What unique artistic possibilities or properties might emerge when combining the movement forms of contemporary dance with the interactive installations and objects enabled by physical computing technology? Structure-Body: Truss I is an experiment exploring this new ground.
Structure-Body: Truss I is my thesis project for ITP. It is an interactive kinetic sculpture designed for choreographic conversation with dancers. The sculpture is a large metal “truss” (a long structure of connected beams, like the arm of a crane or the side of a bridge) mounted on a rotating base. Using proximity sensors and a stepper motor, it responds to the movement and presence of bodies nearby. Nine feet tall at its highest point and reaching down into the performance space to cross the dancer’s body at chest level, it forms an industrial structure which dancers must navigate, but which also acts as another body on stage, moving with and reacting to dancers’ movements, mechanical but seemingly alive.
Truss I is meant as a prototype, a demonstration, and an inspiration for further choreographic research. The boom in inexpensive hobby electronics and the online availability of technical know-how has enabled artists to build machines that can sense and respond to their environment. What can happen when these sorts of machines are incorporated into contemporary dance, a field of performance structured around space, form, movement, physical touch, and physical force - all things which today’s electronics can readily sense and manipulate? Truss I offers a jumping-off point for that discussion. It creates a simple dialogue between the movement of a dancer and the movement of a physical object, but even this simple interaction opens up infinite choreographic possibilities. Moreover, due to its large size and its placement at the level of the dancer’s torso, Truss I plays with space as well. It is not only visually imposing; it obstructs the dancer’s path and divides up the space around itself. How will dance change if the dance space can reconfigure itself continuously in reaction to the dancer’s actions?
Why create this sculpture? Why bring interactive installation or sculpture into performance dance?
Firstly, in my own practice as a dancer, I find that choreographing with the body alone, in the “blank space” of the dance floor, is often inadequate for what I want to express. Rather, I find that by placing the body in some kind of tension or relationship with an object, structure, or an environment, I can more readily express my ideas. With computing and electronics, that object can be made to come to life, and through interactivity the dialogue between the object and the human body can be made more dynamic and more real.
Secondly, I believe that as computing technology advances, it’s going to move out of this separate, ethereal, “virtual” space behind our screens, and into our physical environment. This has already started happening, with wearable tech and the internet of things, for example. So digital technology will be, and already is, something we’re interacting with at a bodily level. For me, choreographing with these technologies is a way of exploring what that might mean, and how to think about it and live in it.
To place this work in a larger context, there is a long history in Western dance of choreographing with sculptures and with installations. There is also a large and growing body of work combining dance with computational media. I see myself as connecting these two threads of work.
Most current work with dance and computing focuses on what I would call intangible technologies, namely motion capture and projection, which have no real physical presence on stage. To me, this reflects our current way of thinking about the digital realm - as something virtual, ethereal, and separate from the physical or the embodied. But I believe that the physicality and presence of an interactive object adds value that intangible projections cannot replace, and that in particular it is better suited to speak to our embodied and physical experience of technological systems.
My exploration of interactive physical installation in dance grew out of my performance project for NIME, Web|Wall. A sound installation controlled by a network of elastic tubing, Web|Wall utilized physicality by creating a dialogue of physical (in the sense of Newtonian physics) strain and resistance between the performer and the installation. Structure-Body: Truss I focuses on the inherent physicality of movement, and of physical structure at a scale that competes for space with the human body.
Above are just a few examples of me playing around with the system. Something I love about this kind of work is that even with just a few simple rules of interaction, there is an infinite number of choreographic possibilities. In the future I’d be very interested in getting Truss I in front of other dancers or choreographers to see what they’d do with it. In particular, since I built it and know how it works, I think that shapes how I react to and interact with it, in ways that may be limiting. I’d also be interested in choreographing with multiple dancers around the structure.
In the future, I may expand Structure-Body into a larger installation containing multiple similar trusses of different sizes and shapes. Interacting with a sort of network of such trusses, which create an enclosing space that’s dynamically shifting, is a different choreographic idea with a lot of potential.