Draw & Code collaborated with Magic Leap and Manchester International Festival on a mixed reality experience for 21st century ravers. Phil Charnock, who DJ’d at many raves in a past life, shares the insider experience:
A basement, a red light and a feeling. That is all you need for a good rave. Well, that and a lot of nice people. And amazing music. Oh, and don’t forget the giant projection installations, mixed reality experiences, a multi-floored stage running from floor-to-ceiling, face-painting and an entire troupe of acting talent. Obviously.
As part of Manchester International Festival, grime superstar Skepta delivered his vision of the rave of the near-future with an event called DYSTOPIA987 – and Draw & Code were there with producers from Magic Leap to provide a trippy, augmented experience to be accessed by the lucky (and quite literally) chosen few.
DYSTOPIA987 painted a picture of a crashing, imagined dystopia on the outside that was being rebelled against by an attempt at creating a very human utopia on the inside. The event was all about using technology – where appropriate – to bring us together. With writing from Dawn King and spectacular immersive installations from TEM, the high-tech production with narrative-imbued throughout was anything but ordinary even if the spirit of togetherness in a dark warehouse may be nothing new to Mancunians.
DYSTOPIA987 was to run in the same format for three main nights and one test event for friends and family; having the chance to present a production in the same space for most of the week is very rare for the furtive nature of raving.
Each evening started with ravers assembled in groups at a skatepark before being escorted to the venue. As you may expect, this was essentially a warehouse; the Mayfield is a former railway station used by MIF for other events that is soon to be rebranded and will host Manchester’s inner-city clubbing institution The Warehouse Project.
Before entering the building, everybody was required to hand over their phone – this event was not going to be popping up on your friends’ Instagram Stories. This was at Skepta’s behest – it was all about helping the audience to properly tune into the experience rather than it being filtered through their phone screens. Once inside, the initiation into the party involved a ‘silent disco’ set-up with headphones playing a soundtrack of urgent house music over which we were addressed directly by Dambrin, a mildly Mancunian-accented AI named after the inventor of Fruity Loops audio software. From here the dancers could explore a Blade Runner-like market alley including futuristic threads from Cyberdog, neon face painting and featuring interjections from actors who were sprinkling elements of the narrative around us.
In the marketplace there was one experience that seemed to be off-limits – a mixed reality ‘placebo’ trip designed to get the wearer of the Magic Leap One headset moving and exploring their environment. Developed by ourselves at Draw & Code with the input of Skepta, Manchester International Festival and collaborators from the RSC-led Audiences of the Future consortium, including Magic Leap themselves, the vision was for this to be the 21st century hallucinogenic drug-free trip.
Actors were tasked with selecting the most engaged and enthusiastic people to come and put on a Magic Leap. Two people at a time were welcomed into what may have been an old, temporary office space now devoid of nearly every fixture and fitting. However, what was there was mapped by the device and the contextual animations fitted onto the remaining tables, walls and shelves. The participant’s gestures were also utilised – waving your hands in front of you resulted in bold, neon shapes trailing from your body and appearing to hang in mid-air.
In a dimly lit warren of tiny rooms lacking in features, this seemed like a less than ideal environment for the Magic Leap to perform in, but it rose to the occasion magnificently. Indeed, we saw strangers donning the headsets and dancing together. We spoke to a couple who use immersive theatre and virtual reality to escape from their somewhat high-pressure and draining work who were thrilled with their first Magic Leap experience. A bevy of artists appearing during the festival took their turns in the Magic Leap One, as did guru of the UK electronic music scene Mary Ann Hobbs.
In the room adjacent to the cyber-market there was a dedicated DJ space focused around a circular DJ booth. Above the heads of the assembled dancers a nest of projectors, lasers, strobe lights and additional speakers ran on rails across the room. This was an impressive installation from TEM, but they had saved the best until last.
As the final hour of the party approached a seemingly innocuous plastic awning was torn down to reveal a cavernous space with a giant multi-level stage down the brick-lined tunnel sprawling ahead. This was where Skepta was performing, opening with the definitive grime beat from Wiley’s ‘Morgue’, a piece of music Skepta has utilised as a statement of intent before. From here he launched into a punchy set including the undisputed anthem ‘Shutdown’. Each hit was peppered with messages urging us to forget our worries and to harness the energy in the room.
Skepta loomed, leaped and hung from a giant three-story stage. With a semi-transparent look, this was to all intents a holographic display.
The reception to the event was staggering with the #Dystopia987 hashtag being a spoiler-free list of compliments to the event and its spirit. The success was attributed by many to the phone-free environment – but there have been plenty of lack-lustre events in the times before the ubiquity of smartphones, so it’s clear that there was far more at play here. An intoxicating cauldron of performance art, narrative elements and well-executed, non-intrusive technology installations and integrations was combined with the luxury of devoting a room per ‘act’ to make for a truly energising and memorable experience.
You know how the club scene in movies always looks way cooler than in real life? This time the spectacle of the space itself, the spectacular lighting, arresting projection installations and the neon-sprinkled dancers themselves conspired to make something that topped any celluloid rave.
The fascinating thing is that amongst all the theatre, the Magic Leap is a very real piece of technology with form and function that appears to come straight from the future imagined by DYSTOPIA987. The headset overlaying animation onto your environment using only your gestures as input is not science fiction anymore and that is something to be savoured.
(Additional photography by Jordan Hughes)