Developing a Multisensorial Interfacing Experience
by Isabel Valverde
What happens if two persons meet/date in a dark room completely blind to one another if not for avatars that represent them as seen through VR glasses? At a computer interface, (close by or remotely if extended to the internet) two other participants move the avatars on the screen while watching the performers' response. The shared networked screen functions as an intermediate apparatus between the participants' 'free motion' and (outer) control. In addition, a responsive sound system informs the performers about their relative proximity. In this metaphor/actualization of the power of society/mind’s power over subjects/bodies, users instruct the performers to follow limited movements. The ‘visual imposition,’ however, interlaces with the participants’ physical contact (improvisation) providing a unstable motion equilibrium.
Blind Date is a multi-user choreographic environment designed to make us aware of our sensorial responses and engagements with one another. Estranging common ways of communicating, such as touching, it experiments with getting us acquainted with our complex multilayered interactions with each other through digital technologies. Materializing the struggle to overcome the dualist framework of vision/mind vs touch/body, visitors are offered the opportunity to experience themselves in two 'places' at once as they practice the continuity of physicality and virtuality. The contradictory, yet provoking, duality of medially isolating concurrent communicative modalities attempts to raise awareness and balance our multilayered, though selective, limited, and conditioned, perceptual thinking array; a conduct that demands corporeality as the model for the design of more humane technological interfaces.
The concept for Blind Date developed out of Yiannis Melanitis’ Pleasure Machine, becoming a considerably different project. To better understand the present project I include a description of Pleasure Machine, followed by political commentary and discussion of our collaboration towards the recent choreographic concepts of interfacing. Finally, I describe Blind Date’s presentation and experience at the Monaco Dance Forum 2002, which includes comments and suggestions from participants and my own experience extrapolating and planning the work’s continuation.
1. Pleasure machine - interactive performance2000
The performance occurs inside a capsule. We may control the avatar of the performer through a remote computer. The distance between the audience and the performer is set to 7 meters. We may type words, wishes or commands from our keyboard directly to a video-viewing system she wears (Sony Glasstron glasses). There are no limits to one's wishes. The whole performance is also available on the Internet where the viewer watches her real time reactions through a video-window. The work was programmed by Prof. N. Sgouros in Java and was produced by Melanitis at the department of Digital Art, School of Fine Arts, in Athens. The first performance was presented at the Digital Art Lab, Athens 8/11/00 (Performer: Silia Rouka). [i]
The artificiality of experience and the artificiality of pleasure: To experience ‘artificial pleasure’ does not presuppose that we have to define the concept of a ‘pure form of pleasure’. Pleasure Machine is not a mechanical device programmed to expand pleasure but an interactive system between humans and machines, which transforms pleasure. Is it then possible to pass from the self-possessed body to the collective-possessed one? Or further, from ‘body-body’ to ‘body-system’ pleasure? Pleasure machine is a simulating machine. The art of simulations instead of the art of representations. Simulation is defined as the imitative representation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of another, or the examination of a problem often not subject to direct experimentation by means of a simulating device. In systems like these, we are interested in the similarity of action instead of the similarity of structure. Bodies are often assumed to be the repetition of the cells, and societies as the repetition of the bodies. The substance of the simulation problem is in space, not the agents. As space provides the main information, we tend to construct the environment first -and after this, the unit. Instead of constructing space and then adding the "agents", we construct the physics of space and the agent reacts automatically (Elp.Tzafestas).[ii] In a non-determined environment we tend to respond to information flux in a chaotic way. Information is in the environment, giving orientation to our wishes. When we think that a wish belongs to us, we experience the domination of the environment. Controlling our speech or our orientation does not mean we have control of our performance. We are losing control of our presence while our performance is dominated by information of the environment. Nature, as a term, stands out of ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ classifications. In constructed environments, space data is stronger than agent data (Melanitis, 2001).[iii]
2. Collaboration Story
Melanitis and I met in Pennsylvania at the Performance Sites conference in November 2000. Melanitis had just finished his MA in Digital Arts from Athens School of Fine Arts and was working with Stelarc, and I started my Ph.D. in Contemporary Performance and Culture at the department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, Davis. The conference was a unique opportunity to meet other artists and researchers dealing with performance’s transition into the digital domain. Melanitis had recently produced Pleasure at the 8th New York Digital Salon, with the participation of dancer Silia Rouka. Sharing a mutual interest in exploring performative applications of digital languages, Melanitis proposed that we collaborated further in this work. With no deadline and about a year and a half later, the Monaco Dance Forum’s 2002 call for dancetech multimedia projects encouraging participatory installations was a chance to proceed with our collaboration.
