Unit 9.2: Dance, interaction, and virtuality in contemporary performance
The integration of multimedia technology in dance since the early twentieth century has engendered and amplified concerns related to bodily abstraction and representation, as well as knowledge transmission. From large-scale motion capture projects with renowned choreographers, to the current swell of dance for camera and live-stream performance, this unit probes the entanglement of ethics, aesthetics, and politics in the shifting landscape of dance and technology.
In the field of dance, projects involving technology are often referred to under the general framing of dance and technology. The niche of dance and technology encompasses multimedia practices variously described as interactive, digital, and mediated, and is not easily defined in temporal or geographic scope. Narratives that trace the role of technology in dance frequently centre a particular canon of European and American choreographers in the genres of ballet, modern, and postmodern dance whose work has been archived and disseminated via large-scale collaborations with technologists and scholars. In part, the emphasis on Euro-American concert dance in published accounts of multimedia performance reflects an asymmetrical distribution of access to technologies such as professional motion capture systems, as well as the institutions in which these technologies are used.
Presently, as the field of dance endeavors to confront the ongoing effects of cultural and aesthetic appropriation in the legacies of 20th century choreographers, and more broadly in movement techniques and vocabularies, dance projects that integrate multimedia are not immune to these concerns – in fact, they may amplify ethical concerns related to abstraction and representation.
In a recent book titled Perpetual Motion: Dance, Digital Cultures, and the Common, Harmony Bench acknowledges a gradual shift in her thinking about dance and digital media over the years. Bench acknowledges that:
When I began thinking and writing about dance in digital media, I was very confident about the dance forms represented. For the most part, what I saw came from the same lineages of ballet, modern, and postmodern dance in which I had trained for decades as a performer. Digital dance was a niche phenomenon, and participation was a mark of privileged access to the enabling resources and technological infrastructures that enabled high-profile collaborations between choreographers and technologists—seen, for example, in Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar’s large-scale collaborations with choreographers Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, and Trisha Brown. […] With few exceptions, there was a wide gulf between “serious” artists developing new technologies to support their aesthetic investigations and amateurs posting animated GIFs of dancing hamsters online. (Bench, 2020)
And yes, I have a dancing hamster here for you!
But in all seriousness, like Bench, my background is in contemporary dance and choreography, and the high-profile collaborations she refers to above are key to what I imagine, or at least what I initially learned to imagine, when thinking about multimedia dance performance. A select list of choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Wayne McGregor, and William Forsythe are frequently centred in discussions of dance and technology, due in part to their involvement in research and creation initiatives that have been mobilised by scholars to advocate for the value of dance and choreography within and beyond academia.
Arguably, a major motivation for the use of technology in the realm of dance has been to reveal aspects of studio practice and creative process that are otherwise invisible to audiences, and further, to facilitate the transfer of dance-based and choreographic knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. The need to make the value of dance and choreography legible to the institutions that grant access to resources has both ethical and aesthetic consequences. Given sustained capitalist and neoliberal pressure, the who, how, and what of dance has become increasingly entangled with the integration of new media as a means to demonstrate knowledge borne of dance and choreography.
That said, the adoption of technology into dance is not only a matter of necessity, but also one of curiosity and desire. Historically, and to some extent presently, the integration of interactive and sensing technologies in dance owes much to developments in fellow performing art forms such as theater, music, and film. In the book Entangled: Technology and the transformation of performance (Salter, 2010), Chris Salter provides a considerable review of advances in multimedia performance from the late 19th century onwards, illustrating cross-disciplinary spillage between various art forms, as well as disciplines such as engineering, computer science, and architecture. Casting a similarly wide net, Johannes Birringer has published several books that address enduring themes in multimedia performance such as virtuality, interaction, embodiment, immersion, and augmented realities ((Birringer, 2021), (Birringer, 2008), (Birringer, 1998)). Relatedly, in Digital Performance Steve Dixon discusses the role of computer technologies in multimedia performance over the course of the 20th century, interrogating notions such as liveness, digital doubles, cyberspace, and telepresence (Dixon, 2007). On the theme of telepresence, Suzan Kozel’s book Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology intertwines philosophy and photography, as well as experiential accounts from performers to dig into aesthetic and ethical concerns in responsive and interactive environments (Kozel, 2008).
