There are faint hums of conversations around the room as the gathered members of press, gallery staff and other invited guests await the next performance of the newly commissioned Performance Capture project by Ed Atkins.
The artist (or for the purposes of this particular installation, the director) has been talking with the performer and other members of staff for the last half hour in almost non-stop dialogue, running through last minute details with the performer pre-performance, making him feel at ease despite the glare of lights and the crowd gathered about them in the gallery space. Every now and then you can pick up details over the background noise as to what’s being said. Shouts move between Atkins and a technician sat behind a desk peering at a monitor telling the performer to puff out his cheeks and clench his teeth so the software can map his facial expressions in greater detail before he begins. Atkins demonstrates how to do it in comical fashion with the performer following suit.
A pervading sense of excitement fills the room with the performer visibly more relaxed about what he is about to do, and seemingly at ease with the motion capture suit and hat donned over his outfit. He takes his seat in front of an autocue and separate screen displaying a live feed of his face and grey render of his digitised features from cameras in front of him. Out of eyesight of the gallery curators Atkins even manages a few puffs of an e-cigarette (to which he laments not having enough time to go outside for the real thing).
Then a muted cry of ‘3, 2, 1…’ by Atkins and the performance begins. The performer begins to read from the autocue only to be cut short by an unknown technical hitch, before being restarted a minute or so later. The performer, unfazed by the false start then begins confidently and eruditely to recite from the autocue in front of him, and the next live performance of Performance Capture is underway.
Commissioned for the Manchester International Festival 2015, directed by Ed Atkins and co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alex Poots, Performance Capture is a project that exposes to the public in a communal setting the working processes involved in creating a digital, and in this instance computer generated, piece of work. Occupying the second floor exhibition space within Manchester Art Gallery, the gallery has been re-designed to comprise three interconnected rooms in which to best showcase the digitised process, from inception in the physical world, to creation in the digital.
The conceit behind the project is a simple one. Throughout the course of this year’s festival on the hour every hour during gallery opening times, a person selected from the contributors to the festival programme will perform an excerpt from a poem written by Atkins for the project. This performance will be recorded using performance capture technology and then rendered on to the form of a generic human avatar, which will cumulatively display every performance in an extended video soliloquy which by the end of the festival has been tentatively calculated to run for a total of around 2.5 hours.
Once past the strict no photography signs on the outer wall of the first gallery space, the room opens out to reveal a large stage complete with lighting rig, video screens, microphones and cameras where the performances will take place. Around the outside of the room are video screens showing some of the digital manipulation, alongside a number of painted and printed panels featuring drawings by Atkins, and quotes etched into Perspex from his poem. The images on the panels conjure scenes of dismembered limbs and sporadic text that when read alongside the extracts are seemingly slowly dissolving into an amorphous nothing of shared violence. As it turns out upon closer inspection however, the poem extracts that the panels are displayed with (and the entirety of the poem itself), is actually a rumination by Atkins on the idea of representation and the possibilities and paranoia inherent with it, and how it impacts on our wider social existence. These ruminations regularly take on more violent undertones, as is common with the darker sides lurking just beneath the surface in Atkins’ practice.
The panels lead the viewer out of the performance space and into a carpeted room in which they line the back wall, melancholically suffused by the whirring of computer fans and the sounds of fingers hitting keys. This space (the ‘render farm’) is where the recorded data from each performance is scrutinised by a team of technicians who painstakingly hone the constituent parts of the avatar to mirror the facial and bodily movement of the performer, including ensuring individual digital facial hairs move in sync with the digital facial muscles. Similarly to Atkins and the other staff in the first room here the technicians seem animated with excitement, but whether that will hold up until the 19th July constantly working on such painstaking procedures remains to be seen. Overseeing everything in this space however is a black monolithic computer server stack that completes the render process and allows the avatar to be shown fully. Previously Atkins’ practice has made use of more or less widely available technology, but for Performance Capture and because of the nature of the project, the half million pound server was needed to ensure the video could be completed in its entirety.
Moving out of this hub of activity leads the viewer to the final space of the project, where the ever-lengthening video is screened in darkness. An almost dazzlingly bright white background is punctuated by a large flesh coloured shape. Slowly panning out the camera reveals the mass to be the aforementioned avatar, in all its Sims-like glory. Despite the high tech equipment used in the production of the avatar, its form (despite being impressively detailed) still feels as though it will become an obsolete version of an upgraded avatar 2.0 in the not too distant future. The choice of a male Caucasian avatar seems slightly jarring considering the performers will undoubtedly be from a multitude of backgrounds and genders, but Atkins affirms his decision as it represents the ‘protagonist of empowered, homogenised cultural normalcy’ in which he, and now the work, resides.
If not as part of MIF the project could conceivably be housed within a museum rather than a gallery, as the latent technological processes and functions on display really do allow the viewer to understand (at a basic level) how the motion capture process is utilised, instilling almost a smugness in viewers of knowing in much more detail just how their favourite digital film or TV character was created. Here when taken in context with the rest of the festival and its’ relatively short history, it functions as a gesamtkunstwerk (and has been asserted as such by co-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist) combining performance, new media, writing and pictorial representation to provide an immersive and experiential installation. It will undoubtedly and rightly prove a hit with inquisitive visitors, but the real test will come next year when the completed video will be shown as an installation at the gallery. Will the video really provide a wide-ranging view of the constituent contributors and act as a document of the 2015 festival itself? Or will the shock and novelty of the uncanny avatar with a multitude of voices and expressions prove too distracting for most casual visitors?
Regardless, like the festival itself the project willfully blurs the boundaries between disciplines to provide an expanded view on how the arts can operate together to provide a thought provoking yet ambitious rumination on our everyday life, complete with the added edge of eeriness that Atkins brings to all his work, especially so in the case of his uncanny amalgam.
James Schofield is an artist and curator based in Leeds and Liverpool.
Images courtesy of Joel Chester Fildes and Manchester International Festival.
Performance Capture, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester.
Manchester International Festival 4 – 19 July 2015.