Memory Plains Returning (2003)

Memory Plains Returning is a realtime 3D multi-user virtual environment designed for live performance. It was one of the world's first online multi-user live performances. It is a visual music suite in 7 movements: Memory Boxes - Memory Forest - Memory Sheets - Memory Plains - Memory Epiphany - Memory Used - Memorised Regret.





NOTE: the below is the text from the original webpage for the live performance of the work in 2003, along with a post-performance report for funding bodies, preserved here for historical interest.

Memory Plains Returning is a web based realtime 3D multi-user virtual environment work realised in VRML, existing in singleuser and multiuser forms designed for live performance. The multi-user version was designed using the open source VNet Java applet, and the single-user version, using VRML, is designed for viewing/listening on the web or at a standalone computer, and can be experienced passively by simply loading the page, which defaults to a guided viewpoint journeying through the movements in the above linear order, temporally much like a 'traditional' piece of music (except there are visuals which are actually creating the music. This spatialised 3D sound is one of the marvellous properties of VRML - it works with any stereo setup, though headphones provide the best experience.). Experienced this way, the whole piece takes about an hour, but will loop indefinitely.

Should you wish to interact with the piece, use your viewpoint menu to jump between the different movements, and navigate as you please using your browser's controls and viewpoint menu. Each movement's local viewpoint menu will appear when in proximity. Simply return to the 'journey' viewpoint at the top of the list to resume the automatic experience.


Artist's Report


Thanks to financial support from ANAT, and financial and/or logistical support from Digital Summer, Folly Gallery, Cornerhouse Gallery and Lab3D, I was able to accept Lab3D's offer to perform a live, online multi-user performance of my piece Memory Plains Returning, the single-user version of which was already on exhibition as a part of Web3DArt 2003.

There were three performers: myself at Folly Gallery in Lancaster, Kema T. Ekpei at Cornerhouse Gallery in Manchester, and John McCormick (of Company In Space) in Melbourne. Original plans to have a fourth performer, Alex Bradley, logged in from Watershed Gallery in Bristol were unrealised after encountering insoluble technical difficulties with Watershed's internal network setup. Instead, Alex Bradley presented a projection of the single-user version, which he navigated in real time.

The trip to Lab3D represented a significant chance to try out the principles of my current research, into live performance in a multi-user space using non-representational avatars, in front of an audience familiar with the medium within which the experiment would take place.

Aspects of the performance went well, whilst others did not. Both cases provided excellent foundations for future experimentation.

The Performance

The audiovisual manifestation of the resulting performance was similar, from an audience point of view, to the single-user version seen during the exhibition. So, what did it mean for the performance to be the 'live, multi-user version'? The multi-user space (realised using VNet, an open source java/vrml client/server system) is similar to any other multi-user space common these days. However, rather than presenting as avatars that attempt to portray the person in some way, the performers' avatars were actually parts of the audiovisual 'movements' of Memory Plains Returning. It was more like they were playing parts of the piece, except that in the multi-user space the performers are indistinguishable from their instruments. The piece, a gently unfolding meditation on the loss and return of memory through specific experience, is a highly 'composed' piece, meaning that the performers are conducted to carry out a predetermined set of instructions from which they don't deviate. It is analogous to a quartet playing a piece of scored music with no improvisation, although varying degrees of network lag were expected to create a kind of enforced external improvisation, as the perception of the performance would be different at any given time at any given site, and indeed this turned out to play a larger role than was expected, and created some interesting temporal/visual phenomena that are unique to the 3D multi-user space.

Problems and Implications


VNet itself appears to behave unpredictably when more than a small number of users are logged in. Some, but not all, users crashed, often more than once. Whilst it was difficult to determine precisely the cause, it created a very interesting effect - when the user logged back in again they were temporally out-of-step with those users who had remained in the space, creating a kind of 'virtual time-travel' experience. This experience is disorienting and confusing for those not completely comfortable within the multi-user space, but I think it offers another dimension for experimentation and, when marshaled in the service of the artwork, could provide another compositional tool for the artist: that of disjointed time, a knowledge that parts of the work may not be perceived in the linear order in which they are performed.