Although not knowing what to do with it, I matured PM’s initial idea of the dancer’s body as one ‘programmed’ to exclusively respond to someone’s movement instructions and ‘wishes’ instead of moving through her own volition. I thought this objectification was too reductive a model of desire and did not offer any further, let alone optimistic, vision or utopia. Melanitis’ optical subjectivity model was a direct mocking of the classical conception of the neutral observer. Even if in this case the dancer is also an active participant, her participation is passive, neutral, subjugated to a shaping, regulating social system based on an external / internal border subject to the hierarchy and tyranny of a fixed external world.
Thinking about these aspects of bodily experience and interactivity, and how to bring a different contemporary dance practice and critical approach to this initial work interface, I considered contact improvisation as particularly suitable for the work’s mutation. Contact Improvisation is a dance form playing with the various degrees of moving touch and exchanging weight between two or more bodies. Bringing this form, and its vision of the responsive body (Cynthia Novack, 1990) within dance practice into the tech environment was just what was needed to complement the high tech one-sided socially regulating conduct of pleasure. The contact form provided an opportunity to taste a multilayered responsive intercorporeal subjectivity (Amelia Jones, 1998). Thus different and simultaneous modes of communication inseparable from social and spatial/temporal wired circumstances, instead of a controlling or totally subjective interfacing (coding) model.
PM’s performer-user one-to-one interaction was actualized through the VR glasses interface wore by the dancer and linked by an optical wire to the computer for the user (or internet) connection. In vision, both user and dancer share the same screen/avatar image, which is manipulated by the user and followed by the dancer. I really liked how this crossover platform between the immersive environment (induced by the VR glasses) and the typical computer-user interface broke commonly separated interactive systems. But, I especially liked the subtle technical irony implied in the work. Part of the humor was in the subversive use of a typical VR apparatus, where the performers’ movement and behavior normally ‘control’ their navigation. PM’s combined setup, instead, was designed for the performer to be directed/choreographed by the users, giving most power to the person at the machine interface, and limiting that of the performer, following the image controlled by remote users. Thus, PM assumed user equates power and dancer equates subjugation, but it is misleading to think of this as serious unbalance, when in fact its set-up communicates a satiric attitude.
The movement instructions were restricted to up/down and right/left limb movements, slowly moving a stick figure (WC type) at each mouse click on the respective keys at the bottom of the screen. The overall situation was purposefully robotic, establishing a one-to-one voyeuristic operator, apparently leaving no space for the dancer to play. The strict way she followed the instructions reminded me of an extreme dictatorial mode of choreographing passed on to the computer system and the common user. Reflecting a view generalized to the societal realm, PM seemed to be voicing and actualizing a satiric Baudrillardian scenario with the fatalistic condition of information capitalism as a simulation matrix, like the big brother watching us (Baudrillard, c1983)? No way out of an increasingly terrifying multinational world system possessing our very pleasure? In this way, PM reveals a somewhat interesting controversial tactic of exaggerated mimesis particularly connoted with the 1960’s and 70’s feminist performance now exploited by new media performance. (Marvin Carlson, 2nd ed.2004)
2.1. The Blind Date Project
Blind Date challenges the earlier interactive performance installation in various crucial ways. After discussing our ideas long distance (email and phone calls) Melanitis and I arrived at an agreement regarding technological improvements with the equipment available to us to realize our vision. First of all, although contemplating a formal interactive performance like the initial version, Blind Date was thought of as a multi-user moving environment for 4 visitors at a time (2 performers + 2 users). Melanitis further improved the hardware and software, manufacturing a second pair of glasses and increasing the avatars’ movement possibilities. The ‘interactive’ application programmed in Java by Nikitas Sgouros had now two avatars in each window, with a series of 14 (instead of 8) clickable buttons/keys at the bottom, naming the avatars’ translation in space, including front/back right/left, and head rotation right/left, in addition to the body limbs’ movement / rotation up/down left/right.
