Derivative: In 2010 you graduated from the National Academy of Arts, Sofia with a Master's degree in Scenography - what first led you to the theatre?
Petko Tanchev: Back in the days it was quite a dynamic period for my career. I was lucky enough to start working as a scenographer while I was still studying and we did some contemporary performances in non-stage spaces, also integrating projection into them. Then we even won a national theatre award and so I was really excited about the possibilities of new media tools. The next big thing was to do a projection mapping performance over the whole theatre building. In 2010 this had never been done in Bulgaria, so I came across this technique by accident while doing online research.
Unfortunately that same year the Municipality decided to change the way it funds culture in the country, so the budget for our show was frozen and it never happened. But this idea ignited a spark in me and I started looking for ways to work more and more in this direction. The following year I did my first projection mapping for an art festival and started working as an independent visual artist, returning to the theatre again much later.
Derivative: At what point did you discover and integrate TouchDesigner into your work? (Feels like a very long time to me!)
Petko Tanchev: Certainly projection mapping and stage design weren't the only things I was interested in. Since I found myself feeling most comfortable in experimenting with different expressive techniques when drawing or working with software, I’m always looking to expand my skills with new artistic tools. My interest in video and interactive arts came abut logically, after attending a course on Pure Data in the Art Academy, as well as several Max/MSP and Isadora workshops. So in 2012 I was watching a video of Amon Tobin's ISAM show and it kind of brought together all my interest in stage design, projection mapping, a/v interactive art.
I did a little research and came across TouchDesigner – it was love at first sight. It had everything I needed - an intuitive interface, real-time data presentation and a non-commercial free version allowing beginners to try out all the features.
A few months later I did my first public TouchDesigner project as interactive a/v mapping for the opening of a video art festival, and that love never stopped growing.
Derivative: You later went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in Digital Arts, was that a result of realising the potential to bring this type of media to the stage or what prompted that return to school?
Petko Tanchev: After I started developing my author projects for festivals, I saw all this great potential behind new media tools and at the same time, they were not something very common in my country Bulgaria. So I started trying to increase the interest of the public and other artists - doing online art platforms, presentations, etc. In 2016 I was invited to curate a new digital arts module called Creative Media Lab, which was part of Night/Plovdiv, one of the biggest international art festivals in my hometown. I was quite enthusiastic about this new opportunity. CML was held three years in a row, and I managed to organize various exhibitions and workshops for which I invited the TouchDesigner artists Barak Koren, Mary Frank and Anton Heestend together with many other local artists.
These educational activities were also noticed by the Art Academy in Sofia, who invited me to lead a new student course for TouchDesigner. Teaching is definitely a big challenge for me because I am extremely introverted and very shy, but challenges are what I love. After I went back to school I made this logical decision to start furthering my career there too – I think I'm just ambitious and persistent in the things I like. I did my PhD there as well, the topic of which was “Tools for Visual Programming”. I wrote most of it during the pandemic lockdown – it was an appropriate period for academic research and a time in which I organized my own knowledge and artistic pursuits.
I devoted a lot of time to this theoretical project and I hope that it will serve as a practical guide for all Bulgarian artists who are moving in a similar direction as me. I will share it for free once it’s ready and approved by the Academic Committee. This is an opportunity to give something back as I took a lot of knowledge and inspiration from my teachers too, when I was a student at the same school! And it feels great!
Derivative: Can you talk a bit about your focus on incorporating interactive digital installations in live performances with some examples? Clearly this is something very important to you.
Petko Tanchev: A large part of my work today is devoted to the theatre and opera. These performances are happening live, so for me the projection installations should also be live – as a real-time partner to the actors.
Things take time, especially in my little country, but eventually they happen more and more as the directors also start to see the potential of live installations to add extra value to the performance. It's simply the future and we can't escape it. Now with the rapid development of virtual production and AI technologies these are exciting times to be living in! We as artists have more tools to experiment with and shape the traditional arts as well. Last year we launched several new digital art labs in my hometown Plovdiv at the Opera and the Puppet Theatre, so we are about to expand the base of these institutions with new technologies and means of expression.
Derivative: Professionally and artistically your work extends beyond the theatre to shows and art projects featured in galleries, at festivals and so forth. Can you tell us a bit about that and what drives you in these pursuits and directions?
Petko Tanchev: I think it’s my unceasing will to always look for new directions to develop my visual art. For me, all of these projects bring different experiences to my portfolio, so I'm definitely always trying to collaborate with other artists, work in different environments, and try out new tools.
For example, last year I did two solo exhibitions where I explored some of the capabilities of AI for classifying textual data, composing thousands of photos, applying image segmentation and face recognition, etc. I tried various programs and libraries to achieve the results, but in the end it all came back to TD. Maybe I feel the most secure in it, or after all the years I have a lot of reusable components, but the reason is also the large community behind the software. This allowed me to learn a lot of new things such as exploring OpenCV features, importing API data, generating 3D objects, and so on. The development of TouchDesigner which I have largely followed over the years, has brought me from just a few video tutorials and a lot of textual information in the wiki and website forum, to several new help groups of constantly active users, books, forums, sites and hundreds of new tutorials. This variety of materials and compatibility with other programs really makes Touch a living and evolving piece of software that I apply in a wide variety of scenarios.