Notably however, in the mere decade since the books I just mentioned were published, the arena of dance and technology has transformed dramatically. The proliferation of portable and low-cost devices for recording and biosensing, in tandem with user-friendly software and social media platforms, has reconfigured access to and participation in digital dance. In the context of the pandemic, myriad dance artists are turning to dance for camera and live-stream performance, devising distributed and durational choreographies that echo and expand on developments in multimedia performance since the mid 1960s. With this swell of virtual dance encounters, the urgency of questions related to presence, proximity, mediation and materiality is palpable and prominent in the framing of special issues for journals, as well as symposia and conferences world-round. More recent publications on dance and technology emphasise the collaborative, DIY, and open-access character of ongoing projects, blurring boundaries between process and performance, as well as personal and professional. See for example Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter (Sha, 2013), The Performing Subject in the Space of Technology (Causey et al., 2015), Perpetual Motion (Bench, 2020) and Kinetic Atmospheres (Bench, 2020). Additionally, the online platform dance-tech.net (Solano, 2007), founded by Marlon Barrios Solano and active since 2007, is exemplary of this shift towards widespread international engagement with dance and technology – even as asymmetry in access to technology persists.
From high-profile collaborations featuring established choreographers, to the present overflow of digital interventions in dance, questions related to interactivity and virtuality persist. Having offered a few resources on the field of dance and technology at large, in the remainder of this talk I will draw on particular examples to elucidate ongoing aesthetic and ethical concerns in multimedia research and creation. I will focus first on bodily abstraction and representation in motion capture for dance, looking at the work of choreographers Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones in collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup. Next, I will present research-based and archival projects aimed at the transmission of dance-based and choreographic knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, largely through the use of motion capture and annotation technologies. Finally, I will consider the shifting landscape of dance and technology in light of ongoing artistic, economic, and political forces world-round, pointing towards current resources and platforms for critical engagement.
Motion capture, erasure, abstraction, and representation
From the late 1990s onwards, several notable motion capture projects were developed by the OpenEndedGroup, comprising Mark Downie, Paul Kaiser, and (up to 2014) Shelly Eshkar, in collaboration with well established contemporary dance choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones. Video excerpts from many of these projects are available online. See for example Hand-drawn Spaces (1998), Biped (1999), and Loops (2001) developed with Cunningham; and Ghostcatching (1999), and After Ghostcatching (2010) developed with Jones.
Overall, the work of Cunningham and Jones differs both aesthetically and thematically. And yet, in these motion capture videos the abstract skeletal representations of moving bodies bear remarkable resemblance. Take a moment to watch Hand Drawn Spaces and Ghostcatching side by side – with the volume off.
While there are certainly differences in the movement vocabulary and bodies of the performers, these differences are less pronounced than in live performance. The emergence of an overlapping aesthetic here is attributable in part to having the same design team, as well as similar hardware and software for motion capture and animation in each collaboration. Indeed, many choreographers use the same or similar motion capture systems, and the extent to which this colours the aesthetic and conceptual outcome warrants interrogation. Of particular concern here, is the political significance of obscuring differences in representations of human bodies and movement.