The interfacial apparatus (of 2 pares of VR glasses connected by optical cables to 2 computers) implied a duplicated set of one-to-one performer-user mediated interaction as well as multilayered performer-performer communication through touch, hearing, balance, kinesthesia, smell, weight, and somatics. Although the experience can depend on its performer or user, it asks how do we focus and respond to perceptual inputs from others through machinic interfaces? Do you intentionally decide what to do /follow, or just act intuitively, spontaneously, or automatically (without “thinking”), thus improvising in relation to the channel(s) of communication at play? Where is your selective attention drawn? By communicating with one person through one system (vision/touch) or with two people at the same time through different senses, the experience stimulates the participants’ play with multiple perceptual possibilities (autonomous and interdependent) by facilitating their engagement in physical and mediated interactions. Either using the whole body (performers) or restricted hand-mouse moves (users), there is an ongoing negotiation between the different qualities of information circulating. What are the participants aware of, and what do they do with it? Later in the installation of the project, one of the observers asked these exact questions when he saw professional dancers interact through touch:
Interesting that the movers could not see one another, but could see the representations of themselves. Perhaps with suggestion and practice they could experiment with the relation to one another’s bodies more, with less direct imitation of the visual representations they see in their headsets…I wonder what their sensation of touch is, personally, with no sight on each other but on virtual representations, and with spandex fabric? Do they think of that? Where is the dancer’s attention? (Crispin , 2002)[iv]
Among Blind Date’s propositions, as an open-ended interactive system, is exactly that the distortion and expansion of different modes of interaction with self, one another, and things/machines can contribute to raise awareness about, and to perceive and know ourselves through the way we respond/relate to the system and each other. The question is not as much what the performers do, or if they follow more or less, than what is the user conception of the performer and the work, and how can the performer challenge these? Or, how can the performer be challenged by the user? Although the user is only pushing-buttons and the performer moving, they can shift roles, and thus the interface proposes alternative ways to communicate through movement/touch. We wanted to test in a public situation what the politics involved in doing that might be, by interpolating people’s conceptions and assumptions about interfacing.[v] What determines the way you experience the work?
Can these modes of communication based on intermodality keep awareness of power relations but relativize them by introducing an impulse from body’s physical interaction? Where the 2 performer-user 'couples' interact with one another through the avatar via glasstron glasses-pc and share the same screen image, the performers’ ‘couple’ have the possibility of establishing physical contact by themselves while maintaining virtual/visual contact with their users. Furthermore, contact can also be initiated and choreographed by the users, by directing the performers’ movement in relation to one another. Thus body movement either of self or with others will involve single or multiple senses in different degrees and qualities that affect the whole body/subject and his/her perception.
Vision of the physical space and of the other performer is erased and replaced by the VR glasstron glasses’ avatar image. Starting with two parallel systems, the two 'solo' performers follow their users’ choreographic instruction at will, as these proceed they watch the performers responses on a video monitor. Sooner or later however, performers and/or users become aware of each others and may depend on their physical body to move, whether wanting or avoiding entering in to physical contact with the other performer. Acting accordingly (or making the performer act) the performers may follow the visual instructions, their own moves, the other performer, compromise between these concurrent options, or even do “nothing” at all.
When physical contact occurs between the performers while they move, their touch can be accompanied by some sort of play with tactility, resistance, weight, balance, and can include a sense of the other person’s smell, breathing, density, and energy, which is all happening ‘in (because of) the dark.’ Because the performers do not see each other they cannot predict which way the other moves. Some sense their relative distance and action is provided by the camera based responsive sound system, that has been programmed via Max/MSP tracking and the relative presence / movement between the performers, thus producing a real time electronic sound, which increases or diminishes pitch depending on their relative proximity.