Audience Experience

In Lancaster, I went a long way into the performance before crashing, and only crashed once, whereas Taylor Nutall who was also present at Folly, logged in wirelessly on his laptop, crashed quite a few times. As a result of this Taylor had the unique experience of experiencing the same performance in two completely different audiovisual manifestations: the one on his laptop, and the one that was being projected onto the screen in the gallery from my computer. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, John McCormick had no crashing difficulties whatsoever and to his perception, the performance went almost exactly according to rehearsals. It was Kema at the Cornerhouse in Manchester who had the most difficulty, crashing several times and becoming quite confused as a result. Unfortunately, we had not discussed enough with him the experimental nature of the performance and as a result he didn't discuss the technical problems with the audience whilst they were happening. Therefore, the experience for the live audience present in the Cornerhouse gallery was less than satisfactory. This is testament to the fact that a significant portion of the rehearsal process should have been given over to discussions of philosophical, practical and performative aspects of the experiment being undertaken. At the Folly Gallery, which is an intimate space, I was talking with the physically present audience throughout the performance, and encouraged them to ask questions at any time, and concluded the performance with a discussion session. As a result, the Folly audience appeared to have an interesting and stimulating experience that was actually enhanced by the technical difficulties. This gives a great clue to the direction that performative practice needs to take in this arena - an attitude that embraces the qualities of the space, technical and metaphysical.

Online Audience

Another aspect for consideration is that of the online audience - unfortunately, given the pressures of physically being in front of a live performance, not enough attention was paid to the experience of the logged-in audience. I did occasionally seek textual feedback from the online audience, who seemed happy to provide same, but I didn't explicitly engage them in a dialogue about their experience of the performance as I did the physically present audience. This is something that I definitely want to pay more attention to in the future, as it is a key point in the quest to use this medium for its native qualities. In fact, the physically present audience - indeed the entire concept of having a physical presence for the performance - is a reference to more traditional arenas of live performance art, and in strict terms should be less of a consideration in the artist's mind that that of the online presence. This is not to say, of course, that such references to the physical world are unimportant - I think it is vital to provide those with less experience of the multi-user arena with a framework via which they are able to engage with the performative notions being experimented with. One of the most common comments from the online audience upon first logging in was "I can't see anything". In fact what they were looking at was an 'empty stage'. Whilst this analogy was easy for the online audience to accept, it took a little longer for some to realise that the performers were literally 'becoming the space' rather than human-like figures within that space.

Successes and Implications

In terms of successful aspects of the performance, besides the audiovisual aspects of the work being appreciated, the entire concept of having non-humanoid, non-representational performers seemed to be received very well by online and offline audiences, as well as by the various curators and technical people involved. In particular, the audience physically present at Folly gallery engaged with the piece in an interested and intelligent manner. This performance confirmed for me that the performative philosophy of using the qualities that the multi-user space displays natively is one that is likely to yield interesting, durable and significant performance capabilities, rather than the contemporary model of trying to use multi-user space copy the physical world, such as is displayed in many popular multi-user computer games. The potential open to a framework of using the avatar as the performance (the performer as performance) is enormous. The performers found the experience to be very positive, and are looking forward to engaging with this format in a deeper method. Given this, in a performative sense, the next level is to work with a piece that allows much more improvisation on the part of the performers, analogous to a jazz band improvising within given melodic/harmonic structures, time signatures etc.

