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"Blast Theory, led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, hybridizes media and performance techniques in aesthetically challenging and complex ways, and explores the ‘social and political aspects of technology’.

Their performances are always inter-medial, contaminating discourses, technologies and genres.

Drawing on ‘augmented’, ‘mixed reality’, primarily within an urban context, they exploit the dynamics of the excess produced by the interface of technology, life and art. Their work constitutes a complex interdisciplinary investigation of the aesthetics and politics of new media theatre within everyday life. Here, ‘questions about the ideologies present in the information that envelops us’ (Blast Theory, 2005) become the very weapon through which theatrical practice can affect the informatic, scientific, political and economic discourses around us.

Can presence be distributed?

What is presence within the context of pervasive games?

Is there a difference between fictional and actual presence? Virtual and real presence?

What are the politics of presence?

Is presence engagement?

What happens to presence when a city becomes a theatre?

Kidnap (1998)

In this sensational precursor to Big Brother, two volunteers were selected from a few hundred applicants and subsequently kidnapped for a period of 48 hours.

Selected finalists were chosen at random and put under surveillance. Following this initial phase of observation of the short-listed candidates, Blast Theory selected two ‘winners’ at random. On a chosen date, the performers then abducted their ‘victims’. In the documentation, we can see how hooded and tied, unable to move, a young man and woman, unacquainted to each other, were separately ‘snatched in broad daylight’ from a pub and a car respectively, and taken by a van to a safe house where they were put under constant surveillance for a period of 48 hours.

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Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998)

Meanwhile, online, the audience could monitor the kidnap. Through a live weblink, they could see the ‘safe’ house in which the ‘victims’ sat together in an isolated room with scarcely anything in it, except for a couple of mattresses on the floor.

Kidnap is a complex piece about trust and surveillance, but also about art and life, politics and trade, presence, media and liveness.

See reviews of Kidnap at Document Iconkidnap_independent.jpg and Document Iconkidnap_independent_weekend.jpg

"Possibly the most technologically ambitious art installation ever made"
The Times 10th May 2000

Desert Rain (1999-2003)

In this fascinating piece the company worked in collaboration with the Computer Research Group of the School of Computer Science at Nottingham University, UK.

The piece was one of the most complex and powerful responses to the first Gulf War produced within the sphere of theatrical practice.

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

Inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), and constructed following computer game logic, Desert Rain can be seen not only as a comment on the war itself, but also as an exposure of the crucial role that technology played within both the making and the viewing of the conflict. Described as a mixture of ‘performance, game, installation and virtual reality’ (Adams and Row Farr in Leeker, 2001: 744), Desert Rain ‘attempts to articulate the ways in which the real, the virtual, the fictional and the imaginary have become increasingly entwined.’ (Adams in Blast Theory, 2002).

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

Exposing ‘the fragility and interconnectedness of the physical and the virtual, the fictional and the factual.’ (Clarke, 2001: 44), the piece was constructed as a journey through a virtual labyrinth aimed at disorienting ‘the body in a very corporeal way’ (ibid.: 47).

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

The viewers, stripped of their belongings, were given a hooded black jacket and asked to identify their objective from a card with the picture of an unknown person. They were then led to six chambers where by shifting their weight on footpads, acting as joysticks, they were able to move virtually through their avatars in an environment that was projected in front of them on a fine water spray, or screen.

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

At a crucial moment in the piece the virtual environment was unexpectedly penetrated by a real performer who slowly emerged through the rain screen to hand over to the viewer another magnetic card. No words were spoken and as quickly and mysteriously as the performer had appeared they would also disappear again, as if swallowed up from the world behind the screen: 'this momentary interruption of the game disrupts the telepresence experienced by the participant, for it fractures their solipsistic virtual engagement with the screen and points to the potential of something existing beyond the realms of the image. (…) It is therefore the performing live presence existing alongside the vitriol world that enables a critique of virtual technologies to be considered.' (Clarke in Blast Theory, 2002)

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

The exchange of one card with another led to the beginning of a third phase of Desert Rain in which viewers found themselves in a vast underground hangar containing numbers, which were in fact estimates of Iraqi casualties. This part of the game could only be successfully completed if all players reached the end of the corridor. Players who had reached this phase were therefore encouraged to help others who still had to find their target.

Once the virtual world experience was concluded, the final phase of the performance could start. Having left the virtual world in a ritual act of purification by walking through the water screens, the viewers found that the narrow exit corridor was blocked by a large mountain of sand. Having climbed up and come down the other side they would find that they had reached the final room of the piece. This space, simulating a motel room, contained a television that could be activated by swiping the card obtained from the performers during the virtual game. By swiping the card, each viewer’s target appeared on the monitor sitting in the very same hotel room that the viewers were in.

