Design And Performance Lab

Dance, the body and the internet


Johannes Birringer

(c) 2003

For a critical evaluation of the contemporary relations between dance and technology, it is important to define more clearly the parameters for the aesthetic and social construction of multimedia work that is promoted as "interactive" or "online performance." Interactive art and networked performance, two areas of computer-assisted production that have been most attractive to choreographers, often overlap but are not considered equivalent terms. Before I examine the domain of internet performance, I briefly address the history of interactivity in order to ground the discussion of current practices which involve real-time computation, telepresence and distributed environments.

A broader recognition or critical acceptance of interactive danceworks or telepresence performance does not exist yet. The creation of "cyberdances" (webbased movies using animation software) was a short-lived phenomenon, perhaps caused by the initial excitement over the Flash software which allowed graphic website pages to become more animated. Similarly, the creation of a purely "virtual dance" based on motion capture imaging is an isolated phenomenon since access to industrial motion capture equipment and studios is still prohibitively expensive, even though there is a growing interest among choreographers and 3D artists in the exploration of virtual environments and computer-generated worlds. Yacov Sharir (Austin, Texas), Hellen Sky (Melbourne, Australia) and others have experimented with the idea of cyber-dancing by using immersive projection environments and 3D VR interactivity in their choreography, linking the live performance with video animation and interactive set-designs.

The material interconnection of bodies via telepresence, however, offered a new global perspective on dance collaboration across the internet. The political articulation of such networked dance is practically non-existent, since practitioners apparently want to avoid replicating the early euphoric predictions of the liberating potentials of cyberspace. For dance, especially, cyberspace in fact never implied a virtual reality or non-sensorial apparatus, or a purely immaterial internet structure of databases and information nets which excluded the performing body. On the contrary, networked performance seemed to offer a model for remote interaction which depended on precise physical interrelationships with technical ensembles, and on a collective technical mediation of a new form of "contact improvisation" across distances. The conditions for such networking had been prepared during the 1990s by the increased international collaborations within the dance and performance worlds (projects, workshops, festivals, videodance screenings, digital art exhibitions).

The conceptual differences - in the use and understanding of interactivity - between performers and digital media artists can be significant. The transcultural development of interactive genres in the current context of globalization, and the integration of interactive tools into physical dance practices, suggests that we look at the historical conditions for the current use of interactive design processes. A focus on design implicates political questions regarding the contingencies of the performing body in its coupling with technological systems. It allows us to formulate a politics of interaction which offers alternatives to choreography and to the dominance of the image in contemporary media
performance. In particular, such alternatives concern the role of kinetics in transmission. Movement interfaces, or movement-as-interface with the distributed spaces of the internet, imply new phenomena of proprioception and feedback in displaced actions.

1. Interaction: Beyond Spectacle and Body Discourse

After postmodern dance and tanztheater, one of the tendencies of European dance at the turn of the century was to question the representational display framework of the stage and the role of body as subject. Performer-choreographers such as Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel, Emio Greco, Jonathan Burrows, Marten Spangberg and Sascha Waltz often turn to the discursive, and thus to conceptual metaphors of corporeality and the positioning of the subject. The human body is here shown to be produced from a database of conventions/citations and ciphers of "dance" or physicality that is continuously slipping beyond the grasp of the individual "I". Le Roy, trained as a molecular biologist, speaks throughout his performance of Self-Unfinished and dissects the discourse of anatomy. But this "body" has no self-conscious control over "techniques", perhaps it has no technique. Such discursive self-reflexiveness is at the opposite end of the "physical theatre" of the late 1980s/early 1990s, yet it unconsciously repeats the refusal of spectacular and virtuoso dance-choreography that marked the ideology of the Judson Church. It also resembles, more closely than it knows, those Stelarc performances (Fractal Flesh, Ping Body, Parasite) in which the performer's involuntary body movements are stimulated by electromagnetic impulses and data transmitted from the Internet. The body has become a transducer.(1)

This unconscious relation between a refusal of virtuoso technique and the acknowledgement that contemporary technologies disconnect the body from many of its functions, treat it as a transducing node among other nodes, or replace it with virtual images altogether, is most interesting for our examination here. The notion of "interactivity" - reconnecting bodies to digital interfaces - gains a different meaning if we read it in the context of design processes which build an extended, transindividual nervous system. The discourse on the body tends to rely on familiar political notions of subjectivity, identity, knowledge, power, nature, etc., filtered through the lessons learnt from Foucault and recent feminist and performance theory. The conjunction of dance and technology, however, points away from the individual body to techniques of the machine and complex human-technical involvements which cannot be left to technoscientific accounts alone.

Interactivity, as a mode of technical mediation within a collective infrastructure, points to a new understanding of environments of relations and a relational aesthetics based on interhuman exchange or physical interaction, to a new technological kinesthetics. To work with the designing of digital interfaces in dance means to organize a sensory and intelligent space for communicative acts that are inherently changeable and unpredictable. The space is not "set" for a fixed choreography, but programmed for potential interactions and movements in which partners behave within a network of relays and responses, and in which technologies and media generate realities and perceptions. Interaction thus involves the whole environment, and it maps its "world" through the continuous biofeedback it receives via direct sensory stimuli which are also technically mediated (sound, image projection, tactile sensors, wearable computing built into textiles, etc).

