Robert Walton on Child of Now and bringing your heart to work
A creative trailblazer, Victorian College of the Arts Theatre lecturer Robert Walton has been credited with creating the world’s first piece of iPad theatre and has toured his work in the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. So where does "radical empathy" fit in to his work as an artist and creator?
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
“Imagine if all the people at a festival could get together and make a baby,” says Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) artist, teacher and writer Robert Walton with a twinkle in his eye. “And imagine if we could collectively make decisions about its life from now to 100 years in the future.”
This was the playful germ of an idea that eventually grew into Child of Now, a large-scale interactive public artwork Walton is currently developing, collaborating closely with a number of partners. These include Arts Centre Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne's School of Computing and Information Systems (CIS), where Walton was Artist in Residence during 2019 and will be again in 2020.
Here is the stunningly audacious concept for that big baby. A giant 144m tall person will be visible (via mobile devices) above the Art Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. Moving and talking, the Child of Now will grow over the course of ten days from a baby to a 100-year-old person living in an imagined future.
Ageing and changing appearance every minute of its lifespan until its death on the last day (which will be marked by a public vigil), the “child” will take on the physical likenesses, gestures and ideas of 14,400 Melburnians. These individuals will “donate” their contributions through a travelling, immersive installation that captures volumetric video in the year leading up to the spectacular, city-stopping event.
“I think it will be an inspiring and unique way for us to collectively think about the people of the future,” says Walton, who speaks quietly but with great intensity and palpable warmth. He says that part of the impetus for the Child of Now came from realising he’d never have offspring of his own. His extended family tribe from the north of England were at risk of extinction, “with all our little customs and ways of life, our family culture, likely to die out”.
It didn’t take much extrapolation to see this as symbolic of a wider human crisis, and during our conversation we talk about the burning NSW forests that have never burnt before, the poor koalas, and the likelihood that the Child of Now will need to grieve for a world and a way of life that no longer exist.
Walton often uses the term “radical empathy” to describe what he’d like his work to achieve: a process enabling audiences to risk opening themselves up to the feelings and experiences of other humans, as well as to the natural environment and even the buildings within it.
“It’s risky to empathise and stay soft in a world that expects people to be hard all the time and to be increasingly machine-like,” he explains with a smile. “Performance, and taking on the role of another person, is one of the really powerful ways to do this.”
The next step in developing Child of Now involves creating a prototype for the way in which individual contributions will be collected, stored and used. This is where the School of Computing and Information Systems come in: to develop a system that will allow a person to imagine someone of their own age at a certain point in the future, and in that moment, “perform” as that person while they’re captured in 3D.
The City of Chicago commissioned Robert Walton to create Exhuming Johnny in 2019 for the Year of Chicago Theatre celebrations and the Goat Island Archive.
“One of the challenges of the project lies in making a system that sees everybody in their radical difference and engages with more than 14,000 people in a profound way,” he explains. “It’s not about making everybody the same, or making some kind of amalgam.”
Walton, who came from the UK in 2011 to join the University of Melbourne’s Theatre Department, has long been interested in the intersection between theatre, art and technology. Before moving to Australia, he created Alma Mater, the world’s first piece of iPad theatre. In 2015 there was Vanitas, an interactive artwork for smartphones and cemeteries. Created with Jason Maling and nominated for both Webby and Green Room Awards, Vanitas formed part of Walton’s PhD research.
“AI needn’t necessarily be a very scary thing,” he says. “It could be something we just don’t understand yet. It could be really beautiful and nourishing and draw attention to things that don’t normally get visualised.”
The human heart
A case in point is another project Walton is bursting to talk about. He is leading a multidisciplinary team designing an actual human-sized heart that will pulse at the centre of Melbourne Connect – the University's forthcoming innovation precinct set to focus on our digital future. This is the digital feature artwork for the main lobby of the precinct, which is located at the corner of Grattan and Swanston Streets and due to open in late 2020.
“The building is going to be extraordinary,” Walton enthuses, going on to describe geothermal electricity sources and the way every room will have multiple sensors measuring air quality, energy use and the movements of people in and out. Seeing the building as a kind of living body, he wondered what it would mean to give it a heart that was connected to all these information systems, with a pulse rate that goes up during the day and down at night. There’s even talk of a mode of “dreaming” in which the heart remembers some events and people, and forgets others.
Like Child of Now, this artificially intelligent heart is another art project intended to build empathy and promote community. “It’s designed as a provocation to all the scientists and amazing people who’ll work there,” Walton explains. “I want us to ask: what does it mean to look after a building? Do you dare to bring your heart and your vulnerability to work in what is normally considered to be a dry, scientific and heady world?”
Modestly, Robert Walton says he has few real skills, except for “having ideas” and “putting on a show,” but he is genuinely inspiring. It’s easy to imagine why he received the 2018 excellence in teaching award from the Victorian College of Arts at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music. Over the course of an hour’s conversation, not once did he use the clichéd words that populate so many dreary academic websites: “passion”, “innovation” or “excellence”. There’s no doubt though, that his work embodies those qualities.
- Find out more about Theatre at the University of Melbourne.
- Read more Research stories from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music.
- Visit Robert Walton's website.
The prototyping of Child of Now, led by Robert Walton, is funded by Melbourne School of Engineering and The School of Computing and Information Systems through a collaboration with Arts Centre Melbourne. The Heart of Dreamer digital feature artwork by Robert Walton for Melbourne Connect is funded by Melbourne School of Engineering. Vanitas was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts Digital Theatre initiative through Arts House. The City of Chicago commissioned Robert Walton to create Exhuming Johnny for the Year of Chicago Theatre celebrations and the Goat Island Archive.