Connecting and Disconnecting Bodies

Johannes Birringer*

Abstract

The article explores the relationship of dancing bodies and technology, pointing at blind spots and shifts occurring in this relationship during the last years. It reveals changes in terms of how bodily movement produces data, how a performer or immersant engages with interface environments that are programmable or networked. The notion of “post-choreography” is a proposed framework for analyzing this new condition where the physical body telling a story through choreographed movement came to an end. The category of real-time enters through computational/algorithmic processes and allows performer initiation of a broad range of live sampling and direct accessing of sound and image synthesis parameters, giving unpredictable directions to the work and enhancing the possibilities for interactive performances. Enhancement of system operations, however, tends to dispossess and compromise the performer. The article analyzes specific performance examples (for instance, Anti-Body by Alexander Whitley Dance Company, 2022) and argues that, nowadays, interactivity and immersive installations create impressive works, overloaded with technological effects, but the human body is, problematically, missing.

Keywords: digital body-data, interactivity, post-choreography, real-time, immersion

Older and Newer Dimensions

About ten years after joining the dance-technology movement in the mid-1990s, I began to notice more acutely how my view of choreography (working with physical bodies and motion in space and time) and technology (software programming and interface design using motion input to map various outputs) had evolved, how the passion to explore unknown dimensions in the partnership between dance and technologies had continued to excite me. When I first attended workshops organized by Scott deLahunta at Amsterdam’s School of New Dance Development (“The Connected Body,” 1994; “Connecting Bodies,” 1996), bringing together choreographers, performers, computer engineers, software writers, filmmakers and electronic music composers, the propositions were very concrete. We spent much time together examining how the articulate moving body—or what musicians would refer to as gesture—could be linked up with sensing instruments, that is, camera vision, infrared or other capture systems that “observed” the dancer—the gesture—while, in fact, taking physical/kinetic information from bodies to process and modulate it.

I speak of bodies and motion to avoid getting into much more intricate questions of how diverse movement languages and gestural forms create meaning that have particular cultural or aesthetic significance, that express or convey ideas, stories or a poetics that can be encapsulated in kinaesthetic or musical forms. I did notice in those early days that no dancers trained, say, in butoh or bharatnatyam, in classical ballet or tanztheater, took part in our experiments, though it was apparent that Cunningham or Forsythe-influenced dancers (highly technically motivated abstract movers) were more inclined to partake in interactive constellations or motion capture sessions. The role of “casting” in such dance experiments deserves better attention; it made a difference if someone came from, say, a contact improvisation or new dance context, compared to being a member of a ballet or tanztheater company obliged to perform within particular repertoires and dramaturgies, thus often more hesitant, or even resistant, towards “augmented reality” experiments as we might call them today in the era of VR and AI. Similarly, technology-driven work was often informed by knowledge systems grounded in a privileged Western model of research, often associated with institutions supporting science/art projects. Being friends with such networks helped to get invited. Many soloists I met in the early days were performers with close relations to musicians and video artists, at ease with sonic or filmic collaborators, hackers and later neuroscientists.

A long history of screen dance that dates back many decades had also provided instances of outdoor performance, in landscapes or urban settings, proffering further insight into expanded cinema, architecture and environmental dimensions I find inextricably linked to any consideration of future roles of technology in dance. But largely it was the musicians (the “dirty electronics” crowd, as John Richards named it) who hooked up their instruments to analog/digital tool kits, learnt to work with Max/Msp and Pro Tools and pushed the boundaries. The impact sonic arts and music technology had on dance is indisputable. Alongside the evolution of research in music and dance technology, gradually visible in many parts of the world since the 1980s, we could trace a number of influential works by well-known choreographers which reflected new tendencies of collaboration underlining the connection of performing bodies and performing technologies.[1]

I need to mention a further scenario that emerged around the turn of the century with the increasingly widespread use of Wi-Fi communications: computers and internet connectivity now allowed performers to interact through networked, distributed performance. One did not have to be in the same studio/location anymore. Already in 2000, I was asked to join a collective of seven dance departments/organizations in the United States, Brazil and Japan that formed ADaPT (Association for Dance and Performance Telematics).[2] Infrastructually, such networked performances required an enormous logistical and technical effort, setting up studios that gradually became laboratories, or “Intelligent Stages” (the name chosen at Arizona State University where the lab had a fully integrated mocap system installed), which housed the same or similar technical capabilities for working with multiple cameras, video-projectors, sensors, audio recording/playback devices and computer processing software.

