• Geneva Foster Gluck on {Event(Dimension):}

    Sugar Beast Circus, {Event(Dimension):}

    'The proposition on which I mean to insist at present, is simply this, that fringes of colours are produced by the interference of two portions of light; and I think it will not be denied by the most prejudiced, that the assertion is proved by the experiments I am about to relate, which may be repeated with great ease, whenever the sun shines, and without any other apparatus than is at hand to every one.' — Thomas Young preparing to describe the first double-slit experiment to the Royal Society in 1803


    A piece taking its inspiration from the differences between quantum and particle physics, featuring lycraed supergirls, black holes and volcanoes, and based on a famously baffling experiment... John Ellingsworth talks to Sugar Beast Circus director Geneva Foster Gluck about the company’s new show {Event(Dimension):}.

    I don't know if you've had this left-brainer experience with mathematics that the tighter you try to grasp the workings of something the faster it all slips away; or else the sensation that a line of scientific reasoning, a theory, makes sense only for the length of time that someone spends explaining it to you, like it's a polite but uninterested guest that'll accept the invitation to visit your understanding but sidle out as soon as the introductions are over and attention shifts away. For most people I'd guess this is how it is: the system of our world is known by names and analogies and small, fleeting efforts of concentration. To really feel mathematics you would have to be a particular kind of person.

    But that's exactly what we're here this evening in St Paul's Church—and isn't a church a perfect venue?—with the hope of experiencing: an intuitive sense of the machinery of our universe—or of our universe as it's presented after having been examined, reinterpreted, miniaturised and turned into {Event(Dimension):}, a show by Sugar Beast Circus about gravity, light, implosion and explosion, volcanoes, rainbows, superheroes, physics and metaphysics, time and space.

    What we see is short enough, just a showing of some ideas that might never, in this form, be shown again. Silent white letters write themselves across a diaphanous veil that reaches the height of the stage, telling us the properties of a black hole; it's quiet and private, but then suddenly the majesty of space is interrupted by a game show as a glittery host carries on a stack of black, wrapped boxes 'full of numbers' and tosses them one-by-one through a hula hoop that the attached sign identifies as, itself, a Black Hole. As this happens, appearing behind the gauze, an aerialist rolls down the curve of a cloudswing. In another scene, two women in superhero outfits are captured, multiplied and projected in ranks up the gauze, their heads obscured by wheels of light broken into a rainbow's spectrum. As music starts, and in unison, they perform a jerky dance as if their limbs are a card puppet's articulated cut-outs.

    It's a brief showing, but those who've seen the company before would perhaps spot the thread that reaches back to their previous work: the sophistication (and weirdness) of the projection, the provocative friction between tones/registers (particularly, ethereality and kitsch), and then just the substance of the piece, the richness and texture that's been woven in from patient, long-term research.

    When Sugar Beast started working on {Event(Dimension):} it was centred on science fiction and B-movies, but its focus soon drifted into harder science, catching on one particular point of interest: the different theoretical approaches of classical and quantum physics. 'The piece is looking at this idea of quantum physics,' explains Sugar Beast director Geneva Foster Gluck when I meet her after the show, 'and with this secret agenda of how the more science knows about itself and the refined workings of science the more it actually starts to be close to metaphysics.... We're kind of trying to tread the line between what science is and what metaphysics is, and because we're looking at quantum physics in kind of a funny way it gives us artistic liberties to bring in the type of aesthetic we want to work with—rainbow heads and superheroes and everything else—as well as draw from real scientific theories and experiments.'

    Among the many branches of research available in classical and quantum physics, the company has chosen to venture out on two of the thickest: first, the study of light, both for its own complicated workings, and for its properties as a tool by which we understand other phenomena and can measure the scale of the universe (by, for instance, using it to discern the distance of planets); and second, the study of explosive and implosive energies, looking at their centrality to the thinking of, respectively, classical and quantum physics. The research, which Geneva explains has been ongoing for about two years, has also provided the formal structure of {Event(Dimension):}: 'The way the show is working, which I think is actually really exciting, is it's kind of based on this double slit experiment...'

