Performance is so many
things: the synchronized sounds of a symphony; actions with words
in a play; steps and turns in a dance; words from a pulpit. Performance
art, too, is variable, perhaps too multifarious to define, even
with semicolons. At traditional performances with traditional support
materials, from symphonies with program notes to theatre productions
with playbills, performance acts as replay, a repeat of an event,
a memorization of a string of notes or a set of lines, a reformulation
of a tested formula. Then there are those performances that vary,
that respond to the moment, that unfold through the implementation
of chance or improvisation or, more and more, digitization. With
the insertion of new technologies into performance, the question
arises – do actions result from numbers? What indeed is the connection
between the physical and the digital? Does the digital component
determine the performance, or do actions generate a numeric pattern,
which then underlies the piece's structure?
The aesthetic and conceptual import of digital performance pieces
is linked to the ordering of a piece's technological components.
Random sequencing is one form of structuring immersive environments
or data-triggered scenes. Fixed sequencing of scenes, with a predetermined
index of performed actions and triggered events, follows a preset
score. Alternately, sensory responsive improvisation is flexible
and often produces variations in structure. In each case, the piece's
content is the result of a digital system: programming or computer
responses to external stimuli determine how the performance plays
out. Even interactive improvisation, in which a human action triggers
a computerized event, is a digital system, albeit one that emphasizes
the human element, or input, in that system. The content of an interactive
piece is closely related to its structure – the interaction between
trigger, whether generated by the viewer or performer, and event.
Interesting variations in content emerge when the structure becomes
Below, by electronic interview, four new media artists describe
their modes of working with interactive technologies and probe the
relationship between order and content in their work. Johannes Birringer
makes telematic connections in performance, installation, and video.
Mark Coniglio co-directs the interactive dance company, Troika Ranch,
with Dawn Stoppiello; he both designed and implements the interactive
software, Isadora. Cat Jones' alternate persona catgURL
interacts with viewers while performing live on and off the screen.
Steve Shoffner instigates interactions with viewers while performing
simultaneously on video and within his installations.
Telematics, the exchange of video between remote locations, is
the favored medium – or media – of Johannes Birringer. Because of
and in spite of the spatial distance between participants, making
a connection either within a remote space or with another individual
is often the creative objective. Again, the structure determines
the content: the personal connection embodies the technological
I understand "telepresence" to
be a form of connection through the use of the internet (as a medium),
allowing performers to act upon each other, perform with each other,
together or in a shared (virtual) space, and thus be “physically"
present in a remote site, so to speak. One is not really physically
present in the other/connected location, but the effect is as if
one were present, and for me, as someone coming from dance or theatre,
performing together is based on physical action and creation, while
the paradoxical challenge, in this case, is the use of digital media.
The internet/streaming media, as well as various kinds of interactivity
(using software to mix data objects in real time), is of course
to imagine touching someone in a place where you are not. It is
more than touching or speaking of course (as one would in a videoconference,
or using mobile telecommunications) – what interests us is how we
create a multimedia performance situation online, with partners,
with other human, creative people, and how such a situation of love,
or collaborative creation in the network creates a third space where
what is being created is subject to a rather radical (or complex)
contingency; the network is the space, the telecommunications the
medium, but the performance is human and generated through our embodied
actions and consciousness, how we experience such a shared/distributed
space – especially if it is subject to real time mixing, manipulations,
unexpected happenings/distortions, delays, degeneration, and so
For me the most human element is this fragility
of physical communication across a huge distance, but of course
there are also digital processes involved (camera based, sonic,
software, telecommunications protocols and mediations), and what
was once possible, in multimedia theatre or dance or music, to create
in one space, can now be created in connected spaces, multiple sites.
I have created a lab in Germany which meets
every summer (since 2003), and although many of us work with interactive
designs, and sophisticated technologies, the basis for our work
is not only the human actor or performer, but the basic philosophy
of the lab (called Interaktions-Labor: http://interaktionslabor.de)
is literally an investigation of interaction in a concrete location,
in this case a historical site (an abandoned coal mine). The site
has many empty rooms, and so we need to fill them again through
our actions, and our instruments (the digital tools), but data alone,
or data exchange alone, for me does not constitute interaction.
My assumptions about art as relational form, or inter-action, are
based on a social understanding of all art as human communication
or as creativity involving intelligence. Perhaps we can include
machine intelligence, and we of course do so, but I am not a robotics
engineer or AI engineer, and artificial intelligence is not my field.
Therefore in telepresence someone is present whom I consider an
actor, or someone who moves and is moved by me (I hope).
Isadora, the software by Mark Coniglio, accommodates such interactions.
Its design lends itself to both fixed and flexible indexing of interactive
Isadora is a graphic programming environment
that provides interactive control over digital media, with special
emphasis on the real-time manipulation of digital video. Because
every performance or installation is unique, Isadora was designed
not to be a "plug and play" program, but instead offers
building blocks that can be linked together in an almost unlimited
number of ways, allowing the user to create a custom interactive
system that follows his or her artistic impulse. A friendly user
interface helps novice users quickly create rich interactive relationships,
but also offers the expert a fine degree of control.
