Research Lab on Body, Motion and Technology
Organised and hosted by festival “e-phos 2001”
23-31 May 2001, Athens, Greece
By Scott deLahunta (UK/ NL)
The TRANSDANCE research laboratory was conceived and organised by Yiannis Skourogiannis of ALAS as a part of “e-phos 2001”, the 3rd International Festival of Digital Culture, from 23 May – 2 June in Athens. “e-phos 2001” was entirely devoted on the BODY KINESIS and BODY ANAMORPHOSIS and included a wide range of activities such as telematic dance perfomance, multimedia theatre perfomance, live electronic music festival, video games festival, festival of documentaries on art, sm fashion show, lectures, and new media exhibitions.
TRANSDANCE was advertised on the website http://www.filmart.gr as a ‘dance and technology’ research lab on ‘body, movement, technology’. The dates of the research lab were 23-31 May, 2001, the precise location was in two warehouses located behind IME (Foundation for the Hellenic World) at 254 Pireos str., Athens, Greece.
The lab was structured as a research project for professional artists with established practices. This means there was no separation between ‘students’ and ‘teachers’, and all learning took place in the context of peer to peer exchange. The international selection of invitees came from a diverse range of artistic backgrounds: electronic music, the visual and theatre arts, dance and performance art, interactive/ digital media and net art. They were: Sophia Lycouris (UK); Jenny Marketou (USA); John McCormick (AU); Konstantinos Moschos (GR); Alexandros Psychoulis (GR); Konstantinos Rigos (GR); Yacov Sharir (USA); Christian Ziegler (DE). My role was described as research or process advisor for the project. The production coordinator was Maria Softsi, email@example.com.
The TRANSDANCE (always uppercase) research laboratory explored a variety of interfaces between the physical and virtual worlds. While taking the theme of ‘dance and technology’ as a starting point, TRANSDANCE supported a wider range of conceptions of the physical body or bodies, from the trained to the everyday, the social and the collective. It focussed on the virtual space as a networked space that can function as a performance space, a shared, creative, social and playful space. Through exploring interference and mapping processes, the participants worked towards realising the transformative possibilities inherent in emerging technologies. The lab has given rise to three extended projects (an animation and telematic project and a documentary). Hopefully the following report presented as a set of open conceptual tools and methodologies will help disseminate the results of the research to the wider community where further artistic investigation needs to continue to inform the technological developments in these areas.
The conditions for research:
Before TRANSDANCE, I had participated in four research projects of varying scale involving digital media, electronic networks, live performance and choreography (Migratory Bodies, Chichester College of Higher Education [UK], Summer 1998; Digital Theatre Experimentarium, Aarhus University [Denmark], Winter/ Spring 1999; Hot Wired Live Art, Bergen Electronic Arts [Norway], Winter 2000; Cellbytes, Institute for Studies in the Arts [Phoenix, AZ], Summer 2000). These projects each brought together a range of creative expertise, e.g. choreographers, dramaturges, composers, writers, digital media artists, programmers, scripters, graphic designers, video/ filmmakers, telematic and installation artists, etc. They have involved a variety of technologies from basic audio video graphic editing, to interactive systems (sensors/ triggers), mobile technologies and high end motion capture systems. Each project has involved the building of or use of an existing electronic data network to a) facilitate the sharing of materials and b) to support real-time performance interaction.
As one might expect, the research agendas and conditions for these projects have varied widely, depending on the mix of organisers, participants, cultural/ institutional contexts, funding and resources available, physical location, preparation work, etc. The aims and objectives of each project have not always been very explicit, partly because of the difficulty in knowing precisely what these can be beforehand. Usually some area of technology research that will be coordinated with an exploration of live performance forms is articulated (such as was done for TRANSDANCE). Often, some general cultural themes having to do with the transformation of the physical world confronted with emerging technologies are taken as a starting point for content exploration. The collaborative nature of these events is sometimes made explicit and an object for analysis during the working process while other times not. In all of these projects, there was an effort made to present something at the end of the event in order to give public access to the work that was done. Other forms of public dissemination of research outcomes have been through making project related videos, cdroms, websites and articles in journals.
