Tuesday, October 12, 2010


An interview with Hélène Lesterlin, Mark Coniglio and Johannes Birringer, conducted and edited by Marlon Barrios Solano during his visit to the workshop, has now appeared on dance-tech.net:http://www.dance-tech.net/video/dancetech-1

Saturday, October 2, 2010

dispositif IX: The behavior of technical beings

(Tommy deFrantz moving inside Emily Putoff's "Poppy" moveable installation)

(3) Dramaturgical strategies

This discussion, at the end of the presentations, was initiated by James Cunningham’s remark that there seems to be a very fine line between performance and installation. The works that were shown at the end of the lab clearly revealed similar and yet distinct compositional structures, thus suggesting various dramaturgies of involvement or – generally – of the performativity of the technical being. In some cases, the installation was concretized and performed by the person who had programmed it (“The Table,” “Truth Is,” “UN-SU,” “Tripod Dance,” and “Bandwidth”). The last presentation, for example, was Victoria Gibson’s “Bandwidth,” a triptych projection of abstract moving graphics “dancing” to the music composed for this piece. The short work was reminiscent of early computer-graphics based “visual music” (a term also used in connection with Nam Jun Paik larger scale multi-monitor video installations) – films and computer animations or audiovisual kinetic non-representational works by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Frantisek Kupka, Harry Smith, Lepold Survage and others – and could have been perceived as a stand-alone projection piece, had we not found out afterwards that Victoria interacted live with the visual programming, using a proximity sensor and Arduino microcontroller to affect, with the motion of her hands, the size and dynamics of the visuals. Following her presentation, she gave us a demonstration of the interface she had created over the past days, explaining that she hoped to perform her visual compositions wirelessly (as it was done in the early Theremin performances by Clara Rockmore), moving the visuals on stage as if it were a instrumental performance.

(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.

(Immersant [above] and "Forest Grid" [below] from Osmose, digital still captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment © Immersence Inc. 1995-2010)

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.


Monday, September 27, 2010

dispositif VIII: The behavior of technical beings

In the following section, we shall try to return to the questions raised near the end of section VI, in order to gain a clearer methodological grip on the daunting challenges that underlie a sociological as well as pragmatist/materialist analysis of "interfacial installations." What is at stake, after all, is an advance in knowledge about how we assess or value attributes or affordances of "technical beings," of programmed responsive environments or hybrid media spaces (augmented realities), which behave – i.e. behave with and towards the visitor-participant – as if becoming living, moving, animate matter, confirming a certain vitality and a range of symptoms in their materiality (motion, agency, autonomy, aura, protocol behavior, etc.).

If these "symptoms" are describable – and surely they are – in technical terms, then we'd need to resort to code, to patch-making, the use of object-oriented coding or "actor" coding (in Isadora), to the workings of physics engines and other programming mechanics for 3d virtual spaces and for 2d projected video output and/or sound. The terms used, for the "symptoms," of course can easily cross over to the symbolic realm and the repertoires Goffman applies to interaction rituals. Other repertoires would clearly derive from the field of HCI / interaction design.

To repeat my suggestions from Section VI – they proposed to give more attention to how a particular dispositif enables the interface relations technically while observing how the human performers respond to responsive environment or experience its sensate articulations. Thus, we want to parse the distinctions between the twelve installations (our examples from the final presentations), and how these installations perform, or are performed. My distinctions are meant to serve as a methodological guide to (1) understanding the interface design features and interpreting/describing the content-expression of the projected worlds characteristic of the dispositifs described here; (2) drawing attention to the interaction behaviors that are performed or performable in the dispositif; and (3) locating some of the dramaturgical decisions or strategies that may have guided the artists’ compositions and their intent on involving audiences in machining architectures.

("Grid," interactional performance installation by Sarah Dahnke, with James Cunningham, Suzon Fuks, Julia Alsarraf, Wendy Chu).