At this point it became manifest that each of the six targets had their life changed by the War. All targets had been talking about their relationship to the events during the conflict and how ‘real’ it all felt (Blast Theory, 2000). However, even at this point it was impossible for the viewers to tell whether the targets were real or fictional, and in fact one of the characters, the actor, even spoke about the event as ‘layer upon layer of simulation reverberating from every surface’ (Clarke, 2001: 47). Upon leaving the room, the viewers could finally change back into their original clothing and then leave, still unaware that some time later, they would find something unexpected in their pockets – a small box of 100,000 sand grains reporting a quotation from a speech by General Colin Powell from the New York Times of 23 March 1991 referring to the possible number of Iraqis killed during the war: ‘It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in’.

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Blast Theory, Desert Rain (1999-2003)

The very set of Desert Rain was a contamination of ‘the real and the virtual, each mirroring the design of the other, and connected through the permeable and physically traversable rain curtain.’ (Blast Theory, 2002). As explained by Adams, here, just as in the case of the real conflict, ‘the real penetrates into the virtual and vice versa’ (in Leeker, 2001: 744). This hybridity and contamination between ideology and aesthetics, real and virtual, performance and life, was once again also perceivable at an ontological level.

See some reviews of this piece at Document Icondr_guardian.jpg or Document Icondr_sundaytimes.jpg and Document Icondr_times.jpg.
For a documentation see [link]
For another exciting paper by Blast Theory see [link]

TRUCOLD (2002)

A piece about a global cityscape, TRUCOLD consisted of a series of fixed camera shots of ‘eerie, strangely depopulated, difficult to place, urban views: all of them at night, sometimes in glowing fog and set to electronic music’. Here, ‘each location is illuminated by electronic light – security spots, street lamps and banks of unforgiving fluorescent tubes in empty offices’. In this seemingly unforgiving representation of the contemporary cityrama, we witness the urban space as a global place. By partially erasing ‘the ephemeral passage of traffic and people’, the work ‘presents the urban fabric as monolithic, expansive and subject to minute shifts that might otherwise pass unmarked’.

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Blast Theory, Trucold (2002)

Seemingly absent people are in fact present, but always as trace, on the ‘margins’: ‘a running man appears as a blur, another is briefly reflected in a marble column.’ (Blast Theory, 2005). According to the company, ‘the work also plays with the limits and effects of technology. (…) The act of image capture itself is bordering on entropy.’ (ibid).

In this controlled but also entropic space, the coming together of virtual and real, technology and fiction, politics and economics produces an excess of signification.

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Blast Theory, Trucold (2002)

In TRUCOLD ‘city locations such as these are not so much sites of urban alienation as places where something ought to happen.’ (ibid., original emphasis). Here, ‘you find yourself trying to identify things, orient the space in the image, attaching real, imagined or fictitious events to it.’ (ibid.). This piece, which was shot by juxtaposing two cities, London and Karlsruhe, shows how the global city is always intra- and supra-national, a betweeness, in which the viewer can ‘fictionalise their surroundings’ and ‘experience things which are not really there.’ (ibid.)

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Blast Theory, Trucold (2002)

Subsequently Blast Theory developed a series of performance games, which by exploring the fluidity of the game structure allowed for the creation of mixed and augmented reality environments in which the company could, quite literally, operate their audiences. Through the game structure, Blast Theory could in fact exploit non-narrative structures and interactivity but also create environments in which the user was at once ‘both inside and outside the game’ (Adams, 2005).

Can You See Me Now? (2003-5)

Winner of the Golden Nica (2003) at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, this piece consisted of the interface between a virtual map and a real city, to which the map corresponded. In the real city there were real runners. Online, the players, who could operate globally had to escape the runners. The piece, which attempted ‘to establish a cultural space’ through technology (Blast Theory 2005) was at once aesthetically and politically challenging. Not only did it allow for the co-presence of virtual and real, but also it showed how the virtual can indeed impact on the real. By means of surveillance technology, it also showed how the urban space is no longer just what we encounter in the city but also its mythology, fiction even, as well as the informational flow that at once locates, directs and defines us.

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Blast Theory, Can You See Me Now? (2003-5)

'I am sat online, playing in my bedroom, 2,500 miles away from where someone is on the streets of a city in the rain in an anorak and trainers, running as it gets dark through rush-hour traffic. And as I exert pressure with my index finger on the left arrow key and turn into the virtual park, this human being is required by the rules of the game to leap the hedge into the muddy grass and run up the steep slope through the park to maintain this game space.' (Adams, 2005)

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Blast Theory, Can You See Me Now? (2003-5)

The piece, which, not unlike Kidnap, explored ‘the limits of our commitments and obligations to one another’ and showed that ‘electronic places are fraught places of trust’ (ibid.) allowed the audience to see how the global city space is not only affected but directly manipulated by technology and how this technology not only allows for the complex layering of virtual and real, but also creates the possibility for one to impact on the other.

For an interesting interview about the piece by Steve Benford from the Mixed Reality Lab at Nottingham see [link].
For an online documentation see also [link], [link] and [link]

I Like Frank (2005)

The work was described as the world’s first 3G mixed reality game using third generation (3G) mobile phones which have broadband services and allow for high-speed data transmission and internet and video links. Here, players in the real city of Adelaide could chat with players in the virtual city of Adelaide as they searched for the elusive Frank.