The significance of technology-centered workshops for the trajectories of digital performance practices cannot be overestimated. One must acknowledge them and the specific laboratory conditions for experimentation they set up—sometimes outside of the traditional dance, theatre, music and art schools; sometimes also within academic institutions supporting cross-over experimentation. Such conditions have been vital for the growth of digital research, along with international residencies or platforms bringing practitioners from various fields together for intense periods of experimentation, tool sharing and developing digital performance techniques.

I mentioned in the beginning my growing passion for this, and in 2003 I founded an interactive media lab in a disused coalmine in southwest Germany, just for the purpose of intermedia collaboration, testing its impact on how performance artists incorporate technologies, how the corporeal and the digital can constitute a new performance aesthetic. The “language” of new media, as Lev Manovich called the apparatus emphasizing the particular characteristics of the digital image and its relationship to earlier cinematic or photographic languages, is a language of forms which needs to be applied and tested in an evolving, co-adaptive process. But this unfolding—for example, in digital microsound art or in gesturally interactive design—implies re-processing of already processed data (sound signal/biophysical feedback), tweaking the tools to fit the body and a continuous remixing and redistribution of mutating “tracks.”

What interests me here is the performer’s experience of such re-processing and tweaking.[3] In the telematic studio, I became aware of the dancer facing multiple screens and looking at others on screen interacting, a very visual, ocularcentric behavior if we now also include VR headsets (for example,  Oculus Quest 2). However, in sensor-driven performances with wearables—so-called body-worn technologies—the dancer is also “listening” internally to tactile as well as sonic (audio-visual) feedback, to complex multidimensional biofeedback that is nearly impossible to spell out.

Ermira Goro performing the “Avatar” in See You in Walhalla, 2006. Photo: Interaktionslabor

Both experiences were fundamental when Interaktionslabor 2006 brought a group of nearly 20 artists to the coal mine, most of them having travelled to Germany from Greece to work on the creation of See You in Walhalla.

See you in Walhalla, 2006

My role was more that of a producer; every day I closely watched the rehearsals with Ermira Goro, the sole dancer who collaborated with this large team directed by Tzeni Argyriou and Ash Bulayev, as she developed her role as mover/performer of a journey (filmic) which we would see on a triptych of projection screens. But it was her who moved the triple film scenes, every single frame controlled by the eighteen sensors she wore on her body, from head to neck, shoulders, arms and hips, down to legs and feet. As with other artists at the time who experimented with exoskeletons (Ruth Gibson, Susan Kozel, Dawn Stoppiello, Stelarc, Marcel·lí Antúnez Roca), Goro had to learn, step by step, muscle by muscle, how her bodily motions actuated the film frames projected in front of her (the audience watching her standing in front of the screens as if she were inside the screenic action). The film tracks were stored on the computer. Goro “enacted” them.

Ermira Goro performing close to the screens, wearing sensors, 2006. Photo: Interaktionslabor

Can one perform such a live motion-film-game in a real theatre and its controlled condition, and synthesize the Avatar-performer onto an immersive film-animation environment, with other players interacting from locations elsewhere? See You in Walhalla attempted it at a pioneering moment when biophysical sensors were not yet commonly available. The operating system of games suggests a relationship between player (in the real world, using hand controllers) and the gamespace designed for the computer or video screen. There are different games spaces (2D and 3D), player structures (singleplayer, multiplayer, singleteam, multiteam, and so on), dynamics of static environments, various player-perspectives (first person, third person or isomorphic), levels of control or degrees of freedom and restriction in the exploration of navigable space and degrees of presence (or the illusion of presence) of being located inside the scenic scape. Navigating inside such a landscape is a most common experience for players “moving an avatar,” but not all computer games have defined objectives: games such as EverQuest or The Sims alter the classic game model by removing the goals or, rather, by not defining possible outcomes as better than others.

