(3) Dramaturgical strategies
(Victoria Gibson demonstrating performing her “Bandwidth” with arduino microcontroller)
In other cases, the installation was enacted and demonstrated by performers who had studied and rehearsed the interaction with the system together with the programmer. Here the performers had been given instructions or motivations for the performance inside the environment, and they had occasion to familiarize themselves with the responsive behavior of the technical being. Such rehearsal naturally allows a strong focus on the potentially symbiotic relationship between actions and consequences within the feedback scenario of such a performative installation.
We have all witnessed examples of such installations where the creators “plant” an actor inside the environment who performs, either theatrically or matter-of-factly, an improvisation with the sensate environment, often drawing attention through gestures or actions to the shifting environmental (data) responses. In such cases, we can speak of the actor enacting vicariously a role of participant-immersant that the installation invites all audience members to experience. A dramaturgical model for such immersant action can be traced back to David Rokeby’s early sound installations of the “Very Nervous System” in the 1980s as well as to the more recent virtual reality installations by Char Davies (Osmose, 1995: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlV6pgVJapI). Interestingly, Davies had described her influential work as having been inspired by her deep-sea diving experience; she then sought to create a 3D environment that gave the immersant such a sense of floating in space, an embodied experience of space where the habitual boundaries between inside and outside, between self and world, are dissolved. Her dramaturgy for the interaction focused on physiological processes, breathing and balancing, and thus the immersant navigates her way through the virtual world by bending forward and backward, left and right, and through inhaling and exhaling. In the case of Osmose, only one participant could interact with the 3D virtual world at a time (wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) and bodys vensor vest, the immersant enters a technical being combining stereoscopic 3-D computer graphics, real-time motion capture and live stereoscopic video projection), other audience members could watch this person and observe how they were behaving.
While we did not have the technical infrastructure of Davies’s Softimage company to create 3D virtual projection environments, our camera-vision based interactive installations allowed, in some cases, a somewhat similar experience of immersion, taking the visitor inside an unstable and metamorphosing projection space that asked for intuitive, experiential involvement, most clearly in Sarah Dahnke’s and Wendy Chu’s “Grid” and “Dotted Landscape” installations which were presented together as Part 1 and 2. While none of the environments had a focus on sonic interactivity following Rokeby’s model of a very nervous audio environment, the full sensorial, experiential embedding of the immersant was foregrounded in many of the arrangements discussed here.
Dahnke’s “Grid” was a particularly engaging kinetic environment that emphasized proprioceptive experience, inspiring the kind of balancing acts I mentioned in regard to Osmose. The lines that indicated the “stable” pathways for the performers, kept oscillating in unpredictable ways, throwing them off balance. In fact, both “Grid” and Emily Putoff’s “Poppy” placed wonderful demands of concentration and creativity on behalf of the immersants who had to be alert to the an autonomously articulating environment. “Dotted Landscape,” on the other hand, created a swirling, swarming mesh of abstract graphics and fast moving word strips that excited the performers without giving them much of a clue as to how and why it behaved in this way. Like a shadowy ghost, Julia Alsarraf played her instrument (viola) inside the landscape, following and prodding James Cunningham who was there trying to dance with the whirling dots.
To use one more example of contemporary interactional art, I am reminded here of the recent works by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer who describes his performance installations as “relational architecture,” often situated in public urban contexts where they intervene into space (e.g. building façades) to challenge the equilibrium that might exist between the public’s actions and the building’s actions. Strange shadow-plays evolve, projections do things one does not expect. In his People on People, now shown at Manchester Art Gallery, the technical being of the architecture appears to be a slightly unnerving capture machine, always observing the observer. Deploying biometric scanners, surveillance cameras, computers and video projectors, Lozano-Hemmer’s sculptures keep their eyes on the visitor, record and react to her presence, even feel her pulse. In Pulse Room, one hundred light bulbs throb in unison with visitors’ heartbeats, and for People On People a sensor projects the visitor’s moving image inside the shadow images of other visitors. If one turns around, another participant’s moving portrait is in the process of haunting one’s own shadow. Other installations in the current show invite the visitor to engage in intimate social exchanges, just as Ian Winters proposed in “Memory Table,” conversing in real-time with the sounds and voices of past visitors or sharing the secret inventory of what one keep in one’s pockets: a pocketful of memory.