In an article titled “Ghostcatching: An Intersection of Technology, Labor, and Race”, dance scholar Danielle Goldman raises concern regarding the political implications of the erasure of bodilly and identity markers in motion capture systems. Goldman suggests that:
[w]ith Ghostcatching, the dance of Bill T. Jones became virtual, moving in a sense beyond the body. How then, if at all, does the work hold onto its politics? Does Ghostcatching represent Jones’s most radical formalist turn? Can politics transpire in a virtual dance that allows neither sweat nor skin, primary markers of labor and race, to appear on stage? (Goldman, 2004)
Placing the work of Jones in conversation with that of Cunningham, Goldman emphasises tension between politics and form when generating representations of human bodies and identities. Jones himself speaks to this tension and argues, contrary to Cunningham’s formalist sentiments, that imaging technologies used to double dancers are never neutral. Rather than seeking to neutralise technological representations, Jones calls for spectators to cultivate a “double-vision” in which the who and how of each performance are always already entangled. Jones asks: “When you look at my stage now, can you look with two sets of eyes? Do you see the sexual preference of the person, the race of the person, the gender of the person, and then, can you see what they’re doing?” (Jones, cited in (Goldman, 2004))
Nearly a decade later, Jones’ subsequent collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup titled After Ghostcatching (2010) inspired further questions regarding bodily representation and critical spectatorship. Addressing these two iterations of Ghostcatching, from 1999 and 2010 respectively, dance scholar Tiffany E. Barber argues that a shift in Amercian discourse from identity politics to post-racial ideologies served to reinforce purely formal interpretations of of bodies and movement – stripped not only of identity, but of context. Problematizing abstraction as a means to neutralise representations, Barber argues that:
[…] retreating to a digital body as a new sphere of sociality, as a utopian space that potentially and optimistically erases essentializing information—or renders it invisible—in order to escape the persistence of race as visual does little to solve the problems of racialized looking practices. (Barber, 2015)
Significantly, political questions regarding identity and representation are largely absent in discourse surrounding the OpenEndedGroup’s collaborations with Cunningham. To this end, designer Paul Kaiser who was integral to all of the above collaborations suggests that:
[…] the virtual dancers in Hand-drawn Spaces appear as interchangeable, sexless bodies; political significations of sex and gender are disavowed. Whereas Cunningham’s affinity for pure movement over identity politics and bodies-as-signs led him to explore motion capture technology for its formal qualities, Bill T. Jones used the medium to different ends. (Kaiser, cited in (Barber, 2015))
But what are these “different ends” Kaiser refers to? Jones has long been vocal in resisting binary interpretations of politics and form, arguing that politics are inherent within the flesh and movement of the performer, as well as the eye of the beholder (Goldman, 2004). What are the implications, then, when movement becomes abstracted from the body of the performer as well as the context of capture? Are the implications different when we are speaking about Jones, versus the dancers in Cunningham’s work who I have not even named? Are the digital bodies in these two pieces interchangeable with one another – and if not, why?
In an article tilted “Additive race: colorblind discourses of realism in performance capture technologies”, Alison Reed and Amanda Phillips problematise approaches to representation that essentialise racial difference by treating it as a “matter of style” that can be divorced from and applied to virtual bodies interchangeably. Directing attention to the entire apparatus of production for performance capture – from the hardware and software, to the designers and technicians, to the performers, directors and audience, and finally to the cultural and discursive context of capture – Reed and Phillips argue that:
No matter the self-identification of the gamers or performers themselves, the constraints of performance made possible in digital embodiment lead back to the identity of the avatar and the technicians who control it. […] it is not necessarily the identity of consumers that should concern us, but how these identities function in the context of the wider discursive and technical systems that construct and constrain them. It is crucial to question the discourses of realism that surround motion capture technologies and the very representations they produce, which so often rely on the logics of white supremacy to ground reality in either the transparent universality of whiteness or the embodied specificity of people of color—what we call additive race, the reduction of racialized difference to a matter of style. (Goldman, 2004)
Throughout the article, Reed and Phillips remind us that representation is a systemic process, rather than a singular or enclosed operation. Thus, the interaction between a given performer with a motion capture system is never only a matter of translation between source and representation, but rather a complex and continual negotiation of intersecting value systems – aesthetic, ethical, and political. To this end, it is worth differentiating between the application of motion capture imagery to represent and interact with one’s own avatar(s) in solo performance, versus the abstraction and interchangeability of multiple, anonymised bodies-as-forms. Whereas live performance necessarily involves the non-uniformity of movement within differentiated bodies and identities, the intersection of computing with dance enables the datafication and reduction of figures into undifferentiated forms – noting that categorical markers of difference may be reinscribed in avatars later on in order to signify realism.