As is clearly suggested by the title Blind Date, this work especially implies the sexual encounter and addresses the gender, sexual and/or cultural taboos surrounding touch. Touch and physical interaction in general is something rare in this type of work. Nonetheless, although mediated, Pleasure Machine’s initial drive was in fact the fulfillment of a futuristic imaginary scenario projecting pleasure through machines into the public arena. As a simulation machine, its replacement of the physical bodily touch with its mediation only through a networked machine, assumed no need for the initial object of pleasure, given its substitution by pleasure in (yet physical) the machine itself. Not only for the extreme out of the physical world real person scenario, that might approach a mediated masturbatory condition, (using a vibrator as a substitution for the real thing) but particularly for the cyberversion of a sado/masochist model of flow that makes machines (and bodies as extension) the new sex slaves for the pleasure of their masters. Even as sarcasm I did not want to go to this Freudian derived psychosis - the tyranny of the symbolic, fear of castration and pleasurable pain.
Instead, I shuffled in a popular TV program that seemed to fit perfectly the new orientation envisioned for the work. Blind Date is actually an American TV show made with ‘real’ people (heterosexuals) who want to date – an American term to meet someone with a sexual interest – with someone they do not know. Now, in contrast with the show, the work uses blindness in a literal way to close off participants’ vision from the physical space and each other. But the date is only suggestive, meaning encounter, as the experience does not restrict itself to sexual encounter, although playing with this allusion. The blindness, on the other hand, brings attention to physical closure, (for its strong association of a visual connection with the ‘real’ even if the performers’ vision is replaced by a virtual image reporting back to their bodies. Furthermore, it might suggest some sort of dark room play, and that certainly reverts to felt bodies, and the touching space as a different kind of vision (Crary, 1990). [vi]
Thus while experimenting with a tech mediated ‘pleasure,’ Blind Date also facilitates direct physical contact with an attempt to grasp how estrangement effects a familiar intercorporeal interaction and pleasure. So, at the same time, the environment simulates society’s imposing of action on bodies/agents (the avatars representing subjects) as it activates their agency through direct (skin-to-skin) contact. Playing with different layers, rather than solely the visual, the work relativizes its initial metaphor of western society’s ‘testing’ participants’ (citizens’) degree of compliance regarding social (interpersonal) aspects, such as the response to rules/tasks, the role given to particular senses in interactive behavior, and noticing dualistic mind/body operations. Therefore, the varying responses and degrees of involvement depend on these and the visitors’ factors, such as age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, profession, etc, i.e. their biological profile and cultural background. Proposing a challenging and engaging way of being in two (or more) ‘places’ at once by interacting with others via different ‘channels’ (physically, virtually/visually, aurally) and experimenting with movement, digital media and gear, Blind Date stresses the urge to overcome the dualist and hierarchical framework of vision/mind versus touch/body (with hearing in between) perpetuated in information technologies. The work’s experiment with estranging our usual ways of communicating, by familiarizes bodies with the increasingly complex mediated interactive technologies, propels an urgent continuity between 'real' and 'virtual' embodiments merging physical and virtual mediated contacts. Through the merge of physical and mediated contact and improvisation along with virtual reality interaction and other tracking and output devices, it matters to ask: Who feels more real to the performer, the real person touched or the virtual avatar seen and followed?
3. Blind Date at the Monaco Dance Forum (MDDF) 2002
A long way from the original interactive performance Pleasure Machine, the Monaco Dance Forum 2002 (MDDF), appeared an ideal site to propose the actualization of our project, with the opportunity to test it. As a work in progress, its presentation proved to be an extremely rich and exciting multifaceted enterprise, not only to Melanitis and myself, but especially for its unexpected public reception. Therefore, I wish to describe my experience as one of the participants, and as a witness of numerous participants’ engagement and the comments and suggestions they kindly expressed. By doing this, I hope to reveal what I think the experience activated in people, and its political implications/extrapolations regarding questions posed. Towards speculations on Blind Date’s future development, I would argue for dancetech’s crucial impact in the design of new interfaces that reactivate or instigate bodies’ intricate multilayered functioning and agency. But before, let me describe the particularly unique international dance festival milieu where the work happened.
