Blast Theory | NIMk

Published on January 5th, 2002


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Contemporary art practice is constantly expanding the use of technology and mediated image making often resulting in a fascinating melting pot of interfaces, virtualities, physical techniques and applications, not to mention time/space or theory/practice explorations. Out of these technologies new languages and different ways of communication have emerged. A performance group that has been taken full advantage of these developments is Blast Theory.

an introduction by Annet Dekker

Contemporary art practice is constantly expanding the use of technology and mediated image making often resulting in a fascinating melting pot of interfaces, virtualities, physical techniques and applications, not to mention time/space or theory/practice explorations. Out of these technologies new languages and different ways of communication have emerged. A performance group that has been taken full advantage of these developments is Blast Theory.

In the ’70s and ’80s an important shift took place across the theatre landscape. In the ’60s artists had already rejected the commodification of art and the art world itself. They were changing their ideas of space, time and action. A new form of theatre making came into being, labelled ‘Performance’. The body was the primary focus of the artists and it was used as a metaphor for their ideas and concepts. The emergence of portable technologies facilitated the making of new art. And as the mass media brought the global life in the private homes of people new views on politics, economics and the division between private and public emerged. Theatre artists were also pushing at the limits of theatrical forms and languages. They asked questions with regard to what theatre could be, could do and say. New vocabularies coming from sound, image and dance were all put together and caused new vocabularies where linear narratives and the play of actors were abandoned. The new theatre performed in real time with real people.

These changes expanded in the 80s and 90s to include artists from other disciplines who worked in dance, film, video, installation art, club culture and of course digital arts. The exchange of ideas and cross-overs between artistic disciplines, popular- and digital culture opened up possibilities of new forms unrestrained by tradition.

The impact of these collaborations can best be seen in the strategies of Live Art practitioners. Live Art is in essence a terminology for new performance cultures that respect no artform borders and understand no conceptual limits. More than an artform it is a strategy to express ideas. Their concepts are more important than questions such as ‘is this art’? Moreover their questions evolve around what art can be, what it can do and say. Live Art is the perfect example of the disappearance of art as we know it. It is art without boundaries and categories instead heading for concepts of interdisciplinarity and collaboration that extend beyond the art world.

Blast Theory: Nick Tandavanitj,
Matt Adams and Ju Row Farr

Blast Theory is a group of artists that exemplifies the strategies used in Live Art. Started in 1991 Blast Theory makes live events for theatres, clubs, galleries and the street. They collaborate with a variety of people: from DJ’s to dancers, from digital designers to pop promo directors. Their projects have a social or political viewpoint and are ranging from gaming environments (Desert Rain) to kidnapping experiments (Kidnap). They ask questions about the ideologies present in the information that envelops us.

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During an email exchange with one of Blast Theory’s members – Matt Adams – I asked them the following questions.

What are your backgrounds and how did you end up together?

The four founder members of Blast Theory all met through working at the same cinema. We were cashiers, ushers and bar staff and while the films were playing we would sit around discussing the possibility of doing something that combined the energy and fluidity of club culture with the intellectual rigour and production values of theatre and dance. Because of this starting point we had very different backgrounds and reference points. Ju studied at Textiles and Visual Art at Goldsmiths College, having danced since she was a child. Matt was an actor and director who studied English Literature.
Other members included a DJ, a gymnast, a jockey, a philosophy student.

Does the name Blast Theory stand for anything in particular?

It is not meant to carry any great meaning, but we did feel an opposition to a post modern tendency to see everything as semiotics, as signs. We felt that politically this was a very dangerous direction.The combination of Blast – an explosion, or a swear word – with the more esoteric term Theory felt appropriate. The origin of the phrase is Wyndham Lewis’ Blast magazine published during the First World War, via a list in the London fanzine Vague in which the phrase Blast Theory, Bless Practice was included.

In what way would you describe your projects as socially, or politically, engaging?

In the first place it’s about who we make our work for.We are committed to reaching a culturally literate audience outside those typically addressed by performing arts, visual art or digital art. We seek to use forms such as a lottery (in Kidnap) or gaming (in Desert Rain and Can You See Me Now?) that operate outside spaces traditionally associated with art, that appeal very widely and provide a powerful hook to draw people in.

Secondly, we have a fiercely held belief in the political consequences and ramifications of personal actions and behaviour. This means that even when making very personal works, such as An Explicit Volume (2001) – an interactive installation using pornographic imagery – we see a connection between the bedroom and society at large.

In many of our works this concern takes a clearly political stance. Stampede (1994) looked at the point when you decide to declare yourself publicly. Desert Rain (1999) addresses the flow of information emanating from a war zone. In other pieces this commitment may be less explicit: Something American (1996) dealt with the impact of American culture on us. But, because we believe that there is strong link between popular culture and politics, the resonances of colonialism and capitalism are a constant thread through the piece. Arnold Schwarzenegger is juxtaposed with George Bush Snr. in very deliberate ways.

It is also worth mentioning that we have always been interested in interactivity in the broadest sense. Chemical Wedding (1992) included a questionnaire with the audience where they were asked to move into different pools of light to indicate their responses. We have always loved discussions with audiences, whether before shows, after them or during. The aim of these engagements is to foster a critical dialogue around our practice and the issues we seek to raise.