(“Dotted Landscape,” interactional performance installation by Wendy Chu, with James Cunningham, Julia Alsarraf, Sarah Kraft, Sarah Dahnke, Victor Zappi)

(1) Interface design features

The "Tiling Performance" dispositif seemed constructed for a 'solo'performer engaging the technical environment and the physical object (water bowl) on the lit square - a square area specifically overlooked by an HD digital camera on a tripod, sending its signal to the Isadora programming environment. Visible/sensorially experienceable to the performer (who could be standing in or modelling any visitor to the installation who picks up the technical environment's behavior) was the projected image motion, the two or three bands of light containing the serials, the "tiles" of processed images (see below).

(The participating performer holds his hand in front of the camera lens, the tiled images appear in the white bands, arranged almost like a film strip of frames)

The dispositif is a clear arrangement, as we can see in the performance photo: the participant knows the placement of the camera, and can control what the camera lens sees by observing the real-time processing of the images that are appearing around him projected from above onto the floor and spatial architecture. In the Isadora patch, the programmer can design the projector-output and precisely configure the "geographical" locations of the bands of tiled images processed by the software actors.

In the Isadora environment, the programmer prepares "scenes" for the "stage," deployable as projected output in any given performance or installation. Isadora is a graphic programming environment for Macinstosh and Windows providing interactive control over digital media, with special emphasis on the real-time manipulation of digital video. Each scene can have multiple "actors." The titles and values of every inout and output are visible to the programmer and are quickly editable, which means the state of each module (referred to as "actors" in Isadora) is instantly clear and can be improvisationally changed by the user.

In regard to the technical description of the "technical object" (I am using a term that is well established but owed to the magnificent work of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon's 1957 thesis Du Mode d'Existence des Objets Techniques), it might be of interest here to quote from the Isadora manual and give you the specific explanation of the "image tile" actor:

This actor, the Manual tells us, displays the incoming video stream in the form of 'tiles' of varying brightness that are created by from a second video stream.

Whenever a new frame of video arrives at the 'tiles in' input, it is broken into a series of tiles whose height and width are specified by the tile cols and tile rows inputs. Then, the brightness of each tile is analyzed and stored. When a new frame

of video arrives at the video in input, it is reconstituted by creating a mosaic of tiles of the appropriate brightness.

For instance, consider the following tiles in input which is the ASCII character set. Each character occupies 6 pixels across, and 8 pixels down. Because there are 67 characters across, the total size of this image is 67 x 6 = 402 pixels across by 8 pixels down.

Using the Picture Player to supply this image as an input to the tiles in input, you would set tile cols to 67 and the tile rows to 1. Upon receiving this input, the Image Tile actor would analyze the each tile, determining its brightness.

Finally, as frames of video arrive at the video in input, they would be broken down into tiles of matching size (6 across, 8 down). Each of the tiles in the video in stream is replaced by the tile from the tile in input whose brightness most closely

matches the original. Using the ASCII character set example above, note the transformation of the image. (Because the image is small, you may need to blur your eyes a bit to appreciate the result – higher resolution images look better.)

While this example was made using a still image, you can just as easily supply a moving video to the tiles in input. The results in this case depend greatly on the content of that video stream, but it can lead to interesting effects.

Input Properties

video in: The video input stream to be tiled.

tiles in: The video input that will be used to create the tiles. The height and width of each tile are given by the 'tile cols' and 'tile rows' inputs.

tiles across: The number of tiles across in the 'tile in' video stream.

tiles down: The number of tiles down in the 'tile in' video stream.

steps: The number of brightness steps to use when creating the final image.

Lower numbers produce a coarser resolution of brightness, higher numbers give finer resolution.

color: "When off, the color of the tiles used to create the final output is the same as received at the 'tile in' input. When on, imposes the color of the source image on the tiles. Turning this setting on may produce unusual colorization effects

when the 'tile in' image is not black and white.

bypass: When turned off, this effect functions normally. When turned on, the effect is disabled and the video input is passed directly to the video output.