But what does this mean for dancers who engage with such interactive/gesture-controlled technologies? What new techniques are emerging? How do dancers learn from the experiments in music (stochastics, algorithmic emergence, granular synthesis) if they are now interacting with complex software written by composers and programmers? What new or contingent sensory modalities or substitutions are stimulated? How does the plasticity of bodymind reconfigure internal and external spaces?

These are questions I would pose to choreography, to its old sense of agency. Can we still think of what Goro is enacting as choreography? There are rules of engagement or navigation in every game, along with the procedures for choosing or modifying the avatar and for communicating among players. There are many different genres of games, but they all maintain a rule-based system, they provide a context for actions, there are goals or role-playing mechanics and outcomes/rewards. For example, there are rules that define game environments (the physical boundaries of components and procedures), as we also know them in live VR performances (wearing an Oculus headset and realizing there is a grid, a “guardian space” that cannot be crossed without destroying the virtual space), and those that define how the interface is used to enact procedures and mechanics. The core principle is interactivity. Most contemporary analyses of game design agree that game language is not centered on narrativity (as in movies) but on interaction, both between players playing a game and between player and game. Furthermore, a common characteristic of digital games is the need for a specific environment and a specific interface which becomes the reference point of the player’s attention on the physical experience of the game.

I emphasize this concept of an active “interactivity”—it was important for us as Walhalla, of course, is a hybrid performance/game world in which both the players and the avatars (game characters) are enacted by real people. The avatar behavior, therefore, cannot be called “designed” or programmed, and the particular “interface” used to enact procedures and mechanics needs to be understood radically differently, as the Player (outside, in telematic space) is “acting” to a webcam, while the Avatar, in fact, controls, to a large extent, the game environment. Performed by a dancer, the Avatar enacts a real avatar to the audience and to an actor (a Player located outside our studio, in a different location) who has to pretend to be inside the game, walking around a “city” which is, in fact, constructed from the real (cinema verité, not synthetic computer graphics). Nor is this specific game environment unified and homogenous. Rather, it is composited, from the film shoots on location in Amsterdam, Athens, Sofia and Göttelborn, but complemented by numerous animations (found images, icons) and “masks” (color slides, motion graphics, and so on), as well as interrupted or “surprised” by the live video streams from the webcams in Sofia and Athens, where Player and “Abandoned Avatar” are enacting their roles in the real world.

This is a very complex setup and description, but we are now situated in 2024, all technologies have advanced but are not fundamentally different in regard to our understanding of interactivity and immersion. And yet, today immersive performance installations and stage performances (after the earlier forays directed by choreographers who accessed computational teams for collaboration, like Merce Cunningham, Bill. T Jones, Trisha Brown, Emio Greco, Pablo Ventura, Wayne McGregor, and so on) seem to have changed, in ways that need to be interrogated.

Ryoji Ikeda, Data-Verse at Dimensions: Digital Art since 1859. Pittlerwerke, Leipzig, 2023. Photo: Julien Gremaud

Over the years, I began to think that we had entered an era of post-choreography, that the dancer’s role had gradually diminished to a point where the minute biophysical feedback, and the kinetic elaborations of a performing body telling a story through interactive enactments, had ceased to matter in the Spectacle. Numerous large-scale exhibitions of immersive installations that I visited in museums spelled out the writing on the wall. Spectacle is overwhelming; digital effects surround you, as in the enormous field-projections by companies like teamLab (for example, the interactive 3-D installations What a Loving and Beautiful World or Borderless).

In 2023, the exhibition Dimensions at Leipzig produced a similar numbing effect on me. I was miniatuarized by the scale of the projections, it was meant to overwhelm me, and I also had no grasp whatsoever on how the data were generated and manipulated, where they came from (involving ethical questions about AI compositing and data extraction) and where they wanted me to be, in relationship to the data animation. The “missing body” in 3D immersive projective environments and stage performances has, in fact, been a concern for dance scholars—for instance, recently at Coventry’s Center for Dance Research—questioning the ethics of AI and associated technologies. These critiques ask why having a body or skillful bodily practices plays little part in emerging AI and machine learning technologies and their focus on data-driven approaches to VR implementations.