Each of the projects mentioned above was a rich and productive environment for learning and exchange, but amongst these TRANSDANCE provided an unprecedented mixture of technical expertise and facilities, diversity of artistic approaches and the space and time to do some very focussed and specific research work.
The conditions for TRANSDANCE :
The organisation of the TRANSDANCE research laboratory followed a series of lectures on digital and interactive dance organised for the Festival of Dance of Kalamata in July 2000 by Yiannis Skourogiannis and the ALAS team. His e-mail of 4 September 2000 to me outlined the initial concept for the TRANSDANCE May 2001 event as follows: “… the invited artists will be provided the necessary means to work towards a completed event or concept that will use either the physical space, or the virtual space, or the combination of both.”
The preparations over the next several months were mostly left to Yiannis until we had a confirmed list of participants. Following this, I took on a greater role as process advisor for TRANSDANCE which involved making regular contact with the participants and organisers via an electronic mail list (yahoogroups.com), identifying what resources would be made available and what sort of research everyone would be interested in pursuing (for a short list of the hardware/ software that was available see below). From these discussions, two main research areas were specified: 1) to set up for some web streaming and possible influence from viewers/ on line audience; 2) real time 3-D environments. There was also an interest in exploring some scenographic/ installation possibilities in the physical space, but due to various circumstances, e.g. the Vicon system took up much of the space, etc., it was decided to place less emphasis on this area.
“Web streaming” refers to the use of technologies such as Real Player http://www.real.com/ and Quicktime that are able to compress and deliver audio/ video to the desktop via what is referred to as a ‘live’ stream. A popular technology for broadcasting using the internet, the player software for viewing the streams is available for free and often comes bundled with browsers such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The lab participants were interested in going beyond the broadcast model and exploring the interactive possibilities of using live streaming with the involvement of an audience. Despite the fact we had on hand the StreamGenie, Pinnacle’s portable system for live, multi-camera web casting http://www.pinnaclesys.com, it proved difficult to explore this area in depth as this would have required the organisation of additional resources such as an online server and more technical expertise to support artistic experimentation in the streaming medium. (For some artistic work already done using the possibilities of streaming media please see John McCormick’s site http://www.companyinspace.com/home and Jenny Marketou’s Smellbytes site http://smellbytes.banff.org/)
We did have the technology and expertise to move forward in the second research area: real time 3-D environments. For this, we had the unusual good fortune to be able to work closely and for almost the entire laboratory with high end Motion Capture technologies. Briefly, Motion Capture refers to the computer hardware and software that makes possible recorded digital 3-D representation of moving bodies. Recording sessions involve the placement of markers or sensors on strategic positions on the body that provide the basic information for the computer software. The expense of these systems, which includes the cost of the equipment as well as the expertise to run it, is quite high with developments being driven primarily by the industries such as medical, military, entertainment and advertising that have the necessary capital. These costs make it difficult to pursue investigative artistic work. For some insight into recent uses of Motion Capture technologies in the field of dance go to http://www.arts.uci.edu/lnaugle/html/mcs/.
We were informed quite early on that there would be a “state of the art” Vicon Real Time (http://www.vicon.com) Motion Capture system brought over from the United Kingdom and installed for us to work with, to include technical support. It is my understanding that this was arranged as an exchange with the Athens based AMY Digital Video company (http://www.amy.gr/amydv). AMY provided the technical facilities and support for the lab and had access to the Vicon system for the purpose of marketing and demonstration. The system installed for TRANSDANCE used twelve high resolution infra red cameras to capture the position of 20 plus reflective markers placed on the performer. To this, John McCormick was able to add another Motion Capture system, an electro-mechanical suit often referred to as an “exoskeleton” made by Analogus / Meta Motion (http://www.metamotion.com/) and called the “Gypsy”. This system is able to sense, capture and process the motion data in the suit itself. Both of these systems would be able to drive an animated character in real time through Kaydara’s FilmBox Motion Capture software (http://www.kaydara.com/).