Networking and Future Opportunities

My trip bore excellent results in terms of connecting with people. It was very positive meeting with Kathy Rae Huffman (curator of Web 3D Art, and curator of visual art Cornerhouse), who for so long has been one of the major international proponents of Web-based 3D art. I also attended a seminar about Web3D Art at the ICA in London, where Kathy Rae Huffman introduced me to Professor Karel Dudesek, Head of the postgraduate course, Interactive Digital Media at the College of Design and Communication, Kent, UK. Meeting with Taylor Nutall (curator of Folly Gallery) was also of enormous benefit, as he and I established a good working rapport and enjoyed some excellent conversations about web-based 3D in general and my work in particular. I am sure that Kathy and Taylor will prove to be helpful contacts in the future. I was also able to strengthen my relationship with Digital Summer, as well as the Acting Head of Economic Development for Manchester City, David Carter, with whom I continued discussions of the possibility of a collaboration between Manchester, Melbourne and Montreal for telematic cultural events. In a more indirect way, but still as a result of this performance, I was able to establish good contacts with the Web3D Art community in general, through discussions on the Empyre mailing list, which was an official part of Lab3D. In particular, I established a dialogue with Steve Guynup of Georgia Tech (well known as a pioneer in the world of Web3D Art), and we both feel that we will be able to work together in various ways in the future, particularly through discussions of non-representational avatars, which we hope may lead to presentations of papers on which we collaborate. Through Alex Bradley, I established contact with Watershed in Bristol, known for its presentation of cutting edge media, who expressed interest in my work. Nick Carillo, technical director at Folly and curator of Folly's online gallery 'unencoded' was also very stimulated by my presentation, and I'm sure will prove to be a lasting contact.

Performers' Impressions

Kema T. Ekpei:


As I haven’t really seen vrml used interactively before it was quite interesting to see it used in online performance. When I understood what "movements" were the concept seemed quite straight forward if I can use that word in 3d virtual space !! The use of the green lines as a cueing system was good it reminded me of sudden meteor showers you would see in a Isaac Asimov novel. I liked the fact Adam wanted me to talk him through my cues as a way of confirming I knew what I was doing, it was quite re-assuring in a teacher/student kind of way. Even though Jon wasn’t there for the initial rehearsals I felt I would be quite confident for the real thing.


Sat in the Cornerhouse Manchester after having rehearsed knowing it would work felt confident and ready to go. When the first cue went it was fine but then, I lost the plot a little, The projection screen wasn’t showing what the audience "needed " to see but Tamsin’s machine was showing nice things, even when I cycled through my cues there was no result.


The audience became restless I became a little uncomfortable but we readied ourselves for a rerun, it was cool, again the machines showed different things, which made us discuss time travel and internet lag in terms of enhancing or re-creating live performance: it changes the concept of "live" performance.

Peer Review

Steve Guynup

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I thought the empty stage was quite daring. Being unable to see, nobody really moved. Folks piled up at the openning (sic) viewpoint. Also I blame VNet's embedded Avatar selection. You had to use the arrow keys to "break-out". It's an interesting effect, but not really a positive one in this instance. Its neutral only if they didn't want to move. (And positive if you had played off of it somehow.)

Moving changed the performance little. Abstractly patterned space doesn't hold a strongly defined narrative story. Oddly enough I felt like Ringo in his wandering scene from Hard Days Night...I just wandered about, felt kinda alone even.

It took a little longer for some to realise that the performers were literally 'becoming the space' rather than human-like figures within that space.

I knew what was happening, but didn't have a strong sense that the abstractions were people. The crashes ruin my ability to really speak on this.

I think it is vital to provide those with less experience of the multi-user arena with a framework

As it stands your work unapologetically requires the audience to mentally stretch and grasp concepts they haven't had before. As an artist this is a good thing. The trick for you is to be aware this (sic) and know how to sculpt the performance to meet any concept you might have.

Basically, I think you are on the right track. Conceptually it felt strong, but the feeling of collaboration was weak.

My question is then "How can you reinforce the sense of individual humanity in the abstract forms?" You might consider ways to "introduce" the work. Film, theatre, music often create/explain a convention in the beginning and then build on it. Playing off reality rather than leaping beyond it in the beginning is one path. And if not more realistic forms - at least at the beginning, then perhaps use scale. Smaller human sized(or smaller) shapes that interact in ways that provide a framework. They could then expand larger, engulfing the audenience. My Crystal Cabinent piece passively teaches the audience how to engage with it and be comfortable with abstraction.

I did occassionally seek textual feedback from the online audience.

Participation is another huge question. I've got some ideas but nothing defined. For the moment I'm content to do shorter pieces that allow for conversations between them.

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All in all, this performance trip to Lab3D was of excellent benefit to me as a practising artist and also provided superb experimental results on which to build the next stage of my work with live, multi-user performance.