Synchronous Objects

DIGITAL INCARNATE ARCADE GALLERY, COLUMBIA COLLEGE

Is the disembodied body the future of dance? That question is at the heart of “Digital Incarnate: The Body, Identity, and Interactive Media,” a gallery show about the intersection of digital media and dance, curated by Alycia Scott and Sara Slawnik.

Wii technology is only the tip of the iceberg—Digital Incarnate reveals a whole new fun-house world. Not every piece here is interactive, but they do all move one way or another. And they do something more significant, too. The work on view in Digital Incarnate shows that digitized art rooted in live dance and movement can have value independent of either of them—its own integrity as a form. Going further, electronic media can deepen and extend the live performance of dance, as Merce Cunningham proved more than a decade ago with Biped, or overwhelm it, as Cunningham disciple Koosil-ja proved last month with Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm (part of the Science, Technology, and Dance series presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College in connection with this exhibit).

Four collectives produced the five pieces in Digital Incarnate, capitalizing on their members’ expertise in computer science, drawing, sculpture, and film, as well as dance. All four manipulate and control the human form, generating sometimes Frankensteinian creations that, however abstracted or distorted, still reflect humanity.

In Troika Ranch’s Liquid Mirror (2010) a camera records the viewer’s moving image, runs it through the real-time Isadora program (created by Mark Coniglio), and plants it in warped form on a triptych of screens. The first time I saw the piece I walked right by, barely noticing its subtle sound and movement effects. Turns out you have to put in some effort (and look like an idiot, waving your arms, jumping up and down, rushing the screens) to get a satisfying response—mostly bubbles and whirlpools forming and dissolving on a viscous surface. You may think you’re controlling the image, but it’s also controlling you.

Indeed, the impulse to enter these digital looking glasses is so strong that it can produce the illusion of control or connection. Doppelganger—a 2006 collaboration between the Chicago-based Luftwerk and Hedwig Dances (remixed this year)—comprises white silhouetted figures projected on two gallery walls, performing actions as mundane as opening an umbrella or as evocative as pressing palms against some unseen barrier. Step in range of the ceiling sensor and the actions speed up and you hear murmuring voices and footsteps. That much is intended. But I also imagined that my motions were producing the actions, that the figures were moving with me.

Of course imagination is supposed to play a role in these pieces, and I’d say that the more the work invites emotional participation the better it is. One recurring theme, a corollary to that of control, is entrapment. Viewers’ avatars seem caught just under the glutinous surface of Liquid Mirror, and the figures in Doppelganger appear to test the boundaries of their two-dimensional space.

Ghostcatching—one of two motion-capture works by OpenEnded Group in the show—pulls us into its world in part by trapping its protagonist in a box. Adopting poses labeled “A” through “F” in a seemingly endless loop, the imprisoned ghost is depicted as a vestigial figure, incomplete and inhuman. But once it escapes the box it becomes fluid and plastic enough to reveal bobbles and undulations as it moves. Ghostcatching turns out to be a story of self-discovery.

All the figures in this 1999 piece were developed from a motion-capture session with choreographer Bill T. Jones, documented in photographs posted outside the viewing room. Like the 1998 Hand-Drawn Spaces—the other OpenEnded entry in Digital Incarnate, produced in collaboration with Cunningham (who might be considered the exhibit’s patron saint)—Ghostcatching offers little spatial context. No floors, ceilings, or walls, though there is a mirror and a ballet barre. Yet it inhabits a distinct theatrical space created by the proscenium of the projection frame, the whispers and interconnected movements made by the cast of ghostly figures, the score of Jones singing and muttering, and the figures’ motions, which create arcs that sometimes solidify into what look like intertwining vines or the Byzantine ductwork in Terry Gilliam’s futuristic 1985 film, Brazil. Sometimes figures seem to die in these mazes, coming to a halt or dissolving. But new figures arise in a perpetual-motion machine of dance. (For a look at the OpenEnded Group’s ingenious ongoing studies of dance and movement, check out openendedgroup.com.)

The Synchronous Objects kiosk departs from actual dancing to dissect the principles of choreography. This elegant Web site (accessible at synchronousobjects.osu.edu) was created at Ohio State University by cognitive and computer scientists, architects, designers, philosophers, statisticians, and dancers in order to transform choreographic aspects of William Forsythe’s dance work, One Flat Thing, Reproduced, into digital abstractions and expose its “interlocking systems of organization.” A 15-minute animation titled “MotionVolumes,” for instance, reveals “the outer edges of the dancers’ motions” in vibrating, morphing snakes that look like they were molded out of clay.

But the mirror that Synchronous Objects holds up to human activity puts that activity at a bewildering distance, refracting it through the double lenses of choreographic and digital invention. A video on the site—showing Forsythe’s work being performed at Frankfurt’s Bockenheimer Depot, its clerestory windows creating patterns of sunlight and the dancers racing to vault over tables—made me nostalgic for live performance, the numinous experience that no digital manipulation can approach or replace.