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By Thecla Schiphorst: thecla@cs.sfu.ca

Computer Interactive Proximity and Touch Sensor Driven Audio/Video Installation
(to be published in 5cyberconf proceedings)


Bodymaps: artifacts of touch is a computer interactive sound and video installation recently exhibited at the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver, April '96, Ars Electronica in Lintz Austria from September 2nd to 23rd l996, and at Interaction '97 in Ogaki-City Japan March '97. The piece uses a specially designed sensor surface, embedded with 15 Electromagnetic Field Sensors which operate very much like 15 theramins, and 8 Force Sensing Resistor Sensors which can detect touch, pressure and the amount of force applied to the surface.

Together these sensors lie beneath a white velvet surface upon which is projected images of the artist's body. The surface yearns for contact and touch. Its rule base is complex and subtle, impossible to decode. Its effect is disturbing, erotic, sensual and subjective.

The intention of the work is to subvert the visual/objective relationship between the object and the eye, between click and drag, between analysis and power, to create a relationship between participant and technology that transgresses rules of ownership and objectivity and begs questions of experience, power, and being.

The piece and interface was designed by Thecla Schiphorst, researched and engineered by Infusion Systems, programmed by Ken Gregory and Grant Gregson, and constructed by Hanif Jan Mohamed and Ewen McNeil.

I will discuss the Bodymaps: artifacts of touch installation, with regard to the content, the treatment of interactive elements of proximity and touch, and the specific technical elements which comprise the installation.

The Installation

The work Bodymaps: artifacts of touch, constructs a space inhabited by the body as mediated by technology. The Bodymaps installation employs electric field sensor technology, in which the viewer's proximity, touch and gesture evoke moving sound and image responses from the body contained and represented within the installation space. Images of the body are stored on videodisk. The body of the artist (and a digitally represented body) are projected onto a horizontal planar surface. The surface measures approximately 5.5' by 4', is raised and positioned parallel to the floor. The opaque projection surface is a container for the body, and is the site and source for the physical and cultural conditions and objects or artifacts which reference this containment. The surface is covered in white velvet creating a sensual and unexpected texture which leaves 'traces' of the hand prints that are left behind, creating a relationship to memory, an inability to escape the effects of one's touch.

As the viewer places their hands closer to the surface or skin of the installation, a complex soundscape responds to their proximity, and movement. The image shudders. The viewer becomes participant through the sense of touch. There is no escape from entering the 'third space' between objective seeing and subjective feeling.

This work confronts views of interactivity and questions the typical technological mapping which requires a 'point and click' literal language of experience which supports notions of 'ownership' and 'dominance' over. This work invites relationship through an experience grounded in proprioceptive knowledge, skin sense feeling, listening through touching, seeing through hearing, together integrated through attention.

The soundscape is constructed in such as way as to create an intimate local sound response based on movement of the hand over the surface. The hand can "stir the waters'" situated 6 inches over the surface. The movement and proximity of the participant's body literally mixes the sound. The interface invites whole body movement which "falls into" the work. The local sounds trickle outward and effect the ambient soundscape depending upon the level of activity that occurs on the surface of the work. A single drip is always present located high on the ceiling, dripping from the projector, effected by the presence below at the surface.

This activated site reveals and explicates the experience and perception of the statistical body (that which is measured, archival, quantitative, analytical, accultured) and the incommensurable body (embodied, silent, ecstatic, shadow, hysterical, mortal and imprisoned). The tension between these coexisting polarities or conditions (one imposed from without, and the other mute, subversive, willed from within) construct maps that define the path of possible inhabitable and inhabited regions of body space.

In Bodymaps, conditions and states such as gravity, coma, weightedness, sleep, and imprisonment are experienced through the objects which contain or hold the body in those states: the bed, the operating table, the casket, the cave, the vault, the well, the chamber, the cartesian cell.

Interactivity is activated by the viewer's proximity to the image. The body lays breathing. The viewer entering the installation space, moves closer to the container, enters the field of consciousness of the body, where the body's image becomes aware of the viewer's gaze and physical presence. The body stirs, the image shivers. The viewer/voyeur becomes participant, strokes the image of the body or presses the image of the container, places herself at the boundary. The viewer's action, the viewer's gesture, or even the viewer's presence may: drown the body, reveal the body, mark the body, disintegrate, embalm, arouse the body ....

