Extracts from an interview with NESTA
SwanQuake provides a completely novel take on the 'Shoot 'Em Up' gaming experience. By subverting the language of computer gaming the igloo artists create a games world where creatures & characters are motion - captured actors & dancers creating a brand new choreographic work. Part way between a game and a performance, the interactive environment hosts both performers and viewers in a unique 3d world. Viewers metamorphose into players as they move through their surroundings triggering the action. Spectators can fly around the space or see through the eyes of the players providing glimpses of unseen choreographic action adventure. The unexpected views give fresh insights into the language of gaming and gameplay performance and the role of the performer. The work is accessible as either a standalone single or multiplayer network installation running on ordinary PCs or by a worldwide audience via the internet.

Cutting-edge artists group igloo have been producing innovative art pieces since 1995, combining performance, digital software and installation. NESTA's Award will allow them to develop their interactive dance-based digital environment 'SwanQuake' with the aim of reaching a wider audience.

Imagine a virtual world in which dancing figures move with the grace and vitality of real performers, and where you'd be completely free to explore the endless landscape around you. Welcome to SwanQuake - the brainchild of St Martins design graduate Bruno Martelli and choreographer Ruth Gibson, who together formed igloo in 1995 to begin the first of many award-winning art projects combining digital media with dance choreography.

Using the same gaming software behind the highly successful first-person 'shoot-em-up' games that have long gripped the computer games market, SwanQuake will provide the viewer with a virtual environment in which they'll be able to influence and interact with moving performers.

The crucial difference, however, will be that there'll be no goal to the 'game'. 'The drama and tension are still there,' Ruth explains. 'But the tension comes from seeing how things change as you move closer to them.'


Interacting with the audience
Bringing together digital interactivity and visual art, Ruth and Bruno have earned a string of accolades for their computer-based artworks including receiving a BAFTA Interactive Arts nomination in 2002 for their CdRom WindowsNinetyEight.

'Winterspace' their three - screened installation still continues to tour globally. In that piece, projection screens showed patterns of snowfall subtly changing in response to the movements of everyone walking around the installation. Inviting the audience to interact with the scenery had an immediately powerful effect.

'A group of autistic children barged into the place and almost charged through the screen,' Ruth recalls. 'Then everyone else understood how the installation worked.'

It's this kind of response which drives Ruth and Bruno to do what they do. Bruno has even used similar technology to design a sensory environment for special needs children at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesborough, where encouraging the children to interact is as therapeutic as it is entertaining.


Breaking out of the virtual world
With their respective backgrounds in choreography and digital design, it's intriguing that both Ruth and Bruno drew inspiration to create Swan Quake from their experience of computer games.

Bruno was playing an online World War II simulation when he suddenly realised the limitations and potential of what he could see on screen. 'The odd thing was that the French village we were fighting in was particularly beautiful,' he says. 'But we couldn't walk round the village because there were Germans shooting at us.'

Ruth echoes a similar experience: 'What I always found extraordinary in driving games was that you are always travelling into the vortex of the screen,” she says. “But I always wanted to get out of the car and go for a walk.'

It's precisely this sense of exploration and sensory experience which Ruth and Bruno now want to incorporate into SwanQuake.


A dance to the music of time
While not a game in the traditional sense, SwanQuake requires the viewer (or 'player') to participate in what they can see. The virtual world around them will be infinitely explorable, and will be designed with the richly changing visual detail that has always defined igloo's work.

Importantly, it will also contain dance sequences which Bruno and Ruth create using state-of-the-art motion-capture, the same technology used by the Lord Of The Rings films to create 'Gollum' and the multiple characters Tom Hanks plays in Polar Express.

'When we first saw the footage, it almost looked weird because it had so much personality,' Bruno describes. 'It looked like it was coming to life.' Which is where Ruth's background as a choreographer, and igloo's use of professional dancers, made all the difference. 'You could tell the movement was coming from a person,' she says. 'There's this lovely organic human movement to a character, even if that character is modelled as an object or an animal. We're looking at the subtleties and the details. That's what makes this different.'


Broadening their audience
With the help of NESTA's award, Ruth and Bruno will now have the chance to research and develop the software that powers SwanQuake.

'It's given us a chance to approach this project as you would science research,' says Ruth. 'No one allows you to do art research in this way, and for this amount of time. When you're trying to go forward with something unique and innovative, that's really important. This project has given us the opportunity to create screen-based work that can be accessed by a wide public in a number of ways but remains close to our current interest in performance and animation.' Developing such cutting-edge software means Ruth and Bruno can already see the appeal of SwanQuake broadening to both devoted gamers and the wider arts and dance community. Ultimately, it may help bring the two together.

'We always felt there was a big divide between people who did and didn't use computers,' says Bruno. 'But we thought that if we could appeal to young people they'd grow up with an acceptance of the dance forms we'd introduced them to. With Swan Quake, we're trying to increase the dance audience, and to move into this new hybrid area of forms.'
- February 2004