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MATERIAL MAPPING: Review of Digital Dancing 1997

By Susan Kozel

December 1997

Digital Dancing 1997 was a two week event forming part of London's Dance Umbrella Festival. It was a platform for collaborative exploration between choreographers, dancers and digital artists.(1) Six teams worked on projects at Riverside Studios (London) in a large black studio theatre stripped of most theatrical trappings and kitted out with various digital and analogue systems: from motion capture and BigEye, to surveillance and videoconference set-ups. There were two main objectives: to provide resources for the development of certain pre-existing projects, and to call attention to the fact that this work can be dance motivated. The second objective, that of drawing attention to the process, was also dubbed the "fish in a fish-bowl" phenomenon, and was the promotional aspect. Since workshop experiments between dance and technology do not fit into existing arts' structures a niche needs to be created for further events like this through the participation of journalists, funders, producers, theatre technicians and artists. The impact of this new promotional policy on Digital Dancing was the transformation of the artistic process into a sort of theatre for interested visitors. The "behind the scenes" work became the "product to be viewed," culminating in increased publicity but introducing a new set of tensions to the creative process.

The tensions of creation in the marketplace are not new to the art world of the 90's. One need only visit the "Sensation" exhibition of the "Young British Artists" at London's Royal Academy to confront the controversial success of a marriage between art and the market. But the dance world is different: more purist, more theatre-oriented, more bound to conventional, public arts funding (ie. non-corporate) -- can we say, more analogue?

How do we map the body of dance as it expands its representational systems? Systems which operate across the many definitions of corporate space?

Cartography. Mapping. Dancers working with computers know that mapping is not the old explorers' dream of discovering a terra incognito. We do not confront a new territory,but dance through a transformation of existing material realities and relations. Once initial squeamishness is overcome, dancers make the best cyborgs. Haven't we been shaping and distorting our bodies and abilities with a variety of techniques for centuries? Dancers know that the borders of the body are mutable, porous. When dancers engage with systems like motion capture they crave close contact with the abstracted digital data, not to annul it, but to share contrasting spaces and physicalities. During Digital Dancing, Enid Gill (see photograph) got "wired up" to control the movement of an abstract digital shape for work on Gateway (choreographer: Richard Lord, artists: Christian Hogue and Alex Rutterford, designer: Emma Fryer). She wanted to escape from the stereotypical passivity of the contemporary dancer's role and saw how this work offered this potential if dancers were trusted to engage more fully. Allowing dancers to improvise and shape the process involves tremendous trust on the part of the choreographer and the dancers themselves. A liberation of the instruments, or "the machines are restless tonight" (2), can describe the desire to escape from the "tool mentality" that confines both dancers and computers. Gill wanted more "weight" in her motion capture interaction, and, what may come as a surprise to non-dancers, is that weight in the physical engagement with computer mediated images is not impossible if we change our approach to how we create with them.

Donna Haraway, famous for writing the "Cyborg Manifesto," discusses mapping practices, how cartography is a metaphor and a technology of the highest importance. It is the "chief tool-metaphor of technoscience." (3) She describes adverts for the Human Genome Project where a woman with "arms raised in a dance gesture" is clothed with the tissue of a 19th century map. "Once more, difference is mapped and enclosed; art, science, and business join in the dance." I refer to the mapping that occurred through Digital Dancing as material mapping because it charted the convergence of bodies, spaces, and resources (including knowledge), where each is not separated from the other and all are shaped by, as well as actively reshaping, our cultural imaginary. The photographic images reproduced from Digital Dancing focus on the human body in fluid engagement with technology. These are not advertising mock-ups like the Human Genome image described by Haraway, but contain the same dance of art and science, with the implicit understanding of "business" which is to say financial/equipment investment. The event was sponsored by the British National Lottery (A4E) through the Arts Council of England, and as such is a product of the changing philosophy and structure of arts funding in the United Kingdom.

The dance of the digital and the analogue occurred on many levels throughout Digital Dancing. I want to suggest that the analogue-digital distinction is not as simple as pointing to the dancer who tires, gets injured, cold, hungry, manipulated, and calling her analogue, while the computer that crashes, demands far more maintenance than ever imagined, and needs to be kept ever-so-secure is called digital. Ron Eglash describes the information structure and physical representations of communications systems: "Digital representation requires a code table... Analog representation is based on a proportionality between physical changes in a signal and changes in the information it represents" (4). In other words, "analogue systems are based on physical dynamics -- the realm of feedback, hysteresis, and resonance." Yet, extending beyond the obvious dualism which equates analog systems with naturalism and digital systems with the arbitrary signifiers of postmodern textual practices, Eglash asserts that the former are capable of flexible representation. And I suggest that physical experimentation with digital systems can evoke an unexpected poetics of feedback (images and movement returning, interrupting, and transforming), lagging (time delay), and resonance (vibrations of interaction across layers of time and space).

Feedback and lag were integral to the project Ghosts and Astronauts, a performance happening simultaneously between Riverside Studios and The Place Theatre (movement: Ruth Gibson, Anne Holst, Susan Kozel, digital choreography: Gretchen Schiller, music: Jonny Clark). The link was made via macs running internet videoconferencing software (CU-SeeMe) so that dancers from one location could be projected into the other. The cameras ranged from a digital monochrome Connectix camera, to a tiny analogue camera strapped to the palm of a dancer, to a sophisticated digital camera with adjustable frame rate and exposure. All of the cameras moved and danced with the dancers, all shaped the texture of the space as it was created through the telematic link. The moving images, as they spilled from analogue to digital, through the internet, and back into analogue projection, took on traces of their journey: pixellation, delays, abstraction, overexposure... All the digital and analogue offerings became part of the physical dynamics of interaction.

With 3over9, the project using the interactive system BigEye, resonance became significant (choreographer: Sarah Rubidge, visuals: Simon Biggs, music: Stuart Jones). Music and visuals were triggered by movement according to an invisible mapping of algorithms. The three components resonated across each other, part response, part initiation. This is an effective analogy for the state of the dance/technology artistic hybrid in the marketplace. The projects of Digital Dancing follow computer industry developments, but initiate transformative physical and spatial potential for the equipment. This is another form of material mapping: from artistic uses back to industry expectations. Digital Dancing will take place again in autumn 1998, still sponsored by the Dance Umbrella Festival, still mapping the physical and the digital into a transformed corporeal/corporate space. Neither product nor process can be predicted, but the journey is exciting and is injecting new enthusiasm as well as a steep learning-curve into a part of the dance world.

1. Digital Dancing 1997 was administered and produced by Illuminations Interactive (producer: Terry Braun, production team: Suzanne Kelly, Henry Johnson and Jenny McLachlan).

2. This is one of A.R. Stone's favourite phrases, (1995) The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Cambridge and London: MIT.

3. Donna Haraway (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™, London and New York: Routledge, references from pp.163-165.

4. Ron Eglash (1995) "African Influences in Cybernetics," The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray, London and New York: Routledge. Eglash argues that African cultures have developed complex systems of analogue representation in order to combat "skewed" ethnocentric epistemological claims, references from pp.18-19.

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