    (First conducted with light in 1803 by Thomas Young—when it lead him to the half-true conclusion that light is a waveform—the most famous iteration of the double slit experiment was performed in 1961 by Clauss Jönsson using electrons. How it goes is this: you fire a beam of electrons at two thin slits cut into an otherwise impenetrable panel; a wall behind the panel records the pattern the electrons make as they pass through the slits and hit the wall. Since the electrons are particles you expect them to make a regular impact pattern: two vertical bands that are in line with the slits. But oh hey, turns out the pattern that emerges is actually a spread of bands—a recording of the sort of interference pattern you'd see if a wave passed through both slits and created two waves, originating at each aperture, that would then cross and interfere. In other words, the particles behaved like a wave. So the next refinement of the experiment was to fire a single electron at the panel, but doing this returned the same result: an interference pattern emerged on the back wall, meaning that one particle was somehow passing through both slits. Or neither slit. Or one slit in a crazy way. Anyway, it was impossible. To solve the mystery a device was placed at the panel to record exactly what happened as the electron reached the slits, but whenever the experiment was run with this level of observation the electron would pass through just one slit and create a regular particle pattern on the back wall. So if someone, via a recording device, watched the experiment at its critical moment the electron behaved like a particle; if they didn't it behaved like a wave—as though the electron knew someone was looking. It's really fucked up and if anything further experiments have just made it all worse.)

    'It was the introduction to there being something else, the quantum side of things,' says Geneva, 'and the way the experiment is affected by the person watching seems like such a fundamentally interesting idea to bring into making a performance—because the only reason you're doing it is for the audience. So for {Event(Dimension):} we're using two different spaces, and we're maybe looking at one as a classical physics space and one as a quantum physics space. The audience enters, they have twenty minutes in one space with the soundtrack, then they switch places and have twenty minutes in the other space with the same soundtrack, which repeats. And the idea is that the two experiences, the two spaces, overlap, and the soundtrack will make you remember scenes from one space and associate them with what you're seeing in this other space.'

    The circus performers used in the show are the tie, or the twist, between the two aesthetics, the physical and the metaphysical. Geneva: 'I think that with the circus trained body you have the ability to look like a superhero, to have this kind of superhuman thing of appearing weightless or having this impossible sense of equilibrium, but then all of that is actually grounded in this highly controlled, highly rigorous training and in this kind of dedication to your body and to achieving those skills. The training and the dedication and the structure leads to this thing that's actually quite magical—and that seems like it must be a contradiction, and yet the two are totally linked. Somehow to me that fits into the story of what we're doing.' There's also, she admits, a certain, shrugging attitude of Well why not? 'I want to be a storyteller and I want to tell stories in the most interesting way I can. And if people are going to be involved why shouldn’t they be these people who can be on stage and be present and do whatever they need to do as well as stand on one hand or be weightless and have this extreme capability within their bodies? It's part of the medium we want to work with—alongside the new technologies and animation. It's just such a lovely... material, in a way.'

    Combining with the circus performance, the other main expressive tool in Sugar Beast's work is animation/projection, and for {Event(Dimension):} they've been experimenting with how they can use technology to connect audience, performer and projection in a kind of triangle of causal dependency—but without using fully interactive or semi-improvised methods. 'We're trying to work with live feed that goes through a programming, processing device to allow the show to be live in a pervasive media way,' says Geneva. 'So very affected by the audience or by the performer, and not just a replica or a recording of the real thing. When we started we were like, “Oh, we want to do pervasive, we want to work with pervasive technologies—we're going to use accelerometers to interact with the audience, they're going to feed into the performance”... but I think slowly we're realising that what we're actually interested in is creating a constructed reality, or a very controlled aesthetic, and not in audience participation, or if there's participation then how that happens has to be very controlled. This way of using the programming feels like it's totally live, it's totally interactive, but we're in control of how it works.'

    The technical and programming work in {Event(Dimension):} is being handled by Jean-Christophe Nicolas, a fine artist and designer who's worked on Sugar Beast's previous shows (as well as with vaunted multimedia stars 1927), plus the company have lately spent a good block of time working with Blast Theory, an interactive media company based in Brighton who've helped them on two counts: one, simply by supporting and encouraging the technical choices they've made; and two, by sharing some expertise in building interstructural narratives that sort of scaffold around complex issues or ideas.

