Plugging in to brave new worlds

artists with computers

The rapid pace of innovation and growth within the world of digital technology is creating an ever expanding range of new tools, new techniques and new ideas for creative artists and Diane Parkes has been looking at how the worlds of art and Science are being brought together in  Interactivos?, an international event which has landed in Birmingham


MAC Birmingham this month is the centre of an international event bringing together artists and cutting edge digital technology.

Looking at how gadgetry can open up unexplored avenues for creative arts, Interactivos? Birmingham features seven projects, which is all be open to the public.

With the work including a device which mimics a beating heart, a dancer looking to work with holograms and a visualisation of the digital ‘cloud’, Interactivos? promises to take the arts into new territory.

Featuring artists and digital experts from Brazil, Germany, Spain, Austria and the UK, including Birmingham, Interactivos? launched on June 17 and over two weeks features a seminar, workshops and the development of the chosen projects.

It is the first time that Interactivos? has come to the UK. Created by Madrid’s Medialab Prado, previous showcases have taken place in Mexico, Peru, Ireland, Spain and Slovenia. In Birmingham it brings together the expertise of Birmingham City University, Sampad South Asian Arts, mac Birmingham and BBC Birmingham with support from Arts Council England.

It was Sampad’s operations manager Clayton Shaw who was keen to introduce Interactivos? to the city after he attended a Medialab Prado workshop and recognised its potential.

“Birmingham has such a strong industrial heritage and has always been at the forefront of technology,” he says. “We’re now in a new era of industrialisation and it’s good that Birmingham is still at the forefront.

Interactivos? is really about looking at skills development for artists and finding new models to develop artistic practice with digital technology.

“One of the UK artists, Divya Kasturi is a South Asian dance artist and she is a really good example of someone who might be able to look at how she can blend her experience of Kathak and Bharatanatyam and digital systems.

“One of the aspects she will be looking at in her piece Forgot Your Password? is gesture recognition and how we could use holographic technology in dance.”

An open call went out for collaborators who are then partnered with the artists and other experts to develop each piece. Divya Kasturi i

“At the start of the process we won’t really have an idea of how it will develop – that will progress during the two weeks,” says Clayton. “It’s very experimental and we are keen to ensure that all of the artists have a strong collaborative experience.

“And we want to engage people to come along and talk to the different people involved in the different projects. It is a chance for those involved in the projects to test assumptions of how the public engage.”

Divya Kasturi, a South Asian dance artist has found digital techniques can take her work in new directions as in her Forgot Your Password?

The fortnight of workshops could be just a beginning.

“We want this to be a springboard,” says Clayton. “We want to go on to build a community of people, both nationally and internationally, who artists can access and be connected to.”

For Birmingham City University, Interactivos? is part of an ongoing study researching and developing cross pollination with the arts and future technology.

“This project had grown out of a larger project, Cross Innovation, which is very policy-led and has pinpointed a real interest in Birmingham in cross innovation and how the creative industries spill into all areas,” says Alexa Torlo, BCU project and business manager in the Research, Innovation and Enterprise department.

“It is about multi-disciplinary opportunities to bring people together for co-creation and to break down barriers. It is about inviting people to come along and look at how they can work with other people and not be an island.

“It is fantastic that we were able to bring it to Birmingham. Interactivos? will give Birmingham recognition across the world as it is bringing people together from a range of different disciplines and countries. As a modern university this really complements what we are doing in terms of research and collaboration with other groups and businesses in society.”

And she feels it will be felt beyond the arts.

“Bringing Interactivos? to Birmingham is very exciting because it demonstrates how much the city is interested in innovation,” says Alexa. “The city is really putting itself on the map in terms of cross innovation. This city has always been experimental and at the front of new industries and now it is looking at how it can collaborate for future industries.”

All of the partners worked together to design the programme and decide the final projects which include music, dance and photography.

