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Theatre By and For Gamers

Tjaša Ferme: Welcome to Theatre Tech Talks: AI, Science, and Biomedia in theatre, a podcast produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Tonight with us is Emma Bexell, who is the co-artistic director of Bombina Bombast, which is an award-winning performance arts company in which performance art and technology are deeply intertwined, with a base in Malmö, Sweden. The company has, over the course of a decade, transformed from a basement, to running a company with a team of collaborators from their own studio that also houses a black box, counting over sixty original works for stage and screen. This is so fascinating and amazing, and I would just love to hear more about your story of how did you decide that you're going to work exclusively in new media and using technology and kind of stepping away for a lot of this part from live audience. How did this happen? Where did this come from?

Emma Bexell: Absolutely, and thanks for having me here. It's amazing to talk to you now.

Tjaša: Yeah, it's so funny, because we actually met at APAP and we connected because we're like, oh, we're in a similar category of technology performances.

Emma: Exactly. So yeah, I mean, we started out as theatre people trying to make theatre performances. We were in our early twenties and were a bit tired of working in small basements or whatever we could get our hands on, and we would do plays for small audiences with no money at all. And at the time in Stockholm, there was a lot of independent theatre groups working very separate from each other, and there was a lot of competition, and we had this naive idea that we should all just get together and do something super bombastic as a statement and to showcase what all of us could do on a bigger stage. So we formed the company, me and there were four others in this group of people who were heading the project, and we had this idea to gather a bunch of these independent theatre groups and put up a show, basically.

And we decided to do a musical adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, the political satire. And so we worked towards that. And that was basically... it was in many ways classical theatre performance with music and narrating, a very Brechtian form sort of, but for what we do now, a very classical piece of theatre. And we managed together like fifty, sixty people to make this happen. And we had a bunch of clubs and events heading up to this in order to fund it. So we built a community around this idea of Bombina Bombast as a bit of an activist group that was doing something for the young culture scene. And so this whole endeavor was funded by selling beer at whatever venue we could get our hands on. And we created the organization for this project alone. But then after, because we got a lot of press and a lot of people joined in making this happen, I remember this meeting we had after having finished the shows, there were fifty people in the room and we were saying, "We have a momentum. Let's keep running this organization and make something great."

And then once it was time to write applications and look for money, it was me and Stefan left. So we continued for a while in Stockholm, but then mostly because it's very hard to find somewhere to live in that city, it's expensive, we almost on a whim moved down to Malmö. We can actually find somewhere to live there that's affordable. So we moved down and that's when we realized we had the chance to, from the beginning, build something new. So we used Bombina Bombast as the vehicle for the idea to what do we want to do? We've done this theatre thing, but we're both board gamers and come from playing board games and digital games in our spare time.

And I mean, we were young and naïve still, but thinking we can make theatre, we know how to make theatre, but how do you make theatre that engages an audience in the same way as we feel like this gaming can do with an audience or a participant? And with that idea, how do we combine those dramaturgies and those tools to take that into a theatre space? And that's what we had as a question when we moved down to Malmö, and we decided to, let's try and build something from that idea. And in Sweden, we have all of this. You can actually apply and get a lot of funding from the government and from the city and from the region. And that's how we started, getting small amounts of funding and trying out these projects where we would work a lot of site-specific work.

We did video and audio walks in the city, and we went to New York and saw Sleep No More. Wow, okay. Other people are thinking about these kinds of different structures, and there's actually something here that also reflects on how we as humans relate to other people in society today. It's a gamified society, so that's why it feels important to look into game structures also in art to reflect on that structure in a very political way. And that's something that we've been building on since. Yeah, so I mean we've traveled through formats and through ideas, but I think the chorus has always been like, how do we reflect on the agency we have as humans today in our art?

Tjaša: I love that. What specifically speaks to me is when you said that we're a gamified society. What all do you mean by that?

This is somewhere where I can protest or somewhere I can share important information, but it still becomes part of this bubble where what I say ends up in what like-minded people want to see… I think I protested, but did I really? 

Emma: I mean, social media is a very clear example of that. We accept the format, like the Facebook feed where you can just scroll forever and ever. There's always something new, and if you interact, it gets better and you can give out points, give out; I like this thing you're doing, or I get this dopamine kick out of posting something and getting feedback. And if you interact with it the way you're supposed to do, you get so much back that feels really good and makes you want to do more. That creates this, I mean, I would say false sense of agency. You think you're doing something that actually matters, but you're basically stuck in this very limited format that someone else is controlling for you and making you make choices and making you watch all of these commercials in order to just continue getting that kick.

