Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a medium-sized dark room. In front of you, bodies move in a chaotic, yet precise rhythm, partially illuminated by rainbow lights. Moving images emerge, projected onto the bodies of the dancers, but it’s hard to make out what the images are of, or what they represent. Your awareness shifts to your ears and the static-like noise rushing into them, reminiscent of a broken radio. Suddenly the walls to your left and right that were pitch-black moments ago shine bright yellow and the room transforms into a boxy spaceship navigating the dimension between the physical and digital, with abstract lights and sounds blaring. Perhaps this is what a computer’s dream would be like.work Waveguide as part of his presentation ‘Sound in the Machine’.
Kinetech Arts was founded by Artistic Directors Weidong Yang and Daiane Lopes da Silva in January 2013, and has put on performances at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Moscone Center, Djerassi, the De Young Museum, and our very own LAST Festival. Yang is a LASER alumni as well, speaking on “Data insights through gestural interactive 3D visualization” at a LASER at Stanford in 2013. Today, he leads Kinetech Arts, a collective of dancers, artists, scientists, and software engineers. Kinetech Arts was recognized as the “Best Genre-Defying Sci-Artistic Collaboration of 2014” by SF Weekly. And genre-defying they are, as evidenced by their latest production, MESH. However, performances that defy the traditional genres of movement and dance, like MESH, are becoming a genre of their own.
Recently, MESH had a brief tenure at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco, California. A collaboration between the interdisciplinary members of Kinetech Arts, MESH is part of a genre of performance that is growing in popularity and frequency, Digital Performance. More on that later. Like other modern dance performances, MESH rejects a strict movement vocabulary (like ballet) in favor of freer, more organic movements of the body. The narrative, or rather lack of narrative, follows a similar spontaneity reflective of the vast unknown we are confronted with in life. As Kinetech Arts described it on their site, "MESH is a network of fragmented stories about individuals running against time while feeling trapped behind a mask of uncertainties. The network is threaded with experiences from friends and loved ones in those difficult times. MESH looks at our lives through those unexpected situations that test our resilience, and the impermanence of our bodies. At the same time, it invites discoveries of beauty within perilous conditions. MESH invites the audience to reflect on the value of our love and lives."
I had the opportunity to attend one of the performances and was captivated by the overlapping bodies, projections, and physical structures that created a dissonant dreamlike experience. The hour-long show was reminiscent of a windy day, with moments of calm reflection interspersed with dizzying moments of thrashing bodies accelerating between martial-arts like routines and seizure-like vibrations. An ever-present sonic landscape shifted between harmonic voices woven into nostalgic melodies and a sort of radio on the fritz white noise edging on uncomfortable dissonance.
What stood out the most was the juxtaposition, though it felt closer to a conversation, between physical bodies and digital bodies. This multi-dimensionality allowed the extremely loose narrative to float in between an imagined world and reality, anchoring the scenes in a place of emotion and memory, where nothing is quite as it seems. The performance was neither solidly in a dance or a new media space. Projected faces and fuzzy memory-like images danced over translucent curtains, the bodies of the dancers, and the walls of the auditorium. Simultaneously, snippets of voices telling snippets of stories were audible as the performers' bodies moved slowly, gently, and then rapidly, telling an abstract narrative of moments rooted in modern dance and what felt like memories of dissociation, anxiety, loss, and change.
MESH sits at the border between Multimedia and Digital Performance. Multimedia is simply the combination of more than once type of media, from audio, images, video, animation, text, interactive content, etc. When one or multiple computer technologies become the focal point of a performance, the production is classified taxonomically as a Digital Performance. In the case of MESH, Kinetech Arts incorporated projected images and short videos onto materials and dancers, as well as various audio clips, into the performance. These many media told the story of change and transition, literally altering the narrative in ways physical bodies alone could not. What remains to be seen, is the focal point of the performance. Though the themes of change and transition were present throughout the show, the plethora of fragments, of images, words, sounds, movements, set the stage for a dynamic focal point, with my eyes and mind constantly jostling between the many sources of stimulation in front of me.
The particular application of technologies on storytelling and performance that Kinetech Arts put on display is just one of many approaches that modern digital artists and performers have utilized. During NYU’s annual Dance on Camera Festival in 2017, a unique collaboration between coders and dancers took place, combining virtual reality and dance. Engineered by Oscar-winner Ken Perlin, and NYU professors Javier Molina and Paul Galando, Aether was an hour-long live motion-capture performance in which the audience could see 3D digital avatars radiating different particles and patterns based on the elements: fire, earth, water, and wind. The dancers’ movements are traced into signals a computer can track, and rendered as visual art. Paul Galando, chair of the Emerging Movement Council at NYU Tisch’s Dance & New Media program, discussed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that some of the code for the performance is written ahead of time. During the live performance, their is a DJ and percussionist playing, and a coder improvising some elements on the fly, so no two performances are the exact same. Galando touched on the beauty of collaboration, saying “People in VR love to work with choreographers and dancers because we think about using the space and entertaining our audience through using the space.”
Where is all of this going? Well, we don’t know, but phrases like immersive theater and immersive dance are popping up in conversations and classrooms all over the country as kids and adolescents begin to grow up learning about VR and digital technologies at the same time as, or even before, physical tools previously used to create art and performance.
If you’re curious or want to learn more about Kinetech Arts or Digital Performance, check out kinetecharts.org and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_performance.