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Blast Theory, I Like Frank (2005)

The piece was again a mixture of hide-and-seek and treasure hunt (Adams in Blast Theory, 2005). When the real players and the online players came into proximity of one another, the online players could send text messages to the phones of the real players and the real players could record audio messages which were relayed back to the online players. Although, following computer game logic, ‘Frank is an idea. You never meet him in person’ (ibid.), the search felt very real and produced real effects.

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Blast Theory, I Like Frank (2005)

Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)

Participants were released into the urban space and told to find ‘Uncle Roy’. After handing over their possessions, and in exchange for a handheld computer, participants were told to locate the mysterious figure in 60 minutes. The computer showed a map which corresponded to the game area. Meanwhile, viewers could monitor their progress and offer advice online by following the participants’ actions through a virtual city map which was based on the real city’s configuration. Here, in yet another challenge to the audience’s trust, online players and actual players seemingly collaborated to find Uncle Roy.

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Blast Theory, Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)

The real protagonist of this piece was the city space. Described as the ‘arena where the unfamiliar flourishes’, a ‘zone of possibility’ (Blast Theory, 2005), the city is in fact encountered here in its excess, as a bank of signification. To maintain orientation and be able to progress in the game, the viewer has to progressively decode the signs, work out what is life and what is fiction, trust one rather than the other and deal with the consequences of possible mistakes.

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Blast Theory, Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)

When the piece was performed in London (2003), around the ICA, the layering of fictions was even more complex. According to Blast Theory, this was because the ‘cultural, political and social ramifications of the site were very well known to us’. In fact, in this case, the site was even more ‘charged with personal history’, but also actual history since, apart from the historic quality of the built environment, the piece took place at the time of the Queen’s birthday, and the site was crowded with police and surrounded by helicopter units. The site was also the known location of a number of documentaries and films, the Harry Palmer films, in particular, and politics, with the barracks nearest to Buckingham Palace being just round the corner (Adams, 2005).

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Blast Theory, Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)

Whether in Manchester or London, however, being in this piece felt like playing ‘a Play Station game where the virtual characters and locations are simultaneously real’ (Churcher, 2003: 19). Ultimately incapable of telling the fictions of history, politics, film, narrative, economics, apart from real life, the viewers, or players, of this game find themselves longing for directions. Unable to orient themselves without clear references from the game masters, the viewers cannot but continuously reposition themselves in a world of flickering and deceiving signifiers. This is the spectacle of the global city, in which everything is made of information. Here, Blast Theory comment, there is a ‘disparity between the city as a place of quotidian banality that’s based around drudgery and servicing our various needs on the one hand and the city as a fantastic place for otherness and endless possibilities and where multiple worlds are nested in one another’ (Adams, 2005). This disparity, or dialectic tension, between surroundings which are at once familiar and unheimlich, real and virtual, informational and material, continuously dislocates the viewer who through this process of Verfremdung is allowed a multiple perception of their own ontological position.

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Blast Theory, Uncle Roy All Around You (2003)

Uncle Roy All Round You, like other pervasive mixed reality games, encourages 'participants to explore the relationships between the real and the virtual, drawing on the fabric of the everyday world as material to enhance the digital experience, and exploiting the frisson of carrying out secret interactions in public.' (Benford et al, 2006: 427)

For reviews about this piece see Document IconMetro.jpg and Document IconEdge.jpg. For an online version see [link]


The company was commissioned to create a major, new permanent installation for THEpUBLIC in West Bromwich UK, due to open in 2006.

Using Augmented Reality, Flypad will generate avatars from a 'data body' - information submitted by visitors on their entry to the gallery and as they progress through the space. In the installation, up to twelve players will be able to fly their avatars through the gallery’s large central atrium, while attempting holds and forming moves with other avatars.

In its appearance, Flypad draws on Peking Opera, Mexican wrestling, facemasks, and skydiving.

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Flypad. Permanent commission for THEpUBLIC's new building, West Bromwich, to be launched in 2006. Copyright Blast Theory.

Flypad will be a permanent exhibit using augmented reality for up to twelve players.
See description at Document Iconreport_0605.pdf

All images courtesy of Blast Theory and copyright Blast Theory.

For Blast Theory's website which also contains information about other works and forthcoming events see [link]

For more information about the Mixed Reality Lab see [link]
For an interview to Matt Adams see [link]
For CVs of the company members see Document IconMatt Adams CV Jul06.pdf, Document IconNick_Tandavanitj_CV.pdf and Document IconJu - CV 2003.doc. For a company CV see Document IconBlast_Theory_Biograph.pdf
Most of the above abstracts are from Gabriella Giannachi's The Politics of New Media Theatre: Life®™ [link]
Online lectures and notes are at Document IconBlast Theory.ppt and Document IconBT_Public_Lecture_notes.pdf
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