In terms of compositional operation and outcome, interactive art is grounded in an aesthetics of process, an art historical notion that now echoes in the language of computing and data processing. This is no longer the modernist notion of composition; rather, the programming of an environment resembles a kind of postproduction of recording/recorded data, since interactivity uses the input from the tools of connection and manipulates, mixes, and remixes the samples, which in the case of dance includes bodily movements, gestures, sensations. The emphasis has shifted from the object of representation to the emergent situation, and the materialization of technology, itself. However, interactive real time computing in installation art shifts the "process" to the physical involvement of the observer or user, and thus alters all conventional distinctions between "artwork" and "observer," which is not the case in interactive performances staged for an audience. Interactivity, in general, offers and assigns roles to the users when interacting becomes an essential component in the condition of the situation, its
actualization and reception.

As a consequence, interactivity undermines the aesthetics of spectacle. I define interactivity as collaborative performance with a control system in which the performer-movement or action is tracked by cameras or sensors and thus used as input to activate or control other component properties from media such a video, audio, motion capture and midi-data, text, graphics, scanned images, etc. The latter scenario I call an interactive performance system that allows performers and computers to generate, synthesize and process images, sound and text within a shared real-time environment. The real-time
processing differs from the historically evolved understanding of multimedia performance, either based on a dramaturgy/choreography or more open-ended constellations like the chance operations Merce Cunningham has used in his dance collaborations (most recently with Paul Kaiser and the Riverbed Design Studio). Historically, interactivity as an aesthetic category does not derive from a political context, for example the actionism of performances that incite public intervention, ranging from guerilla theatre to various anarchist or protest movements. Happenings and participatory rituals, like underground rock and punk music, belong to a romantic discourse of opposition, whereas interactivity basically denotes an economy and ecology of exchanges, it concerns technical processes and the question of boundaries or interfaces between living bodies and technological networks. Interface design is a fundamentally commercial activity (cf. computer games), and of course it also trains us to live in a culture of technical apprehension. The political motivation for a new theory of inter-action might lie in the challenge to articulate the relationship between player and system, and to subject "technology" (which is not a neutral or universal category) to an analysis of its specific mediations and materializations of embodiment.

Oliver Grau, for example, in his study of virtual reality traces the concept of immersion through a long history of image spaces (panoramas) of illusion, and argues that virtual techniques attempting to overwhelm the senses and fuse the observer with the image medium are not new, but that today's real-time computation and sensorial interactivity, linked with telepresence and distributed networks, infinitely expand the "processual
variability of the work" the status of which is challenged by interactivity even as intervention is only possible within the framework of the progam. A particular interface, he adds, can be "implemented with emancipatory or manipulative purpose: both options are so closely intertwined that they are almost inseparable."(2)

Compared to interactive installations and virtual reality environments, interactive dance in the strict sense of computer-assisted design cannot claim such a long and heterogeneous history. Dance makers have largely remained committed to presentational stagings of multimedia works - complete and highly structured works for the consumption and aesthetic contemplation of the audience. The spectacular dimension of these works is obvious, as in Trisha Brown's collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg, or Bob Wilson's dance operas with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. In Eastern Europe, the conditions and political motivations for multimedia performance may have been different, especially before the watershed of 1989. The media architecture in Dragan Zivadinov's Noordung productions (with the Ljubljana National Ballet) follows a highly specific set of references; but younger choreographers, like Iztok Kovac (En-Knap) or Matjaz Pograjc (Betontanc), tend to be influenced by a cinematic style that echoes the international trends in contemporary videodance or the kind of digital, non-linear logic we see in the choreographies of the Wooster Group (New York) or Mózgo Hás (Budapest).

A recent review of Cunningham's Biped (1999) dismissed Kaiser's virtual dance animations for Biped as "compensation design for the 'New Man'" and ornamental wall
paper, lacking content and critical reflection. Such dance, the critic argues, "readily throws itself at converted military technology and standard industry sampling or merely promotes trendy technology on behalf of a trend-obsessed media society."(3) Interactive dance which departs from the spectacular aesthetic of the proscenium stage has only been showcased by a few groups or artists, including Troika Ranch, Pablo Ventura Dance Company, Company in Space, half/angel, Palindrome Inter-media Performance Group, Barriedale Operahouse, INTERFACE, Sarah Rubidge, Sue Broadhurst, Isabelle Choinière, Christian Ziegler, Nik Haffner, Susan Kozel, Gretchen Schiller, Todd Winkler, Kondition Pluriel, etc. Online dance is an entirely new genre, and its history has yet to be written. Furthermore, online dance installations and interactive online pieces of the late 1990s, such as Webbed Feats' Bytes of Bryant Park or Amanda Steggell's M@ggie's Love Bytes, and Sita Popat's more recent Hands-On Dance Project, which engage active viewer-participants and a variety of internet communications technologies, are rare events that require careful analysis, especially since we don't have any established aesthetic or social criteria for the evaluation of a successful interface or online user-behavior.(4)

Addressing "interaction" as a spatial and architectural concept for performance, therefore, means shifting the interpretive emphasis away from choreography and representation to the dynamics of intermediality, interconnection, and networking as a collective situation that creates opportunities for movement-as-transmission. The moving bodies are part of the collective consciousness in which we are enveloped and in which we are co-creative participants. This notion, in my own practice, is indebted to the plastic sculptural process that dancers, visual artists, media artists, programmers and architects have recently explored -- a plastic process of "designing" fluid space, projected space, and transformative space that allows for the integration of "nervous" or sensitive media presences.(5)