3.1. The MDDF Framework
The whole 3rd level pavilion of the fabulous Grimaldi Forum was reserved for the festival’s market place. Here participants from all around the world as well as all kinds of dance forms and tendencies converged. It included a large multimedia section with about 40 projects, each assigned a booth/cell to present their work. Geared to “multimedia dance”[vii] artists/companies, producers and organizations were on land to post, give information, show video documentation and ‘sell’ their work, if not to perform the work itself, unless it consisted of software applications, computer interfaces, including interactive websites.[viii] Out of an ambitious massive call for proposals, the market place is MDDF’s solution to accommodate as many projects as possible and promote network exchanges among artists, producers/curators and the general public, reducing considerable production expenses considering the amount of participants.
Depending on categories assigned by the calls and respective agreements, each participating artist/company was given a second space for an hour to either perform or do a presentation/demonstration. Aiming mainly to further market the work to visiting producers for possible future showing contracts, these presentations were also a practical way for researchers like myself and those curious about emerging interdisciplinarities to get acquainted with the enormous range of artworks developed by choreographers, digital artists and researchers, and to see how they contribute to these amazing dance genre/tendencies.
Apart from this scheduled presentations, some companies had the chance to perform their work or have it permanently installed. These were the most known prestigious invited projects constituted mainly of (interactive) installations, permanently open to the public in assigned rooms or performances in formal theatre spaces.[ix] A complicated attribution of space and time to the different forms of participation revealed a (highly) hierarchized and biased/agenda underlying the festival organizers working with a large number of artists under the invitation and enormous support of Princess Carolina of Monaco. Acclaimed as international, but with no surprise the emphasis was on Europe, with a French and British presence dominating – our Greek and Portuguese ties had an in between feeling of privilege and being disenfranchised for belonging to the poor/tails of this continent – among many other nationalities and cultures in much fewer numbers. Curiously, the American presence, although punctual, was scattered and subtle. Despite this unavoidable politics of presence and of artistic status quo, around which the festival is built and wants to have an impact, it was the first time I saw an event of this kind involving such large support and visibility for so many dancetech productions. It gave me the opportunity to meet an impressive gathering of this evolving ‘community’ within the larger dance community and public. The sense of megalomania and elitism was at the same time attractive and repulsive. And was reflected on one hand by the extreme etiquette of the Dance Awards ceremonies and, on the other, the lack of detailed information about the many presentations/demonstrations occurring throughout the day in too many spaces for the length of the festival.
3.1.2. Installing the Work
If the MDDF seemed to be the perfect environment and event for Blind Date, it was not without huge pitfalls for our particular work. The circumstances encountered were not exactly the ones expected, presenting a considerable challenge to make the work, work at all. Although provided with the (minimum) equipment requested and offered a scheduled demonstration in a fully equipped space, the permanent cell space allocated to the work was quite a surprise. We had planned and agreed with the organizing committee to have our work permanently ‘installed’ throughout the five days of the Festival in a cell attributed to each group, this being the only way it made sense for us to participate in the event. But when we arrived, we understood that each cell was actually only an open corner made of three angled cardboard walls, not the circular enclosed space we envisioned (as shown in the image sent to us).
Faced with this situation, instead of giving up we decided to manage it the best we could. After being told that that was all we would get, we set the work in the cell. To delimitate a restricted area for the experience, we taped the floor in a hexagonal shape that extended out of the cell, large enough (by about 3 square meters) for the two performers to move with the VR glasses and also engage in physical contact without stumbling on the wires connecting the glasses and the computer screens. After talking with the technical crew we learned that we could not suspend the wires on the ceiling as expected for the fragile grid structure. In addition to the computer for the movement of the avatar, we had another laptop with Max/MSP running for the interactive sound system, attached to a camera to track the presence and relative movement of the performers. And we also had a projection of the image interface on one of the cell walls for anyone passing by to see what was going on at the computer/glasses interface while observing the performers’ interaction with it and each other.
