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Circus Ele-cam ‘Artefact in Residence’ – Phil Heslop

In this project we worked with circus groups based in Newcastle. We used a video capture-enabled ‘Artefact in Residence’ to bring together a circus performer community. While ubiquitous video surveillance tracks people in public spaces, and data surveillance tracks people online, for this project Phil sought to collect data in ways that did not threaten privacy and, we hoped, unite a diverse group of circus practitioners. He held initial meetings with five representatives of the circus performance groups with skills across aerial, acrobatics, juggling, magic and unicycling to discuss their challenges and how the hiCraft team might respond. This circus community had lost its collective umbrella organisation and had suffered through the consequences of COVID. They were interested in how technology could help them reconnect outside of the standard social media platforms. As a collaborative collective, all parties were keen to connect their practices and share rich, expressive expertise in some way. Through discussions we landed on an idea to capture data (in this case video) about their practice.

‘Ele-cam’, as it became known, was crafted in the form of an elephant, and played the role of ‘Artefact in Residence’ – alluding to the role of an ‘artist in residence’ whose role is not to simply make a record of an event, but to interpret it. The elephant was both a significant symbol for the circus and a playful reference to the ‘elephant in the room’, a reminder of the challenges in the community in the preceding months. The Ele-cam incorporated a camera and raspberry pi that the performers positioned in their studios themselves. As a sensor-enabled device, Ele-cam contrasts with the default use of sensors in commercial Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are highly synchronised and ‘always on’, and some would argue, prioritising business interests over interpersonal connection. In contrast to unobtrusive, hidden video surveillance in public, and increasingly in private spaces, the camera and technology (the Ele-cam) was clearly visible to the participants. They were able to switch it on and off and point the camera where they chose – they were in control! Enacting participatory ways of working, we consulted with the performers and presented the recorded videos back to them along with a range of abstracting video filters that emphasised aspects of their practices and anonymised participants. Edited videos were then shared amongst the groups and each group chose a clip of another groups performance, and filter to use, as the basis and inspiration for a newly devised performance. The collaborative process of using footage of other performers in the group suited the inclusive, caring nature of circus, where there is support and space for diverse learners and practitioners across age groups, socioeconomic status, and neurodiversity. The performance pieces came together in a highly entertaining and skilful two-hour circus performance. Each of the circus groups chose to project their chosen filtered video onto the performance stage, creating an asynchronous interaction with the clips of their circus colleagues.

Our craft ethos was woven into the project in a number of ways. As the participants became more comfortable with the Ele-cams and their use, they applied their creativity to the making of various costumes that lent the Ele-cam’s character and expression. HiCraft’s ethos of bespokeness was also present in the process of filtering through curating content, separating out some parts and amplifying others. Unlike the ubiquitous use of filters in social media that lead to unrealistic and unhealthy aspirations of beauty and perfection (in people and places), the Ele-cam footage filters were designed to anonymise individuals and subjectively emphasise and celebrate movement and form.

In conclusion, using digital technologies in this participatory project we show that an authentic (the Ele-cam was not hidden and it fitted with the circus culture) and bespoke (made for each circus performance group) use of sensors can empower, support creativity, and inspire a positive collective action. The ‘artefact in residence’ model allowed the participants to utilise their circus craft, and co-create through the participatory meetings. This led to the initial video capture activities and a final performance. The project brought together the circus groups in a series of performances that asynchronously merged the initial video footage with a live performance. For the circus community the project resulted in a high level of engagement and an equalised power dynamic between the IoT technologies deployed and participants. This allowed the circus groups to repair the issues that had been restricting them acting as a collective community, bringing them together by creatively responding through performance to each other’s video footage. The Ele-cam project used a craft-oriented strategy that stripped back digital technologies to a single function (in this case to collect video imagery, with no audio or ability for users to review and edit), demonstrating that they do not need to be all-encompassing and can instead foster connection in a playful way that can be asynchronous in nature.

Some of the circus performers gathered on stage at the end of the show

Thank you to all the circus performers for their work on this project. You can learn more about the circus groups’ classes and performances at www.allwaysgoodcompany.com, www.flaminglily.co.uk and
www.magician-newcastle.co.uk