2. Performance Systems

If we think of dance in fluid and responsive environments, outside of the fixed proscenium stage, the relational performance architecture involving the dancer becomes a laboratory for technical apprehension, which means that a dancer, in this interface, is like a musician who plays a remote instrument and learns to interact with virtual image-spaces and projected video images that may bear no resemblance to familiar physical (self)images in the mirror. Dancers, composers, and designers interpret the relational architecture of interactive systems in many different ways, depending on a work's emphasis on nonlinearity, gesture-to-music synthesis, gesture-to-video synthesis, or depending on the dancer's dialogue with moving images. Like William Forsythe with his "improvisation technologies" and "operations," Marlon Barrios Solano has explored improvisation as "cognitive processing," comparing the shape-changing power of computational media to the kinetic plasticity of sculpture and dance. The computer, he argues, "substitutes every constant with a variable. The user can change dimensions of cultural objects in different media such as: size, degree of detail, format, color, shape, interactive trajectory, trajectory through space, duration, rhythm, point of view, the presence or absence of particular characters, the development of a plot. As a dancer
experimenting with digitally mediated environments and interactive systems, I see that this is one of the most important aspects because it depicts a characteristic of human embodiment: its plasticity. Computational media allow us to explore the interactions of our embodiment and its environment."(6)

We can look at the MAX/MSP software as an example of interactive systems and encounter specific design features that organize the relational architecture in the dance environment. MAX is a graphical programming scenario for patchbays that allow the building of controllers for real-time media performance such as sound. MSP is a set of powerful audio extensions to MAX that allows us to design our own real-time synthesis and signal processing algorithms with MAX's programming interface. We can use MAX to build intricate control structures that exploit the potential of interactive audio. On the one hand, then, the MAX environment implies setting up what Richard Loveless and John Mitchell describe as a "global media controller" which -- linked to a video/computer-controlled movement sensing system -- organizes the sonic and graphic output for the sensing system.(7) It is an instrument that primarily controls the source materials (sound and video files stored in the computer or synthesizer), sound parameters, and the dynamics of real-time synthesis. It can harbor considerable complexity since the
patches can be constructed in the manner of a "nested" design -- enfolded entities that are in a continuously fluctuating state of unfolding to activate the modular parts. Moreover, interactive multimedia performance generally uses interconnected systems (linking
the computers through the network) to drive several patch programs for sound, video, and motion tracking at the same time.

Given such complexity in the programmed environment, we must ask how performers and musicians regard the physical relations, the "plasticity," between performance and "controlled" parameters, and how dancers can see their movement as a form of topological "mapping" of the body's experience and proprioception within the interface. The programming goal is to integrate an image-based recognition system (e.g. a computer running BigEye or EyeCon) or a motion sensor interface (e.g. the MidiDancer, a wearable device Mark Coniglio built for dancers) into a unified MAX, VNS or Isadora environment.(8) But what does "technical" integration mean to the dancers, and how do dancers integrate diverse or parallel parameters into their movement intelligence and their increasing awareness of tactile image projection spaces (as we use them in extreme close-up scenarios for telematic performance) and image-movement as partners in the performance?

From a choreographic point of view, the dancer within an interactive environment familiarizes herself with the response behavior of the sound and video parameters, and both dancer and composer/programmer will strive to create an exponentially more sensitive, articulate and intuitive system. In a shared environment this could mean refinements in sensors, filters, and output processors, but also an attenuation of the performer's spatial-temporal consciousness. Her gestures tap into tactile, spatial, acoustic and kinetic sensations that go beyond the immediate kinesphere of the body. If she performs in conjunction with video or 3-D projections, she is also doing a kind of contact
improvisation with virtual image-spaces. Her movement, if it affects and responds to the image movement, crosses real and virtual spaces. She moves in-between.

How is the performer-musician-system relationship evolving, emergent? As
an example, we can look at the work of the London-based company Barriedale Operahouse whose core members, Michael Klien, Volkmar Klien, and Nick Rothwell, have developed the "ChoreoGraph" software which is intended to structure and control the various components of any performance event (i.e. sound, video, movement) and involves a dynamic information distribution engine that allows for changes in the choreographic script in real-time. Their first performance that used this system, Solo One, was shown in 1998. "ChoreoGraph" allowed the choreographer to drag and drop a series of differently colored modules (each module representing some part of the whole) along a time-line making it possible to change the order of the piece during the performance. It is interesting to note that the choreographer "performs" or participates at the computer, while the dancer is performing while "reading" the cues that suggest the real-time emergence of a "choreography" in a state of constant processing. The dancer thus
responds to monitors in the mise-en-scène to see the ad-hoc arrangements the collaborators might select. Scott deLahunta described this process as "'non-linear' choreography that does not rely on the convention of a fixed time structure, but is open to rearrangement." (9) After Solo One, Klien and his team developed the software to arrange the order of modules according to computer algorithms and audience and performer sensor input. Each upgraded version of "ChoreoGraph" is produced along
with a performance and implements additional functionality. Barriedale Operahouse thus continues to experiment with the relationship between the computer software and choreographic structure/time.