At the end we realized the ‘beneficial’ side of the problematic spot given to this work was its forced informality. Situated at the middle of the pavilion among many clusters of cells, Blind Date became an inevitable stop and unexpected experience for passers by, mostly in a fair visit like mode, walking around picking up information and talking with artists. What at first was seen as impeding (an involuntarily misplaced work) gave the work a somehow desired in-between format. Its open informality took people by surprise and made them participate more easily, as they were able to directly perceive others engaging with it, or simply see the work’s inviting gear – the VR glasses and cables laying in the middle of the delimited space. Interestingly, the virtual reality world referent of immersive head-mounted videogames had a particular captivating effect, in the noticeable excitement of young people and adults. Thus, I guess the work would have had a minor or lesser impact if presented in a completely isolated room as expected, in which case people would have watched not the live experience but its mediation through a video projection outside the room shared with the computer users moving the avatars.
3.2. The Multisensorial Experience
I think one of the most interesting and revealing aspects of this work was how much each person responded or engaged with their avatar as well as touching the other person, in order to infer something about their cultural, age, gender or sexual identities. The work shifted into an instigator for freedom regarding the participants’ movement interaction with the apparatus and each other, but continued to present extreme limitations through the avatar’s movement instructions continually being ‘imposed’ by the computer users. From my observations and their comments, the responses ranged from feeling totally strict in terms of following the avatar’s movement, to using it loosely as suggestions to move from as they wished. I was stunned with the predominance of the former, even if the great percentage of participants were dance related subjects.
Actually, this important interface aspect was emphasized by the equipment restriction posed at this specific presentation, as for the most time instead of 2 computers, one for each avatar and user, we had only one (with half of the screen for each), meaning that only one user manipulated the 2 avatars, one at the time.[x] This extra limitation highlighted not only the avatars’ already reduced movement possibilities, but also how much they actually moved, or stayed still. Stillness, in its non-fixidity (André Lepecki, 2000) for all the internal movement and its anticipation caused by the avatar’s interrupted behavior became an important aspect of the experience and bringing people to either to impatience or heightening their awareness.[xi] Another factor was the users’ variable familiarity with the typical computer interface (mouse/cursor moving/clicking) to move each avatar and change between avatars fast enough to create some responsive flow.
Of the numerous participatory situations, it was revealing when a group of local high/middle school students flocked in, circling the space, all wanting to be the next to experiment with the gear. Then, with the goggles and belt on, having chosen the red or the blue avatar, one of them would for a while become like a statue waiting to see his avatar move to follow, finally raising its arm or moving forwards a bit. So, at one point one performer shouted to his user: “Fait bougé le rouge!” (Move the red one!) This strict following happened even after being told they did not have to only follow the avatar, and instead could do whatever they wanted, including contacting the other person in space.
Generally the touch component was secondary or avoided, or when happening ignored because the players did not know what to do with it. Nevertheless, there were people who would follow whatever happened, being very attentive as if in a completely altered dance / trance state (as much as with the avatar). This state was suggested also for the overall slow pace of their engagement. In a different mode of interaction with the avatar, the various reactions to touch were heavily determined/informed by the participants’ age, gender, class, and other cultural and personality factors. This work became a tool to self-confrontation and to an understanding of these specific subjective and collective (taboos) states regarding bodily interaction, particularly concerning touch.
The most common situation happened when people came into touch accidentally when following the avatar’s movement, and depending on the movement, touch continued or not, whether casual, smiling, or neutral. At other times, although rarer, people would continue the touch even if one of the two avatars were brought apart, deliberately following the touch instead of the visuals, or even searching for the other person by disregarding the instructions. In this latter case the responsive sound system offered some help telling about their proximity.
3.2,1. Comments on the Immersive Experience
J’ai bien aimé l’experience. Elle nous force à developé une autre perception de l’espace dans le quelle nos sommes, surtout en relation avec l’autre, je ne voyais pas, parfois, le lien entre le sen, nos movement et l’image dans les lunettes. Et je ne voyais pas bien celle-ci. Experience singuliére (Sylvie Chartrand) Translation: I very much liked the experience. It forces us to develop another perception of the space in which we are, especially in relation with the other. I don't see, some times, the connection between sensing, our movement and the image in the glasses. And I did not see it very well. Singular experience.
