trans/forms: An analysis of a case study towards formulating appropriate models for the reading of contemporary art practice which fuses live performance with digital technology and use of telematics.
by Sophia Lycouris
In his essay ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’, Douglas Crimp discusses Leo Steinberg’s suggestion that postmodern practices in visual arts have introduced such a radical shift in the nature of the work of visual artists, that it has become impossible to locate these works as continuous with modernist tradition. To use an example, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘flatbed’ pictures "can receive a vast and heterogeneous array of cultural images and artifacts that had not been compatible with the pictorial field of either premodernist or modernist painting". Thus, for Crimp the Foucauldian notion of transformation becomes a useful tool in dealing with the problems of "rupture" and "discontinuity" in the recent history of visual art practices, as he wishes to highlight the radical qualitative differences between modernist and postmodernist strategies.
It would not be appropriate to unquestionably apply such thinking in the reading of contemporary work which combines live performance practices with digital technology and use of telematics, in order to ultimately show that another moment of rupture can be identified between early postmodernist art practices and current hybrid approaches which welcome the use of such technology. The reason is that the model of heterogeneity introduced by Steinberg among numerous other theorists, critics and contemporary artists for the reading of postmodern work is a rather solid one which can easily accommodate the discontinuity between the use of ‘traditional’ materials and various kinds of technology. In fact, what this model has primarily offered is to acknowledge diversity in the ingredients of contemporary work, open up to endless possibilities the options as to what these ingredients could be and, by these means, provide an appropriate conceptual framework for the hybrid character of such work.
At the same time, the postmodern "loss of faith in our ability to represent reality" has seriously challenged the modernist assumption that models can be made which are universally valid. The disbelief in absolute truths, which has highlighted the ideological and, consequently, political character of any materially-based or theoretical claim has rendered generalisations useless and has drawn attention to the specific and the particular. By suggesting that the notion of knowledge as fixed and universal is a modernist myth, Jean-Francois Lyotard has emphasised "the impossibility of making a general idea identical to a specific real instance".
Therefore, although it is not possible to talk about a new rupture between early postmodernist work and current hybrid manifestations in the arts which incorporate the use of technology, the rather simple idea that models of reading work should be applied with careful consideration of the contextual parameters within which these works are manifested, becomes instrumental in interpreting and evaluating live movement-based work which incorporates various uses of technology. More specifically, this idea suggests that, when models of reading work are used beyond the level of simply initiating those discussions which are ultimately expected to identify unique aspects of individual pieces of work, they can become highly problematic.
In this paper, I propose that the notion of context can and should be taken in a wide sense so that appropriate methods for reading and assessing current hybrid work which fuses live performance practices with the use of digital technology and telematics can be formulated. I approach this area by discussing, firstly, the conceptual framework within which such undertakings become possible and, secondly, the piece Trans/forms as an example of work which engages, at the level of practice, with aesthetic and compositional problems arising within such hybrid devising and performative processes.
2. CONNECTIONS BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS
Amongst other heated debates, the increasingly frequent use of various kinds of technology in movement-based work has unavoidably highlighted the problem of whether and when technology becomes an integral part of the artwork (and also how can this be ‘measured’ or evaluated) in the sense of being fully justified by what it can contribute to the compositional/choreographic concerns, questions or ideas explored by this artwork.
I suggest that the way to approach this problem is to look closely at the context of each work in discussion, giving special attention to the intentions of the artists who have created these works, in order to be clearly aware of what was that they were trying to achieve. This is an interpretative problem which brings the discussion back to the differences between a number of philosophical positions about how artworks should be read. It really refers to the differences between author-oriented, reader-oriented or text-oriented interpretative approaches which have been all thoroughly discussed, supported and criticised at various points in time throughout the 20th century.
However, by emphasising the importance of looking at the artists’ intentions, I do not wish to imply that the use of ‘pure’ author-oriented approach should be necessarily the most appropriate in considering the compositional contribution of ‘technology’ in current hybrid works. Quite often, such information can be crucial in assisting the ‘reader’ (in this case, the viewer, or audience) to adopt a perspective which is relevant to the work in discussion. As David Hughes explains, Umberto Eco, in his discussion of the ‘open work and the concept of ‘unlimited semiosis’ has clarified that interpretations cannot be infinite: "what in fact is made available is a range of rigidly preestablished and ordained interpretative solutions, and these never allow the reader to move outside the strict control of the author."
Here is an example. In summer 1998, the ‘dance-tech’ discussion list (hosted by Dance Technology Zone) became the site of a passionate debate about the role of technology in The Millenarium, a piece created by British choreographer Wayne McGregor. The piece had been advertised as a ‘digital performance’, which created false expectations about the way the element of ‘technology’ was approached within the work. The choreographer explains:
"In The Millenarium I wasn’t using the technology like a shopping list, saying: "OK, the technology does this and I want to make a piece using that". I was attempting to work with a more digital aesthetic, to recreate an environment, an ecology of space, which worked with the idea of a degenerating or electronic image, but with a physical reality in a live space. I was interested in how I could work with a physical vocabulary which, in some way, jumped from a very naturalistic movement vocabulary to almost computer-generated, cyborg-like movements ... By digital I mean movement that seems to blip through the body, is almost sampled, very rapid fire."
