Christopher Knowlton, a white man with dark brown hair, stands in front of screens displaying various digital images. He is holding a micrphone.
Christopher Knowlton at the March 14 DCASE Open Studio Residency Series Credit: Walter S. Mitchell III, City of Chicago

The Chicago Cultural Center knows how to provide visceral and engaging Chicago-created content. Last year the city celebrated the Year of Chicago Dance, which highlighted our thriving and diverse dance community. During that time, the Chicago Cultural Center Dance Studio installed a new dance floor and provided space, time, and funding for Chicago dancemakers to create their art in a supportive environment. And create they did. This year the Dance Residency Open Studio Series showcases performances that may change how you perceive dance.

Ever played Just Dance with your nephew and niece and wondered, “How do they know what I’m doing?” For decades scientists have been working behind the game console to find creative ways to merge movement and technology outside of the gaming world. Movement artist and biomechanical research scientist Christopher Knowlton combined his passions for dancing and engineering to produce a visceral experience that can change the way we interact with technology through dance. 

Knowlton and his production team use microchips attached to the body to track the movement of the muscle and interpret it through auditory and visual outlets. When I attended Knowlton’s Open Studio program on March 14, the dancers’ movements produced whooshing, whale-like human sounds, alongside bubbly digital synthesizers. It’s a form of dance I have never witnessed before, but the research Knowlton is doing can advance our understanding and interaction with dance and technology. I talked to Knowlton following the program. (A video of the March 14 program is available online at Knowlton’s YouTube channel.)

Wanjiku Kairu: What exactly were those sensors that the dancers were wearing?

Knowlton: The sensors on the dancers’ shoulders are surface electromyography (EMG) electrodes, which detect muscle activation as a voltage across the skin. These sensors are sort of like muscle microphones, and the signal is related to the strength of the muscle contraction. It’s similar to EKG (electrocardiography), which gets the electrical signal from the heart when it contracts, but we put it on skeletal muscles. The transmitters send the data wirelessly so we can work with it. It’s something we use in the lab and in the clinic frequently, so I’ve always wanted to use them artistically.

After the performance during the talkback, I noticed the dancers taking sensors out of their shoes as well. What were those used for?

The dancers were also wearing pressure-sensing insoles in their shoes, which get the pressure distribution and total force under their feet. Interestingly, neither EMG nor insoles actually track movement. They track muscle tension/effort and pressure, respectively, both of which are tactile senses that we can’t fully observe when watching dance or convey through something like film or streaming video. I was drawn to them because they are bodily senses that we lose in networked interactions, so I’m trying to see how we might augment and substitute those senses. Right now both systems are driving aspects of the sound, which is very early in development.

What inspired you to pursue biomechanics and merge dance with technology?

My background is in math and science, and I went to undergrad for engineering. I wasn’t really a dancer before then, so my dance training coincided with my engineer training and I found my interests blurring together. I thought it was really fascinating to try to understand the body—particularly the moving body—through the lens of the physical laws through which we try to understand the rest of the world. So I came up to Chicago for grad school to study bioengineering at UIC, knowing that there is a big dance scene here and that I could pursue that. 

My creative voice developed right alongside my scientific work. I think that because we interact with technology all the time, it’s interesting and necessary to explore. I think as humans, we have always sought out technologies to improve our lives. Even language is a technology, and I think in many ways dance can be seen as an even older technology that we use to communicate, to express ourselves, to preserve and share aspects of our cultures, to learn about our own bodies. I see working with emerging technologies in art as part of that continuum, allowing us to explore the ethical and social implications that these technologies will have for us.

How do you see your research influencing the future of dance and virtual reality?

Some of the tools we are developing for the work are part of the larger fields of biofeedback in biomechanics and interactive media and human-computer interaction in the humanities, where we have a lot of people exploring these technologies. These fields involve turning data from sensors into some kind of media, like visuals or sounds, in real time to understand how that feedback from the moving body affects how it moves. In my lab at Rush, we are using this approach with wearable technology to create better noninvasive, individualized rehabilitative treatments for diseases like osteoarthritis. 

In this work, I want to see how a more embodied approach to interacting in three-dimensional virtual space could help us connect better across distance, rather than the sort of flat, short, text- and image-based interactions we have with current social media platforms. We’re definitely not trying to develop a new social media—who needs a new one of those?— but maybe a new way to connect with someone you can’t immediately touch. Like a phone call or FaceTime, but for embodied movement. And hopefully by using sound, we may also in some way make those modes of connecting through movement in digital space more accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired.

What other projects do you have in the works?

Currently I am wrapping up my last project, Extended Play, which is an augmented reality dance work for the surface of a playing vinyl record. That work combines emerging technologies like AR and motion capture with retro analog technologies like music boxes and record players to explore isolation, memory, nostalgia, futurism, and the queer experience of digital spaces, while exploring what a record of dance is and can be. For it, I’m getting an actual vinyl album pressed, which is sort of the soundtrack and the stage, and I expect that to be released this year with the rollout of the app with the virtual performance. 

Other artists at this year’s Dance Residency Open Studio Series:
Silvita Diaz Brown, a Mexican American choreographer and director who merges her dance and theater background with her yoga and acrobatic background, presents Ellas Y Yo Mexicanas based on Frida Kahlo and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas, a juke/footwork artist and educator, presents Boogie Wonderland featuring 15 Chicago youths and imagining a world without police; Jean Wildest explores queer community experiences using circus, dance, and 80s camp in Just a Touch; Robyn Mineko Williams presents material from her new interdisciplinary work on intergenerational trauma and the Japanese American internment camps of World War II; Tango 21 Dance Theater (whose ensemble member Robby Williams suffered a spinal injury in a gun violence incident) explores tango techniques reimagined for seated and standing dancers, including wheelchair users. A complete schedule is available here.