Output Properties

video out: The tiled video output stream. [pp.209-10]

(2) Interaction behaviors

It was mentioned earlier that in "The Table," a physical performance interaction was presented to us in the dialogue between two real actors, Jennifer and Tommy, who manipulated the physical tea cups while seated at a table across from each other, with Jennifer speaking in a low-toned voice. In the interactive disposition of the scene, the camera captured the manipulation of the real objects on the table top, and this input was used to effect a different video output projected onto the adjacent table, thus creating a virtual double scenario of the scene enacted in front of the audience. The virtual scene, however, does not have any human agent in it: only the technical objects are manipulated in the computational space-medium. The objects are like sprites that are moved in a 2-D plane, like in the old computer games. The projected objects are also “mixed” with real objects (two dinner plates) that are placed on the projection surface of the adjacent table.

In "Bubble Playground," the projected video was not taken from a camera source, but the camera vision informed the software (via the "Blob" and "Eyes++" actors) of the positions and movements of the spectator-participants, and this information drove the percolating, colorful bubbles that were flowing across the floor. In this installation, the real actors are the participant players in the playground. But of course they are playing with the software actors, the colorful circles created in Isadora. These bubbles exhibit a fluid motion behavior, and so d the participants, and much of the participants’ playfulness resided in their hop-scotching the graphic images that floated on the floor. Compared to “Bubble Playground,” both “Table” and “Memory Table” include a narrative dimension which marks the time in spatial dispositions involving associations with memory.

Ian Winters’ second piece, “Memory Table,” also offers an invitation to play in its scenario, an invitation for the visitors to sit down at the table and engage with the objects that are lying there – small rocks, glasses, cups, books, a microphone, toys. When the installation was opened to the visitors, it didn’t take long and first one, then a second person sat down on the two empty chairs. Across from the table top, a mid-size projected image (circa 80 cm x 60 cm) showed a black and white image of the same seating arrangement, chairs and table with objects, and the players could see themselves as if in closed circuit. But the projection revealed layers, and as the participants engaged in playful banter, ghostly images of previous visitors appeared in the projection, as if the technical system were waiting to display, at certain times, the prior visitors it “remembered,” so that past, present and future started to mingle and convey an accumulative experience. Some of visitors played with the sound they could generate with the objects, others engaged their co-players in a conversation, either through gesture and mime, or through spoken conversation, and in one case a third visitor entered, seemingly trying to distract the couple at the table by crawling underneath, reaching out with one hand and removing an object, teasing the “dialogue” of the visitors further along as we begin to hear echoes and reverberations of sound stored and re-played. Again, as with “Tiling Performance,” the programming seems technically preoccupied with the idea of serializing action-images, but also possibly reflecting on the nature of the distinctions Deleuze made between “movement-image” and “time image.”

(It might take us into a different direction to expand here on the Deleuzian terms, so I would just want to mention that Deleuze offers fascinating insights into the “interval” – the gap within and between frames – as a constitutive condition of the cinematic medium and the manner in which duration/time of visual experience is configured as narration or instead of narration. Pertinent to Winters’ playing with series is Deleuze’s significant theoretical distinction between movement-image and time-image. The animated character of much of the image work produced in the lab would seem to warrant a closer analysis. For Deleuze, the role of the interval has evolved across cinematic history: in the classical period, it tended to operate as a rational connector between images, for example when subdividing a bodily movement over several consecutive frames to record action, as it was already suggested in Muybridge’s and Marey’s chronophotography where photographic frames are linked as progressive exposures, spatializing the movement of a body in time. Calling it “movement-image,” Deleuze posits that these images subordinate time to movement. Since the 1950s and 1960s, Deleuze claims that with Resnais and Godard we begin to see how shots are increasingly released from any logical connection and tend to become irrational, the intervals between frames generating ambiguity and dreamlike (dis)connections or inexplicable interruptions. Movement is now subordinated to temporality in the “time-image.” While the use of projected images in interactive installations may not follow any cinematic or narrative logic, what is surely needed in future analyses of interactional performance is a closer attention to the particular seriality or flow, stasis or permutation in the layering and digital modulation effects of processed images or animated technical objects. One fundamental question underlying my commentary here is the question: what is an interactive image? And how is it performed?)