And I think I'm also a consumer of that, and I also get stuck in the feed, but I think looking at that critically and thinking, what does this really do and why do we think... I sure do. I act like this is a public space. This is somewhere where I can protest or somewhere I can share important information, but it still becomes part of this bubble where what I say ends up in what like-minded people want to see. It’s something about the whole system that’s like… I think I protested, but did I really? Did I?

Tjaša: Because you still use the same tools.

Emma: Yeah.

Tjaša: I know that every now and then, I delete my apps and then I spend a day or a couple of days without the app, and then I need to go on because I need to check this or that did somebody message me? And there's also a sense of responsibility as if I have a responsibility to respond. And I have a responsibility to share and to contribute. So okay, I go back on. And then right away my body knows that this is not good for me, and for a while I have this resistance. But there is this feeling, like I said, of responsibility and the need for contribution. But I think that ultimately the body knows that it's a trap, that it's a trick. And it's just like, how can we disengage? How can you be a public persona or do something that's public facing, and you're looking for active audiences and participants? How can you then not engage? It seems like it's impossible. It's now so ingrained in the structures of how we function, that it's impossible not to be there and not to be a part of it.

Emma: Exactly. And I think one thing is just opting out completely, but that becomes almost impossible. And I think that's very interesting to look at how it's also interesting to fail to opt out.

Tjaša: Yes, yes, yes, exactly.

It feels urgent to meet in person, but it also feels urgent to reflect on why we don't. 

Emma: But I think that live art and theatre, what we know is people meeting live in a space, how to just get people to the theatre. That becomes a very important thing. And I think that dynamic between us being real people together, live, sharing a story in relation to how we relate to each other on an everyday basis on different messenger channel, WhatsApp, whatever you use, it's interesting. And it feels urgent to meet in person, but it also feels urgent to reflect on why we don't.

Tjaša: It also feels very primal and it feels... there's something in the human psyche. We need a particular kind of connections. And weaving a story together with people changes the story. The observer changes the observed. And I feel like these massive emotions that are sometimes only experienced or stronger when experienced together, are maybe the driver why people meeting by the fire and telling stories or people coming to the theatre and being part and witnessing and reliving a particular story has been such a big part of our history and why theatre still persists.

The thing that I first saw from your work, and that kind of pulled me, and I can't stop thinking about it, is exactly about this. I saw It's Coldand There's No Music, where you have two players and one of them has a motion capture suit and is projected for everybody to see in a particular environment. And the other one is a completely analog and there is no trace of them. Like they don't exist. And it's like bothering me. I mean, it's such a good story and it's so visceral. Can you speak a little bit more about that? What did this come from?

Emma: Yeah, yeah. This was from the idea... Yeah, we'd been playing around with a motion capture suit and live projecting it so that we had a dancer on stage, and then you would see on a screen this dancer as an avatar doing the same movement simultaneously. And this became one type of relationship where you would see... and it's a kind of crappy suit as well. This is not the high end motion capture. It has this glitchy... I mean, I grow tired of this glitch thing, and then I'm pulled back into just thinking the glitch is so interesting. So something happens when it doesn't really work. But anyway, this relationship between the dancer and the avatar, and then when we introduced another physical dancer in the space, it became even more, it looked like two people trying to explain to this virtual being how to be a human.

This was this situation we built the whole piece on. And it's more of a choreographic piece, and it doesn't really have a story, but it's about these two physical real human beings trying to make sense of this virtual being tracing them or tracing one of them. So it’s variations on this theme of what is my body and how do I meet you physically and what’s distance and proximity and explaining to the virtual what it’s like to be human, the impossibility of that. And it's called, And There's No Music, and it's a line from one of my favorite songs. It's a Tom Waits song: Hold On. It's a line from that. And the full... it goes: “it's so hard to dance that way when it's cold and there's no music.” So we were like, but we keep dancing. As humans, we keep doing that even when it's cold and there's no music. So yeah, that's the feeling of the piece is this, we're so alone and it's so impossible to be human, but yet we are.

Tjaša: Yeah.

Emma: That's the piece.

Tjaša: There's something about watching the action of live humans in front of you and then also watching a screen representation. And I don't know why, sometimes I default to the screen and then obviously inevitably I come back to humans and then I totally tune out the other thing. But just from evolutionary standpoint and maybe neuroscientific standpoint, I'm interested about what is it that sometimes I just opt in for the screen and that the screen has such a large pull.

Emma: It's so present. We work a lot with projection and onstage, and it's something you have to relate to all the time because people, they're pulled towards the screen. There's probably some psychological, biological explanation for that, but it's—

Tjaša: Must be.

