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Shifting lines: the home as a stage

As part of our evolving Digital Culture Strategy, we are sharing a series of case studies profiling how leading practitioners are embracing digital platforms and mindsets to make innovative new work and build connections with audiences.

For millions of people around the world, 2020 was the year they stayed home. But for some, like Dr Laura Osweiler, that was nothing new.

“For many of us it was kind of like, ‘Welcome to my world’,” she said.

Laura is a Sydney-based Middle Eastern and intercultural dancer, choreographer and producer, also known by her stage name Amara. When her health began to deteriorate, it wasn’t just her wellbeing and lifestyle that was under threat, but her art and livelihood as well.

“I was dealing with a body that at the time seemed to be failing,” she says.

So she did what artists do best – she fuelled this experience into her work. Building on years of performance and teaching, Laura began experimenting with new ways of creating and  presenting and more importantly, inhabiting her changing body. The result was an immersive multimedia dance work called Shifting Lines / Shifted.

“Surrounding the work were questions like: How do I create my art when I’m not able to do what I used to do – performing all the time? How do I make a living and find an audience online? How do I manage my career and my health, and actually use my career and my art to support my health and vice versa?”

Shifting Lines / Shifted aimed to go beyond simply streaming a performance online. Both her disability and the inherently interactive nature of Middle Eastern dance inspired her to try a very different approach. As well as an onsite audience, she experimented with simultaneously offering a range of compatible and participatory experiences to an online audience.

“I wanted it to be inclusive. I wanted to access people who were in my situation. And I wanted to have something for people online to actually do, not just sitting and observing,” she said.

Throughout Shifting Lines  / Shifted, Laura has a GoPro video camera attached to her, so that the online audience could move through the space with her and engage with those onsite. She presented films with audio descriptions, as well as how-to video guides, enabling home-located people to set up lighting and participate. Together the performer, onsite and offsite audiences explored embodiment, movement and form, sharing what they created.

“I really tried to make an immersive space online and onsite at the same time, and have these two spaces interact with each other,” Laura says. “Throughout the performance, able-bodied people and others with disabilities tried things and talked, some even from bed. The feedback was that there really needs to be more of this kind of hybrid work.”

Hybrid practice: More than a moment

While the COVID-19 pandemic has kicked off a rich period of experimentation in translating arts and culture online, Laura says this needs to be more than just a moment.

“There are partially, fully, and temporarily home-located audiences, many of which are for the most part silent and unseen due to their disabilities,” Laura says. “But with COVID, things are now more available. There are more events they can watch or participate in, in their own time, in their own way and reach out beyond themselves and their homes.”

And home-located audiences are growing, even without the pandemic.

“There is an aging population and people with physical and mental disabilities with a huge spectrum of experience out there,” she says. “There’s a whole range of people who as an audience are untapped and could be supported. And I’m now part of them.”

But as arts and cultural experiences slowly and unevenly transition back to being onsite, Laura worries this new found access could disappear.

“This community will get left behind again. It’s important as we go back to ‘normal’ or the way things were before, that we don’t just go back to what we used to like. That there’s support for artists who are home-located or who are learning to make work in this space because they want to or are forced to,” she says.

Laura argues a hybrid practice also needs to be supported by a broader shift in audience expectation and demand as well.

“The idea of an audience just coming and sitting really needs to expand. If we’re going to make hybrid work it needs to move beyond these parameters. It’s a space that can really develop new ideas about what a performance is, or what teaching is, or what audience interaction is. And we need governments and funders to support hybrid work not just for artists but to validate it for audiences as well, to help them see its value.”

And this includes financial value too.

“We also need to think about how we monetise this work. If your fan base is used to spending money to see you live, and now they expect to see you for free or for very little online, we have to figure out how to increase our revenue online and convince audiences that what you’re doing online is just as worthy. Working online is just as hard as working onsite, it’s just different.”

A new phase of Shifting Lines, Shifted will return online in 2021. You can explore Shifting Lines \ Shifted here.

Image: Shifting Lines, Laura Osweiler, 2021

Video: Sisters (Multiplicity of the One) Audio Description & Film, Laura Osweiler, 2020

n response to our Digital Culture Strategy, we have launched a four-year Digital Culture Program to develop practice, share knowledge and invest in innovation. Applications are now open for a range of professional development opportunities and we will be announcing new programs and opportunities regularly over the next twelve months.