A methodological step in this direction was made on the second day of the lab when we asked everyone to create s short scene with direct (closed-circuit) camera-projection performances, during which each member of the group tried to explore the relationships between subjects and objects and objects and space. Without editing and coding, the image object does not have any autonomy at all, it is entirely dependent on the performer. Even in such a basic study, it is possible, however, to play with the superimposition of images onto a surface, and thus evoke animation effects between object and background,

It became apparent during the week that artists with a sculptural background (Jennifer and Emily) developed a particular interest in the virtual manipulation of objects through the computational software.

Distinct from “Bubble Playground” and also from Chafer’s “Lying Bodies/Outside In”, the technical organism of “Memory Table” is programmed to remember input and re-call recorded actions in sequences that become animated/layered with co-presences that are enacted on screen. The live feed is stored and processed to return, a proper symbolic action in the theatrical sense in which Hamlet’s ghostly father appears to re-appear in the Shakespearean play (having prompted theatre theorist Herbert Blau, in Take Up the Bodies, to refer to acting as a process of “ghosting” and ghosting techniques) – an agent of pressure on the protagonist’s consciousness/conscience, a reminder of the (Goffmanian) dilemma of choice, actions having fateful consequences, and non-action just as well. Action reveals character, and actions can be fateful or inconsequential. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which includes the question “To act or not to act,” surely brings back to us memories of dramatic conflict, underlying the social rituals Goffman intends to analyze, implying tragic consequences as we know them from real life, if not from games or entertaining spectacles.

Performative installations are not known to involve such tragic plots, and they have not been discussed in the framework of dramatic plots in theatrical representation. The history of theatre evidently evokes literary contexts, fictions and myths, stories and complex characterizations, dialogue and psychological/emotional crises. The examples of interactional works discussed here cannot reach these levels of content, but they engage fragments of symbolic action, ritual behavior and modest narrative association. Provoking interaction rituals, the installations under review here begin to question, even if this may not have been the intentions of the programmers, the representational conditions and material grounds at the intersections of which we can trace complications of behavior, identity, reflexivity, and inter-faciality (with its ethical implications). Moving from “The Table” to “Memory Table,” after all, meant that we had witnessed a troubled, elliptical dialogue between a couple whose relationships seemed fractured, only to find ourselves on the other side of the studio, enjoying the wildly improvisational meeting of “strangers” who participate in an intimate tête-à-tête tinkering with objects that had passed through the hands of others, now re-appearing again on the screen to open up a window into past time, into protracted duration of time that extends the illusion of presence. This was also beautifully noticeable in the fact that while the whole group had moved on to prepare a new setting for the next performance, during an occasional silence in the preparations one could still hear the “Memory Table” audio from the far corner, the tapping of a glass, a murmured voice drifting in from somewhere.

But while the visitors were standing behind the participant-actors at the table, they laughed and appeared to cheer on, encourage and stimulate the actors at the table. This context created a very different social ensemble, compared to “Lying Bodies” and “The Table” – situation in which humorous playfulness and acting out was embedded and safe.

The question about enabling proactive behaviors of playfulness was raised afterwards. How do installations allow and insinuate intuitive behavior, making it very clear to the visitors that they are encouraged to step inside and explore, to enjoy themselves, to experience the sensorial/sensational dimensions of an environment, to trust their re/cognition of the responsive organism? Are there technical environments created for interaction which are too complex or insensitive to the tacit knowledge or reliance on etiquette on part of the visitors. Does interactive behavior emerge inevitably once the participants are comfortable in their roles or “learn” the rules of the game or the states of the environment, recognizing causal patterns or consequences?

[continued in the next section]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

dispositif / mise en scène VII

("Memory Table")

In Interaction Ritual - Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, Goffman outlines in several essays approaches to human interaction from a dramaturgical perspective. To Goffman, all forms of interaction are kinds of “performances.” These performances may fall under the structure of rituals, socially acceptable formalized interactions. One of Goffman’s goals is to outline the units of these interactions so that they may be studied in a symbolic manner.