Derivative: If you could pick some of the work you are most proud of and describe the “design brief”, your inspiration, process, and how you used TouchDesigner.
Petko Tanchev: Sure, I'm happy to share some creative details behind these projects.
Altitude/Attitude was a series of audiovisual events and I did projection performances for three of them. They took place at various historical sites in Plovdiv - monuments (some of them abandoned), which we transformed into new works of art through light.
My approach to each of them was different - for some I used pre-rendered content (simulations and 3D environments from TouchDesigner) and a VJ interface, and for others I made everything live and generative in a custom interface. I think I try to never get bored and I only know what I want to do after seeing the environment. I go there with a clear mind, look from the audience's point of view and work in collaboration with everyone else involved in these projects. This is how the end product is obtained which is the result of a common process and effort.
Silk is a theatrical performance at the Drama Theater Plovdiv, directed by Diana Dobreva, with whom we have worked several times before. In this project, the whole team was deeply inspired by Alessandro Barrico's text (dramatized by Alexander Sekulov) and the rehearsals went quite straight. In theater performances, the most important thing for me is to capture the essence of the dramaturgy and combine it with the scenography and costumes (which in this case were the work of Mira Kalanova and Marina Raichinova).
In Silk, I set myself the goal, through projection, to enlarge various details of the scene and create that "second world" happening in the head of the main character in the play. Diana brought all the elements together through acting and gave them life. Almost all of the visuals were generated directly in Touch, and some of them were mixed with other content from AfterEffects. There's a pretty spectacular scene where I had to create the idea of a birdcage, and at one point the actor opens that cage and the birds fly freely all over the stage.
It wasn't enough to recreate a realistic flock of birds, so I took a more abstract direction and used the Nvidia Flex solver with particles. This was a pretty good approach for this case because it gave us a more artistic idea of a physical flight simulation rather than a literal solution. We liked these birds so much that we repeated them elsewhere in the show, including the finale. Overall, I think that Silk turned out to be a beautiful visual experience, a journey into the unknown lands of the imagination.
Between 2017 and 2019 I did three projects with Ria Murphy and her vertical dance company Aerial Cirque based in Dublin, Ireland. I met Ria earlier during a presentation of our works in Kaunas, Lithuania, and we immediately decided that we should do something together. I think it was driven by our shared desire to experiment and expand our work in new directions. So for our performances we definitely tried different motion tracking tools and wearables to collect more real-time data from the performers as they dance on the facades. It was a challenge to implement all our ideas in the shows because it was not easy to find a suitable rehearsal space and budget for such projects, but in the end we managed to use some motion and EEG data from Kinect, Lidar, Hot hand and Muse.
I own some of these devices so I brought them to Dublin and others were hired. The time to test and get them into live production was always so short because there were so many other things to take care of as well. We ended up using Kinect for some of the performances and our idea was to isolate the performer's silhouette from the wall so that the visuals could react to their movements separately from the background. But the depth texture didn't work out due to distance constraints. So we used the Kinect more like a simple RGB camera, but luckily in Touch there is the blob-tracking technique supported so I was able to build motion tracking that way.
But a few years later, I used the Kinect in a theatre performance called Odysseus, and there I was able to get more meaningful depth data, so this time I was able to successfully program a custom interactive floor.
Another interesting sensor we used was the Hot Hand (thanks to the audio artist Fried Dähn for selling me his when we were working on the CAMP visual music festival) – it's a ring that allows me to get data from the performer's hand movement. So I was able to track those fearless pirouettes in the air that Ria skillfully performed and send the values from them to Touch via the OSC protocol. I connected the data amplitude to some parameters of the SOP operators, through which I bent and changed the geometry of the 3D objects projected on the facade.
For our third show in Dublin which was on a crane, we tried to use Lidar for more accurate tracking, but it was actually the most difficult performance in many aspects. And we barely got around to rehearsing with the Lidar, so we left it as something we needed to spend more time on at another opportunity. And our experience with the Muse headband was also quite experimental. I remember that I managed to stream the data into TD but we didn’t actually used in the live show. The CHOP channels came in too jumpy and illogical so it was definitely something that needed more time to work on. We see the potential of these tracking and wearable devices for live performances – to follow the movement and physical activity of the performer, but we needed an additional residency program in which to explore their capabilities and technical challenges. But in the end, I think we were able to bring together the live interactive visuals and vertical dance in Dublin and apply them to some really interesting performances.