Emma: It's working very hard to get your attention. It's so present in a way that it feels more present than a physical body on stage. And that's something that you can use. It can really destroy something, but it can also be a potential. And then it's called, And There's No Music. We worked with it as a potential, saying, you keep coming back to watching the screen, but we're actually working really hard down here.

Tjaša: Yes. Yes.

Emma: As two physical beings, just showing that that's what's happening and make fun of it, but also show the complexity of that.

Tjaša: Yeah. Let's talk about Slumberland for a second. That's a hybrid of documentary audio theatre, game design, and immersive installation. The piece is performed remotely from anywhere in the world and livestreamed to anywhere utilizing motion capture technology on one end and Oculus VR headsets on the other. Tell us more about this. Also, I just love the story of how you even got your hands on this, how you thematically approached this piece, which was like you read a newspaper article about a social worker who was really working with criminals, you say in your text, excluded from society gang members who couldn't sleep, who were facing a lot of insomnia. So I want to know all about it. And then also, how do you tour? Do you send your VR headpiece or how does this work?

Emma: Yeah, I'll try to tell you all about it. But the idea, as you said, was... one thing came from just the potential of actually having audience in a virtual space together collectively. And we'd been working with this space that was like a night starry sky, and we were thinking about how to actually have this as a place where we could get some rest and sleep. So that was one part of the idea that came together with this article I read about this social worker who worked with... we have a lot of... Sweden struggles with gang violence, and it's like the social worker was working in a segregated area in Stockholm, I think. And he had a close relationship with a lot of kids who were in gangs, and they wrote to him in the middle of the night, “why can't I sleep?” And they were having all of these anxieties and feeling paranoid, and, "I'm going to die tomorrow, or someone's going to shoot my mother because I'm in a gang, but it's the only thing I know."

And they couldn't sleep. I mean, that's the hardcore version of it. They were just up and texting the social worker on Instagram. But I got into just reading about how common it is with insomnia among the youth today in Sweden and also all around the world, and not just insomnia. There's the criminals with insomnia, but there's also just a regular fourteen-year-old who struggles going to sleep because of anxiety, stress, and that screens have such a big part in this relationship with going to bed and failing to sleep because you're on your phone. But also that's where the safety is. That's where you can talk to your friends about your anxiety. So it's like this double thing where you're unable to put your phone down because that's where you find comfort, but you need to put it down in order to sleep.

So you're in this liminal space of... I mean, we know that screens actually make us sleep less. So we're a sleep-deprived society because we all spend, I don't know... I've read studies about we sleep an hour or two hours less than a couple of decades ago. And it's mostly because of screens. And I mean, this has happened just when we introduced electrical lights in societies. We started sleeping less because we actually could be up. So I mean, it’s not a new thing in that sense, but it’s something about also in an attention economy we live in, that they’re actually companies who want us to never put our phones down and always be consuming and always be there to answer any message instantly. And if we sleep, I mean, we’re a bad consumer. We worked on this, in Slumberland with a double thing of the virtual space can be a place of rest and sleep.

But I also interviewed mostly late teens, interviewed them about their sleeping habits and, "What keeps you up, what strategies do you have to go to sleep?" And every single one had stories about they stayed up because they were gamers and had friends across the Atlantic. So they were like, "Yeah, I have to stay up in the middle of the night because that's when my friends are awake to play games." And I didn't have those kind of friends when I was in my teens, so it's a new world to me. And they were also talking about like, "Oh, my mother always tells me to put the phone down, put the phone down, go to sleep, but I can't. And then I'm on my phone for two hours just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and scrolling” and the screen keeps you from sleeping. And then Slumberland, where you actually as an audience put a screen in front of your face, like the VR headset, you strap a screen in front of your face.

What's that strange thing? But how do we make that into a place for rest and reflection? So we built a performance in this Unity platform, where we can have big audience of people. Right now, it's designed for twenty people at a time, and we have a performer livestreamed from a motion capture suit that guides the audience through a ritual where you also get to hear some of these stories from the youth that we interviewed. And there's also an element where you get to explore a field of beds. We also went into some of these teenagers' homes and scanned their bedrooms. You get to enter into their bedrooms and stand by their bed and hear their story. So you can explore different stories by listening. We put them inside of stars, so you pick up a star and then you can hold it to your ear and listen to an interview.