Post-choreography

In 2022, I witnessed Anti-Body by Alexander Whitley Dance Company, which I analyze below, and Habiter (avec) Xenakis, a concert that reminded me strongly of my experience witnessing Ermira Goro, in See You in Walhalla, learn how to wear the sensors and physiologically and cognitively incorporate their functionalities and behaviors into her creative process of intuiting and then controlling the movement of image with her motions. Back around that time, researchers began to use the term embodiment and look into affect as well as associated cognitive aspects (for example, sensory substitution). Embodiment seemed nothing new to us in dance, but embodying cognitive and intuitive sensing of body-worn technologies/prostheses—and what they generate—posed new challenges. I worry now that the focus on the performer’s application of her knowledge, her learning how to “wear” the sensors and have agency in the engagement of data processing, is no longer a priority in choreography?

When I first reflected on “post-choreography” (Birringer, Performance, Technology & Science), I argued that the notion of choreography had undergone a re-evaluation in terms of how bodily movement produces data, how a performer or immersant engages with interface environments that are programmable or networked, thus open to unpredictable and emergent states. These states evolve from system behaviors as a whole, from the digital body-environment interaction. For artists working with computational/interactive systems, models of real-time sequencing and intervention in image and sound projection have become vital. These are often derived from mathematics, cybernetics, biology, neuroscience and AI, rather than from a primarily notational understanding of choreography (the writing of dance) based on principles of organizing movement in space and time. The category of real-time enters through computational/algorithmic processes that allow performer initiation of a broad range of live sampling and direct accessing of sound and image synthesis parameters, moving between programmed patches and changing the qualities of digital manifestations from moment to moment.

But for dancers working with wearable sensors, camera-motion-sensing and networked virtual environments, real-time is a new medium of artistic creation in which the human body is a determining interface of communication while the system may also retain its own autonomy and intelligence, evolve probabilistically or with indeterminate progressions. Performers and machines interact in a continuous unfolding process which, technically speaking, is part of a much larger space of networked media transmission if the interactive apparatus is linked to other sites or operates multimodally. The conventional organization and articulation of dance as choreographic practice relied on a coding that fixes the steps and sequences of movement (located in real space and, more often than not, within patterns/rhythms of music) and makes them repeatable. The machining architecture implied by networked virtual space and continuous computer processing guarantees that such fixity is unwarranted on the level of performance dynamics as well as on the level of machinic emergence, namely the potential of the system to evolve dynamically in ways that are not pre-programmed.

Sketching these ideas here about such modes of organization, which are more intimately connected to navigations of particular supra-sensorial relations (within close proximity to technology and architectures of interaction), brings me to my concluding examples.

Pavlos Antoniadis [left] getting “dressed up” with sensor system by Aurélien Duval during Habiter (avec) Xenakis Augmented Reality Recital, Enghien-Les-Bains’ Centre des Arts, 2022. (video still)

Habiter (avec) Xenakis, an Augmented Reality recital at Enghien-Les-Bains’ Centre des Arts, collaboratively created by Pavlos Antoniadis, Aurélien Duval, Jean-François Jégo, Stella Paschalidou and five other researchers, offers a musically centered but also audio-visual interpretation of interactive entrainment. One aspect of Antoniadis’s astonishing virtuoso piano performance (of Xenakis’s à r. Hommage à Ravel, 1987; Herma, 1961; Evryali, 1973; and Mists, 1980) stands out, namely his demonstrative “dressing up” before each solo piano work, showing the audience during these transitions how each of the solos features a particular coupling of performer body and capture technology, and how the discrete sensor types are applied to the body.

Habiter (avec) Xenakis, Centre des Arts, Enghien-les-Bains, 24 November 2022

The program notes tell us that the symbolic and expressive structure of each performed work is connected to a specific capture technology: à r. is associated with inertial sensors, Herma adds the element of face recognition, Mists features electromyography sensors and Evryali full body motion capture. Given Xenakis’s deep concern with volumes of music and moving light, and the unusual compositional scores he drew, it is telling that Habiter (avec) Xenakis also offers a postlude bearing the title Air à r., an improvisation of waving gestures (audience holding up their mobile phone lights) literally creating a participatory human architectural emanation.

