The Agile Opera project is a unique collaboration between researchers in SIAL and Chamber Made Opera (CMO). CMO is a small arts company looking to harness the digital environment to reach existing and new audiences. The researchers at SIAL bring spatial, sonic, visual and digital artefact awareness, in addition to mapping and augmenting flows of information and people. My role as a research associate has been to contribute the ethnographic mind and conceptual insights into the social implications of digital networked technologies. In observing the creative encounters during Agile Chambers, engaging with the creative works and contributing to the conceptualisation and creative dialogue surrounding the project, I seek to animate the form of these encounters for you.
One of my early encounters with the research and the CMO community, was a commissioned essay A Social Science Reflection on the Built Environments of the Chamber Made Opera – From Physical Place to Code. In this written work, I introduced digital behaviours as embedded in our everyday lives. The approach I took aimed to counter dualistic thinking surrounding online and offline behaviours. From this conceptual launch point, I then illustrated the ways that we understand social engagement online, digital cultures and the augmentation of experience through virtual reality and algorithmic environments.
My next provocation for the researchers and the Chamber Made Opera community was an interactive exhibition, ‘Agile Words’ for Agile Chambers. This installation began by drawing on 700 most frequently used words in my first essay and giving them to those who attended the week-long residency to see what word associations people made. This was an ethnographically interesting exhibition and I unpack that in my discussion of the ‘Agile Words’ installation later in this essay. Through the encounters I had over the duration of the installation, I would argue that the initiating essay had two impacts upon the trajectory of the project. The first was an invitation to play with the sociological imagination and the second was to introduce a digital vocabulary that held space for speculative possibilities and fewer recursive loops.
As my final essay for the project, Mirror Play lays out the reflexive sociological mind, a pattern-matching imagination that correlates and reconfigures social insight into a conceptual map. For this essay I will work from my initial writing conceptualising the digital space of chamber opera, photographic records taken during the Microlabs, an ethnographic reflection from the experience of immersion in the project field, and detailed records of word poetry compiled by the community surrounding this initiative. Moving from first exposure through a written essay describing the digital activity space of this community, I introduce the trajectory of my involvement. Then the ethnographic mind steps in to reflect on how this inquiry was transformed through community engagement and appropriation in the ‘Agile Words’ installation. What is the resonance and intimate wandering of the conceptual vocabulary that threads us all together, I ask.
The project arc
The sense and trajectory of the collaborations surrounding the Agile Opera research began from questions surrounding the digital, intimacy, voice and resonance. My initiating essay played with these themes and explored how they may be unpacked through digital thinking. Open and exploratory, we sought a shared vocabulary through the Microlab structure. Questions raised included how we could translate the intimate experience of live opera performance into digital spaces. Focused consideration on the digital augmentation of performance led to the examination of what we would lose in the translation of the live experience across mediums. Is there a digital degradation in the nuance and emotive field of the live movement if we capture it and repackage it for online engagement? Where does the authenticity and feedback loop of the experience go in the digital ether, and can we ever capture or repackage it? Can the digital be used for return engagement with performance works? The organisational structure, archiving practices and stakeholder engagement activities of the company became the very core of this question. How can we make ourselves digital and retain the intimate connection that is at the core of our identity and performative approach?
Over the time of the project the core themes of discussion focused around archival practices, copyright considerations, funding approaches, material storage and office spaces, performance locations and spaces, audience (re-)engagement, time and stakeholder management. Together we asked both pragmatic and philosophical questions, including, can sound be captured and revisited in a way that conveys authentic experience across digital spaces? Can we encode the ephemeral moment of performance into digital artefacts? And how can we imagine audience engagement and patronage in the digital context? Organisational viability in a fragile and risk-heavy environment became the focus, from what was originally a sonic discussion, tracking the movement of thought from voice to viability and visibility. In a contemplative thought experiment in Microlab 4, the research team led a mapping exercise to engage attendees in visualising and defining the territory within which the company, its stakeholders and audiences moved.
From network structures to sound, to the movement of concepts and words I soaked up the creative and inspiring interplays and encounters that the Microlabs facilitated. All the while, my sociological imagination built an environment. Through this lens I considered the question of how the emergent properties of attention, artefacts and people in the digital environment activate social cohesion and support around the creative arts. Instead of an answer, I saw a social process. Through this reflection, I sought to map out the form of resonant, intimate and agile socio-technical space within and beyond chamber opera. Starting first with an outcome, a movement of words, ‘Agile Words’.
Think “fridge poetry”. You know, when you’re winding down on the weekend, it’s 11pm and you have a glass of wine in your hand. The cheese platter only holds crumbs. You’re sitting at the kitchen, looking at the fridge, idly. A word catches your eye and you immediately begin a line in your mind. You walk over to the fridge and arrange the words. Someone comes in, sees what you’ve created, laughs and builds their own sentence. This is the dialogue that we held with Chamber Made Opera audiences and supporters through a week-long program, Agile Chambers, within which the ‘Agile Words’ installation was presented.
As a social research project, ‘Agile Words’ represented the movement through and audience construction of a digital sensorium. It began with a play of words, a way for drifters through the installation to provide input into the creative process and presence in the space. There were over 700 words to play with, all sourced from my initiating essay, ‘from physical place to code’, presenting a social science reflection of the built environment of Chamber Made Opera … physical place encoded with words.