Oppression. Close-up to an android. So much far from my friend Magali. Didn’t feel her. Hard noise makes me feel rigid. Cramp. Nothing to think about. Only reception of information. Red direction. Feel the technological ‘feel’. Nothing around, hard to keep the equi… librium. Thank you! (Marie Sohn).
Going through this exercise, I didn’t know if I was human anymore or if I was becoming an automate myself. In between real life and virtual (Nikolas Moward).
In the first instance I missed information/instruction flow, but after a while I discovered space for improvisation and interpretation (Marion).
Trés interessant et meme genial comme concept. Une conception robotic qui rejoint l'improvisation, merci encore, (non legible signature) Translation: Very interesting and even genius as a concept. A robotic conception which rejoins improvisation, thanks again,
La concentration etait surpenante, on est dans l'ecran, coupe du dehors, et quand le trouble de l'image ne m'ocupais plus, je me suis pri au jeu de fair onduler le movement indiqué tres rigide. (Magali Buono)
Translation: the concentration was surprising, we are in the screen, cut from the outside, and when the blurred of the image occupied me no longer, I engaged myself in the game of undulating the movement shown very rigid.
C'est une machine à faire dancer sans musique. C'est un juke-box sans disques, (Middle school kid) Translation: It is a machine to make us dance without music. It is a juke-box without records.[xii]
3.2.2. My Experience
This work succeeded to be a performative immersion into aspects of our multilayered body interactions – movement and touch particularly – accessible to all people without restrictions. This accessibility to different ages, cultures, and professions, did not prevent a more specialized interaction by various professional dancers, the large percentage of audience participants. As incredible as it might appear, I only had one opportunity to experience the work from the performer perspective as I mostly helped other people or manipulated the avatars. When I finally had the chance, the glasses managed to isolate me visually from the physical space, even though not in a dark room. I only tried the second pair, but noticed that people wearing the first Sony pair were actually able, if they wished, to see the floor and their feet if looking down.[xiii] Anyway, with either glasses, the small video screen with its two avatars in the place of the lenses took my whole vision spectrum, and I just saw the avatar. It was as if having “your leader in your face” as one of the participants put it, questioning what the situation meant. I remember how this situation highlighted my body’s proprioceptive awareness and kinesthesia, by perceiving different ways and directing attention to a particular sense, feeling my weight and feet on the floor with the glasses accentuating the movements of my head.
After choosing the blue avatar, I started following it and playing with the movements the user made it do, making variations from its simplicity. For instance, if it moved the right arm up I would start doing the same and then continued moving that arm in other ways (since it didn’t flex the elbow nor wrist, let alone the fingers) to allow propagation to other parts of the body. At this point I connected with the continuous sound. I remember how the blindness, the accentuated kinesthesia and the avatar’s slow movement effectively slowed me down and softened my movement to a sort of tai chi improvisation mode.
Continuing to follow the avatar as it moved in space, I finally came into contact with my partner. The shift of my attention to the touch dialogue that began to happen between us, where was it going, and the quality of this touch was so intense that I realized I had for a while become completely blind to the avatar, and instead was seeing through my skin and the felt weight exchange. If the avatar was there and being moved I completely stopped seeing it, being completely absorbed by the touch going on. Interestingly, I also do not remember hearing the continuous sound at this point. This might have happened for the intensity of the shift from vision to touch, or from my practice of CI, which is optionally done with closed eyes. In fact, the familiarity with this mode of interacting, for my regular practice of this form, made me probably channel into it automatically as my second vision and forget everything else. As in CI, the progression of my attention varied between this exclusive focus and a more dispersed awareness of my surroundings, in this case the avatar and the sound.
This temporary exclusive replacement of one sense by another was a most interesting discovery. It made me realize in a very concrete situation how our perceptions can shift so drastically, and how we can become blind from one sense when intensively narrowing our focus to another. This is also true in the opposing direction, when we try to be aware of multiple things going on, losing the detail of each particular one. It is important to understand, however, that conscious or not, each experience is associated with a combination of perceptions and thinking patterns which make up our memory of it. Even if not aware, these perceptions shape the way we experience, retain, and later on recall memorized events. For instance, how many times does a song remind us of the specific context in which we used to hear it? This explains our limited and selective capacities of attention.