A recent version of "ChoreoGraph," which inspired much debate on the internet, featured Duplex, a duet that premiered in March 2002 at the TAT, Frankfurt, supported by William Forsythe (Ballett Frankfurt) who provided the dancers, the space, and the marketing and development that would accompany the performance premiere and tour. Given this remarkable institutional context, the piece itself was criticized for its old-fashioned reliance both on a choreographic convention (the pas de deux) and the cueing structure familiar to all forms of theatre, while the group claimed that this "cueing" system is based on concepts of non-linearity and interdependence, allowing for open processing: the software provided only a "map" of the piece, while the dancers could freely interpret the map, read it, stick to it, ignore it, interpret it, etc. It is quite fascinating to read deLahunta's interview with the group, since their ideas certainly pursue a clear investigation of systems theory and scientific concepts such as emergence, regulatory
systems, adaptive structures and metabolisms. Applying these concepts to dance of course raises the issue of how dancers can instantly change movement or expressive behavior when rules or feedback information are activated in some specific environment.

During the internet debate, one critic asked why a new technology is needed when "it does not enhance the performance and just stays an invisible and intellectual feature on a piece of paper?"(10) This implies that audiences do not see or "read" the mapping or the algorithms but look at the dancers. In terms of the relationality, I wondered precisely how such "work" wants to be perceived by an audience, and whether audiences that do not participate interactively are prepared to see dance as non-choreography (without "object")? Barriedale seems conflicted on the issue, as they use both a rehearsed and an open structure or system that consists of variable modules which can be shifted in non-linear "manifestations" of the work that does not exist as a fixed object but as a continuous potential for manifestations. How different are they from each other, over time? To what extent is the older relationship between choreographer or choreography and dancer in the interface also changing? If the dancer is co-authoring the manifestation of the live performance with the software system, then it seems the concept of a "generalised genotype of a dance" (i.e. choreography as a determined set of learnt/rehearsed movement or vocabulary) , with "performances being its generalized phenotype" needs to undergo redefinition. Is the older notion of this choreography as
genotype not replaced by the dancer's open improvisation/transformation of material, and is the "material" (data) as processual movement not something different from the older Western notion of choreography?

Michael Klien replied that different manifestations depend on the specific show and how much the choreographer lets the dancer manipulate the movement/structure; how much material is fixed or improvised; how many rules are there and what are they, etc. In the case of Duplex, Klien argued,

the dancers have always one relationship to explore - which is their own. So there are endless permutation of patterns within their relationship of where they stand in love, hate, submission, etc., but it's still their relationship they are exploring. So one night you might get a calm version with dancer A ruling and on another night you get dancer B ruling, etc. Our current works have generally a strange drama to it. Those are works that carve their path through their given phasespace. Flexible works that are full of possibilities within a set frame. Endless permutation of communication with more or less set vocabulary. The flow, the drift, the play of it characterize its dramatic sense. No curve. The whole system is in a condition that is chronically the same similarly to a rotating kaleidoscope. One condition - endless states. It's the next step now to create difference through choreographic techniques, which, in my eyes, has a lot to do with feeding forward history from within the choreographic structure - giving the structure a kind of memory to build on rather than endlessly exploring 'just' one phasespace. The choreographer creates something like 'phasespaces.' The dancer becomes a kind of a 'player' - having to formulate strategies of how to progress throughout the piece taking into account the partner's actions and the 'environmental requirements' (the script/the system).(11)

As my examples illustrate, dancers, composers, and designers interpret the relational architecture of interactive systems in many different ways, depending on a work's emphasis on nonlinearity, dance gesture-to-music synthesis, dance gesture-to-video synthesis, or depending on the self-articulation of the dancer. Brazilian dancer Ivani Santana speaks of an "open body" (corpo aberto), an "evolving body" permeated with information which inevitably changes its "aesthetic" manifestations: "When sensors, cameras and micro movie cameras, video, holographs, specific software and hardware, laser, scanners, and so many other elements come on stage to co-exist and co-evolve with this language, which is inevitably of the body, another opportunity for dance to manifest itself in contemporaneity is perceived."(12) In her performances Gedanken (2000) and Corpo Aberto (2001), Santana plays with being the eye of the camera (attached to her hand and forehead), while also interacting with duplicate and abstracted images (video, LifeForms) of her body's movements. The LifeForms figures of course are not of "her" body but are digital constructions and virtual movers. They are digital objects that might move like bodies or cybernetically inscribe body-like gestures for the purpose of communicating with their human counterparts.


Corpo Aberto, Ivani Santana,
São Paulo, Brazil, 2001.
Photo Courtesy of the artist


She controls all of these image movements, which is not the same as "inter-acting" with a dynamic multisensory sound/video environment which may behave in unexpected and uncontrollable ways. Her body is not open and transductive enough. The promise of video tracking technology and real-time digital signal processing for dancers, and for multiple users in general, is the simultaneous exploration of a fluid environment in which movement can generate sound, sound can affect video images, and images inform our perception in ways that alter our social relations if we recognize them not as regulated but as proliferating. Interactive art offers such synesthetic experiences most effectively when a group of people is forced to learn something about itself in an unpredictable environment.

3. Relational Architecture of Distribution: Networked Environments

After sketching fluid performance systems and the notion of the transductive or open body, I conclude with an example of a networked environment, a group project I devised for teams working together in seven different sites. Dancing online must take into account the specific integration of video, communication and network technologies into performance environments and the international co-production and project management of remote and multiple sites. It is not a large step, since computers in a performance system are already interconnected/networked. International collaboration between remote performance partners, as well as between programmers, engineers, and designers, has become the standard model in telepresence dance. As a production mode, telepresence thus mainly effects the linking of distant spaces, the conjoining of activities that take place in different sites at the same time. Unlike television broadcasts that are received unilaterally, internet videoconferencing sets up a non-hierarchical relational architecture of flows between the sites. Each site contributes to the emergent event.

