Saturday, August 21, 2010

dispositif / mise en scène IV

V Platform Proprioception

As we reach the end of the week of our workshop, we are energized by our regular morning physical sessions. Today (Saturday), Wendy opened the warm up with everyone lying on the tracking floor and closing their eyes, sensing everyone's presence and one's own connectedness to space and others through sensitivity to the sound we are making. In the second part of the warn up, Sarah Kraft directed us to begin sensing space and persons in space through focus exercises that shifted attention from a focal point in space to a more peripheral vision and sensing to a wider proprioceptive awareness of everything around us - envisioning the total environment almost like a holographic volumen.

Looking at this image, you see the dancer (James C.) testing the follower behavior of the blob actor (in Isadora), which is programmed to process/manipulate projected text and also sound samples (of recorded spoken words); in the center of the floor you can see the downward view of the camera tracking the figure in space.

Starting from the Live.Media+Performance lab, and the experience I have had observing the experiments of the various project groups during the week, I want to look at the performance behavior of the individual artists working (rehearsing) inside the interactive platform environments.

Another approach, of course, would be to look at the programming environment and analyse the tracking behavior (machine vision) and communications between "actors" in the Isadora patches, to gain a better understanding of how the coding is conceived and what protocols or parameters and filters are used.

Almost all the prototypes under development this week had a modus of real-time interaction in place (in the patch programming), so that tracking information coming into the computer was continuously measured and processed by the patch actors (in Isadora).
In this image, you see the dancers in space, on the tracking field, observing the downward camera vision on the large upstage/backscreen on the northside of the studio. The studio projection set up included three fixed projector positions; first, from back of house to the large screen you see in the picture; second, from the right side to the left side, and third, from the ceiling grid down to the floor ground. Several roving projectors were used at times for throwing images onto the smaller flexible/moving screens. In other words, in the lab studio environment, projections could be positioned from virtually any position that was desired.
Here is a picture of the same prototype (Sara Kraft's "Truth Is") under development, without that the camera vision window is open.

The team programmed a projective landscape that showed white squares and the words on the floor, while the blob actor becomes visible as a faint round spot that tracks/follows the person that enters the space (the camera "sees" the stage under infra red light: we hung four lighting instruments, the infrared lighting for the overhead camera allows the stage to be bathed in invisible light which does not interfere with the video or graphic image projection onto the white floorscape).

To show the perspective of the programming, here is a screenshot of the Isadora patch for Joff Chafer's Lying Bodies/Outside In installation:

Perhaps the still image is hard to read on the blog, but at least you can see the arrangements and connections between the various actors and "projectors". The patch is visible only on the laptops or main computer used by the programmer, while to the environment ("stage") the software sends out the visual outputs. In our lab we often used more than one projector (using Matrox Triple Head to Go), and the various projections can then be distributed by the software to the "stages" (Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, etc).

The issues we now face revolve around the interconnected composition/design process of developing the physical performance or participation with the system, while continuing to improve the response behavior of the system, which in many cases depends on the presence of performers in the platform. The performers or participants, on the other hand, need to learn to "play the instrument," so to speak, find out and perceive, intuit and sense, the response behavior of the system.

The participants of the lab have been working on eleven small experimental live media performances, some requiring performers with a task-based or game-based or choreographic motivation, other are installations that invite the visitor into the system environment and leaving it to her/him to explore the situation that has been prepared. For the interaction between performer/participant and the system to work and be satisfying, there needs to be a perceptional process initiated: the performer who acts inside the platform environment needs to "test" or explore the system behavior as well as her/his proprioceptive and kinetic awareness of the live media with which action is enacted.

Taking as an example the "Smush-grid" installation by Sarah Dahnke (which is presented tonite along with Wendy Chu's dotted landscape installation), you see in the photograph how the participant users are examining the unstable behavior of the system. They were told the "rules" when entering: balance yourself and move on the white lines of the grid, as if you were a tightrope walker. If you stay on the white lines, you are safe, if you step into the darker areas, you fall and need to go down to the floor for some seconds and be still. The grid has a behavior, it is either stable or is suddenly warps. When it warps, it will "throw off" the walkers in the labyrinth. The moment of the warp is triggered by the tracking machine. The whole landscape changes, and the participant needs to react instantaneously if partaking of the game challenge.

This change in the grid environment has interesting psychological effects on our perception, as the projected outlines of the gridded landspaces warp and fold, almost as if the unfolding/folding changes are "cuts" in a dream (I think there is an amazing dream sequence of this kind in the new film by Christopher Nolan, "Inception"), and your mind/body is trying to adjust to or anticipate the sudden changes. One tries to balance and hold on to a sense of reality or stability, which is undermined by the digital serendipity. In Wendy's dotted lanscape, the grid becomes mass of starry nightscape swirling about like swarms of stars. Here the action is enacted by a dancer (James) and a musician (Julia) who move in this starry landcsape and respond to its character. When the environment was performed, we could not always see the human actors as the space is rather dark, only one side light offering a corridor of light, and the most astonishing moment happened when James, at one instant, suddenly appears (his face) in the bright beam of light.

This moment stands out and yet it is part of the whole experience of "feeling" the sensory environment that is in constant movement, so to speak, through the swarm of dots. It would be interesting now to ask the dancer how he negotiated the space, and how his proprioceptive sensory experience motivated his movement behavior. In a discussion earlier in the week, James argued that he is mostly following an inner focus and attention, not needing to look at the space, and it it is this immersive experience that a number of our exhibitions tried to create. It propose an experience where you see/feel with the entire body and sensorial organism, not merely with eyes.

I will end this section by referring to Kazuo Ohno & Yoshito Ohno, Kazuo Ohno’s World from without and within, trans. John Barrett (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), a fascinating book by the late butoh master from Japan. In a section titled "The Eye," Ohno suggests to look without looking. Yoshito expands:

We, as performers, need to give careful consideration to how the eye and body interact. It’s essential to grasp where exactly the eye is located and how it functions. Moreover, there are things that cannot be seen with the eyes. For a butoh dancer, the entire body must become a receptor organ for light. By this, I mean that the eyes are not our sole visual link with the exterior world. The entire body, from head to foot, is capable of visually assimilating our immediate surroundings. In a performing context, Kazuo’s eyes don't, in fact, look at things in a conventional sense of looking out on one’s immediate surroundings; his gaze is also fastened on what is happening inside the body.

At the workshops, Kazuo repeatedly stresses the necessity to start looking with the underside of the foot. He wants us to arrive at a stage where we can see with our feet. The eyes, in his estimation, should be able to migrate throughout the body, thus enabling what one might call a fine tuning of our perception of both outer and inner worlds. Onstage, Kazuo’s eyes, while continuing to focus on his surroundings, pass down through the body and cling tightly to the soles of his feet. By attaching themselves to the feet, their gaze becomes more penetrating, for the body itself then begins to respond to external stimuli. Kazuo insists that one shouldn’t rely entirely on the eyes to see because their ability to penetrate the visual field – even when making accommodation for focussing on nearby objects – is negligible when compared with the visual acuity of the body. In his own words: “It’s impossible for me to dance if I continue to look at things in my habitual way.” (Ohno and Ohno, Kazuo Ohno’s World from without and within, p. 24)

This beautiful passage is an appropriate commentary on some of the thoughts under development here on the "field" created by our performative installations. In the group discussion following the presentations, it was in fact James Cunningham who noted that he finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish the fine line between performance and installation, and this comment led to a longer discussion on how our perception/reception behavior is stimulated in new ways by the digital scenography and unstable behavior of the tracking platform.

(to be continued)

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