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Rock Paper Scissors: School of Communication Collaborates with Peter Gabriel and Sting for North American Tour

By special invitation, students from the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art were invited to submit individual proposals to work as part of a team to devise the visual material for Rock Paper Scissors — Peter Gabriel and Sting’s live cross-North America tour this summer, 2016.

The two internationally renowned musicians, who first toured together in 1986, return to the stage alongside each other once more, with a renewed interest in the idea of collaborative performance – what happens when you put one song alongside another, allow for the juxtaposition of musical approach, performance style, sentiment and sensibility to give rise to new and unexpected experiences.

This sentiment of productive and expansive collaboration, in fact, strongly underscores the recent work undertaken with the School of Communication, who assembled a team of staff, students and alumni to compose the visuals that will run across 14 large screens, unfolding live according to the variety and energy of each of the 26 shows performed at different venues across Canada and the United States.

A total of 10 students, 2 tutors and 4 alumni came together to work on the project, from across the School’s programmes: Animation, Information Experience Design and Visual Communication.  Diversity in skill set, methodology and creative approach armed the group with a breadth and wealth of expertise: the interdisciplinary nature of the project, as well as those invested in it, allowed for rich and unpredictable material ­– in both theory and practice. Franziska Hatton and Louis Gauger, two of the students involved, spoke vividly of the energy and intensity of the project, and of the ways in which their knowledge was tested, pushed in different directions to new and fruitful ends. 

Team members were given particular songs, from across the oeuvres of both artists, to think about how they might be ‘visualised’ – interpreted, or translated as pieces of communication that would sit alongside, complement and enrich the tune in a live performance context. Core to the process was a series of sessions with Gabriel himself, who regularly visited the College to see how the students were working, often giving them in-depth feedback and constructive criticism, as well as urging them to follow their inclinations, practical and aesthetic. This valuable experience to have work critiqued extended beyond Gabriel to his professional team, including his prominent lighting and production designer, Rob Sinclair, and Sting's longtime lighting designer and director, Danny Nolan. In all of these exchanges, professionalism was paramount and well achieved as the team learned to absorb and work fluidly with the views and desires of their commissioning body.

Throughout the process, a shared language and methodology emerged across the group, with a focus on producing visuals, sequences and narrative that worked in fragments as well as unified whole. In order to help organise these principles, the group adopted the working theme of the ‘zine’ – embracing the dynamic frisson of collage, material disparate but coherent, where distinct but proximate elements rub up against each other to produce new meaning. In a sense, this metaphor functioned with regards to the ultimate outcome of the project, as a piece of visual communication; but also in relation to the participants themselves, who learned about each other, their individual capacities, thinking across discipline and media, and working in concert – literally and figuratively.

Given the variety of musical texture and narrative, rhythm and style, the team experimented widely with different materials and aesthetics – in each case, considering the role of communication as complementary to creative expression. Resultant visuals are both abstract and figurative, cut-and-paste, collage and forms of spontaneous expression. In one, the negative print of a hand extended in a peace sign is overlaid with graphic shapes, frantic scribbles resembling chalk white script, and a fluid waves of deep cerulean blue; in another, a single eye casts a sidelong glance, behind it an upside-down wash froth and waves, layered against an ochre interior with drapes, graphic notations in black extended and circle against each other to each side. Fingers reach across a surface to brush against each other, jagged lines of white and red undulate across, recalling a Moholy-Nagy photogram; a single pair of hands type-set, in fragmented pieces that appear as burned, blistered, or reversed photographic images, in heavy blocks: ROCK PAPER SCISSORS.

The range of ways in which these images will be combined, static and in motion, remains to be seen across the idiosyncratic live performances of Peter Gabriel and Sting, who launched their tour in Columbus, Ohio, on 21 June. The School of Communication looks forward to continuing the research outcomes of this innovative partnership: staff and students alike will be involved in working on academic articles and case studies that examine the project as a case study in pedagogy, creativity, visual narratives and working with external partners and industry professionals.

Professor Neville Brody, Dean of School of Communication says: ‘How amazing for the RCA to be able to work directly with Peter Gabriel and Sting on such a grand stage, both challenging and showcasing the inventive skills of these cross-discipline students, stretching out imaginative capability.’

Professor Teal Triggs, Associate Dean, School of Communication, and mentor on the project, agrees: ‘The learning experience for our RCA students, staff and alumni, has been tremendous; the privilege of working alongside some of the most creative artists and production teams in the world has been transformative.’

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