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mind, play, empathy & machines

melinda rackham: seam 2010, agency and action

Melinda Rackham curates and writes on art forms emerging from new and traditional technologies. Her most recent public sphere curatorial project was Dreamworlds:Australian Moving Image in China.

Quartet, Margie Medlin Quartet, Margie Medlin
photo courtesy Critical Path
ARRIVING EARLY AT THE SEYMOUR CENTRE, I HAD INTENDED TO JOIN IN THE SEAM PRE-CONFERENCE WARM UP SESSION. WITHOUT A YOGA MAT OF MY OWN I BECAME AN OBSERVER AS THE GROUP OF DANCERS MOVED ELEGANTLY THROUGH HARDCORE PRACTICE. HOWEVER, THANKS TO NEURAL MIRRORING I FELT ALMOST AS INVIGORATED AS IF I HAD BEEN PART OF THE ROUTINE MYSELF AND READY TO ENGAGE IN SOME EQUALLY HARDCORE THINKING.

SEAM 2010: Agency and Action—a month- long program of workshops, forums and exhibitions—was co-presented by Critical Path and the University of Western Sydney. As with any transdisciplinary venture, especially one exploring subtle energies, somatic practices, distributed bodies and mediation, a loss in translation between presenters, exhibitors, performers and audiences was inevitable. However the diversity of presentation styles—from storytelling, dance, philosophical musings, autonomous robotic performance, command line interaction and rabbit training—transcended some of the language barriers.

Doris McIlwain and John Sutton opened the event by demonstrating how verbal ‘touch’ influences bodily position, posing questions around embodied cognition, collaborative decision-making and affective experience. Our verbal, conscious and conceptual access to physical and cognitive performances are mysterious realms, full of unconscious couplings and ghost gestures. Researching remembering and forgetting, Kate Stephens is developing tools to ascertain if the contemporary dance audience experience can be enhanced by kinesthetic learning prior to performances—or not. Mike Leggett unravelled temporal perspectives and relocations: the documentation process of his 1970s Unword performance works, with the then absolutely new medium of video, has changed their meanings.

Unexpectedly, Ruth Gibson of igloo (UK) lay down on the stage prior to speaking, illustrating the art of letting go. Trained as a dancer, Gibson facilitated a three-day workshop on the Skinner Releasing Technique for SEAM earlier in October—a process of unlearning and wakening the primal. Gibson and Bruno Martelli, as igloo, create poetic 3D virtual and physical installations grounded by presence, gravity and place. Gibson playfully introduced the concept of ‘hypersurface’—an informed topology that unlocks culturally instituted dualities like the real and the virtual by intertwining them into irresolvable complexities to create a ‘middle out’ perspective.

Sitting with her back to the audience, Nancy Mauro-Flude uncovers—visually opening up—the insides of the operating system behind our daily computer interactions. Through enquiring conversations, the amplified sound of Mauro-Flude’s fingertips dancing across the keyboard beautifully conveyed the poetics and isokinetics of machine and human intelligence. With her dual background as artist and Feldenkrais practitioner, Lyndal Jones spoke eloquently of the centrality of empathy in creative dialogues—setting up visual scenarios where empathy is demonstrated by mirroring, until the notion of self disappears. Jones, like several other presenters, tapped into Eastern philosophical notions of Mindfulness, and conjured up the palpable presence of philosopher Brian Massumi.

In a double identity shift, the silhouette of choreographer and media artist Hellen Sky emerged from backstage lurking, wrapped detective-like in a trench coat to co-present with Garth Paine (UWS). Their dialogue morphed between academic and witty exchange and bio-sensing performance to illustrate elements of the Darker Edge of Night research project. The importance of timing in gesture research was elaborated by keynote speaker Frédéric Bevilacqua, Head of the Realtime Interactive team at IRCAM (France), as he presented outcomes from the SEAM workshop he had facilitated on software tools for motion tracking using optical cameras.

Christian Ziegler (Germany) had also facilitated two intensive SEAM laboratories, developing works with a choreographer and dancers within his “wald-forest” interactive environment during his Critical Path residency. Ziegler was joined at the final public forum and exhibition at Rushcutters Bay over the last weekend in October by Volker Kuchelmeister with Deconstructing Double District, and the outcome of Brad Miller’s research residency, titled augment me.

Forgoing the enacted or observed yoga, I slid straight into the zone on day two with Kathy Cleland discussing the emergence of non-human and quasi-human performers. Cleland examined how mirroring and mimicry were central to building empathy and understanding, exploring the fluid distinctions and similarities between human and robot speed and movement.