The recital is inspired by Xenakis’s Polytopes, the composer-architect’s complex sonic-spatial creations that intermix sound, light, color and architecture. The Polytopes (and the astonishing designs for the Philips Pavilion in 1958) well precede contemporary immersive environments, but I noted the transitions between solo works of Habiter (avec) Xenakis confront us with a lovely dialectic, created by silent ritual interludes during which Duval and Paschalidou strap on the wristbands and sensors, and later the whole mocap exoskeleton, letting Antoniadis slip into “inhabiting” the accoutrements. First playing a kind of air guitar (Intro)—a beautiful dance of the hands as if he were playing an invisible instrument—he then sits down at the piano to interpret the score.

His fiercely athletic physical gestures gradually actuate the augmented reality (interactive realtime 3D rendering) of seemingly floating mathematical and structural architectural symbols, projected onto upstage screens. My own attention remains thoroughly glued to Antoniadis’s body phenomenon, and how I might even begin to imagine both a coupling and decoupling between movement-expression and those diverse measuring systems (kinect cameras, sensor systems), including the errors in the multimodal relationship (the mapping) that can always arise between captured data used as input in a system to output parameters (digital audio and visual feedback and notation processing within the “gesture-following” temporal or spatial structure of the mappings, and so on). As Michèle Danjoux would have imagined as well, the strapping on of the wires (or gloves and garments) sends specific signals to hands, skin, muscles, forehead, legs. The wiring interferes with the body, invades and “clothes” it in ways the nerves may suspect.

Pavlos Antoniadis performing the second piece, Herma, at the piano during Habiter (avec) Xenakis Augmented Reality Recital, Enghien-Les-Bains’ Centre des Arts, 2022. (video still)

The phenomenon-body in this recital, alongside the “open source scenography”—revealing elements that are usually invisible and explicitly showing the technological artifice as part of the performance interpretation including the equipping phase and calibrations, ritually orchestrating them with the presence of the various technical actors on stage—makes for a different immersive experience. As audience we cannot see or understand all the transmodal interface controls (for example, the GesTCom datasets or effort-related EMG) nor the micro-movements, say, of the pianist’s fingers, his facial tensions, foot pedalling, muscle strains. But what the hybrid environment of ecstatic physical performance, musical sound and graphic arborescences (a projected tangle of lines, dots and leaves pulsating like kinetic notations) promises is an embodied data visualization that reacts to and extends the kinematics of the performer gestures at the piano center stage.

I do not know if such data extraction/measurement can, in fact, learn (via machine learning software) or adapt to the pianist’s emotional or spiritual dwelling in Xenakis. But from his ecstatic performance I can feel his inhabitation, and I won’t ever know what escapes the computational harvesting. I trust there are considerable escapes because then I am less bothered by the longest piece, Evryali, which succumbs to the spectacle temptation and actuates four different surround projections (main screen, score projection screen, audience and ceiling projections of pulsating light and animation). I would have preferred to listen to the performance and feel the body in action, without a wilding of polytopes. The recital, however, made me also wonder what might be revealed about the somatic and kinaesthetic workings of a choreographic notation, say Yvonne Rainer’s renowned Trio A (1966), if a solo performer strapped on a sensor costume and used augmented reality interface systems to interpret the score? Habiter (avec) Xenakis, which is both innovative (technical interface design) and interpretive (of existing complex compositional structures and sketches), as well as critically aware of its body rendition,is clearly a post-choreographic challenge to all our previous understandings of performative notation and re/deconstruction.

Anti-Body[4]

Numbers and tiny pixels flutter increasingly across the front scrims that shield the stage from our eyes like protective if porous eyelids. Already when entering the intimate 100-seat Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, our viewing field is dimmed down to an almost impenetrable darkness clouded in fog. When lighting instruments carefully cull out one, two or all three of the dancers—they are caught in three parallel spots, between front scrims and back screens.