Earlier, I proposed that you watch the video excerpts of Hand-drawn Spaces and Ghostcatching simultaneously with the volume off; removing the audio was in part logistical, but also a strategic means to foreground visual likeness. If you revisit each video now with the audio on, the music for Hand-drawn Spaces by composer Ron Kuivila, versus Jones’ breath, storytelling, and humming, invite very different interpretations of who these abstract skeletal avatars are.
To explore this de- and re-inscription of character further, I invite you – on your own – to watch each video a third time, one at a time – but swap the music – such that Hand-drawn Spaces is accompanied by Jones’ voice, and subsequently, Ghostcatching is accompanied by Kuivila’s music. What effect does this re-coupling of movement and sound have on your interpretation of the identities of the avatars, and the context in which they perform?
There is much more to address here, but given the brevity of this talk I will leave you with the above questions for later reflection. I am going to shift now from discussing the use of motion capture for bodilly abstraction and representation in performance, to the use of motion capture in research-based and archival projects with choreographers.
Choreographic thinking, computation and transmission
In addition to the use of motion capture for artistic production in dance, it has been used to develop tools and resources aimed at transmitting aspects of choreographic processes beyond the studio. Choreographer William Forsythe is featured in two of the most prominent projects in this vein.
The first project, Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye (1999), was developed by Forsythe in collaboration with media researchers at ZKM (Center for Arts and Media) in Germany. Forstythe describes his intent in this project as being to articulate the underlying logic and idiosyncrasies of his contemporary movement vocabulary to the classically trained dancers of the Ballet Frankfurt. In a series of brief video clips, originally released as a CD-ROM, Forstythe illustrates the way in which he visualises and incribess lines in space, progressing from simple tracing to complex curves and architectures. Many of the clips are available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0A53A652F7A46885.
As you watch the short video clip below from Improvisation Technologies, keep in mind the abstract skeletal imagery in the motion capture projects with Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham discussed a moment ago.
Interestingly, all three projects emphasise the reduction and abstraction of bodily movement into points and lines in space, illustrating a Euclidean imaginary of geometric space, as well Rudolph Laban’s influential modelling of the kinesphere surrounding the body.
The second major project centred on Forsythe’s work is titled Synchronous Objects: One flat thing, reproduced (2009). Synchronous Objects was developed by Forsythe in collaboration with Maria Palazzi and Norah Zuniga Shaw at the Ohio State University, as well as designers, engineers, and scholars from numerous research centres in Germany. A web-based project, with later installations, Synchronous Objects employs an array of imaging technologies to generate visual and three-dimensional interpretations of data derived from movement relationships in a video of the live choreography. Forsythe and his collaborators refer to these derivations of the choreography as “choreographic objects”. Forsythe explains that:
A choreographic object is not a substitute for the body, but rather an alternative site for the understanding of potential instigation and organization of action to reside. Ideally, choreographic ideas in this form would draw an attentive, diverse readership that would eventually understand and, hopefully, champion the innumerable manifestations, old and new, of choreographic thinking. (Forsythe, 2009)
These choreographic objects, including interactive tools, can be explored on the Synchronous Objects website: https://synchronousobjects.osu.edu. Additionally,the following video demonstrates several animations used to highlight complex choreographic structures in the spatial and temporal unfolding of the live choreography.
In Synchronous Objects, data derived from a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of movement pathways, patterns, and relationships is represented by linear tracings on screen (as in the previous projects), as well as by visual masses and textures subject to continual transformation. As expressed by Forsythe, Palazzi, and Zuniga Shaw in numerous talks and publications, choreographic objects are not intended to represent the bodies and movement of the dancers, nor the choreography itself, but rather make available seeds of the engrained choreographic thinking that may be transplanted into other disciplinary contexts (Palazzi et al., 2009).