Here I come again/Flying Birdman was created collaboratively (November 2002) as a telematic "earthwork," linking five remote cities in the United States with two locations in Brazil.(13) Based on narratives/dreams and structured spirally as a "Renga" (the Japanese form of a linked poem), it is composed of live dance, real-time audio and sound processing, precorded filmic images, still images, spoken voice, and graphic textcommunication exchanged by participants and audience during the live performance. The performances play with the theme of "left overs," debris, decomposing sites,
and the idea of re-cycling. The anchoring voice of the Flying Birdman runs through the entire telematic performance ("Here I come again"), but this voice of the fictive Birdman is also under-scored with subtle audio mixes and other traveling and whispering voices that function like echoes or reverberations of single words. These words are randomly chosen by the participating performers, picked up and digitally transformed by the other collaborating site partners, processed by the computers. The run-on voice of the Birdman is recited by five sites while the other streams are created (video, movement, still images, drawing, writing). The Birdman's voice changes and transforms from one language to an other.

One issue we had to address was the spatial (and technical) configuration of each of the participating sites, as each site functions both like a film set and a gallery (for the public that was invited). The website address for the online performance was announced on the internet. Each site was free to design their optimal environment for the production and transmission; we agreed that each local site would experiment with panoramic or surround screens (with many windows open at the same time) allowing for the performers/participants to see all sites dialogue with each other in a spiral rather than having all streams mixed down to one multicast. This quasi-cinematic arrangement also allowed local live audiences to see the intersection of public and virtual spaces, and how the local actors constructed the dialogues with remote partners in real-time. A spiralling dialogue evolved - with at least two sites dialoguing with each other (video, audio) at any given time during the 10 scenes. Each scene is six minutes long. The internet audience can follow the movement of the dialogue by opening the respective site-addresses (as Quicktime movies).


Here I come again/Flying Birdman, ADaPT,
multi-site telepresence performance, 25 November, 2002.
Frame grab: Johannes .Birringer

Telepresence, as a technical mediation, creates interactive environments allowing the real-time synthesis of various media forms (video, audio, text, graphics, data transfers via midi affecting directly the processing/configurations on another site) in live performances which act with each other over large distances. We are separate but appear to be together in a shared virtual space of the internet. The emphasis is on the performer actions, not on exchanges of pure data. We perform these interfaces without that all partners (and audiences) are physically present and in one location. In fact, we have no grasp of the potential audience in the WorldWideWeb. We are very much aware, however, that we are no longer on a "stage." This also leads to a re-scaling or modifying of existing aesthetic operations. The professional experience of most of the ADaPT members is dance/physical performance. In telepresence, performance is adapted into live camera-editing/framing and thus a form of live filmmaking and live soundmixing, accompanied by textual communication (chat) which functions as a secondary or commentating medium (like subtitles or intertexts), not necessarily yet as a new hypertextual poetics. That is, we have not fully explored other forms of online performance which might involve interactive storytelling or distributed web narratives as platforms for the
audience's direct collaboration in fiction development or in spatialized narrative wherein the interactive user takes the role of cameraperson and editor.(14)

In the initial months of our collaborative ADaPT work we probed the connectivities, infrastructures, and languages we could use; we had to decide on a shared software and agreed-upon protocols. We rehearsed together, improvised and had jam sessions, perhaps comparable to free jazz or hip hop jams. With Flying Birdman I reinserted a more precise scenography (crossing film, dance, music and voice recitation) built on principles of the loop form (repetition, variation). "Roles" were passed on, from site to site. There was a narrative which we tried to translate into streaming video and audio, and
different components of the story were carried by the participating sites. In this sense the narrative became a Roshamon-like spiral, distributed among the participants. Each site would see something different, for sure. Our cues only refered to the length of each scene and the distribution of roles and media, not to the content which each site was free to evolve. The first half of the performance suggested a dialogue between a dancer in one site with a filmic image-movement created by another site. In the second half, the dialogue consisted of direct dance movement and gestures exchanged between the site
partners, a contact improvisation across distances and time zones which involved subtle dislocations and decompositions of the Birdman character as it was developed by the various dancers.

One of the aesthetic challenges in telepresence dance is the conscious incorporation of the camera interface into the performance, with dancer and cameraperson working very closely together in a restricted area that has to be well lit. Camera and microphones (connected to the computer) are the key interface between performer and network technology. They are the basis for linking the different site-environments into meaningful relationships between the visual and kinesthetic forms and digital outputs. Taken together, the seven sites produce a form of real-time digital compositing, since some of the partner sites also use video mixers and compositing software. One could argue that dance here becomes a filmic practice, since much of the attention goes to the phrasing and framing of the action, the choice of camera angles, camera movement, and in-camera editing or mixing, or what Lev Manovich refers to as "montage within a shot."(15) The sound does not have to flow directly into the webcast but can be filtered and modified through interactive software, thus pulsating through the integrated performance system I sketched above. A second challenge is the strategic use of the small delays in internet
transmission (how small depends on the network traffic at any given time) and the degradation of image and audio transfers. Depending on the choice of thematic content, the break-ups and fragmentations of the video stream can become part of the aesthetic purpose in the performance. For example, large amounts of movement and color create more information, thus slower data rates and the potential for high degradation. Cluttered backgrounds distract from figurative definition. High amounts of contrast provide more solid lines, further clarity and better differentiation.(16)

My account addresses the architecture of the environment, both on the formal and the technical level of mixing the streams and producing the distributed content. Another level is the presentational format, the involvement of live audiences both on-site and online, and the transcultural integration of different platforms and aesthetic processes. I incorporate our audience feedback into my critical summary.

