A New Ballet Mécanique

thinking through the digital & the body: digital incarnate @ the arcade gallery, columbia college chicago, 08 February-02 April 2010.

Digital Incarnate: The Body, Identity, and Interactive Media, an exhibition at Columbia College, features multiple paths to the place where the corporeal and virtual meet. This is a place with a long history: humans have been pondering the body and the mind, the physical and the mental, for millennia. But it’s also a new place: a site in which the technologies of the digital both echo older histories and point-click toward unknown destinations.

Two of the displays—Luftwerk‘s Doppelgänger and Troika Ranch‘s Liquid Mirror—are playful and fun. They pull the viewer’s body into the digital through shadow play, silhouettes, and light shows. Actual limbs and their visual extensions blur on a dark screen in Luftwerk’s piece and flickers of light in Troika Ranch’s vertical screens.

One thinks Marshall McLuhan here, but also, glimpsing darker shadows in the shadow and light, x-ray scanners at the airport and other modes of surveillance. The body seemed to evaporate into the digital in these pieces in ways that were at first frolicsome, but increasingly ominous: the body etherealized, but also filled with foreboding.

OpenEnded Group‘s Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar lean toward the traditions of animation in their collaborations with Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham. The OpenEnded pieces—Ghostcatching and Hand-drawn Spaces—are striking for how much they reproduce the signature styles of these two famous choreographers in digital form.

As Kaiser explained in his talk, the transformation of Jones’ body to the digital realm revealed his muscular, flowing, vibrant dance style (the markers to record Jones’s dancing body would literally rip off as he moved). When OpenEnded Group combined the motion of a male and female dancer in a Cunningham piece, the angular, skeletal aspects of Cunningham’s choreography remained. They were even accentuated by the merging of two actual bodies into one digital body. Cunningham’s already-abstract emptying out of subjectivity and control from his dancers’ bodies were even more ghostly and phantom-like as they flashed across three screens.

A final computer station features a collaboration between the choreographer William Forsythe and  researchers at Ohio State University. Synchronous Objects, a complex digitalization of Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, feels like a lab report, but one that is endlessly entertaining. One Flat Thing becomes quite multidimensional, almost overwhelmingly so—it is indeed reproduced. The user can instruct the computer to map out different aspects of the dance: traces of the dancers’ limbs, the negative space between the dancers, particular relationships between different dancers, and more.

I’m not sure if it’s art or science, or both, but it is something. One plugs into the matrix, in control of data that may lead to new programs of the very self. As fingers manipulate a dance of virtual space, bodies may simply become like so many other buttons, knobs, dials, and touch screens that we use to move between the flesh itself and our machines. Or, perhaps, at the module, our bodies tap into a grid we never knew we already occupied. We begin to glimpse a secret map of the place where inside and outside might merge in what essayist Sondra Fraleigh calls “the elusive soma,” the “body mysterium.”

Choreography has become cartography. We reach the edge of skin at the synapses of the circuit board, and feel, for a moment, sitting in front of a boring screen, waiting for a video to upload, the electrifying shock of watching the material leap into the virtual—what is becoming what might be.

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