The desire to extract and transplant choreographic thinking resonates with numerous other practice-led research projects involving choreography and technology and in the past decade. See for example:
- Choreographic Thinking Tools (2010), developed as part of the Mind and Movement project by choreographer Wayne McGregor with researchers Philip Barnard, Scott deLahunta, Jasmine Wilson and Ellie Douglas-Allan;
- Choreographic Language Agent (2009-2013), developed by choreographer Wayne McGregor in collaboration with the OpenEndedGroup;
- Material for the Spine (2008-2019), realised by Steve Paxton, Baptiste Andrien and Florence Corin for Contredanse;
- Whatever Dance Toolbox (2011), developed by BADco with human computer interaction researcher Alan Turig;
- Siobhan Davies RePlay (2009-2010), directed by dance scholar Sarah Whately;
- A Choreographer’s Score (2012), developed by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with performance theorist and musicologist Bojana Cvejić;
- Transmedia Knowledge Base for the Performing Arts (2016), directed by linguist Carla Fernandes and collaborators; and
- Motion Bank (2010-2013), a project of the Forsythe company, co-directed by Scott deLahunta and Florian Jenett, featuring choreographers Deborah Hay, Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, Bebe Miller and Thomas Hauert – with a second phase forthcoming.
In a volume titled Transmission in Motion: The Technologizing of Dance (2017), theater studies scholar Maaike Bleeker is joined by several artists and scholars to discuss approaches to sharing choreographic thinking, logic, and knowledge. In addition to detailed accounts from collaborators in several of the projects discussed thus far, the volume touches on the legal, economic, political, and philosophical dimensions of these ventures. In a chapter titled: “Making Knowledge from Movement: Some notes on the contextual impetus to transmit knowledge from dance,” social anthropologist James Leach interrogates the motives behind framing choreography as a form of knowledge production. Leach argues that:
In a context where value is seen not just in ability, but in the articulation of ability (as knowledge), there is an understandable desire to represent skilled action as more than just technique or control (Marchand et al.). That dance is not just intuitive or primitive. That is, to re-present skill and creativity in contemporary dance as a specific process of “thinking,” and the outcome, a form of knowledge. While nothing new (see Baxmann  209) the impetus to see movement as containing knowledge now manifests in contemporary dance as an emphasis on choreographic practice as a particular kind of intelligence (deLahunta “Publishing Choreographic Ideas”)—one that, once rendered in other forms (amenable to transmission and transaction) will be both visible, and communicable, as a contribution to wider cultural and economic development […] (Leach, quoted in (Bleeker, 2017))
The troubling hierarchical distinction that Leach describes here between dance and choreography reflects deeply entrenched binaries in Western thought such as body versus mind, practice versus theory, and material versus immaterial. Positioning the choreographer as the mastermind behind the performance, and the dancer as the conveyor or interpreter of the choreographer’s vision is an assumption endemic to classical performance, and warrants reevaluation in relation to contemporary practices of dance research, creation, and pedagogy. In many contemporary performance practices the contributions of directors and performers are deeply entangled, such that creation involves distributed and cyclical exchange. Further, just as not all choreography centres on dance, many dance practices do not involve choreography – at least not in a directorial sense. Attributing choreographic knowledge to an individual choreographer fails to acknowledge the entire apparatus of socio-political, aesthetic, and technical production through which articulations of “knowledge” become visible and viable.