With these systems, one is able to move in the motion capture suits (either wearing Vicon’s marker suit or the Gypsy exoskeleton – or both at the same time) and simultaneously drive a three dimensional animation in the digital space of the computer. From a commercial broadcast industry perspective, this is often referred to as Performance Animation meaning real time animations can be used in the context of live media events – examples often used are to imagine the weather announcer on the local television station giving up-to-date forecasts in some animated form or combining live actors from remote locations as animated characters sharing the same scene. From a dancer’s perspective, the possibility to watch one’s movement in real time from any angle including from directly below to directly above is enabled in these systems and, despite the encumbrances of the respective body suits, as a movement visualization system for a dancer this has as yet unexplored possibilities.
Exploring real time interaction in 3-D environments evolved into a primary research trajectory of the TRANSDANCE laboratory. We were able to demonstrate in the final presentation a scenario that involved Jenny Marketou performing everyday domestic actions (e.g. cleaning the space, etc.) wearing the exoskeleton while sharing the same digital/ virtual space with a pre-recorded animation of one of the other participants. Jenny’s wrist movements were mapped to the position of the other animation in space (vertical and axis orientation) so that as she performed her simple everyday tasks – the audience could see on the screen the outcomes of her actions in this shared virtual space. This demonstration built a representational bridge between a prosaic set of activities and a highly technologised, non-everyday virtual space. Jenny was also able to interact in the physical space with audience members making more explicit this connection between physical and virtual spaces. This was by no means a finished artistic work, but exemplified how it is that a research laboratory can produce an effective working demonstration of the artistic possibilities of a set of technologies. Out of this research, plans are underway to organise a larger scale telematic performance event linking three of four Greek Islands in the Aegean using some of these technologies and to advance some of the explorations made at TRANSDANCE.
Working at the level of the data:
interference/ mapping/ systems
In his useful survey of the field of electronic, communication, video and computer art, Art of the Electronic Age, published in 1993 Frank Popper writes:
“Although digital processing is more than a mere improvement in the treatment of the image, and although computer editing may dramatically change the traditional concepts of image-making, the main breakthrough in this area takes place in the synthetic generation of the image. Being a virtual image produced by mathematical formulae, the video image, unlike the traditional pictorial image, can only be considered as a proof of the model it simulates, not as a copy of a pre-existing object or model in the real world. Moreover, a three-dimensional synthesis enables the artist to intervene not only on the image, but inside the image. Image has become architecture, a space to visit, to explore in various ways. Editing, often highly sophisticated, has been replaced by a scenographic concept.” pp. 76-77
A long quote, but it sums up a fundamental difference between the images we are accustomed to seeing on television and in the movies, which are rendered as two dimensional fixed entities, and the possibilities for developing digital artistic practices that expand on the new possibilities inherent in the production and manipulation of digital objects (images, sounds, texts, graphics, etc.). We can find the same concepts covered by other writers on new media, for example, Lev Manovich’s recently published (MIT Press 2001) The Language of New Media in which Manovich attempts to develop useful terminology for the analysis and understanding of the processes and products of digital media. He describes a set of five “principles of new media” and one of these in particular, the principle of “Numeric Representation”, outlines the underlying structures of digital, programmable media in ways that support Popper’s proposal that the digital artist can intervene not only on the image, but inside the image.