Here, McGregor seems to imply that he used technology as a stimulus for generating movement material rather than as a distinct element physically present in the choreographic topos of the piece. This is probably why James Frankham’s reading of The Millenarium was about "a piece [which is] about technology/cyberspace rather than a digital performance per se." Interestingly, Richard Povall insists: "Even if you make a point of using your chosen technology only in such a way that it amplifies the content/aesthetic concerns of a given piece, you can never get away from the fact that the technology is still intrinsic to the work" and Scott deLahunta explains:
"There is nothing inherently wrong with dance which does NOT attempt to challenge its limits or borders through a manifest relationship with new media/technology. On the other hand, some would say that these borders no longer exist, that we are bodies whose surfaces are inherently permeable and that there is little to distinguish between when we are an electronic or physical subject. It all depends upon how you want to appear..."
Revisiting Eco’s concepts of ‘unlimited semiosis’ and the ‘open text’, I propose a composite model which brings together the author-oriented approach with the reader-oriented one, a model which acknowledges the author’s intentions through the willingness of the reader to accept that the author’s engagement with any type of material (in this case, it is ‘technology’) has to be understood rather broadly. Therefore, Richard Povall’s observation that if one is dealing with technology, then "technology is still there" no matter how the artist is using it just to "amplify the content/aesthetic concerns" has to be understood quite broadly as well. It remains to say that, in terms of assessing, evaluating the success of the piece (the ‘text’), it becomes quite important to decide whether it is a powerful text or not, whether it is effective with the viewer in passing the message across (whatever abstract, formal or literal this message might be). A text-oriented approach seems to gain emphasis in this instance, yet this perspective does not undermine the relevance of context, which means that the work can only be powerful and effective when materials, tools and creative methods have been used with full awareness of where they come from and what they have to offer in this, very specific, materialisation of the aesthetic, compositional and choreographic concerns of the choreographer/author.
Under the light of the above assumptions, the remainder of this paper discusses the special conditions within which the piece trans/forms acquires its meaning and how (and why) the use of technology becomes a unique contribution towards this end.
trans/forms includes a live improvised event performed by musician Viv Dogan Corringham and dancer Sophia Lycouris. Multimedia artist Nate Pagel interacts with the two performers using video projection and sound which is a mixture of pre-recorded and digitally manipulated material of similar improvisations with live recordings from the event itself in combination to on-line contributions from remote participants. The projection operates as lighting for the event and the sound becomes an active component of its soundscape in constant dialogue with the live sonic contributions of the two performers.
In trans/forms, the live improvisations recycle sound and movement material from Stories in D, a pre-existing improvisational live performance piece, which is processed at a number of different levels and through a variety of both technology-based methods and live performance practices. Trans/forms becomes a reconstruction of Stories in D via the body memory of the two performers who re-visit movement and sound fragments originally devised for Stories in D. Yet, this now happens within a new performance environment, structured and constructed through projections and recordings of these fragments, reshaped to their final form through a number of digital and analogue manipulations.
In trans/forms, the two improvising performers operate in a interactive space where video images of their own movements and recordings of their own sounds become improvising partners directed by the work of the multimedia artist. At the same time, as remote sounds and images gradually reach the terminal situated in the performance space and become part of the piece, their role is to disrupt the otherwise introspective journey of the piece. As the performance progresses through time, the piece is constantly fed by recorded versions of itself, internally accumulating fragments of its own fragments as it follows a close circuit pathway in a self-reflexive landscape. Yet, at the same time, the remote contributions create regular fields of interference and tension which destabilise the consistency of this inward spiral. The improvisational framework of the work fully justifies the compositional role of such juxtapositions which are the product of the specific ways in which technology operates in the piece and ultimately engender a double-coded meaning.
I have argued elsewhere that improvisation in live performance is a compositional event defined by clear decisions which take place in the ‘present moment’, become part of the performance process and are, for this reason, irrevocable. There are a number of parameters which inform the decision-making process, amongst which one of the most crucial is the performers’ assumptions and experiences in relation to models of composition. Philosopher Gilbert Ryle suggests that "the vast majority of things that happen in the universe are in high or low degree unprecedented, unpredictable, and never to be repeated" and ‘thinking’ itself, which is "the engaging of partly trained wits in a partly fresh situation", involves the practice of improvisation. Whereas in traditional live performance contexts, the process takes place through the application of the assumed models of composition which follows Ryle’s rule within the limits of rather familiar grounds, in hybrid improvised work which incorporates the use of technology, the heterogeneity of the participating elements intensifies the role of the unknown. And as Johannes Birringer points out, there is always a danger that "the performance [becomes] more dependent on the function of the ‘Synergy’ event than on the content and sincerity of the ideas explored and thought through".
