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ABBA, Holograms, and the future of performing arts broadcast

While on a mission at the Edinburgh International Children's Festival, I attended two large-scale musical shows: Beyoncé and ABBA Voyage. While the former met all my expectations in terms of pop and capitalist celebration, the latter absolutely blew me away. Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Frida appeared in front of an audience of 3,000 as holograms, flawlessly singing through screams and applause their most iconic songs. Amidst the visual fireworks, it was absolutely impossible to tell that these were projections floating before us: only the slight backlighting of the silhouettes made the performance seem unreal, yet all the more mesmerizing. At around £100 ($150) per person (on average according to dynamic pricing), the automated performance—sold out seven nights a week for a year—was as popular as it was profitable, even though no actual artists took the stage.

Leaving this event, I was as dazzled as I was disturbed. While broadcasters at the Edinburgh International Children's Festival and all others I met at the deserted arts markets lament barely filled halls for their live art shows, the facsimile of a musical performance draws crowds. It's clear that when ABBA was asked to reinvent themselves, their out-of-the-box thinking bore fruit. The experience solves the explosion of production costs by limiting payouts to royalties, the complexity of accommodations and transportation by only managing the technical team, and the length of venue entry by needing only setup and a technical rehearsal. Although our friendly Swedes aren't actually on stage, the proposition is so striking that it even surpasses Beyoncé’s pirouettes.

If the dance sector doesn’t necessarily have the means to afford holographic filming and robotic scenography, it can certainly learn that thinking outside the box offers new opportunities to reach and retain audiences. However, it's evident that the revival of live arts has rather been under the symbol of continuity than reinvention. As soon as masks were dropped and borders reopened, pre-pandemic practices were resumed with little or no question, rebooting the arts markets and venues as if years of confinement hadn’t changed mindsets. This resulted in a dissonance between old practices and new habits, where the public, pressured by successive crises (pandemic, climate, economic, energy, virtual), no longer responds in the same way to strategies implemented by programmers. Consequently, international live arts platforms are becoming less and less places of artistic transactions, while venue representatives search in vain for innovation. And this happens when they show up at international meetings: most are busy containing fires in their community to hit the road and discuss tomorrow when today is burning. Thus, CAPAS is betting more on festival meetings or direct encounters with programmers, to prioritize more human interactions, feeling the real pulse on the ground to offer proposals that align with their needs. Fortunately, Quebec is still spared with arts markets still symbols of exchange and promising cultural encounters. But with the desire of Quebec arts to reclaim their place internationally, it’s better to nurture the richness of these institutions while preparing the ground for an unstable future.

Thus, it becomes urgent to offer spaces where we can innovate, try, and fail with confidence, break the codes and go beyond genres to see live art reclaim its place in the cultural landscape. Back at the Edinburgh International Children's Festival, the company that caught the most attention confided backstage that they never intended to make a children's show, but by taking their work out of the adult circus box where it had been confined, it responded to the needs of dozens of cities looking for a family-friendly proposition. This innovation—without distorting the artistic essence—must, however, be done by recognizing the world in which the audiences we wish to reach now live: a universe where the virtual is increasingly inevitable, where budgets and time are limited, and especially where choices are made based on the quality of the overall experience—from purchase to leaving the venue. To ride the wave of change rather than being swept away by it (think of the CD industry that failed to face the arrival of streaming platforms like Spotify), we must confront it and prepare.

Beyond financial, temporal, and material considerations, it all takes root in the willingness of each element of the chain to question its practices and align them with current issues. But—to borrow the wise words of ABBA—"The question is: Voulez vous ?"


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