Is Any Body Really There? Hybrid/Performance Arts

In a work that refuses language and conventional psychologising, Mary Moores production Exile, which opened at the Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music at The Studio, Sydney Opera House in 2000, the ascribed meaning is an experience rich in identification. This is pleasurably disorienting theatre that says it all about the immersive experience from 3D to Cinemascope to TODD-AO to Cinema to VR. Other new media performance and installation works are brought into focus such as the Melbourne-based Company in Space work Trial by Video (1997), Liquid Gold by Lisa ONeill, that of Queensland media artist Keith Armstrong and the Melbourne performance company The Men Who Knew Too Much.

From out of the dark spring white gridlines moving across undefined space. Our eyes struggle involuntarily to estimate the depth of field. The bewildering geometry thickens into impressionistic and suddenly literal images of buildings and trains streaming by. An old woman (Butoh performer, Tomiko Takai) moves slower than real time into the space, out of sync with city speed, alone, without connection. Adjusting eyes pick out some ten transparent screens that reach out around us. We stabilise... until the woman leaves the city carrying her few belongings on her back and the screens fill with a rocky landscape that moves vertiginously ever upwards. Her exile complete, she unfurls her cloth bundle. Dazzlingly transformed by a beautiful kimono, she moves through the barest memory of dance, a rare moment of rich blues and greens amidst the blacks, whites and greys of the projections. The images fade and so does she - as if a life has passed.

The production is South Australian Mary Moore's Exile, opening the Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music at The Studio, Sydney Opera House in 2000. This is pleasurably disorienting theatre that says it all about the 'immersive' experience from 3D to Cinemascope to TODD-AO to Cinerama to VR. But it also has meanings. In a work that refuses language and conventional psychologising it's an experience rich in identification. This stranger's experience of time and space must be something like ours, now, in this theatre that has disappeared.

This is multimedia performance. Projections, a semi-improvised soundtrack, live performance. A mix of artforms. We've been watching these now and then for decades. But this feels different. The frame has been taken away, just for a while, before you work out how it's done. Even then, it still takes you in. Theatrical illusion with that little immersive extra.

In PACT Youth Theatre's Replicant Hotel (PACT Theatre, Sydney 2000), we cross the performance space through a long corridor, peering through transparent walls left and right at the hotel's strange inhabitants before being seated. There's a breath-taking moment when a vertical line of light projected onto the hotel walls expands rapidly into a huge black and white cinemascope image of surging crowds - the whole space becoming a screen, conjuring some violent exterior or an inhabitant's fantasy. At other moments, replicants of the hotel's clients appear in richly coloured digital images on small television sets in their rooms. These shifts in scale radically transform the space and demand moments of surrender as well as acute attentiveness in a work that is already a physical theatre of simultaneity. One of us says to the designer, Sam James, "It works even better than your last show. What's the difference?" "A Mac G4", he says.

This is digitised theatre. The technology lifts the physical and spatial game. It facilitates control, reducing awkward manual manipulation and integration of stage machinery, lighting, playback devices, live cameras. It generates powerful illusions and distinctive aesthetic effects. Or is this simply theatre, deploying the tools of new technology for old ends. Is it merely mimicking the immersive potential of digital media, the solitary pleasures of VR?

Second selves

An identikit of characteristics - strong legs, bad breath - becomes a dance of repeated gestures in Kate Champion's About Face (The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 2001). A woman has forgotten who she is and tries to retrieve herself by prompting her body's memory. This gathering of the self is conveyed in the live presence of the dancer and in richly coloured DVD projections of her on a horizontal screen above and a vertical one revealed when she opens the door to the space (witnessing at one stage a multiplying black and white self). In one sequence as she recalls a flirtation with suicide, she performs a tortuous hair-tearing sequence at a table while she falls in slow motion on the horizontal screen. Now and then we see her via the surveillance camera outside her apartment demanding on the intercom to be let in. But the woman inside doesn't recognise herself. The trick Champion and her team pull off is getting the balance right so that the live body and the projection don't eclipse one another, so the audience with their split focus believe in both. Scale is everything. And, as in Exile, the technological sleight of hand mirrors the material of the works, the fragmentation of self and memory.

Surveillance paranoia

A circular grid hangs over the performing area. Suspended from it a screen travels as if of its own volition, displaying projected images of a world inhabited by oppressed youth (Melbourne's Arena Theatre Company, Eat Your Young, 2000 Adelaide Festival). Generic authority figures on the screen hem in the young like the synthetic voices that increasingly answer our telephone calls with 'Press 1,2,3,4' options whose circuits we sometimes can't escape.

Here is a cinematic engagement as attractive as it is repulsive in its enactment of bureaucratic entrapment. It's chips in the brains for these kids. The grim poetry of the imagery is amplified by the choreographed movement, the enveloping soundscore and, once more, by getting the relationship between real and virtual bodies in proportion. Again, suffering is conjured as seductive sound and image and, what's more, the very media that make the show work are the tools of the surveillance-hungry oppressors. Arena worked with another Melbourne group, Back to Back Theatre Company, a group of mixed intellectual ability performers to create the new media rich Mental (Paralympics Arts Festival, Sydney, 2000), one strand of which has a sacked social worker finally surrendering to the ministrations of the computer-generated therapist who has replaced her.

