Art School Live is a new series of live-streamed musical performances from around the Manchester School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University. Set up by two technicians, each show brings a local musical artist to the university to play a set to a small audience. The shows are broadcast live using a multi-camera setup, with all production duties carried out by students. On-the-job guidance and training are supplied by technical staff, leading to a highly collaborative atmosphere. This project offers invaluable real-world experience, helping students to leave university with an enhanced skill set and an abundance of quality footage for their showreels.
by Evan Wilson
During last year’s Easter Break, my colleague Sam and I were tasked with re-fitting and rewiring the sound studio at Manchester School of Art. This was a difficult, cramped job during one of the hottest Aprils on record. A lot of time was spent spreadeagled under the mixing desk ensuring that vast looms of cables successfully made their convoluted journeys from outputs to inputs – winding around table legs and speaker stands. Cable ties became our greatest friends and confidants.
As the end of the week drew nearer, we began to hatch plans for the studio’s maiden voyage. How could we best celebrate the end of the job while introducing the new studio to students in a fun and engaging way? As we both come from musical backgrounds, we started to think about putting on a gig in the studio’s live room, as an experiment. We could involve students and train them up on the technical aspects of recording a show. We decided this would be a perfect way to test out all the connections, whilst simultaneously providing students with some hands-on experience.
At the same time as setting up this studio, Sam and I were also putting together a portable kit for live streaming MMU Rugby matches down at the University’s Platt Lane campus. It seemed a natural conclusion to test this kit out at the same time and film/live-stream a show in the studio. This would enhance the experiment by opening up another set of roles for students to get involved with, and increase the real-world pressure of producing a live product.
We received the go-ahead from our line management, and went full steam ahead to set up the first live gig. After putting out the feelers on the Manchester independent music scene we received an influx of positive responses of acts wanting to be involved. We soon realised that this was an outlet sorely lacking from the local music scene. A way for small bands to promote themselves and receive a high-quality video package of their live performance – whilst doing the larger job of documenting the ever-evolving scene for posterity.
During the planning stages of this first show, we began to understand the scope and impact that the project could have. Students would receive real-world, hands-on experience of working in a high-pressure live environment in a manner otherwise unavailable to them; the shows would be public-facing, thus bringing more people into contact with the university; the live-streams and resulting videos would be perfect marketing material; and by involving local independent musicians, the university could be further cemented into the local creative scene in a new way.
The first show started with a solo musician, a three-camera setup and a 15 person (physical) audience. For each subsequent show, we pushed ourselves to expand the setup and boost the public-facing impact. As part of this evolution, we moved the shows from the studio into the university’s Holden Gallery. By relocating we put the shows at the heart of the university’s creative output. This is the venue for the school’s year-round exhibitions, and the main hub of the yearly degree shows. The Art School Live gigs quickly became a regular fixture in the gallery’s calendar.
The gallery offered a new challenge: creating a music venue from scratch within the space for each show. Again, this expanded the roles and experience available to the students. We added the positions of lighting assistant, production assistant, set designer, and live visuals operator. Joining the pre-existing jobs of camera operators, vision mixers, sound engineers, social media officers, photographers, editors, and graphic designers. There were now roles for around 15 students during the setup and execution of each show.
The shows grew as audiences topped 100 and new sets of students began to apply to work on the productions each month. By staying creative and setting up in different areas of the gallery each time, we were able to try out different systems for each show. This gave students access to equipment they would not ordinarily have the opportunity to utilise. For our last show before lockdown we employed seven cameras, a full-size jib, and two tracking kits. A full professional studio setup available to students for the first time – in a safe learning environment with full support from technicians.
With each passing show, the technicians have taken an increasingly ancillary role as the students were trained up and able to take responsibility for the majority of the operations. This was always the aim, for students to take the reins while technicians were on-hand to offer assistance if necessary. Students have relished this opportunity, and their feedback on the project has been glowing:
“Getting to work with Art School Live was a great learning experience as a student as well as being extremely fun. Evan and the team behind it made it a pleasure to be a part of, getting to work with them and these great bands has given me a lot of transferable skills and footage for my showreel I wouldn’t otherwise have. Really glad it came along.”
