Sascha Polkey

Digitising the fourth wall

In theatre, the ‘fourth wall’ is an invisible layer between audience and performers that allows us to disengage from reality and enter the immersive experience of a story. As Covid forces the arts online, the shape of the room is being entirely reinvented through the layers of technology. Sascha Polkey asks, Could this be the magic that keeps us all connected to the arts?

Even an introvert might now admit that lockdown has taught us how very precious real human interaction is. The energy of being physically present with others is evidently made up of a symphony of invisible sensory webs that is currently hard to replicate on Zoom. Many people have shared their real, physical craving for human contact as we were forced to be apart. For artists who feed and charge up human energy – and the arts-starved audiences who drink at their altar – the lockdown was extremely hard to bear.

But a quiet revolution has been happening in the arts and, thanks to Covid, the flood gates are now open. Theatre makers, magicians and visual artists had already been courting technology for some time, but the lockdown super-sized this dalliance and the necessity of adaptation pushed unsuspecting audiences into new and unfamiliar places. Some of which left them delighted.

South Africa’s own National Arts Festival did a 100-day pivot to present an entirely online experience this year, but their Creativate Digital Arts Festival component of the programme had already had two past iterations at the largely live performance-driven arts fest. The curious had sat down to a virtual reality dinner in Danish experiential AI performance art piece Doghouse (2018) and played with vivid interactive poetry for Giving Poetry Wings (2019). With the advent of Covid, technology was offered a seat at the head of the creative table.

Will robots replace the portrait artist? Patrick Tresset thinks not but puts technology centre stage in his Human Study #1, From a Distance in which audiences sign up for a slot (which happened via Zoom during lockdown) to have their portrait sketched by a trio of robots. The bots hold pens and their frenetic drawing style is tweaked by Tresset at times; the subject becoming a passive participant in the symbiotic experiment between machine and human.

Whatsapp theatre experience The Shopping Dead was another Creativate Festival hit, with artist Faye Kabali-Kagwa masterminding a live Whatsapp audience through an experience of text, GIFs, memes and voice notes as the Zombies take over the supermarket.

With gaming projected to be worth $170 billion in 2020, after experiencing 12-15% growth during Covid, it is clear that a new generation’s appetite for experiential tech is going to be a major factor in the future evolution of arts and entertainment.

Taking the purity of simple human interaction and creating layers, whether visible or not, of technology, brings a new kind of magic to the experience of live performance. While we have seen the clever ways in which artists have used technology as the tool of their socially distanced storytelling in 2020, the mix of live and digital has breath-taking potential.

The internet of things takes this one step further. IoT gives objects the potential to become players in a story – unlocking and linking experiences across time and space. Imagine being delivered an interactive book just before your online theatre show starts. As you open it, it releases woody scents of cedar and forest floor and your home speakers are triggered to begin playing a piece of unfamiliar music, you put on your AI headset to enter the performance and reach out to take the hand offered to you. We are only just seeing the tip of a hyper-reality iceberg.

WORDS: Sascha Polkey
Sascha is the owner of Rabbit in a Hat Communications in Cape Town, South Africa

Investigate the potential of Africa’s online creativity from 20 October till 20 November 2020 at the Fak’ugesi Digital Innovation Festival happening online and free to all.