From the initiating essay, I opened the box of my digital sensorium and spread it out as a play-scape for the ‘Agile Words’ installation. The installation was manifested through the word associations that participants put together in acts of ephemeral poetry. Through the words provided for aspiring poets, themes were introduced surrounding voice, chambers, intimacy, creativity, disruption, and algorithmic presence. There was a tinge of anarchy from the cyber-libertarian cultures of the internet and a dollop of “swipe right” liquid intimacy from digital dating platforms. Spatial metaphors were heavy through words that hung from aware architectures of (omni)presence and engagement. Embedded in these words was the sociological awareness introduced by the initiating essay of risk, resistance and social change. These buoyant concepts were anchored to the mundane reality of the shifting lines between our public and private encounters on social media.
The words and their resonant ideas became my textual Trojan horse(s); an intervention into the conceptual field and discursive scape of the research project. The intention here being to use these associations to provoke and reframe how the research team thought of the digital context of live performance works. During the residency, the full word list was projected on the walls; an ambient encasing of the residency in conceptual lines of thought. Word code creeping around the walls.
This exhibition aimed to illustrate the digital sensorium of Chamber Made Opera audiences and stakeholders through engaging them in play. We asked participants to build word associations and create meaningful sentences or word based ideas from the selection of words provided. These words were on magnets which allowed them to be arranged on metal surfaces, any metal surfaces. Some words wandered down crevices, dropping to lower levels, others got comfortable in pockets and walked home and to workplaces, coming to rest on a yellow fridge on level 5.
Initially, we placed the montage of magnetised words in two key areas, the entrance (near the pop up bar, of course) and in a neutral bridging space linking the two arms of exhibition. On one side, the performance space met an auditory cathedral of sound that was temporally interjected with fascinating moments of both formal and informal ideation sessions. This arm of the residency revealed the intellectual capital generated through live encounters, creativity, performance and research practice. On the other arm, the historical trails and archival work of the project were made visible through interactive digital objects, projected images, talking heads and words cushioned through sound bubbles and bytes. These stations of digital interaction intermingled with tangible artefacts from previous CMO performances. In this arm, the wanderer encountered the artefactual capital. Between the performative and artefactual arms, ‘Agile Words’ occupied an interstitial space where words formed and reformed into shapes and sentences, climbing the walls.
Within the residency space, the words wandered around and provoked new understandings, not just in how we fiddled with and associated them. They also revealed the people and dynamics in the space. After the wall of associations and ephemeral poetry was wiped clean and reset for a new day, I learned that the creative brain associated with intimate opera requires order in its external environment to hit a state of creative flow. These messy, walking words were out of place. For the poets, however they opened up a state of play and free form association. At the deft shifting of words, they became political and were turned to anarchy, demolishing the state. For others they became turns of phrases suited to the toilet walls of university libraries; “people call you a derived broad”… Really? They do? I asked, and quickly retorted with the handy, “my goals do not encompass relationships”. I must admit to some pride in generating a vocabulary that spanned these heights of repartee.
Words made visual and mobile created dynamic social surfaces and charted a social territory. This landscape of poetics revealed a gorgeous swath of creativity that resonated from performance to place to people during the residency. ‘Agile Words’ revealed intimate, provoking and reflective voices, perhaps through, as one poet suggested “mirror play”, and as others selected, through feedback loops (whilst one wag observed “the collective shouldn’t construct text”). In the serendipitous word play a yearning for connection and critique of algorithmic processes intermingled, “surveilled and simultaneously augmented”; often highlighted through contradiction “complex dualism simultaneously”. In the words selected, there was a sense that our humanity, freedom and creativity needed to be reinstated and was either bound with, or in need of separation from, the digital. This was seeded with “thinking should not start with an algorithm” and that “connected conversation did away with software”. The poets played with intimate spaces that existed but appeared constructed, “geotagged desires organised in speculative decentralised domains”. I could feel both the personal and the collective under observation in the words as they walked, twisted and fell from the wall. In agreement with one poet, this was the moment, I thought, where “community emerges beyond demographic”. This was a space indeed where “opera giants might yet gather” and that the “audience force describe a sound culture chamber”. The ‘Agile Words’ exhibit achieved its very simple objective, to stimulate word-play. Through it, I sought to provoke word associations made by opera audiences, performers and stakeholders alike from the initiating essay to speculate upon the digitally embedded location within which chamber opera may flourish.
Through my involvement in this project over time, I have learnt many things, of fools and kings. The power and possibility of interdisciplinary engagement with the augmentation of chamber opera into digital spaces gave us a common focal point through which to relate our various knowledges. In sharing a passion for the continuation and (re)invention of opera through the creative lens, we considered who, where and what constituted an audience, a performer, a performance and its venue. We asked how a contemporary audience is constituted across digital environs of opera and the ways they engaged with it. We unpacked the iterative forms of the creative process through both the intimate and ephemeral moment of live performance and explored the resonance of these moments through the long-tail of their artefacts, from musical scores to recorded performance and archives. Together we unpacked how a business model could be constituted for small to medium arts companies that is responsive, aware and durable within creative currents and changing funding environments. From this project, I continue to pursue the initial threads across other contexts, where voice, intimacy and resonance build architectures of the social.
Alexia Maddox (PhD) is a digital sociologist and research consultant with professional affiliations at Deakin University and RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. As a practicing sociologist, her research interests are in the social impacts of new media and digital networked technologies;. Her recent book, ‘Research Methods and Global Online Communities: a case study’ with Routledge presents an environmental approach to documenting social experience. She specialises in mixed-methods research practice including the development of surveys, conduct of stakeholder interviews and the conduct of space evaluation.
Photo credit: Pier Carthew