Learning by doing

François Matarasso – Thursday July 22nd 2021

Photograph by Joaquim Dâmaso – SAMP

Opera and digital technology both begin as code, lines of complicated figures that seem alien to non-professionals, like Egyptian hieroglyphs. But the arcane languages used by composers and software engineers to develop their ideas are not the point of their work. They are only the means by which these professionals work towards their goals—goals that remain lifeless until they can be tested in human experience. The work is validated only when the code enables actions, like typing these words on a computer, or when the score is transformed through a musician’s body into sound.

For the Traction project, that translation from abstract code into human experience was achieved last month, in four performances in Lisbon and Leiria. Getting there has been a challenge to everyone involved. Some of the difficulties, like bringing together a consortium with widely differing expertise, cultures and interests, could be anticipated. Others, like doing a multinational research project during a pandemic, could not. Still others, perhaps the most important, were foreseeable in theory but only navigable in practice. Professional and non-professional artists have created music before, but it is impossible to know what will come from specific individuals working together in a particular situation except by doing it. The idea of using digital technology to facilitate co-creation, or to connect performers in different locations, is clear on paper, but may produce unexpected results in practice.

So these first performances in Portugal are hugely important to Traction. There is the natural satisfaction of having met a planned goal in difficult conditions. This presentation of work in progress was planned three years ago, so meeting that appointment despite the pandemic is a real achievement for everyone involved. But the performances have much greater importance than simply hitting a target, because it is only through them that we can learn and build on the work. Four short performances, but the learning produced is immense.

It concerns the scientists: does the technology work function as expected? Does it meet the artists’ needs? Does it enrich the audience’s experience?

It concerns the artists: does the opera work in performance? How do the intentions of different co-creators appear on stage? Does the technology make the form more flexible and inclusive?

It concerns the performers: what does it feel like to sing this music in a public performance? How does the experience affect them? Can taking part lead to positive outcomes?

Answers to these and many other questions will emerge through the multidisciplinary evaluation process that follows the work, gathering data at regular intervals and feeding back into the thinking of technologists, artists and performers. But those answers can only be found through the process of translating abstract code into lived experience. In art and in technology we learn by doing. The words of the young inmates interviewed for Portuguese news channel SIC Notícias resonate because they are speaking about their experience. They literally know what they are talking about.

First performance of “Us. You guys. Everyone.”

Video courtesy of SIC Notícias with support from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

The following week, another of these young men (not featured in the video) wrote a long letter to SAMP. In it, he recalled the scepticism he’d felt when he’d first heard about the project. Now, he wanted to say that he was wrong to doubt what he’d been told because taking part had changed his life. His words held a new sense of himself and his future. Whatever that means to him, it is learning that came only through doing, through his lived experience.

In the coming months, the three community operas will move from page to stage—or VR headset in the case of Irish National Opera. With each iteration, up to and even beyond their formal premières, the disparate community of people involved in Traction will learn from the experience of seeing abstract ideas translated into lived realities.