Alexander Whitley Dance Company, Anti-Body, Sadler’s Wells. Photo: Sodium Bullet

Six of these screens, then, capture our visual attention during the one-hour performance of Anti-Body, choreographed by Alexander Whitley, a younger British choreographer and New Wave Associate of Sadler’s Wells. He has also been an associate with the Royal Opera House and Rambert Dance Company and danced with Michael Clark and Wayne McGregor. The latter may have influenced Whitley’s interest in new technologies and the present collaboration with interactive coders Uncharted Limbo Collective (George Adamopoulos, Eleana Polychronaki, Chris Waters). Choreographing moving bodies along with software operations plays into the hands of what Kenneth King has called the “transmission mysteries” of a current technophilia that may succumb to the seductive allure of hyperactive media and digital cinematologies. These mysteries need demystification, just as one needs to carefully observe the promises of AI or the devices that animatronic engineers build proposing the hyperreal as the better, less harmful authentic experience.

The software coders are in apparent charge of the digital graphics for Anti-Body—pixels, numbers or letters with some fragmentarily visible words in the opening scene (biochem, dataism, algor, and so on), supplanted by curving shapes and increasingly mesmerizing liquid mutations of abstracted human figures. This projected kinetic energy field is largely black and white, not like a Stummfilm from the expressionist era with futuristically angled architecture rendered in HD video and VR, but an overwhelmingly loud, percussive, flickering, strobe-lit phantasmagoria (the electronic score is by Hannah Peel and Kincaid). There is no letting up. Thus, Anti-Body is a relentlessly spectacular performance, in the sense in which spectacles tend to overwhelm and seduce with their logic of the façade. Whitley is an experimenter of considerable sincerity. He has no time for irony or self-reflection but pursues an almost extremist, literal-minded testing of such technologically digitized motion and dematerialized surfaces which, unlike Foucault’s melancholic farewell to the human face washed away by the water at the shore, show only the faintest traces of the human, gendered bodies of the three dancers—the excellent Chia-Yu Hsu, Hannah Eckholm, and Joshua Attwood—who perform mostly in their static position, gyrating and disaligning themselves like late Cunningham revenants having joined an alien order of slightly immobilized and incapacitated dervish dancers, a congregation of “dysselected life.”[5]

The disposal of human presence is troublesome. “Transhumanism” is the shadow cast over this frustratingly ambivalent work, which can be admired for its structuralist logic of the continuous graphical permutations of motion (data) generated by the dancers, clothed in black gym-like outfits and wearing up-to-date motion capture sensors that send their GP positional signals from the moving torsos and arms (no longer a camera-based or magnetic system as it was used ten or twenty years ago, not least by Merce Cunningham, or Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown and few others who back then worked with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar’s Riverbed coding team). But unlike Whitley’s comment in the program note, namely that such transhuman/posthuman technological extractions from the body suggest that “you can download someone’s mind onto a computer chip” and transcend “immediate physical experience of the world,” is it not perhaps a matter of questioning this absurd proposition? Whitley seems to realize the absurdity but is unwilling to stop the barrage.

Alexander Whitley Dance Company, Anti-Body, Sadler’s Wells. Photo: Sodium Bullet

The choreography relies exclusively on the extractions of bodily data, triggering the data processing. The visualizing software is able to draw you into a trance-like funk, but after 45 minutes, you are also depleted in your attention to more or less the same liquid architectures, fogs and whirling nebulae flickering across the screens. But Whitley keeps the dancers trapped in their screen-cage, and I could sometimes barely make out the real movements, glimpsed between the small gaps between the front scrims. Press photos do not reflect the live performance, as the camera goes close up to the front scrim to shoot through its meshes, catching the dark silhouettes of beautifully twisted fingers and birdlike bodies against the pixelated back screen projections. The high contrast on the photo does not exist in reality: we do not see what the camera lens draws for us, painting yet another screenic illusion of disconnecting bodies.