The spiral concept of moving the dialogue around from site to site, demonstrating the actual processing of distributive content, seemed to fascinate our local audience which could follow the construction in front of their eyes as well as the webcast on the screens. It was more difficult for online audiences to understand the physical contexts of these constructions and to follow the spiral, even though the website delineated the telecommunications sequence and provided a map for the navigation. In other words. the social protocol for such events needs to be developed. We could have one site dedicated to maneuver all incoming streams, not necessarily by layering/mixing all streams at once (which might be too much information), but by creating some form of digital dramaturgy that allows specifically structured interactions within one composite site. What new forms of simultaneity and interactive streams could we imagine? What kind of story-boarding? And how can dance sustain narratives, if most of the dancers I work with in the United States are trained in abstract modern dance rather than in more theatrical and expressive danceforms? What are the pros and cons of a "scripted" performance versus chance events or different modular types of streaming montage that could include painterly, abstract, or surreal and phantasmatic images?

It is also necessary to leave space for the audience to enter and become a part of the work. Breathing space provides an opportunity for the audience to arrive at the work, to find clarity and understanding.

Reviewing the "double scenes" of Flying Birdman (Part 1), the strongest moments happened when the dancer (Birdman character) was moving with or - seemingly - through the landscape or architectural filmspaces of another-site, becoming "present" in a virtual space. This is precisely how I understand telepresence - to be present in a distant image world which is being created as I become present in it. Here we observe the particular challenge of camera work (framing, angle, motion) within and against the frame compositions of the virtual image. Digital real-time dramaturgy implies that the dancer is integrated into or inserts herself into a moving architecture, allowing the viewer to make particular associations, if you imagine such a figure to be on the edge or "inside" a dream space or moving through a "navigable space." Telepresence, or tele-action, means entering into the streaming images of the remote site, thus affecting the reality or virtuality perceived at that location. Even more crucial is the recognition that live performance, unlike synthetic computer-generated environments (including the avatars of the game worlds), brings corporeality as real material into the teletechnologies and, via the streams, to a real remote physical location. The critical difference between telematic dance and telerobotics is the motivated physical action which travels from one location to another: it operates on the remote action and changes its reality.

Projecting a physical action into the distance therefore has nothing to do with utopic or euphemistic notions of cyberspace, cyborgs, out-of-body experiences, or some matrix of "consensual hallucination." When I dance in telepresence, I cannot become completely immersed in the illusion that my body is elsewhere, since I remain aware of my being in a separate physically environment. At the same time, I become extended and my proprioception shifts as I recognize dis-placed boundaries or floating spaces. This is the paradox. I see my projected arm, my neck and my face appear in another environment, and since the telematic image has a delay of a few seconds, that telepresenced body of mine will always try to catch up with me. I dance in a strange feedback-loop, as my belated hand seeks to touch another body elsewhere. And then there are little mistakes that happen in the network transmission. Technology itself becomes a source of contingencies. My body freezes, breaks up, then recomposes, or my partners on the other side have changed my color, inverted me, or multiplied me into a polyp with many arms. I do not share Marina Grzinic's fear that with the virtual-image a "physicality of the connection of the image within reality-time is lost," and that the image is "emptied out."(17) Rather, as I gain facility with the interface, I can play with the distanced body images, I can have ironic relationships with the processing of my (image) movements, enjoy the thrill of the exchange of energies and strange imaginings with performers in the other sites, and savor the natural precariousness of temporary networks with their lags, interruptions and collapses. These network environments, after all, behave like an unstable ecological system.


Here I come again/Flying Birdman, ADaPT,
multi-site telepresence performance, 25 November, 2002.
Frame grab: Johannes .Birringer

John Mitchell (our partner in Arizona) suggested that adaptation to this ecology can only succeed if all of the principal investigators build a university course around our ongoing research, rehearsing over many months, thus also modifying our institutional settings and perspectives. In January 2003 I started doing this with some of our partners, but we quickly noticed the institutional constraints and lack of support. What is the feasibility of such telepresence labs in other schools and locations? Do the technical infrastructures for such labs exist, especially across cultural and economic divides?

For example, during Flying Birdman we faced platform differences: our Brazilian partners did not have the high-speed Internet2 network, so we connected to them through the iVisit software (a free download), which worked well on the level of textual communication (chat) and webcams, but we could not link them to our full screen streams. Our Brazilian partners worked on a different scale, different speed, different hardware/software, and a different aesthetic. Bia Medeiros, Carla Rocha, and their team Corpos Informaticos in Brasilia are more of a literary performance group, not dancers. In
order to have a cross-platform performance dialogue, we used a mixed aesthetic form not reliant on spatialized dance and audio (audio hardly works on iVisit, and the frame-rate for webcam images is very low). This seems a minor problem, but one could also argue that the sonic dimension of telepresence, with all its contingencies, interferences, and feedback noise, is probably the most resonant and deeply affective aspect of the live synthesis. Thus sound is also the most media-specific dimension, and the current telematic potential of working with feedback noise needs to be further explored.

