Liveness and the power of shared time
By Will Dutta and Damian Hale
Studio Will Dutta is the creative everything of Will Dutta: a parade of artistic invention, playback and research.
2017 saw the release of Will Dutta’s studio album, bloom, and a collaboration with Treatment Studio to form bloom LIVE. A series of live, audio-visual performances bloom LIVE saw Will cast his unique curatorial eye to reimagine the piano recital. Inspired by the fluid performance and cultural references within the music, Damian Hale created luminous visuals and striking stage design that resulted in a compelling live show of untempered colour.
Will Dutta: Our consumption of live performance has undergone a radical transformation in recent months. It seems like we are all guinea pigs in a mass experiment around the concept of ‘liveness’.
Liveness is a framing device that prioritises temporal co-presence over spatial co-presence as fundamental experience of the live between audiences and event. This theoretical description basically means the warm glow of live comes by knowing we experience something collectively. Hence the phrase, ‘spending time together’ as opposed to ‘spending space together’.
I first came across this concept in my doctoral research and through experiencing performance art in Tate’s now archived Performance Room in 2013. I worked liveness into the very core of my second studio album project, bloom, and together with Damian, the audio-visual show, bloom LIVE.
The pandemic has sent shockwaves through the creative industries and for musicians in particular. It’s been a huge challenge to recreate the nuances, and intimacy of live performance for a remote audience. There have been mixed results. We’ve seen everything from grainy mobile phone streams to high impact shows, including Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace and Billie Eilish’s Where Do We Go?. I wanted to show there is another way of inviting the audience in.
Damian Hale: Only now it has been taken from us do many of us realise what a special and incredibly powerful thing it is to share these experiences.
The magical feeling of being part of something bigger is certainly one of the great losses due to the pandemic and it feels like everyone is now searching for that holy grail, a way of scratching that itch.
Like everyone else at the moment I spend a lot of time now video chatting with people I would normally sit at the same table with, but I am also regularly seeing people I would normally only catch up with once or twice a year since the distance between us has ceased to matter.
In the same way while we can’t recreate the visceral thrill of being amongst a throbbing crowd - the contained body heat, the smell of dry ice, the overheard conversations - we can connect with more people than ever regardless of where we all are in the world.
I think it is possible to create a more focussed and intimate experience since we are all looking through the same ‘pair of eyes’.
After years getting used to the idea that we can watch what we want when we want it seems counterintuitive to now deliberately limit when something can be seen but it also brings back something I’m not sure we had realised we’d lost.
Knowing that we are watching/listening to the same thing as countless others around the world can surely give us a feeling of connectivity and shared experience missing from the physical world at the moment.
WD: bloom LIVE was ready and waiting to be adapted into bloom LIVE/STREAM. Let’s go back to the beginning though. Damian captured some of the creative moments at the time in 2017 when he set out his original intentions.
DH: Most of the show content is driven by something ‘real’ which adds an element of warmth to the final output, even when it’s buried beneath layers of digital processing. Footage filmed in our studio, out and about with cameras and phones and found footage all become the building blocks. Everything is then re-arranged, cut up, layered, effected and made into sequences which become a library of visual elements ahead of the live performance.
Many of these visual elements started their life as something familiar to us, be it cityscapes, nature or the human form. The process of abstraction often makes them unrecognisable but even when all trace of the original form has been lost you can still tell that you are watching something alive simply from the subtlety of the movement.
During the performance we use software that allows us to mix visuals, add layers and generate content in real time, often reacting to the live audio or camera data meaning that we can respond instinctively to what is happening musically and each show becomes unique.
WD: Flexible systems are embedded into the sound design too. I worked closely with Manuel Poletti at IRCAM in Paris to create a dynamic and organic system where the electronic processing of the piano would change within set parameters in the live situation. Plaid and I also worked some of the techniques into our longform collaboration, Overcolour. Like the sparkle of a diamond, the piano is caught by the light of the effects uniquely from one performance to another.
DH: While the visual side of bloom is preconceived and some of the visual elements are made in advance, what you see on the night is always unique with many elements being generated live, and much of the pre-made work altered in real time by reacting to the sound.
What I find especially pleasing is that the limits and frustrations that the pandemic has forced upon us has ended up pushing the show into a more interesting and rewarding place.
Live audio was always essential in creating the visual experience for bloom, and in its new form of bloom LIVE/STREAM, we’ve now taken this further, pulling apart the original visual content and bringing the live camera into the mix so that Will becomes an integral part of the visuals.
WD: I am sure we will see a move to the idea of spending space together. We yearn for it. It’s essential to our being as social animals, even if that phrase has not yet entered the vernacular. But for the moment, it’s nice to focus on something positive and creative during the pandemic!
What will happen next? I foresee a much more blended approach to the concert experience when it does finally return, augmenting meatspace audiences with those online. And Damian and I are already on it!
To explore the ideas, research and context as the work grows, visit the home of bloom at: http://bloomworks.art
To find out more about Studio Will Dutta and sign up to the newsletter visit: http://studiowilldutta.art
bloom LIVE at ICA. Credit bloom LIVE by Michael R. Williams, 2017 © Michael R. Williams
Stills from bloom LIVE/STREAM. Credit: bloom LIVE/STREAM by Treatment Studio, 2020 © Treatment Studio