Now, why would I want to perceive or experience real bodies—am I too weary (especially after many soul-destroying Zoom sessions during the COVID pandemic) of the “algorithmic charmers,” as the Limbo coders call themselves? Bored by VR and vectorialist displacements of corporeality? I imagine I like charming enticements just like the next person, yet I wanted the dancers to connect with their audiences more, to be able to leave their tight spots and repetitive movements, break down and interrupt the organisms becoming absorbed into the algorithmic machine, perhaps share with me how they are affected by wearing sensors or what their accoutrements do for them, how they manipulate or even control them? Do the dancers have a felt connection or feedback relation to the graphics generated from their input, or worry about the stochastic dimensions[6] of the AI software? How do they show us their relationship to the algorithmic charms? I also yearned for breaks in the relentless electronic drone music, for a silence, moments to breathe, moments of change where content—say, a particular gesture or physical movement expression—communicates something specific to the audience cutting through the fourth wall (here a row of projection screens). Cutting through the frame would have meant a slightly more Brechtian dramaturgy, or any dramaturgy aware of the intellectual and soma-technical contradictions at work here.

During the past decades of the dance-tech movement, choreographers, musicians and artists, such as Thecla Schiphorst, Susan Kozel, Emio Greco, Stelarc, Ruth Gibson, Hellen Sky, Wayne McGregor, Keith Armstrong, Marco Donnarumma, the Japanese artist collective Dumb Type and many others, have explored wearing exoskeletons and sensors, as well as myriad interface systems, not raising the spectre of bodily obsolescence as much as challenging the flow of perceivable/imperceivable movement affect or environmental impact. Thus they challenge the actuating potentials of hybrid human-technoid actors and how images, sound and other somatechnical and tactile resonances might be afforded in live performance (also with elaborated costume-wearables).

Unlike ocularcentric VR technologies with their computer-generated immersive worlds, live art operates closer to ritual, to participatory “concretions,” as Carolee Schneemann called her collective kinetic theatre pieces already in the 1960s (the time of the Judson Dance Theater and Allan Kaprow’s happenings which were fervently intermedia).[7] When I worked with black choreographer Bebe Miller in a motion capture workshop in 2001, she wore the sensors Mark Coniglio (the code writer of the Isadora software, used widely in dance today) had attached to her body. She told me she felt estranged from the graphic simulacra of her digital doubles. I was not surprised.

Whitley has joined this dialogue about physical expression and alien bodies. Yet, “anti-body” has medical connotations not touched upon in his choreography, nor do Limbo’s algorithmic charms bring us anywhere near the kind of speculative cross-species biomorphism that Donna Haraway (and Kafka’s Metamorphosis a bit earlier) has alluded to in her writings on “staying with the trouble.” If the Anti-Body performance indeed proposes the digital-technical as an opposition to the organic body, then why insist on using highly articulate dancers to deploy them in the near-dark and the fog, forced to a series of monotonous, largely repetitive movement sequences? Only once, near the end, did Chia-Yu Hsu catch my heightened attention, as she appeared to resurface without sensors, in a different flesh-colored costume that allowed us to see her better, even glimpse her female body. One could read the work dialectically as withholding such sentimental attachment to the corporeal (or to gender?). Whitley may well be asking whether the algorithmic stage, with its re-animated Frankensteins, induces us to yearn for whatever we held to be significantly human or animal, vulnerable, fallible and mortal before the onslaught of artificial systems and animatronic surrogate creatures, before Silicon Valley firms such as Edge Innovations promise to deliver them in their engineered entertainments parks, maritime or other (see “Animatronics that Perform,” www.edgefx.com/).

Anti-Body, however, hardly dares to provide a satisfactory answer to the question about surrogates, why there might be a sex appeal of the animatronic, or why a sensitivity towards the abstractly artificial and deceitful—to the benefit of modelling—may yet enable a critical approach to the fetish, the ersatz body, the rendition of extensible and expandable bodies in our war-torn and crisis-riddled time.[8] Anti-Body disappoints, not ever revealing its own discomforts. And if AI and its Large Language Models continue to capture the markets of attention, then we can only hope that more artists wish to expose the vulnerability of the captured body while energizing the transcending capacities of performance, those that escape computation.