“We had 37 projects apply and needed to choose seven so all of the partners, with the input from technical experts from the university, then considered the projects,” says Alexa. “We had to lean towards projects which were manageable within the timespace. But we are keen for all of the people behind the other projects to be involved so we have asked them to come back as collaborators. This is an example of how this project is nurturing relationships.”

The university hopes Interactivos? will lead to other partnerships.

“The next question is ‘where do we go next?’ and we really want to continue with this,” says Alexa. “We hope there will be a series of events afterwards which will continue to build these communities who can work together into the future. And for the university it is about embedding cross innovation into education and allowing students and academics to engage.”

Birmingham’s mac is the ideal venue to host Interactivos? because the arts centre is a meeting point for cross-pollination of ideas, says mac’s Producer for Learning and Participation Pat Dawson.

“We are very committed to digital media and, being a hub for people to come together and develop new work, this sits very well with our ideas of reaching out to different people and communities,” she says.

“One of the big advantages of mac is our footfall. We do get a lot of people who come for specific events but we also get a lot of people who a scene from Forgot Your Password?would not necessarily go into a traditional art gallery but come here to the café and then see an exhibition.”

The centre in Cannon Hill Park will be aiming to ensure a good many of those visitors become involved in Interactivos?

“We will have an exhibition downstairs which will feature two interactive installations from previous Interactivos? and people will also be able to visit the collaborative working as it is going on,” says Pat. “We also want to involve some of our Next Generation groups. They are all young people who are interested in the arts and they tend to be very keyed into technology so will have an interest in Interactivos?”

Another scene from Forgot Your Password?


In doing so mac Birmingham is also ensuring the event has a legacy.

“We hope this event will help us to continue to build ongoing links with the next generation,” adds Pat.

For the BBC in Birmingham, Interactivos? is part of a strategy aiming to ensure the company is at the forefront of digital media. The company’s BBC Comedy Executive Producer Will Saunders, who has been at the centre of developing the BBC’s digital strategy for comedy, is a speaker at the seminar and other staff will be involved throughout the event.

“The BBC’s brand can be a catalyst for something like Interactivos?” says BBC Birmingham’s Head of Business Development Tommy Nagra. “We are looking to develop our partnerships with other organisations to develop digital media and we want to take our audiences with us.

“The industry is changing at such a rapid pace and it is difficult to predict what will happen next. Traditional television is still alive and well but being involved in these partnerships and working together we can look to the future and embrace it.”

The project fits into a much larger digital brief for the BBC in Birmingham which is to include an Academy for in-house and industry training, the formation of a Digital Innovation Unit in Digbeth and the move of the company’s digital arts partnership with Arts Council England, The Space, to Birmingham.

“This plan for the BBC in Birmingham is to make sure we are future-facing and innovative and are creating a new story for Birmingham,” adds Tommy.

One of the seven projects to be chosen is being led by Professor Cham Athwal, head of the Digital Media Technology Lab at BCU. The project is looking at ways artists can take advantage of an interactive virtual studio the university department has created.

“The virtual studio captures the real-time interaction of an actor with virtual objects,” says Prof Athwal. “The captured video can potentially be streamed or broadcast live so that distant viewers can also interact with the actor and the virtual objects.

“This facility opens up the potential to create engaging presentations where the actor can directly manipulate virtual representations such as anatomical or other complex structures or simply graphics for election nights.

“We hope that artists will collaborate with us at Interactivos? and suggest novel applications for this system. Then we hope to work with other technical collaborators to implement some of these ideas so that a set of interesting demonstrations are created.”

And he adds: “For the DMT Lab this an opportunity to showcase our work and gather ideas for future research directions.”

The event has been supported by Arts Council England whose relationship manager for creative media Peta Murphy-Burke sees it is as a unique opportunity for the city.

“Medialab Prado are recognised as international leaders in arts and digital collaborations,” she says. “This is an exciting opportunity for Midlands-based practitioners to explore the artistic application of new technologies.”

For more on Interactivos? see and


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