Historical background for the work

Historically, my work has been focused on notions of the body, the relationship between the statistical and non-statistical representations of the body, questions of how technology mediates the representation and experience of the body, and as an extension, the representation and experience of space and of time. My formal education and training is originally in computing science, and in contemporary dance. As a result of this my work attempts to integrate models of the scientific representation with the experience of the physical body.

The Bodymaps: artifacts of touch piece uses video images of my own body, and images of a digital body whose movement is 'captured' from my own movement. I am especially interested in how the knowledge of movement and of the body can affect and inform the design of electronic computer technology, and work created with (or through) that technology. All movement in the video images were created not in a typical directorial mode of 'seeing the shot' and constructing the visual material based on visual rules of composition. Instead, all movement was generated from within the body, as was dictated by elemental states such as drowning, floating, shivering, crawling, uncovering, hiding. This technique used knowledge gained in physical techniques gained through movement practices and training.

My work is informed most deeply by my background and formal training in both dance/movement studies and computing science, although the piece Bodymaps is guided neither by the aesthetics of dance, nor by the aesthetics of computer science. My work is also informed by my personal experiences as a woman working as both a systems designer and an artist in highly technical spheres of influence. This includes the absolutely discontinuous frames of reference and knowledge held by these two disciplines in reference to the body, and my personal history and questions of identity and knowledge as experienced through my own body.

Dance and body training includes notions of imaging the 'extraordinary' body, experiencing and knowing one's physical self in non-linguistic ways, and developing language and practices to express this knowledge. It also includes directing awareness towards linking or connecting relationships between one's own parts (limbs, sensory systems, proprioceptive systems, mind, imagination) in order to practice and rehearse our own highly technical physical body.

Computing Science training includes notions of elegance and appreciation of mathematical or algorithmic construction and form, and tends to literally represent the body borrowing from medical mappings or often in Computer Graphics from mass cultural clichés of representation. My interest lies in the recognition that I am dealing with two highly technical systems each with their own technical language and frames of reference, that of the human body on the one hand, and that of computer technology on the other hand.

This work attempts to ask questions which require answers from both worlds, and in doing so creates a new language of interaction.


Thecla Schiphorst is a computer media artist, theorist, educator, computer systems designer, choreographer, and dancer. She is a member of the design team that has developed Life Forms, the computer compositional tool for choreography, and has been working with the world renowned choreographer, Merce Cunningham in New York City for the past seven years, supporting his creation of new dance using Life Forms. Thecla still travels with Cunningham to work with him and Life Forms in international dance communities. She has an interdisciplinary M.A. in computer compositional systems from SFU, and undergraduate degrees in dance and computer systems. She is currently Choreographic Consultant and Artist in Residence at the Computer Graphics and Multi-Media Research Lab at SFU where she is exploring the use of motion capture and gestural input as a real time interface.

Thecla Schiphorst travels extensively internationally lecturing, facilitating workshops and showing her work. Most recently she has been invited to SIGGRAPH '97, Interaction '97 in Ogaki-City, Japan, Future Moves Festival in Rotterdam, Ars Electronica in Lintz Austria, 5CyberConf in Madrid, Torino Danza in Italy, Corps et Machines in Belgium, the LOKV Theatre Insitute in Amsterdam, the European Centre for Dance and Technology in Frankfurt Germany, Imagina in Monte Carlo, ISEA in Montreal and Sydney Australia, the NYU Interactive Performing Arts Workshop, and the New York School for the Visual Arts.

Her latest interactive art work, Bodymaps: artifacts of touch has recently been exhibited at Ars Electroinica in Lintz Austria and the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver BC. Schiphorst and her latest work Bodymaps, is being featured in Wired magazine to be published in the October l996 issue.

Thecla is also the Artistic Director of the award winning Cunningham multi-media Archival Project entitled immerce and sponsored by the Centre for Image and Sound Research, in Vancouver. This interactive media project enables dance from Merce Cunningham's Archive to be explored and navigated using an interface metaphor which aligns ideas of movement, the body, and Merce Cunningham's process to mechanisms for interactive selection. This piece has won three first place festival awards at the International Digital Media Awards Festival, and has been shown at the ARC awards in Los Angeles.

Thecla Schiphorst has been a faculty member at the Simon Fraser University Computed Art Summer Intensive, and at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver. She is the past chair of the Conference on Dance and Technology held at Simon Fraser University in July of l993. Thecla Schiphorst is the co-founder of Digital Earth, a new non-profit cultural society and co curator of the web-based project The Ecology of Communications, and Transverse Worlds.

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