[-empyre-] abstract gestures / digital virtuality

Sally Jane Norman s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk
Fri May 8 18:34:03 EST 2009

Hi Alan, all

Thanks for these exciting exchanges. Alan, your 'cosmologies in the small' is a wonderfully evocative concept, and connecting a performing avatar to an object designed to move away from the avatar for me chimes with some deeply archaic images – e.g. the puppet trying to escape its master in Henk Boerwinkel’s unforgettable piece where the sulky puppet in its booth pulls so hard on the strings manipulated by the visible puppeteer that it brings down the wooden “cross” to which the strings are affixed – then miraculously gathers itself together and picks up the cross to use as a crutch to limp triumphantly off the booth stage… -  exhilarating and spine-chilling. Please don’t see this comparison as a thoughtless long shot from the algorithmic virtuosities of digitally programmed attachments. I think it generates a gnawing poetic image for the same reason: it artfully tapping into the metaphysics of connections, proxemics, interactions. A blasphemously demiurgic “black art” no doubt – in Tadeusz Kantor’s/ Bruno Schulz’s terms – essential to my broad definition of theatre, which involves the creation of live, viscerally perceptible fields of relations AS AN ARTEFACT. In other words, as a living, aesthetically invested construct where (Artaud’s) hybrid materials, energies and scales of being get chucked into a single unholy crucible to generate something previously unthinkable.

I’ve been working with motion capture and other ways of exploring gesture and movement in technologically extended performance since organising a workshop at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mezieres in 1994 (ouch!), in collaborative situations with artists who’ve been immensely important to/ for me, and am always struck by the ways experiments imbued with/ triggers of the yearning Alan's avatar-performer connection embodies, seem at the same time to form part of this ancient theatrical realm of unholy alliances. This might be where plays on scale, “cosmologies in the small” (or big) come into the picture. When you can parachute gods into the action – in ancient Greece, India etc, or bring inert matter alive as in puppetry (and intermediate arts of masks, effigies, automata, Lunar and Martian Rovers, etc), or ascribe autonomous, evolving behaviours to digital entities, this brings about a potently in vivo remapping and inspirational stretching of our usual frames of reference. It’s a process of estrangement (ostranenie) in Victor Shklovsky’s terms – and underpins the Russian avant-garde’s concept of sdvig – displacement, shift, dislocation – brought about by subverting rules, scales, foreseeable logics. Forgive me for paying idle lip service to such massive concepts – I loathe name dropping but feel that these movements, like historical areas to which Stamatia is referring, grasped – or tried to – many of the paradoxes we’re focussed on, and that diachronic thinking can crucially inform turn-of-21st century hidebound readings of technology.  

Where we’re dealing with live motion, it involves generating and working in a kind of synaptic space, i.e. the space occupied by creative performance energies which uniquely legitimates otherwise inacceptable degrees of hybridisation of diverse materials, forces. Erin’s account of the switch to slow moving tag taps into this somehow – when the spontaneously frenetic agility of young kids modulates itself to accommodate another quality of movement in street savvy teenagers, there’s use of this gap as a space for relational opportunities, a place for devising a new creative, shareable experience.  I’m not sure how techno-futurist or baroque it is, Stamatia, though appreciate your eloquence on this perspective – for me this “strain-feeling” that you’re so aptly quoting from Whitehead is simply a quality/ goal of live art.

may this go on for loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong

kia ora


From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Alan Sondheim [sondheim at panix.com]
Sent: 07 May 2009 22:50
To: empyre at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: [-empyre-]  abstract gestures / digital virtuality

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
empyre forum
empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

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