This ability to work with the numeric properties of a new media or digital media image or sound means that in artistic terms, the basic materials of the new media/ digital artist is not necessarily the image or sound itself which is essentially a representation or manifestation of the underlying numeric representations or mathematical formulae (although this view does not take into account the needs of an audience/ viewers). Essentially these underlying numeric representations can be broken down further and used to represent a variety of “surface” media. Surface media refers here to the image or sound, text or graphics that are the generally accepted new media means for communicating and producing meaning for the viewers/ users. Generally speaking, today’s average computer user/ consumer does not grasp the underlying numerical systems that lie at the heart of computation. However, for an experimental (non traditional) artist working with new media, it is normally not sufficient to simply manipulate the surface media as this does not allow for an interrogation of the basic materials or principles of the digital media – as defined both by Popper and Manovich.
For TRANSDANCE, interference became the operative metaphor for working with technologies that were available to us – many of which were mainly targeting the user/ professional/ specialist who prefers to work in a more traditional sense to manipulate the surface representations of the media. To explain a bit further, the StreamGenie system (mentioned in detail above) and DPS Velocity (broadcast television video editing system http://www.dps.com), were two hardware/ software combinations we had access to that are designed as increasingly miniaturized and transportable broadcast studios. The dozens of editing features are designed to produce endless graphical variations and combinations of image, sound and graphics. However, the systems are generally built to support an industry that is not in a position to interrogate or practice modes of interference in the images and sounds and graphics that it needs to produce in seemingly never-ending new (re) combinations for the consumer market place.
This is what is significant about organising an artistic research laboratory such as TRANSDANCE. David Chalkidis, from the commercially oriented AMY, summed it up for me in a short discussion we had about their support for the project by saying that the technology is developing so fast that those producing and selling for the market and the consumer do not have the time to keep up with and explore how best to use these new tools. For David, this is the role the artist can play, and his brother Alex and he are committed to trying to put these new media tools in the hands of artists to explore. I think I write the words here for all of the artists who participated in the project that AMY’s support for the laboratory (and including the Vicon Motion Capture support team David Lowe and Tim Doubleday) was exemplary, beyond anything any of us had experienced before in similar types of research situations.
We wanted to interfere with the digital images, sounds, etc. by getting at the core of the digital media to the level of the data, and we explored the possibilities in three or four different scenarios. One of these was with the Motion Capture system in which normally three streams of information per marker or sensor are received by the computer to drive the animations. These three streams are roughly equivalent to the X, the Y and Z information that translates to the Cartesian coordinate system, the culturally accepted mapping of the physical space we still rely on today – despite the fact that Descartes devised this coordinate system almost 400 years ago.
Another of our research aims was to try and map one of these data streams across the network to drive sounds being synthesized in Kostas Moschos’ computer. This would link the movement of someone wearing one of the Motion Capture suits (Vicon or Exoskeleton) to the sound synthesis patches Kostas had programmed in MAX. There would be too much data if one were to take all the coordinate information from one marker, so this would require being able to strip out the data stream of one of the coordinates and send it over the network to Kostas’ computer. In the end, we were unable to accomplish this mapping in the time allotted due to constraints in the Kaydara Filmbox software, at the time the only means at our disposal for accessing the real time motion data streams in the first place. While failing at the task, in the process discoveries were made that may enable a faster resolution to the problem in the future.
Working for several days to solve a technical problem may seem at odds with an artistic process, in particular when the problem is not solved. If indeed we had accomplished this mapping of the Motion Capture data to the sound the question could have still been raised – so what do we do with this capability now once we have it? This question needs framing from different perspectives, firstly, solving the technical problem of linking motion capture to sound using these particular systems is a step forward in that it gets the software and hardware to do something it was not designed to do. It interrogates or interferes with the software/ hardware system as an agent for the marketplace and opens up other options for thinking creatively about technology research and development. This is what might be described as solving a technical problem within an aesthetic framework. The resulting solution can be shared as a technical tool amongst a larger range of practitioners, enabling them to experiment in other artistic contexts with the results. Shared of disseminated as an open methodology (similar in concept to ‘open source’), the technical solutions find a manifestation in material form elsewhere.