Finally, we have a strong interest in documentary and have used vox pop interviews within our work since 1994. Route 12:36 – a commission for two bus routes for the South London Gallery in 1999 – invited bus travellers to call a free phone number and record their answers to four questions presented on posters on each bus. In Desert Rain, the video interviews with participants in the Gulf War, directly shed light on the willingness and ability of the media to faithfully present the events in Iraq.

What is your interest in multimedia / new media with regard to performance?

Our interest comes from a number of directions. Firstly, these are new tools that create new possibilities for the medium; a video projection allows you to bring new spaces, new references, new images into the performing arena. Secondly, technology is changing the way in which people access culture and relate to it.The explosion of digital culture in the last decade will continue to resonate long into this century. Historically most theatre was created for a bourgeois group who had plenty of leisure time. This persists today for those who like a pre-theatre dinner at a restaurant before going to the West End to see a show. But for a younger audience who work long hours or unusual hours, this is less and less suitable. Given that, for example, the mobile phone is approaching ubiquity in Western Europe, it seems vital that artists explore the potential of these devices as cultural tools, not just business tools.
Finally, our dirty little secret is that we love these gadgets and the sense of magic and wonder that they can create. To see my daughter’s face when confronted by a cinema screen and surround sound for the first time, was to witness someone moving into a new place; her understanding of what the world contained was irrevocably changed.We aspire to create that sense in our work.

Is that what you were trying to do when you designed ‘Desert Rain’, showing two worlds the real and the virtual to show people the difference between the two?

In developing Desert Rain, we used four terms: virtual, real, fictional and imaginary. We felt that all four were needed to comprehensively explain the ways in which we had come to understand the Gulf War. For example, a movie such as Three Kings may not be given much credence as a reliable source of information about the Gulf War but it undoubtedly influences our sense of the landscape, the uniforms, army structures, ethical dilemmas and so on. An example of the imaginary, might be computer games which used the desert landscape as the terrain for tank simulators.

We were interested in how the lines between the four types of knowledge are increasingly blurred and what factors are driving those changes.One of these is the development of weapons systems that use Virtual Reality either in training or even in execution.

The central moment in Desert Rain is when a player finds their target in the virtual world. The screen of water spray on which the virtual world is video projected is suddenly penetrated by a performer who walks up to the player and exchanges their swipe card. Because of their immersion within the game, most players experience several seconds of confusion; unable to distinguish between the real and the virtual. The direct experience of this confusion is intended to shed light on the quotation about the American warship USS Vincennes which concludes Desert Rain. In this incident an Iranian civilian airliner was shot down by the Vincennes killing all 290 passengers on board.The sailors who made this mistake had just arrived in the Gulf following nine months of training on VR simulators. Not one of these simulations dealt with the possibility of a civilian plane becoming a target.

A lot of your projects- fe. the before mentioned Desert Rain – involve game elements. Why do you choose this particular format?

Since the 1960’s many artists working in theatre and film have attempted to move beyond narrative as a way of communicating ideas. Many of these new forms were abstruse, impenetrable or, ultimately, quite superficial. Around 1997 we had a sudden realisation that games provided a different route through this problem. Tens of millions of people are playing games that costs £40 and then playing them for 40 hours or more.This is the kind of commitment in an audience most artists would kill for.

Of course, much of this significance is because games are inherently interactive. Once you can affect the outcomes of the imaginary world you are inhabiting, your relationship to the world is profoundly altered.

What are the roles of the performer and spectator when the audience becomes the participants dealing with the computer interface, and the performers are mediators?

They are certainly more blurred. Perhaps it is truest to say that this is an area where much remains to be understood.One advantage of the supposed passivity of, say, watching a film is that a spectator is free to engage intellectually and emotionally without distraction and that this a very powerful way to receive an experience. Even a rollercoaster takes most of your powers away in order to accentuate the excitement and terror of the ride.

When an audience becomes participants, they need to call on a wide set of skills – problem solving, information acquisition, executing tasks etc. – that can interfere with an emotional response. You are too busy interacting to be able to have a satisfying experience.This is a criticism I would level at much contemporary new media work.

At its best however there is space for all these kinds of responses to exist in parallel (or at least, in series) and thus to create a infinitely more nuanced kind of cultural form.Perhaps an analogy could be made with the shift from radio to television: there is clearly more going on in a television programme but it took decades to move beyond radio formats with added vision to reach a satisfying blend of audio and visual images.
Live Art is said to challenge the nature and experience of contemporary art but do you think it can also disrupt received ways of reading the world?
All good art can do that. Perhaps what the very disparate artists grouped together under the rubric Live Art (not, I should add, by the artists themselves) share is a willingness to combine forms in a way that is itself quite disruptive. In Blast Theory’s work this can be seen in the use of computer games or clubs as the format for reaching an audience. Not only are these forms typically regarded as ‘low’ culture, they are in many areas regarded as barely cultural at all. There are however many examples of predecessors in all art forms employing similar strategies.Where we differ is in the combination of interactivity, installation art, performance and game structures within a single work.

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More information on past and future projects by Blast Theory can be found on their website: http://www.blasttheory.co.uk

The Netherlands Media Art Institute, in collaboration with the Amsterdam Maastricht Summer University, invites three members of Blast Theory to come to Amsterdam to inspire and equip others with skills to make interdisciplinary work.
The workshop will shed light on the history and developments in performance arts. Next to that the course participants will be divided into groups to work on ideas and concepts for Live Art performances. During the course they will be assisted – both technically and artistically – by Blast Theory.

www.blasttheory.co.uk


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