    With a piece that has the challenging formal arrangement of {Event(Dimension):} it's really the only approach that can work, and this method of breaking a story down into a network of loosely connected feelings or moments—which needn't be actions or events, but could instead be simple elements such as a look, a colour, a sound, a mood—Geneva describes as 'contemporary storytelling', seeing it not just as a way to present work, but also a means to devise it: 'The way we operate as a company is I come up with the structure, I kind of have these images, and I have this concept—and then we just define the ways the ideas and the staging will meet. The more work that you do the more meeting points there are.' And this method of structuring a narrative, where the parts might be connected in unforeseen but significant ways, once again draws comparison with the company's research: 'We're looking at this theory of entanglement, which is that classical physics would say that anything that moves has to have a physical force that moves it, but in the quantum world it's like there are these connections between things and we don't understand how it works. Things affect other things without having this condition of physical touch. It's something we're looking at in the two spaces, the poetics between events. Like the idea that the butterfly flapping its wings causes the hurricane or the tsunami or whatever—a chain reaction—which I think is quite beautiful in that quantum physics kind of says that it happens on the quantum level.'

    So, all in all, it's an ambitious show. Heading toward a premiere in January 2012 at the London International Mime Festival, the company recently spent four weeks in La Brèche, an incredible custom-built creation space in Cherbourg, northern France that seems to have been warped back from a superior future. They went in with the idea that they'd put the whole show together in a month, but when they tested the structure of {Event(Dimension):} the project responded with further challenges: 'The space that we're calling the quantum space has come together really beautifully,' explains Geneva. 'What we're doing in there—the way the soundscore works, the closure between the beginning and the end—has a really nice feel. But then, well, then we've got the lecture, the classical side that tries to explain everything or that's more practical, and it's proving to be really hard—because we're trying not to be condescending, but also because we don't really know. We've done a lot of research and read around the subject for the last couple of years, and we're prepared to talk about it, but at some point I just don't understand it well enough to give a lecture.'

    The silent white text from the St Paul's presentation will be part of how the company communicate the theory of the classical physics section—and though there was some feedback from La Brèche that the text was heavy, Geneva is keen to keep it, if only for the aesthetic effect of the writing appearing on the gauze then something else materialising in the space behind it, as though called. And even if the classical side is the 'serious' or 'heavy' side, it's still got a multiplied projected cadre of dancing rainbow-head supergirls, and a spangly black hole, and, Geneva promises, a volcano.

    What Sugar Beast showed at St Paul's, though, is just one solution to the 'problem' of the classical space, and they're looking to find a little more development time to test out some other ideas. To even consider this is a luxury: 'It's been really great to have support from the beginning of the project,' says Geneva. 'This is the first time that we've gone in with money and a date that we know the show is going to premiere, and it's stressful and scary and there's a pressure to it, but it's just been really amazing to go into Cherbourg with five people that I wanted to work with, and with Jean and his technical abilities, and with all of our ideas and images, and to just work on something. It's scary, you know. Definitely it's like you can fail, but it's really good.'

    The support from La Brèche and its director Jean Vinet has clearly been important to Sugar Beast, and opened doors for them on the French festival circuit, and you get the feeling that the warm response there has done a lot to bolster the confidence of the company in making the sort of work they're making. Geneva, starry eyed: 'How amazing is the audience out there? They're pretty amazing. We had people in the audience for the {Event(Dimension):} showing at La Brèche who kind of looked like professors and admitted that they'd been reading about quantum physics for the last fifteen years.' And what did they make of the show? 'They said that they were just really happy that we'd approached quantum physics from an intuitive or subconscious perspective... I think that the liberty of approaching something creatively as artists rather than scientists was recognised and appreciated.'

    It was another reminder to be respectful of the research, which is a living, changing thing, and to work from instinct. 'That's where the danger is,' says Geneva. 'If we start pretending that we know too much or if we start to say too much and then be wrong or be called out, then I think we could have an audience that was quite unhappy with the show or that thought it was a crock of shit and we didn't know what we were talking about. Whether the audience will need us to explain the links between the theory and the performance, between the two spaces, or whether they can see them—I think that's our challenge.'

    John Ellingsworth saw a work-in-progress showing of {Event(Dimension):}, and interviewed director Geneva Foster Gluck, at St Paul's Church, Bristol on 24 September 2011. {Event(Dimension):} will premiere at the London International Mime Festival 27-29 January 2012 at Jacksons Lane.

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