[-empyre-] abstract gestures / digital virtuality

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Fri May 8 07:50:56 EST 2009

Hi -

I've been following this discussion and thought the best way I might 
participate is to describe the work that I've done with Foofwa d'Imobilite 
and others over the past decade or so. We went from using video and audio 
tracks accompanying choreography, to work in Blender and Poser. The Poser 
work was created from bvh (Bio-Vision Hierarchy) files produced with 
motion capture (mocap) equipment that used 21 sensors electromagnetically 
interacting with an antenna. The antenna fed sensor signals into a hard- 
wired 486 microprocessor that output coordinates; these were fed into a 
second computer that created the bvh files themselves. we modified the 
sensors in a number of ways - some through the software interface, and 
some with limb assignment and position. We did a piece called heap for 
example - the sensors were dropped in a heap and the bvh file fed into 
Poser. We did a star piece, arranging the sensors in a star formation on 
the floor and inverting it by exchanging +r from a sensor position to -r. 
We also reassigned sensors in several ways - dividing them between two 
bodies, remapping inversely onto a single body, and so forth. All of this 
produced bvh/Poser mannequins that were used as projections in live per- 
formance, or chroma-keyed over dance/performance video.

All of this work was at West Virginia University's Virtual Environments 
Lab, headed by Frances van Scoy. I received an NSF consultancy through 
Sandy Baldwin and NYSCA grant; through the former, I had a grad assistant 
from software engineering, Gary Manes, to assist me. We went into the 
mocap software itself and Gary rewrote it, creating a dynamic/behavioral 
filter interface, which would produce transforms from the sensor output - 
before the 3-d assignment to bvh was made. This was modeled on graphic 
software filtering, but the assignments were different - we applied a 
function f(x) to the coordinates and/or modified the coordinate mechanism 
or input streams themselves. The bvh files that were produced were sent 
into Poser for editing; in some cases, Poser mannequin video was output. 
But more and more, we edited in Poser to format the bvh for upload to 
Second Life; this way we had live 3-d performance based on the transforms. 
This performance could interact within Second Life itself - with other 
online performers and audience - or through projection, without Second 
Life, in real-space where performers might interact with the avatars.

The bvh files are complex and avatars perform, most often at high-speed, 
with sudden jumps and motions that involve them intersecting with them- 
selves. The motions appeared convulsive and sometimes sexualized. Foofwa 
d'Imobilite used projects direct from Poser - about 100 files - as part of 
Incidences, a piece produced in Geneva and widely shown. Foofwa, along 
with Maud Liardon and my partner, Azure Carter, also imitated avatar move- 
ment - and this fed back, from dance/performance into programming and pro- 
cessing; at times it has been impossible to tell whether a particular 
motion stream originated on- or off-line.

I've always been interested in the psychoanalytics of dance/performance, 
beginning with Acconci's and Anderson's early work years ago. With Sl/ 
live performance, we've been able to explore these things - particularly 
issues of abjection and discomfort, sexuality/body/language - directly. 
Two other modes of representation have been of great use - modified 3-d 
scanner modeling programs (also from the WVU VEL), and Blender assign- 
ment, for example, of metaballs to nodes; using both of these, we've been 
able to create avatars that have no relation to the body whatsoever, but 
whose movement is impelled by mocap files. These appear almost like dream 
objects undergoing continuous transform.

In SL, everything is pure, digital, protocol, numeric; by 'smearing' the 
animation input, avatar appearance, and location, we create in-world and 
out-world experiences that stray from body and tend towards choratic and 
pre-linguistic drives. We've performed a lot at various limits of SL - on 
sim edges for example, or at 4k 'up', where the physics changes. The 
output is the usual - audience in-world or out-world, as well as video and 
stills. I've had great help in SL programming, and Sugar Seville gave me a 
very large gallery/museum space to experiment with these things - this was 
from June 08 until March 09. I created complex performance spaces that 
were literally impossible to navigate; for both audience and performer, 
everything was negotiation. The results of this work can be best seen in 
my files at http://www.alansondheim.org/ or at http://odysseyart.ning.com 
or through Foofwa's site http://www.foofwa.com .

Foofwa, Maud, Azure, and myself all traveled to the Alps where avatar work 
was re-enacted live; the performances were on the edge of the Aletsch 
glacier. (This was sponsored by a Swiss grant.) What was interesting most 
to me here was the development and performance of a field - Foofwa dancing 
with a VLF (very low frequency) radio antenna, for example - his body 
coupled and modified the electromagnetic capacitance surrounding the wire. 
We had done this indoors with Foofwa and Azure; outdoors, against the 
glacier, spherics formed a deep part of the content. This also paralleled 
work we did with the mocap sensors at WVU - using high-strength magnetics, 
we modified the local fieldlines, almost as if we were modeling general 
relativity's 4-space gravity/mass interaction - the results were similar. 
I'm fascinated by these 'cosmologies in the small'; at the same time, want 
to avoid any easy and false metaphoric equivalence with scientific theory. 
As for the theory of the work we're doing, at least from a phenomenologi- 
cal viewpoint, I've put up http://www.alansondheim.org/sltheory.txt which 
has also been published as a book.

At the moment I'm working with sim overload and self-reflexivity: on a 
simple and neat level, what if a performing avatar connects to an object 
('prim' complex) designed to move away from hir? The result is a total 
[avatar/complex] that flees indefinitely - at least until the complex goes 
out of world.

Hope this is of interest here and sorry for going on so long. - Alan

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