In a recent digital dance archive titled Dunham’s Data (2018-2021), the legacy of choreographer Katherine Duhnam is examined genealogically through the visualisation of datasets that trace interpersonal and geographic connections integral to her career, and to dance history at large. Lead project investigators Kate Elswit and Harmony Bench explain that by “manually cataloguing a daily itinerary of Dunham’s touring and travel from the 1930s-60s, the dancers, drummers, and singers in her employ during that time, and the repertory they performed,” this digital archive aims to “provide new means to understand the relationships between thousands of locations, and hundreds of performers and pieces across the decades of Dunham’s career, and ultimately elaborate how movement moves” (Elswit et al., 2021). Through a series of interactive visualisations, the diasporic evolution of Duhnam’s practice and pedagogy invites contextual and relational interpretations of her contributions to dance history.
The emphasis in Dunham’s Data on contextual information diverges from the visualisation of aesthetic patterns within the creative process of individual choreographers. By casting a wide net around Dunham’s work, this project enables interrogation of the entire apparatus of production through which knowledge emerges. Katherine Duhnam is honoured in this archive through her relational significance in a complex of intersecting artistic, cultural, and socio-political forces, reminding us that representations of people and practices are never value-free – even when, or especially when they are divorced from the bodies, identities, and context of emergence.
The niche of dance and technology must be understood in relation to the field of dance at large, as well broader developments in technology across fields such as computer science, human computer interaction, and science and technology studies. Ongoing developments in the area of dance and technology are increasingly concerned with critical methodologies and pedagogies to interrogate inscribed bias within systems of capture and representation. To this end, the folding of critical theory from feminsit, queer, and decolonial perspectives into artistic research and creation is imperative.
Moving into the final section of this talk, I will consider what Marlon Barrios Solano refers to on the dance-tech.net site as the “unstable landscape” of dance and technology, foregrounding recent and ongoing initiatives world-round.
The unstable landscape of dance and technology
Gradually over the past decade, and dramatically in the past two years, the boundaries of dance and technology have broadened such that it may no longer be appropriate to refer to it as a niche. In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, dance for camera and live-stream performance have proliferated, amplifying aesthetic and ethical concerns related to virtual embodiment, proximity, and intimacy. In many countries, art funding has been redirected towards adaptations of live work for screen, as well as projects designed specifically for online sharing. Experimentation with online formats such as one-on-one encounters, collective video montage, and durational events spanning hours or even days, is increasingly prevalent. In addition to curated festivals online, video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, and social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, are flooded with work by independent dancers and choreographers – side by side with GIFs of dancing hamsters.
At present, it is difficult to anticipate the impact that this pandemic inspired saturation of technology in dance will have long-term. Whether artists have turned to technology out of curiosity or necessity, or some combination thereof, technical literacy within the field has certainly increased. Given advances in relatively affordable and user-friendly hardware and software, the exclusivity of dance and technology has been expanded by hands-on, DIY dance-tech projects realised by dancers and choreographers themselves. Assuming access to the World Wide Web – a privilege that is limited geographically and economically – individuals with the means need not await invitation from a festival or venue to share work with audiences online.
On open-access video sites and social media, the role of the curator has been supplanted by algorithmic curation – or rather, the human designers of these algorithms which determine the relative visibility of content based on criteria such as views, likes, shares, and more. To an extent, this more of algorithmic curation remains opaque, and requires interrogation with regard to inscribed bias in implementations of machine learning and artificial intelligence. As artists and arts organisations attempt to hack these algorithms to increase visibility, it is worth considering if and how this is impacting the aesthetic of the work prod uced, as well as the way in which it is framed and promoted.