Transmission and interaction

There is another body of work, more thoroughly digital, more vigorously mixing its media, ambitious to reduce great distances and, sometimes, to transform audiences into participants. The Melbourne-based Company in Space (Hellen Sky, John McCormick, www.companyinspace.com) have been pioneers. In Trial by Video (Melbourne 1997), a critique of political power as embodied in gesture (conceived at the moment that Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech in Parliament), audiences watching the performance in Sydney or Perth via telematic transmission could shape the visual environment of the performance from Melbourne with their own gestures. In Company in Space's telematic exchanges between Australia and the UK, Arizona, Florida and Hong Kong, dancers partner each other in duets or quartets across huge distances. Sky reflects on the strangeness of the experience of working with bodies that are 'not there':

"...when you're dealing with different geographies, the screen is your conduit to the other dancer. No longer can you hear their breath, their footfall... And you don't want to be looking at the screen anyway. You want to be addressing all the other things that are going on in the space." 1

And a lot can be going on in a Company in Space production. The transmitted images are subject to mixing with other imagery, texts are spoken or appear onscreen, sounds can be generated by the pace of dancers' movements over invisible grids, performers wield cameras.

In Liquid Gold, Lisa O'Neill danced her way through the Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts, tracked on three large screens, her performance transmitted to other screens at the Site Gallery, Sheffield UK (2001). There, Queensland media artist Keith Armstrong, who coordinated the project for Brisbane's transmute collective, mixed the live transmission of Lisa with prepared images. In each site a writer keyed in their responses to the performance. When they wrote certain words, which Armstrong assumed might crop up, his program animated them, yielding different colours and intensities. The words stayed on the screen, building up a word map but, if they didn't turn up again, or a synonym appear, they would fade away. "The whole thing", said Armstrong, "was an act of communication art, an exploration of various kinds of connections which I personally relate to ecological philosophies concerned with evolving forms, analogies between art and science, issues of waste etc." There were audiences in both venues, and a small, third audience online who could also enter their responses.

These works evoke fluidity, across space, across forms and media, but also sustain the pervasive dialogue between the real and the virtual, here taken to a new level of the body here and there and nowhere, and the audience here, there and not there, online. These productions work at the unexhausted possibilities of interactivity, between artists and between audiences and the work online.

Avatars and movatars

When a dancer duets with her videotaped virtual self, or a fictional other born, say, of motion capture technology derived from her own body, she could be said to be performing with an avatar. Leaving aside the Hindu mythological connotation of a deity incarnate, the digital media avatar, like something out of Jungian polytheism, can represent an aspect of oneself taken to some logical or illogical extreme, or a mask behind which one can approach the world. In the work of the Melbourne performance company, The Men Who Knew Too Much (tmwktm.com), this gesture, performed quite spectacularly with mock scientism in the Melbourne Planetarium and online (Virtual Humanoids, Melbourne 2000), is hilariously silly and sharply satirical as the earthbound, nerdy quartet, rigged with stylish headlights and mikes, chorus the voices of their free-wheeling, but nonetheless nerdy avatars projected in the planetarium dome. An audience member is snapped and an image of his head popped onto an animated body, his very own avatar, in a sci-fi landscape.

Just as theatrical, but more seriously scientific is Stelarc's Movatar:

"The body becomes simultaneously a possessed and performing body, a split body whose upper torso is constrained and prompted whilst its legs are free to move and modulate the intensity and choreography of the action. The issue is not of control, but of interactivity, of a gestural dialogue between a virtual entity and physical body that evolves during the performance." 2

The dance this yields is fascinating. However, Movatar the performance is sheer spectacle. Like the other performances described here, this is a multimedia work, it uses live cameras and a screen, dramatically contrastive lighting patterns, layered digital imagery, and makes much of the interactive and the interplay of the real and the virtual. The screen is huge, projecting images and shadows of Stelarc dancing in the arms of the machine beast from the front, the side and, dizzyingly, from above. Where then is the line between science and spectacle - perhaps nowhere: "Sound and visual feedback...provide the avatar with ears and eyes in the world..." 3

If to some the ongoing Stelarc project (www.stelarc.va.com) has seemed a dream to utterly surrender the body in order to make 'it' supra-human, then this unresolved cyborgian dance between the god/avatar and man, the virtual and the real, seems at last a reasonable compromise... or is it just a jig of the moment, a real-virtual twitch while the real dance with the gods is resolutely organic... and genetic? Whatever the relevance of Stelarc's dance, it is great theatre, of its time. The tension between the real, however you define it, and the expanding virtual will fuel much art to come.

Before and after

In case you're thinking that the real-virtual dynamic of contemporary performance and dance is mere fashion or that it's here to stay and accelerating at dangerously Virilian speeds, be reminded that its history is long, slow, courageous and hopeful. Who remembers the Australia 75 Festival in Canberra (March, 1975)? An abstract from a report on the Electronics and Computer Arts section of the festival declares:

"Of the hybrids which eventuated the most notable was one where four dancers on pressure sensitive floors moved in sympathy with synthesised music and generated... colour images... which represented a visual history of the dancers' motion... A special-effects video processor mixed this signal with that from a colour TV camera directed towards the dancers, and a colour matt, modulated in both colour and saturation by the original music. The net effect was a system which gave artists a new medium to work with...." 4

The writers thank Stephen Jones, a seminal vj (with Severed Heads), for sharing his knowledge of Australian new media history.

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