As mentioned above, we were successful at another mapping process and that was to link the movements of Jenny Marketou to another virtual character in the 3-D space. In addition, data streams were extracted from another process using NATO.0+55 modular, a software programme that facilitates cross media synthesis, and sent to Kostas Moschos as will be described in more detail below.
Interference and Mapping may describe two forms of artistic process, but the diversity of artistic practice represented by the TRANSDANCE participants inspired the formation (or appropriation) of a conceptual tool I found quite useful as a pragmatic way of framing the interrelationships between participants, technologies and processes. This was to loosely employ the concept of self-generating systems across the wide range of these interrelationships. Thinking in systems can be rather easily applied to a technology, e.g. a network that may, for example, be an open or a closed system. A closed network system might refer to a setup with input and output and maybe one or two machines on it – and with no access to a wider network. Such a ‘closed system’ network can enable the prototyping of certain artistic concepts more easily than an open network for example. Once set up such a system can be seen as stable for the purposes of an intensive collaborative research process.
I am interested in applying this concept of ‘systems’ more broadly to further enable generative working conditions and cross practice fertilizations in the circumstances of a research laboratory such as TRANSDANCE. (While this conception was not employed explicitly during TRANSDANCE, several participants contributed to its formation, in particular Christopher Ziegler.) The blurring of boundaries around various traditional forms of artistic practices appears superficially to disable convention and enable experimentation and perhaps emergent art forms. This has always seemed an overly simplistic view to me when applied generally across all circumstances as it so often is under the heading of the ‘interdisciplinary’. There seems an even greater need these days to be able to apply a self-referential system to arts practices of all kinds in order to re-enable interpenetration of practice and the potential for emergent, unexpected phenomenon. This should be on a contingency basis, a flexible and workable set of protocols that can be applied to the situation as necessary and enable relocation and migration of certain aspects of practice between various systems more easily.
For TRANSDANCE for example, we had choreographers, digital artists, visual artists, net artists, performance artists and electronic musicians. Each of these categories implies a self referential system in the form of historical and philosophical continuities, of communities and cultural production networks that provide a sense of coherence to any one of these categories of arts practice. ‘Categories’ might be an optional term to use // but it does not appeal as much as the notion of ‘systems’. Taken more broadly, systems might be seen as social and cultural and indeed the concept has been applied to both biological as well as social systems by theorists working from the General Systems Theory developed in the 1950s. However, this is beyond the scope of my report to go into further detail. I share it here as a conceptual tool I found useful in these circumstances, and I may return to its application in the future.
nato/ wearables/ choreograph-animation/ documentation
As this report indicates, the primary research aim of the workshop was to explore the possibilities of real time Motion Capture systems in exploring shared 3-D environments. The sharing of this data occurred over a high speed Ethernet (a closed system), but the Motion Capture X Y and Z vector data itself is a relatively small data stream (as compared to the full 3-d animation) and could potentially be used to drive an animation in real time on another server across the Internet. This may be explored further in another research laboratory.
Other research objectives were pursued in parallel to the primary research into real time 3-D environments, e.g. Christian Ziegler migrated an existing performance software tool written in Director’s Lingo script called SCANNED (http://www.movingimages.de/scan.htm) to NATO.0+55 modular (a digital cross-media synthesizer). Christian’s piece SCANNED uses a software performance tool that plays a video image in the background and is able to stop the image playing one horizontal or vertical line of pixels at a time. These horizontal or vertical lines can be triggered as single lines or sequentially moving across the screen from side to side or up and down. Whatever image is playing behind the scan appears to be frozen in time. By migrating this concept to NATO, Chris has enabled new interactive possibilities for SCANNED as NATO comprises a set of Quicktime externals building on and interfacing with MAX in the same manner as MSP so that MIDI and numerical data can be used to control any NATO function. This will open up Chris’s SCANNED system to other systems. He has migrated an existing aesthetically coherent work from one platform to another that will offer more possibilities for transformation.