From a position fully aware of the above problems, trans/forms explores this hybrid improvisational space and aims at formulating an appropriate aesthetic language which will allow for relevant and well informed decisions during the performance event and which will activate the full interactive potential of such environment. Although the piece has been conceived in such a way that the three artists (two performers and multimedia artist) have complete control of the process, the remote participants have the opportunity to provide means which could seriously disrupt the intimate atmosphere of the piece. The original improvisational material which was devised for Stories in D was based on sound and movement manipulations of fragments from everyday conversations. In Stories in D, the aim was to use movement and sound elements in order to magnify the intimate character of ‘everyday life’ moments as these appear in casual dialogues which are often ways of ‘thinking loud’ in front a witness. There was an effort to ‘dress’ these moments with distinct Mediterranean and South European textures, which would emphasize the play/contrast between interior spaces and outdoor locations and make the images and sensations stronger and clearer. This was primarily achieved through the use of an improvisational lighting ‘score’.
In trans/forms, the movement and sound material are both re-visited, yet the lighting ‘score’ has been replaced by the use of projection which is a radically different lighting source. Lacking the ‘traditional’ lighting support, the location of the piece has been decontextualised. The improvisations have been suspended, trapped in some sort of undefinable time and space. In such an almost ‘clinical’ environment, they have become manifestations of ‘pure’ movement and sound forms. Yet, through the use of technology, parts of them have been magnified, emphasised, highlighted, but also modified. Projections and recordings bring the viewers closer to these imaginative intimate spheres revealing to them some of their most unusual, distorted or ambiguous aspects. As the piece unfolds through time, it travels deeper and deeper within itself and makes its own fragments ever more available to the audience.
At the same time, because of the webcasting, the event has been opened up to the ‘world’. The performance is virtually accessible to anyone globally who has a terminal and the appropriate connections, a large international audience who receives ‘close up’ versions of these intimate events, while having, through the option of remote participation, the opportunity to contribute elements to the process, which could irrevocably alter the flow of the event. Notions of the private and the public become elements of each other in the paradox of a double-coded event.
As Linda Hutcheon has suggested, "the visible paradoxes of the postmodern do not mask any hidden unity which analysis can reveal. Its irreconcilable incompatibilities are the very bases upon which the problematized discourses of postmodernism emerge". Postmodern art, in its hybridity and self-reflexiveness becomes a site of interrogation constantly proposing new questions about familiar assumptions which dominate our everyday life. Yet, however fragmented, contradictory or paradoxical, postmodern art only becomes an articulate manifestation of postmodern society when it has been responsive to the contexts which stimulate its production and is fully aware of what it can offer to these contexts. In other words, it has to be well informed about the potential and limits of its methods, tools and meanings.
For it to be powerful, engage the audience and stimulate questions, postmodern art has to acknowledge the multidimensionality of postmodern society and devise modes of interaction with the plethora of heterogeneous codes and vocabularies which constitute this world. I am therefore, suggesting that, in a world so dependent upon technology, which experiences a mixture of good and bad relationships with this technology, an informed fusion of live performance practices with technology-based strategies could reveal something unique about the non-linear understanding of space in the postmodern world. An understanding which resists causality and hierarchical thinking and allows for the tense and discontinuous relationship between the private and the public to be experienced and manifested in an infinite number of combinations.
 In Foster, H (ed) Postmodern Culture, London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1983, pp43-56 [Back to text]
 ibid, p44 [Back to text]
 Bertens, H. The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, London and New York: Routledge, 1995, p11 [Back to text]
 Lyotard, J-F The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Bennington, G. and Massumi, B. (vol 10 of Theory and History of Literature series), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984 (original in French, 1979) [Back to text]
 Lechte, J. Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity, London and New York: Routledge, 1994 [Back to text]
 see Rice, P. & Waugh , P. Modern Literary Theory, London: Edward Arnold, 1992, 2nd ed [Back to text]
 Eco, U. The Open Work, (trans. Anna Cancogni), Cambridge: Harvard University Presss, 1989, p63 in Hughes, D., Lecture Notes, Nottingham Trent University, October 1998 [Back to text]
 http://art.net/~dtz/ [Back to text]
 ibid, archive 1998, Sophie Hansen, subject: pantha, Tues, 08 Sep 1998 02:02:08-0700 [Back to text]
 ibid, archive 1998, James Frankham, subject: pantha, Sat, 22 Aug 1998 11:06:08+010 [Back to text]
 ibid, archive 1998, Richard Povall, subject: promoting technology, Mon, 24 Aug 1998 12:43:05-0400 [Back to text]
 ibid, archive 1998, Scott deLahunta, subject: promoting technology, Tues, 25 Aug 1998 11:29:52+0200 [Back to text]
 Lycouris, S. 'Destabilising dancing: tensions between the theory and practice of improvisational performance', unpublished PhD thesis, Guildford, University of Surrey, 1996 [Back to text]
 Ryle, G. On thinking, Oxford: Blackwell, 1979, p125 [Back to text]
 ibid, p129 [Back to text]
 http://art.net/~dtz/, archive 1997, Johannes Birringer, subject: checking in, Sun, 02 Mar 1997 17:01:55-0600 [Back to text]
 Hutcheon, L. A poetics of postmodernism, New York and London: Routledge, 1988, p21 [Back to text]
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