Thursday, May 17, 2007

On April 27th the Colloquia in Conceptual Studies series at UWM, which has placed as a central focus the intersection of theory and practice in new media production and interactive art, was graced with the presence of two theorist-practitioners who are currently working through the interstitial territory where – as Ms. Zuniga-Shaw put it – body, site and technology communicate. Nora Zuniga-Shaw is a dance artist and theorist, director of dance and technology and assistant professor at the Ohio State University Department of Dance and in the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. In addition, she is a founding member of the Emma (Experimental Media and Movement Arts) Lab. (Go to to learn more about this groundbreaking facility.) Luc Vanier is an assistant professor in the Dance Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, and an associate director of the modern dance company Your Mother Dances, who often incorporates interactive technologies into his productions.

Both foreground the body as a site of knowledge and see dance, at least in part, as a formal way of exploring bodily knowing. Dancers develop thinking, reactive bodies, skill sets which make them particularly helpful in the realm of technological development, where specialists have not traditionally been focused on the physical component of techno-logical encounters. The works shared at the colloquium on Friday dealt specifically with elaborating the communication between expressive human motion and interpretive machines.

Mr. Vanier’s work involves responsive virtual environments made in either Max/MSP and Jitter or Isadora that react via motion capture technologies to dancers’ movement onstage during live performances. Early attempts, in which the interactive patch and the dance were conceived and developed separately, functioned, in this writer’s opinion, merely as elaborate light shows. The main problem was that the connection between the movement onstage and the imagery was not made apparent. These works highlight the importance of fine-tuning a digital instrument to both the site, the human movements and the thematic material involved in order to achieve conceptual and, hence, aesthetic coherence. Even when, in later pieces such as Bob’s Palace, the movement of the dancers very explicitly generated/ affected a live stream of projected virtual imagery, there seemed to be a conceptual disconnect that may simply have to do with a lack of complexity written into the original patch.

Ms. Zuniga-Shaw points out that part of the difficulty in designing these instruments or environments is that it is a relatively new field that requires specialized knowledge from several currently disparate fields. In her theoretical work she discusses the importance of what she terms “interdisciplinarity,” as opposed to multidisciplinarity. Multidisciplinary practice involves the collaboration of specialists from different fields who solve problems that lie within their specific area of expertise. Interdisciplinary practice, on the other hand, is based on a more in-depth dialogue between these often arbitrarily separated kinds of work. This mode of collaboration facilitates greater technical and cultural understanding from the parties involved and leads to technological and artistic innovation. This modus operandi takes a great deal of time, and the establishment of institutes and laboratories that facilitate long-term research is, in her mind, essential. Norah is currently working on, among other projects, an interactive animated score for choreographer William Forsythe's seminal piece "One flat thing, reproduced." An excellent example of an interdisciplinary project, a team of specialists from a variety of fields (including designers, PIXAR animators, computer scientists & engineers interested in subjectivity, philosophers, cognitive scientists and dancers) has been assembled to take on the challenge. Ms. Zuniga-Shaw’s art-practice resembles a sort of creative problem solving. Many solutions to a single problem are attempted, collected and analyzed. Discoveries are made. And, importantly, along the way a new interdisciplinary vocabulary is developed to describe the process and the output. The foundational/ operational aspects of the project inspired such a long discussion that there was not enough time remaining to delve into all the particulars.

Very basically, taking a recorded version of the dance as its primary data set, the project analyzes the visual patterns that emerge in the dance as opposed to the choreographic patterns (which is the traditional form of analysis). An ethic of trial and error motors the team through a variety of analytical approaches, which in turn create a variety of outputs. Professor Vicki Calahan pointed out that the spirit of experimentation and the primacy of the visual recall early montage experimentation. Thinking through visual tools: How many permutations are possible? Which are useful?

As much for the contributions to the burgeoning field of technologically-conversant dance performance, the discussion of methodology proved extremely thought provoking and useful.