Reverting to a sort of scientific experiment, this practice-based research is a way of theorizing the hybrid movement experience and its impact on the way we function. The politics around it, such as an assumed sensorial hierarchy, are not restricted to the art world but can be extrapolated to social life interactions.
Many suggestions from observers and participants addressed Blind Date’s different aspects, such as the VR glasses, figure, movements, and sound interfaces, in addition to comments about the apparatus and their vision and interest in seeing the work develop. Along with the contact with organizations and the collective discoveries developed in the workshop and the motion capture laboratory, the performance helped to encounter possibilities for new partnerships, such as with Animazoo.[xiv] The interest shown by its directors, Tania Barr and Mauricio Kadaoui, open up possibilities for collaboration towards new interface developments that will again transform Blind Date’s experience. These developments include the substitution of the 2 users-mouse clicking interfaces with 2 gloves for each user, which will manually manipulate 2 amoeba or bubble animations, instead of the WC figure limited movement. In addition to the wireless glasses and visualization of amoeba, the performers will see a real-time motion capture animation of themselves shared with the users and observers using Kaydara’s MOCAP.[xv] This enables the room to be dark for the immersive “blind” interaction, while still capturing the performers’ moves, while they play with an array of virtual characters. MOCAP is a capture system and interactive real-time animation software which will output the animation to the shared screen. The sound system developments are still unknown but we want to make it more responsive to movement and interpersonal play using wearable and embedded sensors. Thus, I want to thank the participants’ visions and insightful contributions, as well as Animazoo’s interest and suggestions of using the glove and RT mocap, without which the work would not have this visionary scope in the future, challenging us for further posthuman interactions.
Isabel Valverde is a choreographer, performer and scholar currently completing her doctoral degree in Dance History and Theory at the U C Riverside, CA, researching dance/performance and technology interfaces. Originally from Portugal, she studied dance in Lisbon (BA, U.T. L.) and in Amsterdam (School for New Dance Development, AHK). As a fulbrighter, Valverde pursued graduate studies in Inter-Arts Theory and Practice in San Francisco (MA, SFSU), emphasis in Multimedia. Her work is bound to the merge of the arts and cultures, the physical and the virtual, through the revolutionary interfacing possibilities of bodies and digital technologies.
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[i] The references in this section are taken from Yiannis Melanitis’ web site: http://www.geocities.com/melanitis2001
[ii] See Melanitis’ web site: http://www.geocities.com/melanitis2001
[iv] Miranda Crispin’s comments at the MDDF02.
[v] Although a distinction is made between ‘user’ and ‘performer,’ this concerns mainly their function in the experience, which as mentioned further can be exchanged, but in any circumstance they are both performing. The brackets refer to a distinction between the participants and professional performers or computer users in general. For some photos of both audience participants and performers visit the Blind Date site by Melanitis: http://www.geocities.com/melanitis2003/blinddate.html
[vi] Reference to Goethe’s optical experiences in the dark room to prove his color theory. Crary, Jonathan Techniques of the Observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. October Books: MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1990, 1999.
[vii] Multimedia was the term used by the organizers to include all approaches in dance using digital technologies.
[viii] Later on we became aware of at least one company which did not present due to space circumstances as well.
[ix] See http://www.mddf.com
[x] Only for the last day did we get two computers, making the avatars movements and consequently the movers flow a bit more for the two users moving a single avatar each.
[xi] For further relation to André Lepecki’s ‘non-fixed stillness’ in contact improvisation, see Remembering the Body edited by Gabriele Brandstetter and Hortensia Völckers ; with STRESS, an image-essay by Bruce Mau ; with texts by André Lepecki ; Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz ; New York, N.Y. c2000
[xii] For all the audience comments please visit: http://www.geocities.com/melanitis2003/monacocomm.html
[xiii] It is important to note that the glasses are distinct in that one pair is the original Sony Glasstron and the second was hand crafted by Melanitis. Some people had problems with the second par of glasses because of its shorter distance from the eyes and others could not even wear them because of their larger/longer head physiognomy.
[xiv] For more info on Animazoo see: http://www.animazoo.com