@Fest Technology changing the arts

Technology changing the arts

In future, there’ll only be a virtual National Arts Festival. We’ll all just go online with our immersive 3D Oculus Rift headsets and experience the shows from wherever we are in the world.

Thus spoke a couple of the hard-core technophiles in the Cue newsroom. In case you’ve missed it, Standard Bank is demonstrating the revolutionary Oculus Rift 3D headsets in a marquee outside the Steve Biko building.

“All you do is put on the Rift headset,” the tech junkies enthuse. “It’s like you’re there, not just in the audience, but on stage with Kesivan Naidoo. 360 degree 3D, it’s, like, totally real. Rad.”

No need to mission to Grahamstown, to freeze our butts off, or search for parking. No need to queue for tickets or to get in. No uncomfortable steel tiered seating with the skinniest rugby cushions ever.

In short, they think it would be, like, really cool. But most of us think that’s the most ridiculous idea ever.

And that’s not only because the headset gave me such bad vertigo I wanted to vomit.

For me, the best part of Festival is being here, experiencing the shows live, then ranting about them at the Long Table, while our mobile technology gets liberated from our handbags.

Talking about which, what about the trickle-down effect of the economic impact of the Festival? The event puts serious money into local pockets, which is a big reason why government and donors put serious money into the Festival.

Let’s start then, as one does, with the money. Artistic companies around the world are finding ways of making money using new technology.

The Financial Times reports that the idea of live-streaming concerts was kicked off in 2003 by David Bowie, who live-streamed a performance of his new album Reality to 50,000 people in cinemas across the globe. In 2006, the New York Metropolitan Opera wanted to enlarge their audience while still retaining the effect of watching in a theatre with other real people. Not to mention the absolutely-critical theatrical act of chattering afterwards over a Wild Strawberry Bellini champagne cocktail.

They live-streamed a performance of The Magic Flute into over 100 cinemas, mainly in the US but also in Europe and Japan. The New York Times reported that the theatres were 90 per cent full.

In January 2014, the Royal Opera House live-streamed Peter Wright’s classic production of Giselle to paying audiences in 1000 cinemas across the world. They also sold a digital guide containing videos, interviews, biographies, and extracts from the musical score.

Their 2014/15 season includes seven operas and four ballets screened live in more than 1,500 cinemas in over 35 countries.

But such mega-operations can only be taken on by the big companies with serious resources to invest. Some artists fear that they will displace the work of smaller producers, rather than increasing the size of existing audiences.

In the United Kingdom innovation-funding charity, Nesta, says their research shows no such negative effects. Rather, they’ve attracted new audiences.

Nesta’s report, Digital Culture 2014, says the problem for smaller arts organisations is that they often lack the time, skill or financial resources to take full advantage of new technologies.

Nesta support a range of projects using digital technology to “build new business models and enhance audience reach”.

Some Festival performers are also becoming very adept at using social media. For example,

YouTube channel turned live comedy show, Derek Watts & the Sunday Blues are playing their debut show at the National Arts Festival. The comedy duo call themselves the ‘plebs’, likening themselves to the average Joe with a comedic twist. Photo: Greg Roxburgh.

YouTube channel turned live comedy show, Derek Watts & the Sunday Blues are playing their debut show at the National Arts Festival. The comedy duo
call themselves the ‘plebs’, likening themselves to the average Joe with a comedic twist. Photo: Greg Roxburgh.

Derick Watts & The Sunday Blues, appear at Festival this year for the first time, having made their names through social media. Their spoof video Stop the Knot has had over 8 million views on YouTube.

For years, Cue TV and Cue Online have been recording performances, interviews with performers, making these available through YouTube and SoundCloud. The recordings are available for artists to use those as show reels.

This year, Cue Online is experimenting with live-streaming interviews and events using Periscope, a live streaming app owned by Twitter. Install the app, follow Cue and you’ll be notified when the streams start.

Be careful, though: streaming video uses a lot of data and could end up costing you a lot of money. If you don’t have a big data bundle, get onto Wi-Fi before watching any video on your phone.

The National Arts festival is trying to make the best use of new technology. Having thrown lots of money at Computicket with less-than-stellar results, Festival bought the licence to use the Edinburgh Festivals ticketing software to run their own ticketing.

Apart from the potential financial savings, the software means that Festival owns and controls the database of information about festival-goers. This makes the Artsbucks loyalty scheme work and allows the Festival website to customise the way it works, according to your preferences.

Access to the Internet is growing in South Africa mainly through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

The Festival app has been completely reworked a number of times. It still has a way to go before it works easily and seamlessly. There’s still too much friction in the system. You have to register as a user to use the app, and registering on your phone is a real pain, given the number of fields you have to fill in.

Artists are increasingly using new technologies in their productions.

In the Jazz Fest you’ll see musicians using iPads instead of sheet music, for composition, as mixing desks, synthesisers, or even as instruments. The processing power of mobile devices is increasing exponentially.

Last year, a group of hip hop artists from Grahamstown worked with Bhavana Harrilal to design a cellphone app that has since been programmed by, an MSc Computer Science student from UCT.

At Fingo Festival on Friday, the artists will test the app, which can record rap on top of a beat. The app means that even hip hop artists without computers can create a recording.

Harrilal had the idea after talking to local Rhodes lecturer Alette Schoon, who is studying the use of digital media technology by hip hop artists in Grahamstown. Schoon has found that artists living in impoverished areas are using sophisticated digital software and finding innovative DIY ways to repair and customise the technology.

The theme of new technologies and social media is also showing up at Festival.

A few plays, such as 10 000 and Similar To, focus on the effects of new technologies. Rob van Vuuren’s characterisation of various social media platforms in WhatWhat is one of the funniest sketches I’ve seen on the subject.

And the selfie stick of course, has become a handy prop for narcissistic and selfish characters.

Steve Kromberg
Cue specialist writer

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