The smorgasbord of content encountered when scrolling online brings together materials that might otherwise be set apart based on cultural judgements of high versus low art, and professional versus personal. Contextual analysis of dance and choreography encountered online necessitates tailored analysis of its site-specificity. As Bench cautions: “[…] these media bring all possible dance forms into the flattening space of the computer screen, blurring distinctions among movement practices and communities and disarticulating them from their histories and cultural situations” (Bench, 2020). This blurring makes it difficult to evaluate authorship and ownership of work on an individual and cultural scale, at least within existing frameworks for analysis in dance studies. Bench explains that:
[…] scholarship in dance studies continues to favor the explanatory framework of cultural appropriation to describe the spread of dances and movements beyond the communities invested in their production. This is due, in part, to the focus of much dance scholarship on the politics of modernist aesthetics in concert dance of the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars have demonstrated that within this field, ideologies of openness and cultural fluidity rooted in the notion that dance is universal have historically favored those with greater social capital. (Bench, 2020)
Applying Bench’s comments to the emphasis on transmitting choreographic knowledge from the practices of select twentieth century choreographers in the projects discussed earlier, the ethical implications of abstraction and de-contextualisation come to the fore. Significantly, the inclusion of additional choreographers in such endeavors – without a shift in methodology – is not enough to decolonise representations of dance-based knowledge. As barriers to inclusion lessen, or at least shift in online performance practices, participation may diversify, but this does not in itself constitute a reconfiguration of power dynamics within and between cultures of dance.
The intervention of computational technologies in dance has largely served to reify and reassert the role of the choreographer vis à vis dancers, amplifying tension already present within the field of dance itself. Dance scholar Jose L. Reynoso argues that while the use of improvisatory, collective, and participatory techniques in contemporary performance is often characterised as democratic, the ethics underlying such approaches are questionable if they fail to distribute social capital in an equitable way. Speaking of participatory choreographies in recent years, Reynsso suggests that:
[…] while these forms of labor intend to be more democratic because of the egalitarian ethos they seek to cultivate through more inclusive, collaborative, less hierarchical compositional processes, the unequal distribution of various forms of capital produced by the participants’ creative labor enacts while it naturalizes exploitative relational logics of capitalism. The argument contends that while choreographers strive, with varying success, to establish nonauthoritarian creative practices in the production of their work, the collaborative bodies whose creative labor is crucial in the dance-making endeavor cannot claim authorship nor ownership of the product […]. (Reynoso, 2019)
Ethical concerns related to attribution in contemporary dance are addressed by dance scholar Anthea Kraut in Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance (Kraut, 2015), and further by Charlotte Waelde and Sarah Whatley in a chapter of Transmission in Motion focussed explicitly on copyright challenges in digital dance (Waelde et al., 2017). Acknowledging hesitance on the part of many dance artists to engage with copyright law “due to the collaborative nature of dance practice”, Waelde and Whatley nevertheless emphasize the need to protect dance works legally as a form of “cultural heritage”, in order to combat the perpetual threat of shrinking funding for individual artists and institutions in the UK and abroad (Waelde et al., 2017).
Contrary to this emphasis on traditional copyright, much contemporary digital dance embraces the ethos of the “creative commons”, making work freely available online for re-use under certain conditions. In lieu of financial payment, works shared freely online may accrue social capital in terms of notoriety, networking, and future opportunities. In digital dance, the rising popularity of open source and open access platforms is a step towards acknowledging the distributed and diasporic emergence of contributions to knowledge that span disciplines and generations. That said, the enduring effects of appropriation, colonialism, and systemic inequality in dance are not resolved, but rather displaced, within creative commons licensing. Probing the values implicit within collective and open access approaches to digital dance, Bench points out that:
[t]he ethics of these gestural transfers across cultures and movement communities are ambiguous. Digital cultural production as a global phenomenon thus requires a rethinking of how gestures and dances can circulate through media and across bodies without repeating the colonial violence of dispossession in the name of open access. (Bench, 2020)
This rethinking of ethics and aesthetics at the intersection of dance and technology is integral to the work of African American studies and dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz. In a recent talk titled “Improvising the Interface: Dance Technology and the New Black Dance Studies”, DeFrantz emphasises the entanglement of technology and aesthetics, as well as the reclaiming of technologies beyond their intended purpose as integral dance as a means of protest and resistance. DeFrantz proposes that:
Black life and black creativity is bound up with stylization, so style is super important, so we have ways, you know, communities of black people gather around re-animating technologies, using them differently, using a phone differently, using a camera differently, than, you know, essentially how it was designed to be used. Like, what else could it do? And let’s stylise our relationship to technology. So, these performances do move way outside of the lab, and outside of the theater space, or the museum gallery, into the night club, […] into the basketball game, into the football stadium. So maybe another way to think about it is how dance technology or interactive performance is actually distributed across kids’ Birthday parties or liturgical dancing and churches. You know, it just comes out in different forms, in different places, than thinking it needs to be in a theater […]. (DeFrantz, in conversation with EMPAC curator Ferro Murray 2020: 45’46”-46’52”)
The stress here on the distributed character of dance and technology practices requires an embrace of multiplicity and malleability within contexts of presentation, such that the apparatus through which performances and interfaces are devised is subject to continual reconfiguration both geographically and temporally. For DeFrantz, this research is grounded by collaborative initiatives in the lab he directs at Duke University, called SLIPPAGE: Performance | Culture | Technology.
