[-empyre-] abstract gestures / digital virtuality

stamatia portanova stamatiaportanova at yahoo.it
Thu May 7 01:13:22 EST 2009

Hello everyone

I would like to share some thoughts about a concept that I developed in an article I've recently written, about theatre. The concept is 'the sobriety of the gesture', and although it was originally intended for the theatrical gesture, I think it still works in the field of dance and, more generally, of movement performance. I agree with ashley about the impossibility of stillness, and I'd like to put in parallel, but also differentiate, these two things: stillness and the sobriety in movement.

The question I was asked to respond in my article, was that of theatrical gesture in its amplifications: do we have to amplify, to blow up  movement, to make it more grandiose in a sense, on the contemporary stage?This question brought me to think about amplification, a concept that I quite liked, although not in the same sense it was being used. In a certain sense, I do think that dance, theatre and all performance art, amplify gestures, not in the sense of an enlargement and an ostensive display, but in the sense of a close vision, so close and microscopic to lose the sense of all clear visibility and neatness of detail: movement, as Erin was saying, is something that will never be comprehended in its entirety, so imperceptible and diffuse is its resonance (the resonance o the micro-movements Ashley refers to). The movements on stage do not therefore need generous dramatic interpretations, because that would not lead us to better understand, perceive
 or comprehend what movement is or does, but only diminution and sobriety, a sobriety in its turn not intended in its 'quantification' (less movement), but in the sense of underlining the minimal character of all gesture as a ‘minor gesture’ (to borrow here from Deleuze), or to highlight its abstract form. Abstract forms come into being on a surface of expression (for example a canvas, but also the stage as a rhythming space) through a process of ‘abstraction’, a sober removal, a disappearance of excessive representational features and phenomenological feelings, so that there is less and less of these and more and more of the reality of the form, the figure, in its genesis. We could say that performance art (and, in general, all art) implies the same abstraction as that of Zen archery and martial arts: the de-stratification, de-squamation, or elimination of everything that is of an accessory nature, even feelings and emotions, with the result of
 concentrating energy on the spatial plane, an energy linking the body to particular points in space, so that the point belongs to the body and vice versa, in a relation of mutual in-formation. The emergence of the abstract form of a gesture implies thus a double loss: first, a continuous desquamation (de-coding) of expression, and its becoming-flesh. For example, less representation and more sensation. Second, a loss of phenomenological re-appropriation of sensations and a bodily abstraction. This concept I would like to link to Erin's idea of the moving body's technicity. In a sense, I would say, the thought of movement and its abstraction can also begin from choreography, if we mean by choreography (as Forsythe does, and as Cunningham also does) the setting of parameters that make the body's techniques 'tend' towards outcomes that will in the end always be new and surprising, rather than the mere description of a body already positioned in space-time.
 Choreography can underline the abstractness and unpredictability of movement,rather than just erase it. And, paradoxically enough, ‘gestural abstraction’ seems to be the keyword for a reappraisal of the stage from its incumbent hyper-codification, in the era of digitalization. Highlighting the kinetic microvariations of movement, the technical apparatus of Motion Capture transforms them into binary digits and into pre-determined sets of combinatorial possibilities. In this sense, I like to think of this technological capture together with Deleuze's concept of the 'instant-whatever' (a concept he uses in his analysis of the cinematic frame). By multiplying the 'instants whatever' and by opening them to infinite calculations and re-combinations, the microscopic cutting of digitalization allows an even more detailed presentation (or micro-photography) and abstraction of a fluid line of movement in itself, and this subtle capture of a multiplied number
 of instants whatever can be seen for example in the continuous trembling and ‘jittering’ effect due to the capture of microscopic details of a single movement by hyper-sensitive MoCap apparatuses. In this way, the imperfect representation of movement (the mishap) reveals the potential of the machine, giving us a sense of the illusory character of the linearity of movement, and of its composition by myriads of other tiny movements happening at the same time: rhythm, as a continuous overflowing from a unique route by parallel lines of movement, is at least, if not totally captured and shown, given a chance to be intuitively perceived. 

The dancing body’s relation with the technical machine starts to reveal, to offer a glimpse, of the continuous difference hidden behind sameness and repetition, of the proliferating multiplicity of non-actualized potentials hidden behind a single gesture. This potential of revelation of some kinetic details, as well as the potential to keep other aspects hidden and unperceived or, in other words, the extraction of clear perception from a noisy and chaotic background and the re-configuration of microscopic and macroscopic perceptions, constitutes the ‘creative’ aspect of our relation to the technical machine, as a transduction from one level of reality to another. In this way, Motion Capture technology gives a sense of there being something ‘more’ in movement, a perception of movement through micro-perceptions and micro-calculations, a rhythmicity even exceeding the physiology and anatomy of a moving body and always escaping what we are able to
 see of it on a stage or screen (the failure of perception), feeding back on the affect of motion and dance. 

But I would also like to link the concept of the 'abstract gesture', to the 'virtuality' of the digital 'outside' our interaction with it. It is true, technology as a practical hardware/software application does not have access to the virtual. BUt I like to think of the digital not only as technical application, because if I do, I would also have to consider the human body in terms of its limited anatomical, perceptual and physiological mechanisms. Putting abstraction back into the body, and its movements, for me means considering the openness and virtuality of thought as implicit in the body's physical sensations: it is not the mere physiological capacity to have sensations that responds to the virtual, but the coinciding of sensation with thought. In the sane way, I think of the algorithmic calculations of the computer as limited in their technical working, but as 'entering' the field of the virtual in the moment of the processing itself, the
 calculations themselves. The two 'virtualities', human and digital, seem to be detached, non-communicating, because they refer to two different 'extremes' of the virtual: infinite relational potential in terms of the human, infinite divisibility in terms of the digital. My question is therefore not about the lack of virtuality of the digital, but about how to make a connection between the two. In a sense, humans do not have much more access to the virtual, in terms of their actualized responses, than technologies, since our sensations also indicate an already actualized reality. There are possibilities for the virtual to resonate in the process of performance practice, and in this sense I am curious to see if the digital can pragmatically enter this process. Technologically speaking, dancing what has already actualized is flattening, and I think that this happens precisely because we still give to digital technology the function of imitating something
 that it is not (the continuous fluidity of human movement) or to translate one analog continuity into another, as a mere intermediary. I think it is interesting, as Ashley's practice suggests, to take the virtual cut for what it is, even giving it its connotations of mishap, if that mishap can take us towards a 'creative outcome'.

My final question, therefore, is: can the limitations of actual displacement (such as often happen with Motion captured performances or choreographic software) work as productive constraints?

Thanks everyone for the exciting discussion!


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