And we can also add interviews when we tour, if we stay somewhere for a longer time. We also try to make interviews wherever we go and add them to the piece. So it grows as it tours. But yeah, we don't really have... we're trying to find the one touring model for it. But right now it's still like everything's in development because venues are more or less used to handling VR headsets. And some are like, "Yeah, we have twenty, so we can show it." And some are like, "We have no idea how to even turn a headset on." So then we come there with our headsets and we facilitate, and we also have different versions. Like now in April/May, we'll be at Oregon State University showing it, and there we have the possibility to actually make a whole installation. So it's more of: you enter a black box that's a space that's relating to the virtual space, and the onboarding is a lot more fleshed out, but we also have more of a gallery version that we can do more of a quick setup and show it.

But the thing we can do is that we have a technician and performer in Sweden, but we can perform in the US without even traveling. And anyone can join if they have their own VR headsets. But it's also an exploration into the infrastructure of touring twenty VR headsets and remote performers. How do we actually do that? The potential is that we don't have to go at all, but usually we have to have someone there to facilitate, or we have to have someone to set up the installation. And also venues are interested in actually having the performer on location, so you can see how it works because it's still interesting to engage with the behind the scenes.

Tjaša: You're also developing a new iteration of The AI Party, which is a series of performances centered around the idea of a political party led by an artificial intelligence. Tell me all about that.

Emma: Yeah, that's a project that started way before ChatGPT, where we collaborated with Triage Live Art, that's Melbourne and Berlin-based company and the Center for Everything from Helsinki. And we had the idea to involve an artificial intelligence as an artistic co-creator in a project. So we tried to get our hands on an AI to use as an artistic collaborator. Already then we had the idea to what if this could be an artistic collaborator? What if it could be a political collaborator? What if it could be a political leader? And anyone who's read Isaac Asimov has this image of, at the end of I, Robot, there's this all-knowing AI who makes all the political decisions in the world based on dividing resources equally and all of that.

So there was this utopian idea of what if we have this super intelligence, then we actually would never have to hold an election because it would know what we would vote for and it would make the decision based on a democratic outcome, or however we would want to structure it. It could make all of those decisions. And we wouldn't have to have humans like us. We've failed at politics. We don't have a good track record of political leaders, so maybe this is the best solution. But then we were so interested in having a real artificial intelligence. And back then, when we tried, we talked to researchers and programmers and they were like, "But there's nothing intelligent. It's a chatbot. Even the most advanced ones, they're advanced because they're fed a lot of information, but they're not very advanced."

And it's about who programs it, what information do you feed it. And it's always going to be biased, and it's not going to be the perfect political leader. You're going to get at most someone who can answer a complicated math problem. So we had actually this AI researcher who was like, "It's much more interesting to me if you fake it and put a fake AI on stage and tell everyone that it's super smart and see what happens then." And we were like, but we want the real thing. And he was like, "But I want the fiction. It's much more interesting." So the different companies involved in the project made different iterations of this idea of having a political leader that was an AI. And for us, it's resulted in a series of performances where, mostly for teenagers, about the idea about a political party run by an AI.

But we had a performer who would perform as the AI, and the kids would interface with it in different ways as a voice or as an avatar. And we created these situations that they could ask it questions or feed it data, and we could like... what would you want a political leader to be? And the AI could respond to that.

Tjaša: And was this scripted for the actor portraying AI, or how was this generated?

Emma: It was in the form of a theatre performance, but with different interactive elements. It would start out as a presentation from people who said they were from the AI party, and you would talk to this AI, and then the AI would evolve and you would divide into groups and interact with it in different scenes, more of an immersive theatre performance. And then you would come together in the end, and then the AI would be in the form of an avatar, a bit like in It's Cold and There's No Music.

Tjaša: Your visuals are really, really stunning. I am curious how you as theatremakers grew into, I don't know, maybe video designers, game designers, game engine designers. You said that your story is from basement to a studio with the theatre. So how many people do you have working with you? What are the different profiles of people working with you? What does this team really look like in terms of different skills that you have and different backgrounds that you have?

Emma: This is very interesting. I mean, in the beginning, me and Stefan were learning all of the things ourselves, and that became a bit of an important way of working as well, because we're thinking about the technology and what it does in society through and with the technology. So knowing how it works has always been important. So in the beginning, we built our own VR camera using GoPros and rubber bands and some tape. And then we would spend two weeks stitching together the footage because no one could tell us how to do it. And it's like this DIY thing. But then as we grew and got a bit more funding, we had the ability to get more specialized people coming in. But still, I think we've always had this DIY attitude towards technology and that we have to know how it works.