Presently, transdisciplinary collectives, platforms, and research labs such as SLIPPAGE are integral to developments associated with dance and technology. Through an interweaving of practice-based research with critical theory and philosophy, teams of collaborators in the arts, humanities, and sciences are probing the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of movement analysis and representation across disciplines.
To conclude this talk I would like to point you in the direction of a few communities actively engaged with dance and technology, through which you can learn more and also get involved. The communities foregrounded here are of course a partial sampling of the field, bound by my own values, knowledge, and experience – and indeed, I am involved in several of these myself.
For those curious about the philosophical dimensions of bodily abstraction and representation, I recommend checking out the Metabody Project founded by Jaime del Val, which hosts a yearly forum, as well as performances, installations, workshops, and talks internationally. Additionally, the SenseLab directed by Erin Manning explores performance from the perspective of process philosophy, and engages with issues of interaction and virtuality through reading groups, workshops, and performances, as well as an open access journal and book series.
Mathematician and philosopher Sha Xin Wei has founded two research labs focussed on arts, media, and engineering, namely the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University – now directed by choreographer Micahel Montanaro and philosopher David Morris – and the Synthesis Center at Arizona State University. The Synthesis Center currently supports a wide range of practice-based and theoretical projects on themes such as prototyping social forms, alternative economies and ecologies, and neurodiverse telematic embodied learning.
The yearly Conference on Movement and Computing (MOCO) brings together practitioners in disciplines such as dance, music, human computer interaction, and computer science to explore “computational study, modelling, representation, segmentation, recognition, classification, or generation of movement information”. In addition to providing open access proceedings, MOCO hosts an online forum and mailing list. In response to the pandemic, in 2021 MOCO was reimagined as an experimental, durational event spanning an entire year called SloMoCo, chaired by Garrett Laroy Johnson, and featuring micro-residencies, seminars, online discourse and more, documented on Manifold. Although SloMoCo has concluded for now, the Discord channel remains active, and can be joined upon request.
Finally, I co-moderate an initiative called The Provocations Project, along with John MacCallum and Jessicaa Rajko, which involves a series of ongoing, open calls for provocations on questions integral to practices at the intersection of arts and technology. You can visit the collection of provocations, as well as current open calls on the Provocations website – including an open call for Calls for Provocations!
As previously noted, the dance-tech.net community is also an excellent resource.
Given the current surge of new projects related to multimedia performance in dance, the above communities offer entry-points into the ongoing flux of artistic and discursive developments at the fore of the field.
I have painted very broad strokes today, to introduce critical themes and questions related to the history and practice of multimedia in dance over time. From the early twentieth century to present day, intersections between dance and technology have at once magnified and intervened in cultural understandings of movement, bodies, and identities. Although early integrations of technology in dance served to foreground select choreographers in the Euro-American canon of concert dance, the current proliferation of relatively affordable and ussr-friendly hardware and software – along with the constraints of the Coronavirus pandemic – is reconfiguring the boundaries of this field from within.
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