– Kiran Crampton (Level 6, Filmmaking)
“Working with Art School Live was a brilliant experience! The team are some of the loveliest people to work with and were excellent in teaching us some life-long skills in the world of filming in a live setting. using the visual mixing desk and software has definitely broadened my opportunities for the future massively.”
– George Hustwick (Level 6, Filmmaking)
“From working with Art School Live, I was able to gain experience in aspects of the field that I had not yet been able to experience, causing me to be able to significantly broaden my opportunities for when I leave the University this coming year. Getting to work the whole team was nothing but enjoyable, the whole experience was one that I would recommend to anyone.”
– Finn Logan Browning (Level 6, Filmmaking)
As the project has progressed, it has become more and more embedded in the students’ progress and skill development. Academics have embraced the project in its current form, and have been working with us to develop the initiative further to complement and integrate into the existing curriculum:
“Art School Live has become a fantastic opportunity for Filmmaking students to develop and test out practical, professional, collaborative and creative skills in a live context within a very nurturing environment. The experience our students have had is immeasurable in terms of their development and confidence as filmmakers. It should be noted that this is a rare opportunity to use live streaming technology, something we are keen to create more opportunities for in the build up to SoDA and beyond.
This project has quickly established itself as an integral part of the professional and employability assignment where students have the opportunity to gain academic credit by demonstrating their engagement with live briefs and external opportunities – I really hope the project continues to embed this further into the Level Four curriculum. This project fosters the creative community we want our students to engage with as soon as they enrol, and I saw how much impact this had on creating positive student experience within an exciting event based environment.”
– Chris Paul Daniels (Lecturer, Head of First Year: Filmmaking)
“I believe that the most important element of the ART SCHOOL LIVE series has been that of opportunity. Not only the opportunity afforded to the artists and performers, but to the technical staff and students involved in the production and the use of The Holden Gallery itself. Working with the team to produce the show, I found that the support and professionalism shown by everyone helped me to push my own practice and expectations within an encouraging environment. Seeing the output from other shows, both live and digitally, only confirms the enthusiasm and dedication of the project and the importance of the ART SCHOOL LIVE as an opportunity to the students, staff, artists, and performers.”
– Kevin Craig (Lecturer, Illustration With Animation & A/V Artist)
“It is always an enjoyable experience working with Sam and Evan from the Art School Live team. They have shown real dedication to giving the students a platform to develop professional skills in a live setting. It is a valuable experience for the local bands who receive fully edited documentation of their set within a unique gallery setting. For me, Art School Live activates the gallery space in a lively and energetic way and has successfully identified a gap in the public programme which engages students and brings new audiences to the gallery. I look forward to continuing to work with Sam and Evan and the future success of Art School Live.”
– Zoe Watson (Lecturer & Curator of The Holden Gallery)
“I performed at Art School Live in January 2020 and my experience of working with the student team was overwhelmingly positive. They showed high levels of technical expertise throughout the whole event and displayed a keen interest in the creative and artistic possibilities of live streaming. Their interpersonal skills and passion for producing a high quality event were second to none and I would not hesitate in recommending them for work on other filmmaking projects. I believe that Art School Live is an invaluable project for giving students real-world experience in live broadcasting and is an excellent marketing opportunity for the University.”
– Raz Ullah (A/V Artist)
While we had to cut this year’s Art School Live programme short as the university entered lockdown, we have not been dormant. Plans are afoot for socially distanced outdoor shows, indoor shows with remote-controlled cameras, and live shows created with video conferencing software. Many possibilities remain open to the project as we move forward. And one thing is certain: live streaming will be integral to future public engagement across the university.
Over the last few months, we have seen the entire world’s music scene migrate online. Live-streamed shows have replaced tours as musicians broadcast gigs from their living rooms. Art School Live is perfectly poised to tackle this new environment. In September we will welcome students back and work with them to adapt the project to flourish in the face of these new challenges.