Carmina Burana is an opera performance produced by the State Opera Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I created the stage design for it driven by my older desire to work on the beautiful music of Carl Orff. The performance took place at the top of one of the symbols of the city - Bunardjika hill, which is also a historical monument.
The scene was intended to convey the idea of Fortuna – the circle of fortune implemented both horizontally and vertically. It was actually a large screen where the scenes from the libretto were shown through the projection of various cosmological elements and mythological creatures. Most of the content was created in Touch using generative techniques and image filters for classical illustration drawings. In this organic natural space on the hill everything was quite site-specific, and that's one direction I also like to work in very often.
Derivative: So much of your work has been focused in your hometown of Plovdiv, European Capital of Culture, where you currently work at the State Opera. It’s really nice to see those roots and how you share your skills and energies there. What has that experience been?
Petko Tanchev: Plovdiv is a unique city - it is actually very old, dating back 8000 years and considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. In 2019 it received the title of European Capital of Culture, and of course this gave many new opportunities for the cultural institutions and independent artists in the city. I think Plovdiv is a huge inspiration and you can really feel the mix of different cultures here. For some time of my life I studied and lived in Sofia - the capital of Bulgaria, but then I returned to Plovdiv because I like it more. Of course, I like to travel outside the country, but somehow I always come back here probably because I feel comfortable and have personal space and peace to take care of my projects. Although I definitely want to see many more places, I think I can contribute to the development of art in my hometown which is also a very valuable decentralization of the cultural processes.
Derivative: From looking at the theatrical work you and others in (and outside of) the community are involved in it feels as if there’s a technological and artistic “revolution” (not sure that’s quite the term, maybe you can suggest another) that is making the live performance arts so much more interesting and vital. The inclusion of digital media, projection mapping, sensors, interactivity and even robots. What’s your take on this? Tools are one thing but the discretion of knowing how to use them is another. If you could also discus some experience please.
Petko Tanchev: Art can be seen as a curved mirror that reflects reality, but also creates new forms from it that help one to realize new perspectives outside the space of everyday life. With the digital "revolution" in which we live, art, as always, takes something from the development of society and uses it for its own purposes. In my experience in the performing arts, the new media tools you described come when there is a need to define a new world, some space beyond reality. I always think visually and non-linearly, so I see the computer as a really powerful artistic tool that is able to create those new realities that give us a new look at our own reality. This way we can see the truth better - because it is not just one, but rather a mixture of the collective unconscious and the archetypes that drive all human evolution. It doesn't matter whether you use classic tools like a brush or software to express yourself, because in the end it's all the same at the core.
Each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the most important thing is beyond these tools that they are simply a means of expression. Years ago I was very good at academic drawing, but then I found new challenges in working with interactive software, programming and compositing digital images. I can easily go back to painting if it brings me inner satisfaction and necessity. In the end, I think the most important thing is to be creative, not to stay in one place, ie. to be always in search of new experiences.
Digital art gives us this multitasking way of working that brings us closer to the Renaissance artist. And as I said before, today we live in extremely interesting times that are fun to make the most of.
Derivative: Is there anything that is missing from TD that would help you in your work? Even small things?
Petko Tanchev: TouchDesigner is a great software for programming logic, which is really important for building new worlds. But sometimes I feel this strength also is a weakness because it is so much into the world of data flow, protocols, abstraction that it misses the ease of creating eye-candy 3D effects that game engines have. You can certainly do effects in TD as well, but you have to mess with shaders and build a lot of nodes which often takes time which I don't have in a real-world situation. It's really nice to be able to get to the core of things like we do in Touch, but certainly more pre-made particle systems or faster ways to build 3D objects and complex simulations could be useful! I'm also missing updates to the SOP Editor, which has been the same since I started working at TD. But at the same time, I deeply respect all the efforts to provide more and more interoperability and the movie player features for example - these are some things that I definitely benefit from in my daily work!
Derivative: What is next on your radar in terms of what you would like to explore, where you would like to take things and what you have coming up in terms of projects?
Petko Tanchev: Recently I often lack more free time for experiments because I am constantly into projects and do not have many hours to study. I can't really complain, but if I had more time I would use it to learn more about Notch, Houdini and Unreal. It's always useful to compare different programs and how they handle data and content. I have some experience with those tools and find their interface and features quite exciting.
I also have some new hardware toys on the horizon this year – we bought a Rokoko smart suit and more Kinects for the Opera in Plovdiv, so I'll definitely be spending more time expanding my repertoire of live performance tools. At the moment I am also working on a large-scale show - the opening of the European Capital of Culture 2023 in Elefsina, Greece (after I also participated in the ECoC 2022 in Novi Sad, Serbia). These kinds of events always bring new artistic opportunities for me. They're also a reason to learn more about lighting design and collaborate with other artists and directors so it's definitely a worthwhile experience. And last but not least, I try to pay more attention to the family. We are so addicted to our inspiring work and challenges that we often forget the most obvious – beauty and meaning are all around us, right here in the little everyday things of life itself.