When working with robotic performers, one needs to acknowledge their capacity to act up. The machine desire of In Serial embraced chaos and entropy. This multi-talented group—Linda Dement, Petra Gemeinboeck, PRINZGAU/podgorschek and Marion Tränkle—is interested in the uncontrollable fluids and escalating generative interactions between non-human protagonists. The emergence of robotic agency, with defiant robot mops attempting to escape their task of mixing smelly viscous fluids and veering off stage, admirably demonstrated ‘entrainment’—a term used by the team to describe how their behaviour had been brought into coherence by the machine’s determination.

Careering down the expansive rabbit hole of nano-technology, Paul Thomas threw in a heady mix of Bergson, code duality, matter vibration and the primacy of consciousness for good measure. Scott McQuire evoked McLuhan’s extension of man in his discussions of the production of urban public space by networking large screens in Seoul and Melbourne. My synapses were imploding with the implications of immanence, imbrications and irretrievable intertwinings. Luckily Lars Marstaller was undertaking a cognitive ethnographic analysis of the extended SEAM program, to ascertain how the available resources could create meaning and solve problems.

We were re-grounded by Kate Richards’ investigations of affordance, affect and audience interactions with screen-based media in the arts and entertainment industries. Her documentation of a mediated journey into the supernatural realm at Macau’s City of Dreams Casino’s immersive 3D Bubble Theater evoked affective resonance in crowds. Choreographer Vicki Van Hout’s Busy Hands Speaking Country traversed the seam between Indigenous knowledge, dance and painting. Her work on co-location—being in the dreaming and in the dance, creating a virtual spiritual atavistic experience, and replacing the ancestral voice with technology—raised issues of tangibility and transportability of traditional form.

During a symposium break, Margie Medlin’s empathic Quartet robotic dancer provided an engaging spectacle in the foyer in a subtle to violent duet of synchronised flesh and machine. Trapped in a glass cage next to the performers, Stelarc’s Articulated Head bobbed up and down on its mechanical arm. I could not ascertain if its mesmerised movements were akin to being snake-charmed by the adjacent human-robotic action, or if it/he was looking for attention like a fluffy puppy when all eyes were focused elsewhere.

Later, the big head, a virtual Stelarc delivering a Deleuzian keynote in synthetic monotone, appeared almost vulgar after the subtle, considered enquiry and nuanced somatic states of previous sessions. Disappointingly, although autism was mentioned several times, it was not followed through. At a conference about altered agency and embodiment, an engagement with differently wired bodies—bodies with other physicality and cognition—would have augmented the program. The thinking of Erin Manning and others around autist Amanda Baggs’ short video, In My Language, could have brought the intensity of movement and the affective proto-language of gesture and sensation into play.

Picking up on the thread of playfulness and mindfulness, the Thinking Through the Body project, brought together by artist George Khut and curator Lizzie Muller, staged a significant presence. Practitioners drawn from across media forms, programming, sound, sculpture, dance and Feldenkrais spoke with respectful contemplation of their process of internalisation. Unfolding awareness of breath, touch, balance, proprioception and stillness has brought a new depth of consciousness and embodied intelligence to their individual and group practices.

Chunky Move’s Glow (RT78) was also performed during SEAM, with artistic director Gideon Obarzanek speaking of the ongoing choreographic dialogue between dancers and Frieder Weiss’s artificially intelligent lighting and tracking software (RT84). Playing out the tensions between technological rationality and the anxiety of humanity, a dancer appears to be trapped on a scanner bed. Inventive effects and mirror neurons aside, viewing Glow from the low-raked seating at the Seymour Centre compromised the experience. I ached to be up high—looking down into the performance—immersed with the technogenic body, rather than a distant spectator.

SEAM successfully addressed many aspects of agency and embodiment altered by interactive technologies with the inspired placement of performative installations in the foyer—reaching a general audience of curious theatre-goers as well as opening specific dialogues in spatial and cognitive arenas that should be continued. Next year’s conference will focus on architectures—exploring the need to construct spaces that can flexibly accommodate differing modes of performance, technology and audience interaction.


SEAM 2010: Somatic Embodiment, Agency & Mediation in Digital Mediated Environments, Critical Path (Director, Margie Medlin), University of Western Sydney (Dr Garth Paine), Symposium, Oct 15-16; http://seam2010.blogspot.com

Melinda Rackham curates and writes on art forms emerging from new and traditional technologies. Her most recent public sphere curatorial project was Dreamworlds:Australian Moving Image in China.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 21

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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