But then when the pandemic came, everyone else was sitting at home rolling their thumbs, trying to figure out what to do. And we had more work than ever, because what we'd always been arguing for, we need to look at technology and learn how it works, suddenly became the competency everyone was looking for. So we were consulting, we were livestreaming performances for people. We knew cameras, we knew live video production, and we were all over Sweden helping people set up studios and going digital or reworking a performance into something that could be done on Zoom or... yeah, we never got any rest during the pandemic. And also our team grew in that direction of video production and interaction design.

And then now we're in a moment where we're actually down-scaling. We were at most, I think nine or ten people in the office, and that's producers and production assistants, but also a light designer, video designer, like a technical manager. But usually people with a very wide skillset because we do a lot of different things and we do our own artistic work, and then we do consulting, and we also go into institutions and do video design for another director or live video editing... we try to have a balance between doing gigs for others and doing our own artistic work.

Tjaša: Got it. And so this entire team, these ten people. These people are on a payroll. They're not just coming in and out depending on the work, but they're on the payroll.

Emma: Yes. Not right now. We don't have the money to keep that many people. But at a moment during the pandemic, yes, we were ten people on a payroll.

Tjaša: Wow, that's so impressive. And okay, I'm starting to understand the profile because when I saw sixty performances or sixty pieces of artwork basically in ten years, that's a lot. That's a really big output. And I was curious if these are all your native projects or if these are including the projects that you're working for other people. And I'm understanding that this is including what you were commissioned to do or you helped with and produced for others.

Emma: Yeah. But I mean, in those sixty are not included the gigs where we're not artistically involved. We have been very productive and also do a lot of quick... for example, this video walk concept where we come to a venue, we get a commission to do a video walk that's like, we do research on the space and the place and interview people, and then we do a guide. And that can be... it's a big production, but it's not like a six-month production. And we did a showcase of that at APAP, where I did a video walk from the foyer, from the entrance and up through the conference and then back again.

And that was about... when I did just the basic research about the Hilton Midtown, I realized that that was actually where the engineer from Motorola made the first cellular phone call outside of the entrance of the Hilton Midtown. And I was like, this is a historic site. They had this idea to: maybe we can build these devices, a phone that you can carry with you that's a personal device. And that was revolutionary at the time. So I was just intrigued by this being a historic site.

Tjaša: Yeah. I'm so curious to hear your story because it does feel that living and creating in Sweden is much different than living and creating in the US. You also have two young children, and it seems like unimaginable that you're creating sixty pieces in ten years, consulting, running your own company, making your artwork, and have two children. How is this possible? How do you manage the time? What's your little secret sauce?

Emma: Well, I wouldn't say it's easy, but I mean, we do have free childcare, and can actually go to work, both of us, and have our kids in an amazing school where they take care of them and feed them good food and teach them things. So yeah, the kids are five and two, and they've been also... I think they've been along for the ride. They know the theatre. They know that we have a life that's not a nine to five. Yeah, it's a lifestyle. It's like we've chosen to make art, but also to keep the art close to our lives. So it's a struggle. It's very hard. It takes a lot of time, but the payback is that sort of, you get to make art and show your children that you can actually work with something you're passionate about, and that's a gift.

Tjaša: That's beautiful. That's beautiful. I love it so much. And maybe for the last question, how do you go about finding the places to tour?

Emma: We try to be out there. Going to APAP is not something a regular theare company from Sweden does. That's… not a lot of people just venture out into the US market. It's a lot of work with visas, for example. But we go there and see, is this something for us? Do we meet peers? Is anyone interested? And I think also being a cross-disciplinary company, we do theatre, but we do what could be categorized as new media or film or performance or games when you're this in-between...

Tjaša: Chameleon.

Emma: Yeah. Chameleon, absolutely.

Tjaša: Or an octopus, now that we know how brilliant they are.

Emma: Yeah, I think it's more like an octopus. I think it feels more like an octopus because you go somewhere where you don't know everything, so you have to ask questions about how does it work here? But you also realize where you come from, because it's not taken for granted. You realize what you take for granted. In a theatre, I would take it for granted that, well, there's a space for a performer to change into their stage clothes. And then you go to a film festival and that's not something you have. You don't have a dressing room because they show films. So you have to do all of these negotiations. And I like that. That's when you can challenge yourself, but also bring something new to an audience that maybe didn't expect it.

Tjaša: I love it. Yeah. It's like this fresh, open mind and an ever learning perspective. Right?

Emma: Yeah. Yeah.

Tjaša: Cool. Thank you. This was amazing. This was delightful.

Emma: Thank you.

Tjaša: And this is the end of the first season.

Emma: Oh my God. Congratulations. And thank you for doing this.

Tjaša: Thank you. Thank you for doing it with me.

Emma: I've been listening to it.

Tjaša: Yay. Amazing.

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