Maziar Ghaderi is a member of the Live Cinema Collective, our 20.21 RBC Emerging Artists in Residence.
In 2015, I worked on a live cinema production for Luminato Festival with the UK-based media arts group, Blast Theory. The project pushed the boundaries of the cinematic experience by filming and screening a story simultaneously. Coming fresh out of grad school and keen on developing my practice-based research in augmenting performance art with interactive technology, a project like this was just what I needed.
The show was a hit, and the experience was over before I knew it. Yet, the potentiality of live cinema lingered in my head for years. I knew there was something special here. I just didn’t know what.
In the years following the Luminato production, I focused on turning my grad research from OCADU’s Digital Futures program into a sustainable artistic practice that skirts the edge where the performing arts and emerging technologies meet. I produced and directed new media performances for SummerWorks, Buddies in Bad Times, Gladstone Hotel, Soho House, the International Symposium of Electronic Art, SIGGRAPH, HarbourFront Centre, Tashkeel Dubai Art Center and Nuit Blanche. From Inuit throat singing, to Afro-Brazilian Capoeira and remixed Persian pop songs from the 70’s, my inquiry was always centred around how technology could enhance the audience experience – taking story to another artistic plateau entirely.
Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the performing arts, theatre, improv, and concerts have mostly screeched to a near halt – I was forced to dedicate my time towards the pre-production elements of this business that we call show. I zoned in on grant writing, community partnerships, conceptual development and took on a screenwriting contract in the exciting genre of speculative fiction that explores the societal impact of technology for the producers of the sci-fi YouTube channel, the Webby Award winning, “What If” franchise.
Both collectively, and yet strangely on our own, we’ve found ourselves more and more dependent on internet technologies than ever before. Nightly, many of us plant ourselves in front of screens, taking (or giving) classes on Zoom, FaceTiming with family or gawking at TikTok – or trying our best not to. We don’t remember phone numbers, our phones do that. We don’t remember birthdays but our calendars do.
One night, unknowingly to each other, my wife and I accepted a group video call from her father at the same time. My wife was sitting right next to me, so for kicks I pointed my phone at her to give her dad a two-camera view of his daughter that he hasn’t seen in weeks. Gino’s grey brows were lit with confusion when a hideous echo ensued – it was then that it clicked for me. If used to its full potential, each device, whether it be a smartphone, tablet, laptop or webcam is a movie camera. This and the other tools of filmmaking could be leveraged to enhance the story experience for the audience.
Cinematography, lighting, camera movement and mise-en-scene are all part of the conversation of filmmaking but forging the wit of film has always happened in the editing room. Up there with the quality of the actual performances, editing is the film’s invisible hand that guides the viewer on what’s important to see and what’s not – and when. This is one half of the recipe for what would eventually become live cinema.
The other half is spontaneity because it’s all happening live. A Zoom call with mom on Mother’s Day or the livestream of your daughter’s first artist talk out of art school are virtually (no pun intended), the scenes to the documentary of your life.
Theatre’s leg up over film is that it tears, laughs and screams right before our very eyes. The merging of the best of both worlds is where live cinema shines. Taking the spontaneity of theatre and the auteur-driven editing of film offers creative inroads of theatre artists by meeting new audiences where they are already at: online. The question for artists to ask is how can the performing arts lean into this new normal and create imaginative storyworlds that reflect our millennial woes through shiny black mirrors ubiquitous to our postmodern lives.
As part of our artist residency with Candian Stage, Star Nahwegahbo, Derek Kwan and Banafsheh Taherian and I experimented with live streaming softwares, remote multicam setups and real-time audience interaction.
This is where we developed the story concept of “The Grand Hacker”; an exploitative online troll that can hack into anyone’s device and secretly stream their screens to the highest bidder for his weekly show that caters to sadistic Anon audiences that get their kicks watching strangers fall apart. The process of experimenting with live cinema with a story such as this was fascinating, challenging and provocative.
The most challenging aspect of creating live cinema is finding a compelling and resilient answer to this question: how do audiences know the production is live and why do they care? The answer lies in meaningful audience participation, which can manifest in the form of gamification, audience input that alters the storyline or actually inserting the live video or audio feed of an audience member right into the show (with permission of course). Digital media offers innumerable inroads to take performance art to the next level, and centering the audience experience is at the heart of it.
Creating artistic works that push media technologies to their limit can be a daunting task. It’s like staring across a deep chasm of imaginative potential while squeezing its primordial clay between our knuckles to birth a new form of something. Is it theatre? Or film? Maybe both? Let's call it, live cinema for now and let our imaginations take the lead.