One of the artworks commissioned as part of our R&D programme.
A 20 minute interactive experience for audiences of 2 people observing a choreographed performance on a traffic roundabout, viewed from within the camera.
‘Obscura Island’ premiered on the Holloway Circus roundabout in Birmingham on June 16th 2016.
From the start, Michael Lightbourne wanted to put the camera obscura on a traffic roundabout. Conceptually it made sense – roundabouts are circular spaces and the camera’s mirror can rotate a full 360 degrees. Practically, of course, the idea is insane. As we were short listing the proposals, everyone we showed it to highlighted ‘Obscura Island’ with exclamation marks. Getting approval alone would be a nightmare, let alone the actual staging. But in the world of experimental art, which is where we are, the impracticality of an idea should never impede its realisation, particularly if it is a good idea – and we felt this one was.
The conceit was simple. What if Shakespeare’s Tempest took place on JG Ballard’s Concrete Island? Who would Prospero, Ariel and Caliban be if they lived on a traffic island in Birmingham in 2016? To develop these ideas Michael brought in local performance artists Kate Spence and Aleks Wojtulewicz, directors of Home For Waifs And Strays, to choreograph and perform the piece, along with Santiago Oyarzabal, a journalist, filmmaker and, for this, musician.
But the main character was to be the traffic island itself, and this was dependent on which roundabout we could get permission to use. The first choice was the relatively calm island behind the Birmingham REP theatre, overlooked by the iconic four tower blocks of the Civic Centre Estate. Permissions were looking good but one council department expressed concern that a motorist, distracted by the spectacle, could lose control and career over the roundabout injuring our audience, which we had to concede was a possibility.
Holloway Circus, colloquially known as The Pagoda Roundabout, is a local landmark on the Queensway ring road. As the A38 roars underneath, vehicles coming in and out of the city core squeeze around it, impatiently making the transition from main road to side street. It’s a horrible roundabout to drive on, always jammed with traffic, but like many in Birmingham it also serves as a pedestrian underpass, creating a surreal oasis emphasised by the landmark 40ft chinese pagoda erected in the middle. Michael liked it and, since it was already a pedestrian space, permissions were relatively easy to get.
The public access and crowded views were not what Michael had anticipated at the start of the project, which envisaged the grassy islands found on trunk roads which no-one would contemplate crossing to. Holloway Circus is closer in spirit to a public square or gardens which just happens to surrounded by two lanes of noisy traffic, overlooked by giant sentinels in the form of residential tower blocks and the shiney Radisson Blu. Workshopping the piece revealed just how busy this area was, even on a rainy mid-week afternoon, and this fed into the vibe of the performance.
Michael had composed a 20-minute soundtrack which was played into the camera, On top of this he mixed live audio recorded on the island creating a strange layering of the diegetic and non-diegetic through the speaker and the walls of the camera. Finally two of the performers had radio microphones allowing them to directly address those inside the camera.
The action was relatively simple. Caliban repeatedly walks across the island dragging an accordion behind him. Prospero wakes from sleeping under a tarp and explores the island. Ariel sits, bored, by the pagoda, watching the world go round. Halfway through, Ariel briefly addresses the camera. At the end, Prospero sits with his guitar and sings a song. And, throughout, the public walk by, sit on benches and inadvertently become part of the show. Tourists in bright yellow jackets loudly recite their newfound knowledge about the pagoda. A street-drinker lounges on a wall behind Prospero. A group of girls are bemused and then blocked by Caliban’s relentless dragging of the accordion.
Meanwhile the camera obscura itself stands like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, an incongruous curtained box, drawing more glances than the performers. And inside the camera sits the audience.
Due to the size of our camera, the audience was limited to two people. They were told to come to Birmingham Open Media, where we’re based, at their allotted time. They were given a map of the ‘Islands of Birmingham’ and had their adventure outlined using a script written by Michael.
“Here is a map of the islands of Birmingham, please familiarise yourself while you wait for your departure. You begin in darkness. You will be guided carefully to your destination, Obscura Island. I will lead you there, but you have to trust me.
“When you arrive at the island you will find yourself shipwrecked and apparently alone. However your vessel is a camera obscura. Once the light returns, use the controls to look around outside, to explore the island and the seascape beyond. It is up to you to discover the nature of this strange new land on which you find yourself.”
The audience members were blindfolded and walked from BOM to the roundabout, a journey of about 10 minutes. When they arrived they were seated inside the camera and, once the curtains were drawn, instructed to remove their blindfolds. Then the performance began.
Feedback was universally positive. People came out slightly dazed and grinning. Something was definitely working. All the comments emphasised the importance of the camera, and of having control over the camera. To have the freedom to explore, but of still being framed.
The camera obscura produces a unique image. Being pure light it is as high definition as can be, something which is impossible to capture on camera. Yet the image is flat and the wide aperture creates an incredibly narrow depth of field when focused within 20m or so. It is simultaneously hyper real and unreal which creates a delightful confusion.
We also find ourselves mixing up our frames of reference. The camera is showing us the real world with no latency, but we’re also seeing a projected image, as in cinema. The way the camera frames the scene also references cinema bringing in notions of composition. And the performers react to the camera, noting its position and angle of view, which is ultimately controlled by the audience.
‘Obscura Island’ really is, by all definitions, an interactive multimedia artwork where the audience is complicit in its creation. It takes the magic and power of the camera obscura, and extends it with a light narrative touch and thematic weight.
Like all our commissioned pieces, ‘Obscura Island’ feels full of potential. Michael has expressed a desire to return to Pagoda Island to work out the kinks and then to take it to other urban islands. The aim is to reduce it to a score, a performance piece for camera obscura and traffic island, which can be workshopped by actors and sound artists around the world.