Cross-cultural interaction is an important part of our politics, especially at a time when it is becoming apparent how uneven the distribution of resources is and yet how significant the formation of new online communities and tactical media practices can be. Collaboration with artists in Brazil and Argentina is progressing; we learn how to strategize the modalities and aesthetic operations of an event. I participated several times with Corpos Informaticos in the "Macula @ Corpos" online exhibitions, as well as with Renato Cohen's "Constelacão" event in São Paulo (November 9, 2002), and enjoyed working with the iVisit platform. I experienced a kind of schizoid performance mode, being alone in my location. I generated images with the webcam while writing/communicating,with my left hand, trying to "read" seven or eight screen windows and the text chat at the same time, while also sending/generating audio. It is easier to work in a team, but noticeably, Corpos Informaticos always opens up windows and streams by each and all members. All the members are performing individually together online. This implies also that single "users" can enter the event with a simple dial-up phone line from their homes. Interestingly, the openness of the iVisit platform also implies that "unprepared" users enter the event without necessarily knowing the "script" for the performance interactions.

The internet audience involvement in these events was surprising. On iVisit everyone can enter the "room" and take part in the performance, send and receive, whereas the Internet2 Birdman performance was not participatory for the online visitor (except via chat). The collective assumptions about interactivity imply that audiences are active participants. What would a distributed dancespace look like, if it allowed intervention, use by others? As we continue to investigate notions of telepresence, we are constantly reminded of conventional practices regarding space. The "navigable space" we are
studying now is defined in terms of navigation through 3-D computer mediated environments/games, SimWorlds. The architecture of space in reference to these games or environments is essential for the user to navigate through the virtual worlds within, but how do we define "user" for networked dance? Our dance-"work" is a poorly designed game if a spontaneous visitor cannot understand the logic of interaction. If the participating sites map-out specific spatial designs and narratives for players to navigate in the context of a distributed space, then we might have a greater potential for a shared game.

The materiality of technology itself must be examined together with that of the dancing bodies or players. What are the potentials of a radical contingency, and how can the navigation of networked environments become like a dance? We need a stronger conception of who our actual virtual audience-participants might be, and how we address them, how we wish to involve them. Preparing an international multi-site event raises all kinds of organizational issues for the programming, connectivity, and infrastructure support. It involves a new politics of production which suggests alternative communication channels, since an online dance can potentially involve an unlimited number of persons who have a modem, webcam, PDA or mobile phone (cf. the new "flashmob" phenomenon). Such an ensemble of arrangements would alter the hegemony in contemporary dance and the domination of the market by specific producers and curators of dance. The flexibility and mobility of the new communications media invite us to insist on a pluralism of tactics and microeconomies, not leaving the infrastructures for such technical practices in the control of universities and institutions. Interactive performance - with dancers on the other end of globe and in different time zones - affirms a collective politics which forces us to articulate how we effectively collaborate and communicate across cultures, languages, and protocols.

Traditional and even new venues are not coping with the development of new artistic forms. What new venues for telepresence are emerging? I visited Location One ("" ) in New York City, for example, and there was nothing in place for the public to use. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) discontinued its Arts in Multimedia program last year. The Boston Cyberarts Festival did not include any dance or interactive telepresence performance in its 2003 programming. The dance-technology lab at Ohio State University is not openly accessible, only to enrolled students. New media institutions like Banff (Canada), ZKM (Germany), V2 (The Netherlands), ICA and shinkansen (UK) have residencies for professional artists,
and support for new media has been much stronger and more sustained in Europe than in the U.S. We can learn from contemporary club and alternative cultures. For audiences to feel comfortable navigating and playing in interactive architectures, we might assume they are computer literate and thus curious enough, but we don't have any cultural conventions yet for generating networked dance. The transcultural dialogue we seek to encourage is based on exchange and new forms of cooperative "face to face/media to media" interaction which is aware of the political issue of control and controller functions
written into the hardware and software. Telepresence dance, like the sharing of music (MP3) operating outside of the imperatives of commercial markets, offers a social model for interactivity and creative interventions by players who agree on the probability of such collectively-creative events. Dance, after all, is not choreography but an event that moves us. In this sense, of involving live bodies and kinetic sensibilities for active cultural expression, dance has a decisive edge over the avatars in game worlds.




1 Cf. Marina Grzinic, Stelarc: Politics of the Body,? in Stelarc: Political Prosthesis and Knowledge of the Body, ed. Marina Grzinic, Ljubljana: Maska/MKC, 2002, pp. 95-109, and Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 89-132. For a good critical overview of the evolution of interactive art within the context of the visual and media arts, see Söke Dinkla, Pioniere Interaktiver Kunst (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1997). See also Söke Dinkla and Martina Leeker, eds., Dance and Technology/Tanz und Technologie: Moving towards Media Productions - Auf dem Weg zu medialen Inszenierungen (Berlin: Alexander Verl;ag, 2003); Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2001); Annette Hünnekens, Der bewegte Betrachter: Theorien der Interaktiven Medienkunst (Köln: Wienand, 1997); Peter Gendolla, Norbert M. Schmitz, Irmela Schneider and Peter M. Spangenberg, eds., Formen interaktiver Medienkunst (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2001).

2 Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 343-44.

