Kill Your Darlings

screens from BabelODrome

In which multidisciplinary artist Dominique Banoun charts iterations of a non-linear project, from traditional to site specific to COVID time reconfiguration.

I’m part of the collective BUS 1.2.3., a group of multidisciplinary and multilingual artists who use media tools to critique media and its hold on our identity. We find that the definition of who we are, what we believe, what we buy and which group, community, race, nationality and gender we belong to is often manipulated by various media (social, broadcast, commercial and propagandist).

The group started more than twenty years ago. We produced a theatrical work called BUS123 (long before the age of the internet), made an experimental feminist video called Mythofemmes – then we all went our own ways. After a twenty-year hiatus, most original members of the group came together again in 2011 to rethink our eponymous 1992 piece BUS123. We first worked on a theatrical show called Babelle et Barbarie (B+B) which explored the main themes of the group but more specifically, how language is a code that allows or prevents entry into —and understanding of— a culture, that we are made of many cultures and languages and that we should resist easy definitions of our identity and affirm our individuality.

The show was presented at the Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto. B+B is a non-linear play, made up of loosely connected scenes grouped around themes of language, identity and communication. It’s not a narrative play with a defined plot line, therefore it can be constructed utilising a modular structure that doesn’t necessarily require a theatre. However, it needed to be modified because it relied heavily on the use of video-mapping for large —and small— scale projections. The video was coming from a live camera, three live webcams attached to dollies on set, a live GoPro on the ceiling as well as pre-edited digital video files. All those video sources were often projected simultaneously on various surfaces. They were managed from a video and lighting station running Isadora software. Even though the sets were minimal and portable, the video projections were more difficult to travel with because of the number of cues and layers of stills and video.

It was decided to create a more portable and modular version of the piece. Three years later, we presented the site-specific version called Babel-o-drome, as a “promenade” between interactive scenes scattered around the exterior of Wychwood Barns and through Wychwood Park.

The artists became autonomous,creators and carriers of the video projections. To that end, we experimented with iPhones and pico projectors. We also used very small pocket amplifiers and transducers for sound. The iPhones were bought at small repair stores and iFix it franchises. The pico projectors were bought from a private vendor in Mississauga. These allowed us to project video that was already captured and edited as well as capture and project live video, stills, keynote presentations, etc. It was like having a portable mini-computer at each artist’s fingertips. The live video capture and simultaneous projection also encouraged artists to play with the public and include them in either the capture or the projection, or both. In other words, members of the public could become the subjects of the video projected onto someone else, or have their images project onto themselves.

The iPhone-pico projector set-up gave the artists autonomy but also extra responsibility. We reduced the number of apps we were using to three or four and put them on the first page so that they’d appear first when opening the phone. Even though most of us use smartphones, it did take some time to work out when and how to go from live to pre-recorded. We also had to find the best way to organise the multiple pre-recorded videos, which we ended up stringing into one long video with ten seconds of black in between.

Some of the technical problems we encountered were iPhones wanting to update the OS, demanding a SIM card and not always connecting to the pico projectors. We had wanted uniform iPhones so that we could transfer or Airdrop files seamlessly helped coordinate the content on the phones but we had slight variations (different years, S-type, etc), which would cause a few technical hiccups. It meant there were different ways to hook up to the projector. Some did so automatically, others had to be manually connected.

Despite those slight technical problems, using portable set-ups meant that we could take the piece anywhere (inside andoutside), without the need for generators, cables and extension cords. All of our equipment could be charged beforehand or worked on a battery. The artists’ autonomy meant that we could project anywhere and film live. This setup answered many of the challenges we had set out for ourselves but I can’t say it was easy.

The collective was preparing to present Babel-o-drome this past summer at the Toronto Fringe festival. We had the cooperation of the Toronto Railway Museum and were going to perform the work on the expansive grounds of the museum, utilising the trains, cabooses, turntable platforms and train stations as places for interactive scenes. The Element choir —with whom we’ve been collaborating on this piece, performing it together in various locations (Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton) since 2018 —was going to be part again of this in situ version.

Then COVID hit.

At first, it was disorienting because we weren’t sure whether the festival would take place. The lockdown at the time was just going to be for a couple of weeks. Then, as the lockdown extended, and the physical festival cancelled, and all kinds of distancing and mask-wearing restrictions implemented, there was a feeling among members of the collective that we should at least get together virtually.

Zoom conferencing technology was suddenly ubiquitous. Everyone was using it and we decided to experiment with the possibilities and the constraints of the platform. The Fringe decided to hold a virtual festival with all the proceeds shared equally among all participants. We took a chance and said we would participate, not knowing what final form our piece would take. We soon realised Zoom was not optimal for music played by several performers. We had to pause our relationship with the Element choir and work only with the six performers of the collective.

It was hard to transform the piece into an online live performance. We’re used to occupying a large space and having physical interaction between performers, choristers and audience members. Suddenly, everyone was in a little square box facing the screen. We explored which scenes we could convert to an online Zoom format, what virtual backgrounds we could add, what presentation styles would work and how to record them.. As we became familiar with the platform, the scenes started taking shape. As the Fringe requested pre-recorded videos rather than live streamed performances, we tightened some of the scenes in editing. We ended up making two 20-minute videos, subtitled in French and English ( a lengthy process!). They were broadcast as part of the festival and later as part of Culture Days’ online festival.

It’s very hard to know what future live events will look like. In the summer, it’s easier to organise events outdoors, limiting the number of people who attend and ensuring everyone wears masks, even the performers. But in our case, for Babel-o-drome we’re still working on an alternative, in addition to our online video version. It may include a smaller choir, with all performers and audience members wearing masks and direct interactions between them kept at the prescribed distance at all times.

Other live events are presenting hybrid versions, part digital, part live, with drive-ins seeming to be the preferred presentation format. Some are doing live Zoom shows from their living-room and favouring a much closer contact with the virtual audience, bringing them into the show by asking them to share personal stories connected to the theme of the performance. Others are finding ways to have the audience stay in their “bubble” by performing to people watching the show from hotel balconies.

I’m looking forward to seeing how our group can develop even more interactivity – automatic, manual and sensor triggers, text-to-speech projections etc. – with the help of Cohort. I’m also looking forward to seeing what other theatrical productions are developing through Cohort. It’s a big wide field of exploration out there and we can’t wait to jump in.

headshot of Dominique Banoun

Dominique Banoun is a bilingual multidisciplinary artist originally from England. She started out as a computer programmer trainee and contemporary dancer. She now incorporates various analog and digital technologies into her work with BUS 1. 2. 3. Collective while moving between the worlds of performance, dance, theatre, sound and video art. Her multi-layered explorations of topics range from the political to the philosophical, from the serious to the irreverent. Her newest work is Post-Humanum, a non-linear, non-narrative exploration of transhumanism.