Wendu Chu’s “Dotted Landscape” had a similar resonance; it behaved as if it had a swarm intelligence, transindividuated and yet collective, with its hundreds of stars in-forming the nightscape through which Cunningham and Alsarraf moved, eventually joining the actors together as if in a strange fusion of cells. Wendy’s swirling landscape is disembodied, yet at the same time James and Julia also dis-appear (and re-appear), as if caught in a vertigo of spacing, image losing its identity, space becoming movement-time and sound.
The third type of installations we observed on the last day of the lab could be called immersive systems, presented to audience immersion without prior “modelling,” and thus solely reliant on the visitors and their propensity for action or willingness to experience a technical being behaving autonomously, not revealing any cause and effect relationship.
I have described several of them, including Chafer’s “Lying Bodies/Outside In” and Shin’s “Bubble Playground.” In these sensate spaces, the immersant dives into and navigates the fluctuating behavioural patterns of the projected environment. The environment evolves and may reveal supple, changing as well as repeated responses to the immersant’s actions: the visitor plays with the behavior of the technical being and adopts to it corporeally, enacting certain choices of action depending on the intuitive, emotional and cognitive exuberances that are set in motion. Given that programming, creative software writing and live coding are processual, such performance installations may hold varying levels of complexity in development, i.e. the environments are always unfinished and open to re-elaboration. It is in this sense that all the projects described here are generative processes aiming at variable ecologies of dynamic interaction or ritual inter-faciality. The dramaturgy, as Rancière would say, does not “teach” something, the visitor does not have to “master” the code.
These various designs can be described, therefore, according to the apparent distinct logic of their inherent dramaturgies, including the programmed parameters of such dramaturgies, and yet it must be pointed out that distinctions between performer (with prior rehearsal and knowledge of the functioning and responsive scope of the dispositive) and visitor cast in the role of immersant were often fluid. Each installation seemed to hold the potential of letting the visitor be/become the performer, thus making participation the primary composition strategy and placing trust in the “emancipated spectator” (Jacques Rancière). The question of emancipation was rigorously discussed at the end of the workshop, with some participants arguing that it was easier to show the work in the lab to artists consummately familiar with such compositions. How would the unwitting visitor behave, i.e. audiences without familiarity of the new conventions that are now repositioned in the arenas of interactive theatre, performance and media art? Will they be comfortable to play, to act, to be immersed?
The new dispositif suggests co-creation, generative processes in the expressive coupling of human performance and the technical being’s recursive performativity, affecting the human organism and vice versa. Individuated performers or collective performance engages the dynamic arrangement, participating in the plasticity of the environment programmed to articulate its data activities. One could argue that the contemporary audience is of course “emancipated” enough to understand and embrace interactivity since the latter is embedded now in much of the information architectures of our daily lives. The aesthetic dramaturgies play on this, reflect on this architecture and stimulate the formation of meaning in the dynamic intersections, the layers of experience, memory and the ritual-virtual (the potential interfacial relations created).