Endnotes

[1] At various points over the past 25 years, I wrote about the dance-tech movement in order to contribute to an archive of work/research and give credit to influential artworks, collaborative stagings as well as festivals/venues committed to supporting performances and installations deploying technological interfaces (infrastructurally such work demands other resources than contemporary ballet or modern dance). See my books Media and Performance; Performance, Technology and Science; and Kinetic Atmospheres. See also Dixon and Mitoma.

[2] See, for example, an early rehearsal from 2002. See also the short film directed by Suzon Fuks, Helen Varley Jamieson and Annie Abrahams, providing an overview of the diversity of networked performance created since the 1990s.

[3] Around the same time, in 2004, fashion designer Michèle Danjoux and I founded the DAP-Lab, with a special focus on developing design interfaces with performers based on the garments that Michèle built and tested through iterative processes, involving the tweaking of technologies to adapt to the tactile and material-sensorial idiosyncracies deployed to stimulate choreographic development. Danjoux’s complex and unusual costumes most often created encumbrances for the dancer, thus influencing how intimate corporeal experience of a sensortized garment provoked particular gestures and expressive qualities (Danjoux and Birringer). For the Interaktionslabor workshops, see: interaktionslabor.de.

[4] Performed by Alexander Whitley Dance Company, Sadler’s Wells, London, 6–7 October 2022.

[5] Sylvia Wynter’s distinction between “selected” and “dysselected life” touches upon a more politically oriented Marxist critique of (racialized) capitalist Spectacle but seems pertinent here. Elaborating on her positions on the expropriated and condemned would exceed the limits of this essay on digital dance, but I see her point of view in conjunction with my remarks about the ethics of AI, the issue of data extraction and digital dispossession and the nearly total manipulability of “digital objects” which underlies my concern here. Such concerns would link forms of disposal in techno-artistic contexts with other world-shaping tendencies in capitalist economies driven by informatics and cybernetics, and those, of course, raise the colonial spectre of material degradation and violence, succinctly critiqued also by Seb Franklin in his recent book.

[6] At ISEA2022 in Barcelona, the experimental ensemble Instituto Stocos premiered a dance work, Embodied Machine, which featured a solo by Muriel Romero that interrelates her physical movement with “avataric presences” appearing in the form of light and sound (she dances surrounded by 24 moving LED lighting instruments and a 6-channel sound system, her dance captured by 12 infrared mocap sensors). Her partner, composer Pablo Palacio, is well known for his stochastic music and exploration (with Romero) of presences that behave independently and unpredictably. In the program notes to the performance at Mercat de les Flors, Instituto Stocos propose that dance, relying on highly physical and mental training, radiates a particular creative energy precisely as bodies dissipate and fade away yet can enable (with the help of AI and software) the translation of bodies into abstractions and other aesthetic manifestations. For a brief excerpt of Embodied Machine, see here.

[7] A large-scale retrospective of Carolee Schneemann’s pioneering body art and performance work, under the title Body Politics, was recently exhibited at Barbican Art Gallery London (8 September 2022–8 January 2023).

[8] Since writing this essay, a trailer introducing Anti-Body has been released by Whitley Dance Company on Facebook. While the derivative nature of Anti-Body’s staging and graphics, for example, in regard to Dumb Type’s Memorandum (2000) or similar productions, is only of negligible interest, the intrinsic limitations of AI and ML generated digital graphics, and of more widely used available visual programming languages for multimedia, warrant a more sustained analysis than can be offered here. See, for example, my essay “After Dance: Dissolutions and Re-Tracings.”

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*Johannes Birringer co-directs the Design and Performance Lab (DAP) with Michèle Danjoux. He has created numerous dance-theatre works, video installations and telematic projects in collaboration with artists in Europe, the Americas, China, and Japan. He is also the founder of an annual intermedia laboratory held at a disused coalmine in southwest Germany. The dance performances Mourning for a dead moon (2019) and The river of no one (2022) address the climate crisis. Birringer’s recent books include Media and Performance: Along the Border; Performance on the Edge: Transformations of Culture; Performance, Technology and Science; Dance and ChoreoMania; and Tanz der Dinge/Things that Dance. His latest book, Kinetic Atmospheres (Routledge, 2022), explores the implications of environmental immersion and mixed reality digital architectures.

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