Imogen Heap and the art of creative failure

Imogen HeapSinger Imogen Heap’s gig at the Roundhouse last Sunday night should be a lesson to us all in creative exploration of a digital world. It taught me two things: how to explore technology creatively, and how to fail with dignity.

The gig marked the culmination of Reverb – a four-day festival of electronic, experimental music that Heap curated, with a heavy dose of technology on the side.

I went on a whim – discovered and booked tickets in bed that morning via Yplan (how millennial of me). My decision was fuelled mainly by nostalgia; her album Hide and Seek was the soundtrack to my first year in London, but also out of a big fat geeky desire to experience Heap’s digital labour of love: her Mi.Mu gloves.

The gloves have been designed so that Heap can manipulate sound using hand gestures, changing the direction of a sound or sculpting it in mid air.

This is her demonstrating the gloves at a Wired event in 2012:

Heap is known for embracing tech in her shows and music. It would be more accurate to describe her work as art – just a singer-songwriter she certainly is not. She often explores ideas for her music as one might for an art project. For instance, the first song on her new album Sparks began with Heap logging onto Soundcloud for an hour and asking her fans to send in any sound they wanted. The resultant track features everything from a dishwasher door opening to an unborn baby’s heartbeat.

At the start of the gig Heap did say that not everything she wanted to do on stage would work – admitting she’d been trying to get the gloves to work for so long that she forfeited the soundcheck. Sadly, the performance was weighted to that end as we sat through multiple technology meltdowns. A tad awks in the beginning, but ultimately we didn’t care. The audience were unfazed by Heap’s false starts, the long silences between tracks whilst she clicked various keypads and turned her gloves on and off, the jarring feedback during Xizi She Knows, and the fact we were all asked to turn our phones onto airplane mode to bolster the wifi.

Heap apologised a lot, but carried on regardless with unfaltering charm and wit. She admitted that after three years of development, she thought her team would be a lot further on with the gloves than they actually are, but is clearly determined to get them right. An example to any one of us creatives working through a laborious process to just make something work.

She may have left the stage exhausted (at seven months pregnant) and a teeny bit cheerless, but her creative integrity was firmly intact. Next time you’re in the middle of a pitch and your technology putters out, refusing to resurrect even a glimmer a life, you could do worse than channeling Heap.

Rachel Bull, editor of Brand Republic and The Wall @RachelBwrites

Image by The Roundhouse