Having introduced this sociological interaction theory, perhaps it is helpful in this context to create an even larger theoretical framework, pointing back to western philosophical history and the discourse that valued epistemology (knowledge/knowing) over the technical crafts (techne). In his lucid summary in the essay “Environments, Interactions and Beings: The Ecology of Performativity and Technics” (in: Interfaces of Performance, ed. Maria Chatzchristodolou , Janis Jefferis, and Rachel Zerihan, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 27-42), Chris Salter refers back to Plato (the criticism of the crafty illusion machine in the Cave allegory) and Aristotle’s Physics, noting that Aristotle distrusted “technical beings” and prioritized the episteme over the techne, claiming that artificial products do not harbor inside them the source of their own production compared to the “natural” or the organic that harbors within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness, in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration.

Salter borrows from Bernard Stiegler’s recent writings on the theory of technics, suggesting that according to the Aristotelian philosophy of causation, technical beings are always seen to lack the possibility of autonomy or internal causes of movement, therefore remaining constrained to inanimate form and isolated from both the human that produces them and the world they find themselves in.

Salter then bypasses a few centuries of philosophical thought (e.g. Spinoza and the baroque era, Descartes, Newton, etc., recently moved to the foreground by philosophers of the digital) and connects up with Heidegger’s ambiguous stance towards “technical being.” In contemporary life, according to Heidegger, technology becomes separated from techne and is also instrumentalized. Torn from its origins in poiesis, the art of revealing or making the world present, technology ends up as a “frenzy of ordering… and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth” (Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik/ The Question Concerning Technology”, 1953). Modern technology, Heidegger argues, “enframes” the world, rationalizing the natural order and rupturing the potential of existence to come full force to us through its transformations of nature into “inventories” and “stocks” to be used up by humans. In the guise of machines, structures and devices, modern technics overcomes human judgement through calculation and rationalization.

In the overview offered by Chris Salter, this Heideggerian unease with “technological life” is then placed in relationship to artistic techne, where the theatre, for example, has to admit, even if it promotes its live-ness and its primary emphasis on human performance (the actor-audience relationship), that it always used machines of illusion-making. Throughout recent decades, the theatre also used electronic-digitally constructed images and sound. What is new in the recent collaborations between performance arts, media arts, and science is the emphasis on material and generative processes, the effects caused by the merger of mechanical, computational, biotechnological, and ecological forces. Salter wishes to foreground designers, scenographers and directors who have imagined new contexts for performance where transformative material processes – “technical presences” – are in full operation creating temporal-spatial events for audiences and participants.

Such events may not necessarily be placed inside a theatre stage, of course. But interactive installations or performances, along with other kinds of exhibitions or techno-scientific displays, harbor theatrical dimensions or address behaviors in situations designed to elicit perceptions of what a living system, or “technical being,” does or becomes, how actions and dynamic exchanges are understood or known, to what extent technical ensembles or environments influence the social conventions of performativity (the enactments of the performer-spectator), and to what extent responsive hybrid media environments can respond to participant behaviors or be perceived to have their own agency or autonomy.

If we now follow this conceptual outline, and observe the experiments of the Live.Media +Performance Lab, it must be said that none of the works in progress were created, strictly speaking, as theatre or dance or music compositions to be staged on a theatre or concert hall stage. This – as an aside – throws an interesting light on the fundamental base-line assumptions still apparently governing the architecture of EMPAC (which houses an opera or concert hall auditorium, a theatre auditorium, and two sound studios along with video editing and artist-residency suites). The building does not seem to have an installation gallery or, say, an interface space that might also allow flexible telematic or multi-user play environments, unless the sound studios were built with such usage in mind; but their rigging is theatrical and thus follows the logic of laboratory mise en scène.

(This discussion might lead us into a different area, addressing curatorial matters of spatial arrangements for new media arts, generative art, sci-art or robotic or architectural exhibition.)