3 Cf. Arnd Wesemann, "Compensation Design for the "New Man,'" ballettanz, January 2001, 36-39.

4 For a discussion of these online events, see Sita Popat and Jacqueline Smith-Autard, "Dance-Making on the Internet: Can Online Choreographic Projects Foster Creativity in the User-Participant?" Leonardo 35:1 (2002), 31-36. See also Luisa Paraguai Donati and Gilberto Prado, "Artistic Environments of Telepresence on the World Wide Web," Leonardo 34:5 (2001), 437-442; David Z. Saltz, "The Collaborative Subject: Telerobotic Performance and Identity," Performance Research 6:3 (2001), 70-83; and Julia Glesner, "Web Dance: Konvergenzen zwischen Tanz und Internet?", in Tanz, Theorie, Text. Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Tanzforschung , ed. Christa Zipprich and Gabriele Klein (Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 2002), pp. 509-21.

5 "Nervous environment" is derived from the term sound artist David Rokeby uses for his interactive software "Very Nervous System" (VNS), first created in 1982. VNS uses video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system to create a space in which the movements of one's body create sound and/or music. In his writing
Rokeby has pointed out that VNS is not a "control system" but an interactive system, by which he means that neither partner in the system (installation and moving person) is in control. "Interactive" and "reactive" are not the same thing, according to Rokeby. "The changing states of the installation are a result of the collaboration of these two elements. The work only exists in this state of mutual influence. This relationship is broken when the interactor attempts to take control, and the results are unsatisfying." Quoted from "Lecture for 'Info Art', Kwangju Biennale," 1996 [""].

6 Cf. William Forsythe, Improvisation Technologies. A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye, ed. Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, and Deutsches Tanzarchiv, Cologne/SK Stiftung Kultur. CD-ROM, 1999; Marlon Barrios Solano, "Cognitive Systems: Performing Plans and Situated Knowledge, " essay written for Environments Laboratory IX, Ohio State University, 2002. Quoted with permission.

7 See Richard Loveless and Lizbeth Goodman," Live and Media Performance: The
Next Frontier," Performance Research 4:2 (1999), 74-75. For further investigations of the intelligent stage and interactive systems, seeRobb E. Lovell's research reports which are collected on his website:""

8 Coniglio, a musician/software programmer known internationally for his work with Troika Ranch, a New York City based company he directs with choreographer Dawn Stoppiello, wrote two interactive programs, Interactor and Isadora, which map data input to control a variety of media outputs, e.g. sonic, video, lighting and robotic. Troika Ranch
conducts regular Live Interactive workshops to give participants the opportunity to explore the use of interactive computer technology in performance (

9 Cf. Scott DeLahunta , ed., "Duplex/ChoreoGraph: in conversation with Barriedale Operahouse," 2 May 2002. Published online on the dance-tech maillist in May 2002.
See also: ""

10 Georg Hobmeier, 27 May 2002, posting to dance-tech list.

11 Michael Klien, 28 May, 2002, posting to dance-tech list. The discussion between Hobmeier, Birringer, Rothwell, Klien, and others appeared on the list between May 25 and June 17, 2002.

12 Ivani Santana, Corpo Aberto: Cunningham, dança e novas tecnologias (São Paulo: EDUC/FAPESC, 2002), p. 25. Translation kindly provided by the author who attended my Environments Laboratory VII, fall 2001.

13 The event was produced by the Association of Dance and Performance Telematics (ADAPT), of which my team is a member: "". The linked sites were Columbus (Ohio), Tempe (Arizona), Salt Lake City (Utah), Madison (Wisconsin), Detroit (Michigan), Brasilia and São Paulo (Brazil). The ADAPT online performances are documented and critically discussed among the participant researchers at: "".

14 For an example of such "recombinant poetics," see Bill Seaman, "Recombinant Poetics: Emergent Explorations of Digital Video in Virtual Space," in Martin Rieser/Andrea Zapp, eds., New Screen Media/Cinema/Art/Narrative (London: BFI, 2002), pp. 237 -55. A different take on "recombinant theatre and digital resistance" is offered by Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2001). As Seamon investigates spatialized narrative and the relations of new media to the postcinematic, his concerns overlap with Lev Manovich's cinematic approach to digital operations.See Manovich's The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 161-75. See also Ken Goldberg, ed., The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). When I refer to " filmic image-movement" in telepresence, I could also have used Manovich's term "image instrument." Marina Grzinic has proposed to use terms that point beyond the cinematic; in reference to virtual reality and cyberspace (internet), she speaks of the "virtual-image." Her provocative theorizing is indebted to Gilles Deleuze's distinctions, in his two books on the cinema, between "movement-image" and "time-image." See her Fiction Reconstructed: Eastern Europe, Post-Socialism, The Retro-Avant-garde (Vienna: Edition Selene, 2000), esp. pp. 203-18.

15 The Language of New Media, p.148

16 In preparation for the Flying Birdman project, our team conducted a telepresence camera workshop during a residency of Australian media artist Kelli Dipple, who brought her vast experience in online performance (working with Company in Space and other multisite telepresence projects in Australia and Europe) to our lab. We are indebted to her insights and the hands-on workshop in telematics she directed. For Dipple's project archive, go to "" or "". For a summary of the ADAPT online performance research, see Johannes Birringer, Ellen Bromberg, Naomi Jackson, John Mitchell, Lisa Naugle, and Doug Rosenberg, "Connected Dance: Distributed Performance across Time Zones," J. Birringer, in Transmigratory Moves/Dance in Global Circulation. Congress On Research in Dance Conference Proceedings (New York University, 2001), pp. 51-77. Online: "".

17 Fiction Reconstructed: Eastern Europe, Post-Socialism, The Retro-Avant-garde, p.213.