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Southbank springs to life for SummerSalt arts festival

Volume 11 Number 2 February 9 - March 8 2015

Photo: Peter Casamento
Photo: Peter Casamento

 

Catriona May reports on a new arts festival at Southbank that brings interdisciplinary collaboration into the spotlight and public view.

As Melbourne basks in mid-summer, a new addition to its cultural calendar is turning the arts precinct at Southbank inside out. Cultural institutions are flinging open their doors for SummerSalt, an outdoor festival led by the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Having opened 23 January SummerSalt runs until 21 February, and offers a lively program of music, dance, circus and theatre and celebrates all the Melbourne Arts Precinct, which is home to such institutions as the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Melbourne Theatre Company, Melbourne Recital Centre and the National Gallery of Victoria, has to offer.

And, as Education Partner, the University of Melbourne is in the middle of the action.

“SummerSalt is literally happening around the VCA,” says University Vice-Principal (Engagement) Adrian Collette. “Being a part of the Melbourne Arts Precinct, and part of the city more broadly, SummerSalt is a great way for the University to connect more widely to the community.”

One of the University’s standout contributions is a large installation called Encounters, which explores the world of human-computer interaction, or HCI. This ambitious project, which concludes on White Night on 21 February, unites artists with computing experts to produce an engaging new audience experience.

Produced by the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI) in the Faculty of Engineering in partnership with the VCA, Encounters is set across three platforms presided over by a large screen. The space is filled with light and sound that respond to audience movement, creating a dialogue between the human and the machine.

“As you enter the space the Microsoft Kinect sensors detect you are there, triggering a whole lot of sounds and lighting effects based on not only what you’re doing but what you’re doing relative to everybody else,” explains Encounters’ technical director and Microsoft SocialNUI Research Fellow John Downs.

“Every audience member is represented on the screen and in the soundscape, but we don’t expect people will realise that straight away. However, particular actions will change that representation,” he says. “So if audience members do things like jumping or getting together with other people, the way they are represented will change.”

The researchers from the Microsoft SocialNUI centre are particularly excited by the opportunity to make their technologies available for public enjoyment, while learning more about how people interact with them.

“The project aims to take computational innovation from the lab to the streets,” says research centre director Associate Professor Frank Vetere. “We are exploring the use of sensor technologies in public spaces for creative expression.”

Three VCA dance students and graduates add to the experience by joining with audience members while sporting ‘wearable technology’, which projects their movements in detail on the screen.

“The dancers will be setting an example to the audience of possible interactions with the installation,” explains Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance) student, Rosie Leverton, 19. 

“We will be moving around people, dispersing them and creating formations through movement and voice, as well as being performers,” she says.

Ms Leverton is excited by the opportunity to establish a much closer relationship with her audience than is allowed by more traditional dance performances.

“I really enjoy the intimacy with the audience and the challenge of being able to include them in a really open way. Often dance is seen on a stage with quite a divide between the audience and the dancers. I like that we’re involved in their experience and they’re involved in our experience too,” she says.

While Encounters offers a unique audience experience, it also provides an unusual research opportunity.

“Encounters is part of a broader research agenda looking at how technology can be used to facilitate people’s social interaction in public spaces,” Mr Downs says. “There are a whole lot of interesting things you can do once computers understand there are people in a space and how they relate to one another.”

Director of the Victorian College of the Arts, Professor Su Baker, is excited about the opportunity to invite the wider public onto the VCA campus during SummerSalt.

“The Melbourne Arts Precinct is going to be buzzing during SummerSalt and we look forward to welcoming guests onto our campus to enjoy the energy and the spectacle.”

Professor Baker is also a member of the advisory board of the Microsoft SocialNUI Research Centre.

“Encounters is the first opportunity we have had to work with the Microsoft SocialNUI Centre,” she says. “Bringing two apparently different disciplines together is incredibly exciting, and I’m looking forward to more collaborations in the future.”

During SummerSalt, the University is running VCA Art Attack, which will see a mural created by VCA student Lance Simpson live in the heart of the festival on the corner of Southbank Boulevard and St Kilda Road. The Gong Garden, another feature installation, will create an interactive musical garden populated with hundreds of plants from the Burnley campus, along the perimeter of the VCA.

Each event offers opportunities not only for the public, but also for staff and students.

“Our involvement in SummerSalt celebrates our place at the centre of the Melbourne Arts Precinct, and everything we do ultimately comes back to our teaching, research and engagement,” Mr Collette says.

“We’re thrilled to see so many students taking part in the festival by volunteering and using the experience as part of their studies through work-integrated learning opportunities with key cultural partners.”

 

www.summersaltfestival.com.au