Network: Several nations under one groove

Video-conferencing is no longer restricted to the boardroom. Now musicians, performers and clubbers are using it to connect with each other. Meg Carter reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Technology that was originally designed for saving multinational corporations unnecessary expenditure on air fares has made the unlikely move into the frontline of club culture. Video-conferencing is being used at live events to allow musicians in different locations to perform together live to audiences at venues around the world.

"Club culture is the natural home for multimedia and new technology," says multimedia artist and musician Derek Richards. "Modern digital technology enables fast communication and the ability, literally, to sample and remix culture. Traditionally, clubs have always worked as an interactive space. Technology takes that interactivity into a completely new and different dimension."

He should know. In 1995 Richards was responsible for directing the world's first transatlantic jamming session, the Digital Slam - a collaborative performance of poetry, music and art between artists in New York and London. Just last month Richards took the concept one step further and, through his own company Hyperjam, co-produced Samhain (pronounced "sowan"), a live improvisation involving musicians at venues in London and Dublin, together with the Dublin-based multimedia group the Fifth Province.

Samhain took place on 31 October and is the first in a series of quarterly events tied to ancient festivals of Irish culture. The origins of Hallowe'en mark the transition from one year to another, explains Fifth Province producer Eamon Hession. The festival was traditionally celebrated at the junction between the four provinces in Ireland.

The next festival, in February, focuses on fertility and femininity and will be marked by a live link between performers in Cork and New York. A series of similar events will culminate in a major live interactive performance already being planned for New Year's Eve 1999. "The idea is to achieve a live link-up of performers in different physical locations," Hession says. "It's about points of intersection - achieving a performance that occurs neither here nor there but in a `third space': cyberspace."

Live interaction is possible using video-conferencing equipment connected to ISDN lines linking each venue - an approach first pioneered by the US group Electronic Cafe which linked four different ethnic groups to produce a live multimedia performance using video-conferencing equipment, satellite phone links, faxes and the Internet during the 1994 Los Angeles Olympics.

But it's not just about technology for technology's sake, Richards insists. "Human relationships are the key. Which is why we took as our starting point ways of linking different artists across the divide. By linking two physical spaces we are able to expand the club space and the interrelation of the humans within it."

With Digital Slam there had been little direct collaboration between the two participating sites. "Performances alternated rather than coincided," he adds. "We set up identical musical kit at each venue linked by an ordinary phone line used to transmit instructions to the electronic equipment which replicated audio from one end at the other."

Two years on, technology can now transmit audio by ISDN and the transfer is fast enough to allow truly live jamming. "The emphasis is on live transmission using ISDN rather than the Net which cannot yet deliver CD-quality sound or sharp enough pictures," Hession explains.

The organisers traded up from a single telephone link to three ISDN lines linking a Sony T5000 video-conferencing unit with built-in multiplexer in London and in Dublin. Sound and video were separated before transmission because, Hession explains, while audio can be relayed in a microsecond, video images take around half a second to be relayed. Both were compressed and fed through a Dolby AC2 unit and compressor to enhance the audio quality and speed up transmission.

Celtic and African performers based in both cities - including Talvin Singh, Simon Emerson, the jazz singer and drum and bass musician Cleveland Watkiss and Inna.most - jammed together with additional visuals mixed in live displayed on giant screens to clubbers at each venue. Musicians in one site improvised to the audio feed from the musicians at the other site, keeping an eye on the video screens for further guidance. The end result was simultaneously played out over the Internet via the co-producers' Web sites and that of the event's sponsor, Guinness.

Encouraged by Samhain's success, Richards is now setting up a permanent interactive multimedia installation in a north London night club, Propaganda.

Called Club 21st Century, the event will take place fortnightly from December. Clubbers will be able to use an interactive area to communicate with others over the Internet as well as a live link with another club, possibly Paradiso in Amsterdam, using ISDN lines and video-conferencing kit. There's also talk of another major interactive performance early in the New Year.

Developments are being watched closely by brewers and other possible sponsors eager to make use of the event's commercial potential. New media marketing consultancy CHBi, where Richards is based part-time as head of production, is keen to develop such live events using the Internet and other interactive media.

"Companies eager to use this sort of technology for commercial activities need to understand what will and will not work," CHBi partner Mike Beeston explains. "We believe live performance through digital media has significant potential." With the promise of digital TV services and video-on-demand there is a danger entertainment material is perceived as little more than a commodity to be turned on and off at the user's whim.

"Live one-off events, however, promise immediacy and exclusivity. The sense of communality created by events like Samhain - or the possibility of actors in different locations performing a cyber play, live - could be beneficial to marketers."