[-empyre-] Body Language

Nathaniel Stern nathaniel.stern at gmail.com
Fri Jan 17 00:25:24 EST 2014

Thank you, Alan, for some wonderful provocations last week, and great questions and the sharing of your work this week. I agree that thug the technology has come very far, the affect/effect of the best work has changed little, and yours is a good example of impact in this regard.

I suppose one place to offer some discussion would be my most recently completely suite of interactive art (though I worked on it for 13 years, on and off), Body Language.

Below is the short statement from the whole suite on my site, with occasional interjections based on our conversations...

Body Language (2000 – 2013) is a suite of four interactive works that has us encounter some of the complex relationships between materiality and text. Each piece stages the experience and practice of bodies and language in a different way, enabling in-depth explorations of how they are always implicated across one another. "elicit" invites viewers to perform the continuity between text and the body; "enter" effectively asks its participants to investigate how words and activity are inherently entwined; "stuttering" provokes its performers into exploring the labor and intimacy of embodied listening and communication; and scripted asks us to remember how the activities of writing, the shape and sound of language, are forever a part of the physical world.

For elicit, a poem in the computer’s memory is birthed, character by character, from every small or sweeping gesture participants make in front of a projection screen. It elicits fluidly animated text as continuously shifting animations, varying characters and colors that float out from and around our movements, which in turn elicit fluid performances from us.

- this is the simplest of the works, and most loved by dancers, who tend to understand movement and continuity, and have practice in conversation with external elements

With enter, performers use their bodies to grab animated words that constantly run away from them on a large projection screen. Touch any one, and it stops, turns red, and recites spoken word in the space. The piece is inspired by JL Austin’s explanation of performative utterances, where statements such ‘I do’ (at a wedding), ‘I declare’ (as in war) or ‘I knight thee,’ make a change in the real world. Here participants literally use their bodies to chase after words, turn on a phrase, or reach (for) the end of a sentence. Their rapid and jerky styles amplify how saying and doing, affection and reflection, are often one and the same.

- a much more frenetic piece, where people dance erratically to engage

stuttering provokes its viewers into exploring the labor and intimacy of embodied communication, compelling them to stutter with their bodies. Here an invisible and asymmetrical projection grid is saturated with trigger points, each activating animated text and spoken word as our bodies cross its path. The saturation of these ‘virtual buttons’ creates an inverse relationship: move quickly, and the piece will itself stutter in a barrage of audiovisual verbiage; move carefully, even cautiously – stutter with your body – and both meaning and bodies emerge.

- I believe this work to be the most successful of the four. it is extremely intense in what if frames; every movement triggers so much, that participants always and inevitably slow, and move with more care, understanding impact in a very real way

And scripted uses 3D-tracking data to follow participants’ moving heads – forward and backward, right and left, in exaggerated and fully embodied gestures – and draws slowly fading, charcoal-like lines of these actions on screen. If and when any of the shapes we create resemble a character from the English alphabet (using the Palm Pilot “graffiti“ gestures), that letter will be temporarily overlaid in the projection in the standard Times font, accompanied by a John Cage-like oral recitation (“Aaaaah,” “Buh,” “Kkkkk,” and so on). Some letters are much more difficult to scribe than others, and many of the more complex characters contain echoes of simpler ones, in how we must move – making writing both difficult, and sometimes accidental. The piece is less about accomplishing specific gestures, and more about encountering and rehearsing textual moving-thinking-feeling at large.

- the most recent in the series, scripted requires the most attentiveness to feedback between sign and image, movement and meaning. basically, imagine the ceiling is a piece of paper, your head a pencil, and try to draw characters out from your body. it's what my 7 year old daughter calls "awkweird" in the most wonderful of ways, unpatterning habits and simultaneously gifting us with potential meanings within our different movements. it's probably my favorite in what and how we write with it.

Body Language, as a collection of works, invites us to explore the reaches and limits of bodies and language, together, in order to better understand how they are formed,together. It poses a challenge to how bodies are mediated and re-mediated in contemporary culture by putting embodiment and signification on the same plane of existence. And finally, it implicitly asks what is at stake in how we perform our bodies and our media. It is so easy to forget the body – as continuously embodied – in our theorizations of ‘the body.’ Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that all language and writing require, first and foremost, bodies to produce them. And bodies, in turn, “take place neither in discourse nor matter” alone (Corpus, p 18).  Each of the four electronic installations in the Body Language exhibition uses the moving-thinking-feeling body as an interface with language and technology. They give us a number of different ways to investigate and perform precisely what bodies, as “an expression of meaning” (Sorial, p 224), can be.

- on thing not mentioned here is when all four are installed together over lengths of time (such as at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg this past June - August), gallery-goers consistently "teach" each other how to move, what to think-feel, and what that encounter frames. I loved watching the many visitors not only think-with movement, but then articulate how and what it did, and invite and show others, physically, the same. I'm reminded someone what of Jose Gil "paradoxical body" for two reasons: 1. he writes how the body is always more than what we know and are. Like we're in a bath, and a spider sits on the surface, and we feel the whole of the water, everywhere; 2) he explains how dancers simultaneously move between inside and outside, understanding movement through how it feels and how it looks (a ballet dancer in a mirror), to define both affect and meaning. Improvisation and dramaturgy bring new meanings and possibilities to the fore, and I like to think work like this, especially in series, to show and feel subtle differences, can accomplish the same for sensible concepts viewers engage with, through movement.



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