Virtual events keep spirit of Festival alive

Two compelling events are being presented by the University this autumn as part of its ongoing commitment to Edinburgh International Festival.

The events are part of a bold programme that safely recreates the Festival buzz, at a time when so many cultural highlights are succumbing to Covid-19 restrictions.

A virtual exhibition curated by Edinburgh Futures Institute and a podcast series in partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival join a line-up that includes creative collaborations, distanced installations and digital events.

Both events will seek to repeat the success of 2019 when the University supported music recitals at St Cecilia’s Hall and a series of performances, You Are Here.

Compulsive listening

Edinburgh Futures Institute is supporting the podcast series, which showcases influential writers from around the world whose work explores pressing social and political themes.

The podcasts, which will be available throughout October, feature recordings of talks given by leading writers during last year’s Festival.

The 15 writers contributed to a morning discussion series entitled Morning Manifesto, which was part of the acclaimed You Are Here programme.

Each writer proposed a shared manifesto for the future, on subjects that includes the climate crisis, privilege, artificial intelligence (AI) and social class.

Boundaries explored

Two arresting artworks have been commissioned by the Futures Institute for the virtual exhibition, which explores the boundary between what is real and what is artificial.

The show,  which is curated by the Futures Institute's Dr Drew Hemment and runs from 17 October to 30 November, considers humanity’s journey into the ‘new real’ of the digital world and explores how we make sense of differing realities.

The New Real features work by Anna Ridler and Caroline Sinders – both artists and machine learning experts – and Jake Elwes, who explores the algorithms, philosophy and ethics of AI.

Unlocking inspiration

Mechanized Cacophony by Ridler and Sinders is an interactive online sound work, inspired by lockdown, that explores how experiences of nature are mediated by technology.

The two artists, working remotely, each captured sounds from a variety of sources, including in the field and online recordings of both natural and industrial environments.

They trained a computerised neural network to interpret the resulting dataset and then generate an array of eerie and uncanny soundscapes. 

Astonishing insight

Zizi – A Virtual Show is an interactive artwork by Jake Elwes that constructs, and then deconstructs, a virtual cabaret show.

It is hosted by Zizi, a drag act constructed using so-called deep-fake technology that is capable of learning a variety of mannerisms by observing human performers.

During the show, audiences are invited to switch between the different deep-fake bodies and identities that Zizi has learned, making visible the processes used in their construction. 

The artwork conjures up the Zizi character, and then, as we watch in wonder, reveals it is simply a technological artefact to dispel our very human obsession with machines becoming more human. 

The New Real is supported by Edinburgh Futures Institute, Creative Scotland, Creative Informatics, and the Data-Driven Innovation programme of the South East Scotland City and Region Deal.

Organisers also work with Festivals, Cultural and City Events, the School of Informatics and Bayes Centre at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt University. Along with Mechanised Cacophony, developed in partnership with Ars Electronica and AI Lab (ARTificial Intelligence Lab).

Light touch

The podcasts and exhibition are the latest in a series of cultural events being promoted by the University as the city reimagines its August festivals in testing circumstances.

Bristo Square, at the heart of the University campus, was one of several venues to host light installations that marked what would have been festival season’s opening weekend.

Buildings across the city, including McEwan Hall, were illuminated by hundreds of beams of light, created by designers Kate Bonney and Simon Hayes, which reached into the night sky.

Many venues were also lit from within by glowing lanterns, which shone and pulsed behind closed doors, celebrating the people and artists who make the festivals happen.

Cultural Conversations

The University has also been hosting a series of online events that examine how the arts and creative sectors can help society recover from the effects of Covid-19.

Artists, academics and cultural leaders joining the Edinburgh Culture Conversations have debated the value of creativity, not just to the artistic community but to wider society.

The opening event on 13 July considered how to keep the Festival spirit of internationalism and inter-culturalism alive in challenging times. The final Conversation is on 14 September.

Discussions have been chaired by the University’s Director of Festivals, Cultural and City Events, Janet Archer. The series has been supported by Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Enthusiasm undimmed

Covid-19 has not dimmed the creativity – or the enthusiasm – of those who help to make Edinburgh’s festivals such a global cultural phenomenon.

Researchers from the University’s Creative Informatics programme unveiled the world’s first computer-generated arts festival programme as part of a virtual Fringe.

They used AI to create descriptions for a host of imaginary Fringe shows, which were then performed by a comedy troupe.

Fantasy Fringe

The team used an AI system called the ImprovBot to mine the 100-word text descriptions of every Fringe show from 2011 to 2019 – which amounted to more than two million words.

ImprovBot then used this data to generate random event blurbs for an imagined festival of comedy, plays, musicals and cabaret”.

Some 350 show descriptions were posted hourly on Twitter before improvised comedy group the Improverts used the descriptions to give their take on the imagined shows. 

Continuing story

Elsewhere, University students, staff and alumni have taken part in online events as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Among them was the announcement by broadcaster Sally Magnusson of the University’s James Tait Black Prizes – the UK’s longest-running literary awards.

A memoir by a poet whose mother survived the Holocaust and a novel told entirely through the internal monologue of an Ohio mother of four were the winners of the £10,000 prizes.

Related links

Edinburgh Futures Institute

Edinburgh International Festival

James Tait Black Prizes