All the works in progress are dynamic system environments/installations or “interface performances” that could be enacted anywhere, in public and private spaces, galleries, foyers, rooms, corridors, cafes and such like. Of course some of the aspects of the environmental design require studio or laboratory conditions, the availability of a grid, lighting, camera and projection equipment, network, computers, extensive cabling, screens and material objects, but the context for the creation/presentation of the responsive system is, primarily, a modestly controllable space. Our workshop examples also reveal that some installations require only a very modest, small area, while others take up the main open space (ca. 50’ x 65’ or 15,2m x 20m).

The spatial context for our “installations / technical beings” then returns us to the sociological interaction paradigm mentioned earlier in reference to Goffman. It is pertinent here that Goffman’s theories appeared around the same time when the field of performance studies (with Richard Schechner [New York University] and his influential journal, The Drama Review spearheading the shift) slowly began to change, in the late 1960s, turning its anthropological attention to ritual (e.g. in Victor Turner and Schechner’s work) rather than the technical formalism and artifice of the experimental avant-garde, then on to the broader spectrum of “cultural performance.” Ethnography and sociology became critical methodologies for examining performance practices in everyday culture, in public space, in festivities, clubs or particular local and community contexts, in the media and in corporate or other organizational structures, thus mostly shifting attention to a non-artistic/non-high cultural paradigm.

One outcome of this shift (against which theatre studies and art theory might defend their aesthetic terrain and art-making techne) is not only a preoccupation with “performativities” – following speech act theory, de Certeau’s theory of spatial practices and Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, expanded into a conceptual “tool” for interdisciplinary cultural analysis of the theatricalised (re)actualisation of socio-symbolic systems that render cultures visible to themselves and to others – but a turn to the manner, materiality, media, instruments, institutions, etc. that influence the episteme, the production of knowledge. This turning towards in-forming assemblages, machinic or other, implies a much greater awareness of material actions of technical presences in contemporary global culture, and here Salter is quite right in proposing that an interest in understanding “performance” today, in a world in which technical processes not only constitute our environments but – as Guattari and Deleuze predicted – produce newly evolving forms of hybrid human and machine subjectivities, requires a new analysis of “interaction rituals,” if indeed we were to extend Goffman here for a moment.

We mentioned the “technical beings” or the systems environment that have been created in our workshop, and the concluding presentations of “installations” (the fine line between installation and performance crossed all the time but not clearly articulated yet in our reflections) were offered to (human) participant-spectators. My own descriptive interpretations are those of a human participant. But an analysis of “performative installations” then might indeed require a partial abandonment of the anthropocentric focus, based on (Goffmanian) anthropological, sociological, cultural or linguistic frameworks, and instead require attention to system behavior, phase shifts, modulations of the states and behaviors, actions and reactions of a machining architecture of non-human enunciations (cf. Salter, pp. 29-30).

(a visitor lies down next to an image-body)

How do we then address the interaction that takes place between the visitors and the "Lying Bodies/Outside In" environment, if we take the projected environment to a technical being or, if you prefer, an ensemble of materials, or a programmed/responsive system? Between the visitor and an image?

Can or should we speak of a ritual, in the sense in which Goffman describes "face work" (e.g. the processes of saving face in the displays of self to others during social interactions and encounters which clearly can be delineated according to conventionalized options available, and responses that are taken through obligational patterns, assertions, threats, defenses, etc.), or the nature of "deference and demeanor," "embarrassment and social (re)organization" of the ritual system or script? Or in the sense in which Goffman addresses "action"? For the sociologist, action is of the dramatic sort, implying the idea of important and meaningful acts or events which are performed or are participated in by people. Action is a vehicle to reveal deeper qualities of character, and Goffman's writing on action is a prolonged journey, offering many insights, for example into "games," and their quality of chance and risk. From there Goffman moves to the larger sense of consequentiality in moments: one can kill time, and that killed time is inconsequential. Yet there is an apparent axis of actions, consequential versus inconsequential, apart from this there is the question of whether actions are problematic, when one is at odds to figure out what to do (Goffman, p.164).

