Digital Bodies in Real Time


“This is like showing my underwear drawer,” protested Juilliard instructor and performer-composer Mari Kimura as she projected the graphic interface of her interactive software, “MAX patches,” onto a large screen during her presentation at “Transparent Technologies,” the ninth biennial arts and technology symposium, held at Connecticut College last month. Displaying the computer code behind her violin and computer performance the previous night, Kimura—and nearly 60 other participants—showed support garments: computer software, electronics, and creative processes. Papers, installations, performances, and videos filled the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology 13 hours straight on each of three days. “The problems people define are as revealing as the solutions they find,” said Bridget Baird, a director of the center.

Since 1986, the conference has cross-pollinated artists and scientists addicted to the drama of combining creativity with machines. Most participants travel as emissaries of academic institutions. I showed my interactive video dance, Second Nature. My collaborator, Ronaldo Kiel, creates digital art, three-dimensional models, and interactive DVD installations. Our software developer, composer-performer John J.A. Jannone, heads the Program in Performance and Interactive Media Arts at Brooklyn College, where Kiel teaches in the art department. Our muse is dancer Meg Harper.

Exploring the human body in time-based media, artists from many fields have created works of dance and technology, among them visual artists Kiel, Nam June Paik, Dan Graham, Myron Kruger, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, and Camille Utterback; architects such as Diller + Scofidio; and the Wooster Group theater collective. At the symposium, researchers converged at a choreographic intersection—an obsession with the body in space and time. Several artists described how dance has become their creative fuse, driving interactive explorations.

Artist Cynthia Pachikara of the University of Michigan produces work that springs from a trick of the stage lights seen during a dance collaboration. When viewers enter her installation, their shadows become a cutout, revealing an image from a previously unseen transparency or video. Pachikara explains, “The shadow becomes an aperture for seeing other layers of hidden light imagery.” Viewers sweep their arms and scoot along the wall to reveal more of the underlying picture.

As the software for digital music has proven adaptable to digital video, composers have become captivated by dance and video. Two who create for real-time performance video are Jannone and Todd Winkler. They use the Very Nervous System (VNS), a device designed by interactive artist David Rokeby, a Canadian. (Check out his 1991 video demo at Every move picked up by the VNS camera spawns a sound, creating a note-by-note “movement audiolization.” They use the Very Nervous System like a tool kit, building a piece of software for each artwork. Jannone explores “what it means to create software applications as art objects. Programming becomes an intense creative act, like composing music.” The real-time software can output processed video using a Macintosh laptop.

“The main problem is, still, how you deal with a live person and a projection,” states Winkler, chair of the music department at Brown University. In each piece, he rebalances the dancer, stage lighting, and video screen. In Pod, a sci-fi transformation by way of video distortion, Cindy Cummings twitches in shadow while her image overhead undergoes a pupation and death through video effects. Winkler notes the sense of play when the human-computer interaction becomes clear, first for performers in rehearsal and then for the audience.

From the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana comes Lance Chong’s collaboration with choreographer Luc Vanier, integrating a live motion-capture system into a dance performance. In rehearsal, their computer system crashes frequently. Vanier oscillates between fear and panic. Chong’s graphic response to the instability of the computer is a cast of distortable human avatars. On the video, a body part can change scale at any time; a foot can become 10 times longer, an arm can shoot across the entire screen. Built from the motion-capture data, the avatars match the movements and qualities of the onstage performer.

Presentations at “Transparent Technologies” showed no correlation between the size of the budget and the strength of the artistic vision. The academic gaze is benign, encouraging experimentation. I imagine the professors as optometrists, holding up their research like lenses for students to see through to their future.

Modern dance and technology have grown up together. Dance helps technology evolve from an external state of being, one of electronics and economics, to a conceptual, internal process of perception. Dance makers have long been inspired by technical innovation, most overtly Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, Elizabeth Streb, and Philippe Decouflé. They’ve invented conceptual machines strong enough to fold back in on themselves, like a Möbius strip, to strike us with the wonder of being human. Intrepid artists with no budget and obsolete equipment can take heart, remembering John Cage quoting Marcel Duchamp: “Tools that are no good require more skill.”