is Electric Dreams, a programme of shows and experiences (six to be specific) that brings technology and immersive storytelling to live performance. Tom Millen and Mark Atken, co-directors of Crossover Labs, who brought the Electric Dreams festival to Adelaide Fringe in 2020 and 2022, spoke to me about their 2023 programme and the impetus behind it.
“We’re really interested in more than just whiz bang technology and gimmicky stuff… It’s got to be something that artists are using in a really meaningful, powerful, and empowering way”, says Atken.
‘Torrent’, making its Australian premiere at this year’s Fringe, is based on original poetry by Ali Cobby Eckerman, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha poet, a personal perspective on the Aboriginal relationship with water. In response to the poem, a multidisciplinary collaboration has emerged which includes movement from Adelaide-based dancers and a soundtrack from British musicians, all brought together in a digital studio and then projected on enormous LED screens. The effect is highly immersive and multi-sensory, “kinda like IMAX on steroids”, adds Millen.
Following this environmental theme, ‘Anthropocene in C Major’ is back at the Fringe this year after a sold-out 2022 run. Sound artist and composer, Jamie Pereira, has “sonified a bunch of different data sets from the start of the Anthropocene…through to the present day”. Accompanying him onstage is a quartet, with each instrument playing out data sets relating to sea levels, population size amongst others. What emerges is a “symphony of climate change”.
Electric Dreams pulls artists from all sides of the globe – it is truly an international collaboration. ‘Elsewhere in India’ sees renowned Indian DJ’s Muthovic and Thiruda combine their own music with dancers, and 3D virtual characters involving the audience in an “Indo-futuristic experience”. To reiterate, this is not technology just for the sake of it. For this show, the team have digitised objects from British museums which were taken from former colonies (like India) to bring up current debates surrounding cultural repatriation, in, I’m told, a “playful, yet provocative manner”.
Using simpler technological feats, yet with equal emphasis on the topical, Electric Dreams are presenting two shows about the nature of work. ‘Work.txt’ is interactive theatre with no actors where the audience, aided by slideshows, a printer and 250 Jenga pieces, become the worker and are encouraged to think philosophically about the meaninglessness and mundanity of modern work culture. ‘Temping’ on the other hand relies on only one audience member, taking on the role of the office temp who enters into a shabby, 90s office and “discovers the story and what happened to the last office temp through spreadsheets, fax machines, emails and phone calls”.
Away from the dominant idea of technology encouraging antisocial and mindless behaviour, the image of the teenage boy wedded to his video games comes to mind, Electric Dreams is producing work which is highly interactive, thought provoking and for Atken, “incredibly social”.
“You just want to talk about it. It really is something you’ve never seen before. You don’t know how to process it, because when it’s something that inspires all that, you haven’t quite got the words yet for it. You need to sort of chat to people about it until you both understand what you think about it.”
Aside from the shows, Electric Dreams is also holding a day conference on the 20th February with talks and discussions led by a range of artists and technologists to “drill deeper into the concepts behind it, the philosophy behind it and what the technology enables us to”, explains Millen. Their desire to guide other creatives into the world of technologically enhanced entertainment, as well as Adelaide Fringe’s clear vision to expand this genre, gives us an insight into what the future of live performance looks like.
The full Electric Dreams Festival programme, including the returning da-Vinci inspired virtual reality swing experience (VOLO – DREAMS OF FLIGHT) can be found here, with shows beginning on the 17th February.