Problems arise with fateful actions, those that have consequences. Here Goffman addresses corporeality and embodiment, terms that have become so crucial in current debates on sensory environments, technical systems/material enunciations, interfaces and agency; for Goffman a body is a piece of consequential equipment.

How do we compare this, how do we understand this face-to-face with images, for example the "tiling" operations in Ian Winters' installation? how does the hand James puts forward to touch the bowl of water and then slowly pushes backwards, towards the camera lens, interact with the Isadora patch environment and its actions? What would it mean to ask this question, and what observations do we derive of we concentrated on the behavior of the projected images of the "tiled" hand or filtered, multiplied serialized moving image-hand? Would our attention to the technical being not also yield fascinating insights into the technical object, the manifestations acted out, produced, and engendered by the meeting of hand movement, camera-vision and computer software (with its projected image outputs)? Of course.

In other words, can we use Goffman's terminology in regard to a technical presence or an avatar? Is a digitally projected image inconsequential, but may become consequential via enactment? Goffman discusses body in consequential encounters: in perilous roles, the body is the object of practical gambles (p.172). When one acts consequentially (he calls consequential action a "fateful action") when the gamble is less practical, then one must cope somehow. A possible solution is to deny the effect of consequence, if that were possible. Then nothing can really go wrong.

An alternative to coping is what Goffman calls "defense," which is a ritualized defense of action. When actions are uncertain and of high consequence, a defensive ritual is performed to save culpability of the individual. Goffman then adds that all games reduce behavior to fateful action, in the world of the game. A social game functions similarly. The result of interactions, we can assume therefore, according to the Goffmanian scheme, is either "making it" or "blowing it." Action is the quality of sustained fateful behavior, revealing qualities of character.

As this brief account of Goffman's observations on face-to-face interaction shows, they may not easily translate into interface behaviors between human participants and technical systems, but at the same time, it could be argued that responsive systems provoke actions (enactments), and in most cases of installations, there is not just one visitor encountering the installation, but several, and thus we obtain a social scenario, people encountering a technical being and other people watching and responding to the "rituals" that are performed. In this case, one can certainly think of psychological and emotional dimensions in the behaviors that result, without necessarily searching for a wider range of cultural, political or spiritual dimensions of the ritual interaction. We are not talking about ritual in a religious sense here, although it ought not to be ruled out either. We shall perhaps try, at the end, to come back to the question of what kinds of complex or reduced form of rituals the interactional installation art produces.

Let us continue, first of all, to add some observations on the distinctions between the installations described so far, in regard to the behaviors of the technical being in the encounter with the human spectator-participant.

("Bubble Playground")

We also add two images here (at the beginning and above) refering to the "Memory Table" installation, the second piece by Ian Winters, and "Bubble Playround" by Byul Shin. "Memory Table" was installed in the opposite corner of the "Table" installation, an interesting juxtaposition of "tables" that presented, in Jennifer Woodin and Tommy deFrantz's case, an interactive performance dialogue enacted for the audience (the gestural behavior of the real "actors" affecting the image-objects in the projected "table"), while Ian Winters's table, also covered with real objects to play and interact with, had no presentational action. The table is there for visitors to sit down at, and engage, and the camera-vision takes in this information and informs the technical system which deals with a growing data base of "memory" (video and audio input) which it processes and replays at later stages, cumulatively. Byul's "playground" is an interactional surface, a space which we can enter, as we see the colorful bubbles percolate there, and we join the bubbles and play with their movement and changes, as they respond to human presences and motions in the region that the camera sees. The playground is intuitively obvious and clear, a simple arena to have fun, to play, to track motion of color, and enjoy the "dance." Some of participants tried rolling over the floor, jumping over each other, one person enacted a curious and funny hopscotch repeating some words over and over, others simply played, seemingly entranced by the mesmerizing pools of light and the joyful, twinkling sound that Victoria had composed. Whether the technical system enjoyed the performances of the visitors, I cannot tell.

(a visitor hopping in the "bubble playground")