NATO.0+55 modular has many features usually referred to as ‘patches’ because of the way it interfaces with MAX. The Difference plugin and Quick Draw were two used during the final presentation of the research laboratory – each set to analyze motion from a video source in different ways and out put this data to sound and image.
Chris’s research was of a very practical nature and involved many hours “inside the machine” studying and problem solving. At the same time, a conceptual project was evolving with the emergence of the notion of the everyday user’s body interfacing with the virtual space. This conceptual project was founded on the presence of three technology systems offering to provide an interface between physical and virtual space that would use the whole body instead of just the fingers. Two of these systems have been mentioned, the Vicon Real Time and the Gypsy Exoskeleton motion capture systems. A third system was available – the Wearable Computer choreographer/ dancer Yacov Sharir had brought with him from the University of Austin, Texas.
The wearable computer is clearly something we are inching closer to day by day as computing science and engineering research laboratories focus on a future in which wearable computers are assimilated into our world. The use of the wearable is already embraced by the field of mobile workers from telephone repair to Federal Express, by the fashion industry both as cultural statement and means of collective communication, and into the fields of leisure and exercise where monitoring of vital sign information such as heart and respiratory rate can be performed by the wearable (see the Lifeshirt: http://www.lifeshirt.com/).
The concept of the wearable computer has penetrated live performance in the field of electronic music and to a lesser extent in the field of theatre and dance. One example of this would be Marcel.li Antunez Roca’s AFASIA which was performed at the “e-phos 2001” Festival (http://www.filmart.gr). In this performance, Marcel.li wears an exoskeleton that allows him to interact and control sound, multimedia images, video and robots. In the dance field it is more common to find artists working with interactive motion sensor or motion capture system. This has partially to do with the emphasis on unrestricted motion in dance. Generally, the ‘wearable computer’ introduces some motion constraints on the body therefore apparently rendering it less than ideal for the dancer/ performer. However, in Athens, partially due to the presence of the wearable and the nature of the motion that can be performed in it, we were able to engage in questioning the assumptions regarding full body motion that usually come bundled with the concept of choreography and dance.
Yacov’s wearable has been designed with the intention of being able to wirelessly control live performance material. However, the world of wearable computing seems to suggest less the specialist functions of an artist and much the sort of technological systems we may in some not too distant future be integrating into our daily moment to moment existence (as mentioned above). Yacov’s wearable consists of a small computer mounted in a heat insulated vest along the surface of his body with a small keyboard strapped to his wrist and a tiny head mounted video display window. The system is wirelessly transmitting data to a server enabling Yacov to control and manipulate media in real time in a live performance. Some of this data includes signals from EEG and EKG electrodes that he can place on his body during performances. While the conditions weren’t right for us to experiment extensively with the data we might have received from this technological system, the presence of Yacov’s wearable at TRANSDANCE helped to open up some of the conceptual terrain we explored in the laboratory.
Two further parallel projects evolved during the laboratory. For one of these a selection of approximately 20 minutes of high quality motion capture data was recorded using the Vicon Real Time system of choreographer/ dancer Konstantinos Rigos improvising several short segments of varied movement material. This motion capture data was turned over to Rigos and a professional MAYA animator, Spyros Frigas, to collaborate together in the making of a short animated film to be realised at some point in the future.
Final mention in this report goes to the documentary project begun by interactive installation artist Alexandros Psychoulis during TRANSDANCE. Alexandros observed and filmed the laboratory and interviewed all the participants. He edited together two short clips from the first and second half of the lab that proved invaluable when shown to the public to help them understand the process of the research. These short clips were constructed to be shown in the context of the laboratory and with some explanation. Alexandros and Yiannis Skourogiannis are in the process of raising funds to make a more thorough documentary to be shown to the public. This subsequent documentary, when completed, will be an important additional means of disseminating the objectives and outcomes of the research process of TRANSDANCE.
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