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Interactivity in performance: art as research

Mike Leggett attends WISP

Human communication science is rarely claimed to be a precise science, but during a few days in December a SummerFest of kindred researchers delivered some memorable experiences. Stelarc as a keynote speaker effortlessly set the pace, describing a remarkable installation recently seen in Melbourne during August, Blender, made with fellow artist (and prosector) Nina Sellars. Internal body samples were surgically obtained from each to be merged in an industrial scaled blender, thus combining the material and conceptual substance of their 2 practices.

As part of a Workshop on Interactive Systems in Performance (WISP), they pre-figured the event’s symbolic if not material purpose. The creative minds and imaginations present brought together a majority of full-time researchers and practitioners (evenly academic and professional), confronting over 2 days and 6 sessions the spectre of efficacious technologies, of applications both rich and confounding. In the words of Garth Paine, the Workshop convener, they provided: “...a springboard for the development of new knowledge, better systems and refined approaches to technology as an integral part of the performance space of the 21st century.”

“Choreographed Technology”, the opening session, raised much of what we would be dealing with for the period: MAX/Jitter tools, predictive algorithms, spontaneity, movement and sonic output, reverse engineering, mapping and granularity, kinesthesia, embodied cognition, audience building, spatialisation, nuancing etc. Michael Montanaro described Canadian research in contemporary dance at UQAM and Concordia Universities that involves 10 full-time researchers experimenting with interdisciplinary vision and image systems, and choreography both physical and virtual. Sharing methods and results with another 40 researchers in the far-reaching program at the Hexigram Institute for Research and Creation in the Media Arts and Technology, was a vision to which, in the current Australian funding climate, practitioners like Chrissie Parrott, Kim Vincs and Garth Paine could only aspire. Cognitive scientist Kate Stevens indicated the gap between methodologies and evaluative techniques on the common ground of the performance space. Her carefully planned and funded experiments produce research outcomes including approaches for developing, training and building the audience.

Leigh Lindy from the UK recognised the relation between the performer and technology within performance as “composed technology.” The Arts, Media and Engineering Program at Arizona State University stitches together on-site experts for social outcomes effected by 60 full-funded graduate places. Alan Tanaka, currently working with Sony in Paris as an “artistic ambassador”, focused most vividly on a series of post electro-acoustic instruments and various ensembles (Sensorband, Sensors_Sonics_Sights). His work has re-defined notions of presence for the sound instrument using sensors and proximity to effect interaction, often as pre-prepared pieces for concert performance. Durations defined by network latency (Global String, Network Music) produce ‘idiomatic composition’ for gallery and internet. Likewise the post digital laptop aesthetic of ‘contingency’ was similarly demonstrated on Robin Fox’s recent Backscatter DVD, as a “virtuoso solo performance tool.”

Roger Dean illustrated larger scale improvised compositions using readily adaptable tools for interactive interfaces. He is seeking to “move from defining musicality in traditional instruments to defining musicality in the computer.” Dean’s was one of several contributions from the Sonic Communications Research Group in Canberra, and envisaged technology both defining and adapted to creative needs (later, Simon Bigg’s 20-year experience offered many examples of this). Margie Medlin’s current Quartet project has the aim of tuning various technologies as components translatable to individual performance—a complex collaboration between dancers and musicians in Australia and Britain that explores the mechanical, virtual and real body.

Whilst we were reminded by Stelarc of his prescient embodied performances, Yuji Sone described the work of Japanese group Dumb Type, a collective engaging the ketai mobile electronics culture and its tendency toward being “stuffed with information but devoid of understanding.” This mobilizes performance form in works like the recent Memorandum and presents global perspectives within a contemporary rather than the traditional context. Kata is another word (meaning literally ‘casting mould’) to describe enabling devices to help adapt the body for creative activity by the consumer. Dissolving the border between performer and audience is also central to the work of David Pledger and the Not Yet It’s Difficult company in Melbourne where multi-cam set-ups in live shows of “layered, lasagne performance” and interactive installations incorporate the active, often physical involvement of the captive audience.

Telepresence performance arrived as a video link (not without hiccups) with Sarah Rubidge and Hellen Sky and their “multi-modal, portable and affordable” collaborative practice-based research, where “data generated output from levels of human activity across a network of performers and audiences” will be choreographed simultaneously and internationally during July 2006. (In a later session, Keith Armstrong similarly described ‘affect across a network’ emerging in the on-going Intimate Transactions project.) Marcelo Wanderley and Joel Chadabe, also on live link from North America (more hiccups—when will it become like making a phonecall?) were eventually able to add to earlier discussions about making music (with the Dimensional Spaces instrument) and defining musicality emerging from novel acoustic formations.

Performance making was a constant touchstone throughout the more formal business of predictive and critical discourse. Dramaturgy and the delivery of meaning to audiences through technological augmentation of live performance was the focus for the final 3 speakers, myself, Roman Danylak and Mark Seton. Semiotics of gesture and the interweaving of image, sequence and word as text utilising ready-to-hand affordances appropriately completed the 3-day event.

The responses to presentations and discussions frequently questioned motivations for experimenting with systems and their various combinations of devices, software and applications. Is it a given for visitors to a gallery to discover the limits of interactive presence? Is human movement best adapted to the machine’s capabilities or is the technology to be disciplined from the ground up? Far from a celebratory engagement with the new tools, there was a distinct wariness, a nervousness of being labeled, in Garth Paine’s words, the “ravens of the new technology, picking up all the shiny bits and putting them all together.” Wish lists of larger research projects needing to link with industry presented problems for Simon Biggs, an ex-pat Australian with an enviable list in Europe of public commissions: “Focused funding models do not produce good art outcomes; for instance, those that insist on collaboration between partners where individual direction would be appropriate.” This opinion was echoed by Professor Elim Papadakis when giving a keynote about the Australian Research Council (ARC) Grants Program. As a significant player in developing domestic creative practice, the ARC expects outcomes now rather than the traditional notion of research output adding to the archive of knowledge.

The tangibility of outcomes described by the practitioners and researchers in the performance area were in evidence at the WISP workshop. The event should prove a prelude to a plethora of research proposals for new directions in performance and interactive systems in Australia. Critical to their success will be the prompt and effective matching of interests and expertises and the development of collaborative methods not hindered by distance or delay, following the stimulating effect of this event.

See also the report on the e-performance and Plug-ins conference on p35.

Workshop on Interactive Systems in Performance (WISP) jointly hosted by the ARC Research Network in Human Communication Sciences (HSCNet) and the University of Western Sydney and held at Macquarie University, Sydney, Dec 15-16, 2005.

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 24

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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