Is the new dispositif we have tried to analyze replacing theatre or repositioning the performance arts? Is the division between spectator and performer irrelevant? It is of course to soon to tell whether participation and processual art are the new paradigm, but a recent exhibition in Gijon made the claim (“Proceso como Paradigma,” LABoral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial, 23 April -30 August, 2010), with the curators arguing that
the contemporary perception of us humans as particles of larger networks and systems – an effect of real-time connectedness – is one of the major conditions for the prevalence of the present and of process as a concept in culture and in the arts. We are involved in new and different typologies of scattered communities, groups, manifold production networks and communication grids, and act within them with different intensities, but with an awareness of our own dispersed presence in all these systems. No doubt, the degree of performance and presence that is demanded in all these systems is tremendously challenging. We live in a culture of the present in which the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ – in its new interpretation – has become a universal condition. In this celebration of presence and the present lies one of the major factors for the turn in the arts (but also in other related fields like design and architecture) to processuality and performativity, a shift that is gaining momentum. (posted during a discussion about the exhibit on empyre/soft_skinned space, May 6, 2010)
This manifesto comes from the visual arts context, where curators search for new and engaging methods of involving audience participation, and the featured “stars “ of their “Proceso como Paradigma” installation were bio art and “research experimentations” dealing with generative image processes that evolve over time. The curators tried to make a strong case for the “incompletion” or ongoing nature of these quasi-scientific laboratory experiments, thus making them hardly comparable to performing arts events that take place on a concert stage at night. The Live.media + performance lab was also creating prototypes that seem more congenial with the visual arts contexts; perhaps their context is no longer the theatre but the gallery. The LABoral curators suggest that flow and continuous changes, and the inter- agency between the artist/researcher, system/organism and the public, are characteristic of works of processual art and have a strong impact on the specific, subjective perception and understanding of presence.
If we want to bring attention to the physical and material performance dimensions of interactional installation, the aesthetics of the virtuosic (in human and material enactment) will raise the spectre of spectatorship, as I understand Rancière, when he tries to summarize the unease with the theatre and its conventional dispositif of spectatorship, arguing that “the presuppositions which underpin the search for a new theatre are the same which underpinned the dismissal of theatre. The reformers of the theatre in fact resumed the terms of Plato’s polemics. They only rearranged them by borrowing from the platonician dispositif another idea of the theatre. Plato opposed to the poetic and democratic community of the theatre a ‘true’ community: a choreographic community where nobody remains a motionless spectator, where everybody is moving according to the communitarian rhythm which is determined by the mathematical proportion. The reformers of the theatre restaged the platonic opposition between choreia and theatre as an opposition between the true living essence of the theatre and the simulacrum of the ‘spectacle.‘"
“The theatre,” Rancière continues, “then became the place where passive spectatorship had to be turned into its contrary: the living body of a community enacting its own principle... theatre remaining the only place of direct confrontation of the audience with itself as a collective. We can give to the sentence a restrictive meaning that would merely contrast the collective audience of the theatre with the individual visitors of an exhibition or the sheer collection of individuals looking at a movie. But obviously the sentence means much more. It means that “theatre” remains the name for an idea of the community as a living body. It conveys an idea of the community as self-presence opposed to the distance of the representation” (cf. Rancière’s lecture, “Emancipated Spectator:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k2nXNZ93a0).
Installations might immerse you in deep solitude of experience, provoking the kind of social autism we often tend to observe in game players at their consoles or in prophets of cyberspace. Yet they might also generate a new social choreography, a new kind of "social sculpture" (Joseph Beuys), manifesting a transindividuated social collectivity of players who are present, alive, engaged and aware of the co-presence of humans and technical systems, coupled, evolving, processual, depending on each other for there to be an artwork that can be, at least momentarily, completed in the each-other becoming, face to face.
I conclude with an image of Emily Putoff’s marvelous “Poppy” installation, evoking in your imagination a narrow triangular-shaped space, large moveable screens creating the white boundary surfaces across which Emily’s graphic color projections spawn their circular, cellular movement, vortexical colors streaming from a center to the outside peripheries, in a gently undulating rhythm accompanied by silence. Two immersants are inside, Tommy and James, responding to their proprioceptive sense of a space that is a three-dimensional sculpture bathed in colors that create modulating surfaces. The amazing liveliness of the space is then manifested – humorously, since we are aware of the six “screen movers” or human agents – when the the boundary screens begin to be shifted, and repositioned into new configurations. The space becomes wider and wider, and then, as the two performers indulge in the moods of the changing states of space, interacting with the screens, one of the screens begins to act up again, moving inwards, and “swallowing up” one of the performers who disappears underneath it. A fabuolous social sculpture, neither automated nor computational, but behaving like an organism that reveals itself, as if magically, within its internal expressive time – the actively collectively manoeuvred spatial composition.