Isadora's modular approach is the most important
aspect in defining Isadora's structure. Data flows from one module
to the next, being filtered and massaged as it moves through the
scene (the Isadora parlance for a group of related modules.) This
modular approach suggests a sort of complex "plumbing";
one could imagine water flowing through a set of pipes, with the
modules mixing and controlling the flow, or perhaps adding food
coloring along the way to change the way the water looks.
Mark Coniglio implements his software in multimedia dance works
performed by Troika Ranch. 16 [R]evolutions is the company's
In our systems, the movements of the performer
are analyzed, and the qualities of those movements used to generate
the media response. In one way, and quite the literal sense of the
word "index,” one could think of the movement as an index into
a database of visual and aural results. This is not 100% accurate,
because in fact each movement and each response exists in a continuum.
But, still, a given set of movements, if repeated exactly and preceded
by exactly the same sequence of movement would produce exactly the
same media response (This is unlikely if not impossible in an improvisation.).
Still, the movement is a means to accessing the imagery and sound
– and that is a function of indexing.
16 [R]evolutions is a multimedia dance theater
piece that explores the tension between our animal and intellectual
selves. The work portrays the disconnection and confusion faced
by four characters who have lost touch with the animal drives of
their pre-human ancestors. Theatrical sections show the characters
becoming increasingly numb to their surroundings, while dance sections
suggest a pure, powerful and sometimes brutal, animal nature.
The piece features three-dimensional, interactive
visuals that warp and morph in response to the dancers' movement.
This real-time interaction is accomplished by linking camera-tracking
systems to Isadora. At one moment the performers dance with delicate,
living strands of DNA, at another, a gigantic digital rib cage ripples
and breathes as it envelops their movement. By giving the dancers
interactive control over the visuals and sound, the media becomes
an extension of their body and ensures that each performance is
Deploying various technological tools, from pressure sensors to
cell phones, Cat Jones also uses Isadora in her interactive performances.
A naturally adaptive performer, Cat Jones infuses a fixed index
with spontaneity. The range of content in her performances depends
upon viewer input and her reactivity. Cat describes the digital
persona and performance catgURL :
catgURL is a live, cross-art form, performance
event with integrated media and audience interaction. As catgURL,
I connect with the eclectic nature of cyberspace, fads, fetish and
cults in popular culture such as super heroes, comics, cyborgs,
science fiction, electronic toys, b grade films, the virtual, the
visceral and the voyeuristic. †I become a web persona: †catgURL
hosts cyber sites, presenting feline fictions of the feminine kind.
†The persona is kitsch, queer, carnal and just a little bit cyber,
patrolling a world of many genders, fetishising jargon and exploring
the universal desire for definitive sexuality.
In building the performance site, I hijack jargon
from archaeology, anthropology, engineering, medicine, animal husbandry,
programming languages and domestic software. I write the work in
non-linear chapters reflective of the Internet. The structure of
the performance is modular. The sites can be rearranged, removed
or rewritten depending where and when the performance happens. The
work can be augmented by performance modes or other platforms outside
of the main venue. Audiences might see a few seconds of catgURL
on a video screen at another venue, hear a radio broadcast in the
car, pick up a zine, connect with web streaming at a cafe, receive
an SMS on their mobile phone, or catch a surprise performance at
a club. This multiplicity reflects the notions of time and place
Indexing plays a huge role in the writing of
this work – as I said I do a lot language hijacking and rewriting
– so my research is a lot in reference books and, funnily enough,
I get the most out of the indexes – both condensed uses of language
and the order that the field requires the information to be in to
allow greatest understanding and progression. On top of this some
of my writing processes involves writing lists of phrases, which
I search for meaning in and then go through a process of editing
and reordering the lists.
The performance of catgURL is a cross between
performance art, poetry, and [digital] cabaret. The audience engages
with the work in various ways – through participation and contributing
vocal samples and writing. The set is reconfigurable, and the audience
is guided through and around it by the performance's action and
media. The media, in turn, is often triggered or manipulated by
the performer and/or the audience. Viewers alternate during the
piece from interactive to passive – they start with interactive
though – it's much harder for people to change modes the other way.
In the foyer viewers log on to a computer and
create an identity; they give vocal samples, etc. When they enter
the space, they get scanned – have a bit of a portal-like experience.
the performance area is a bit like an installation at first, and
they have to activate an object in order for the show to start.
So one might move into another area whilst the rest stay together.
During the show sometimes an audience member has to do something
– there's a chat booth…
My chat with them has a structure but the lines
also have a certain ambiguity and open-endedness. The chattee responses
are dependant on their individual and unique interpretation of what
I might be talking about. It's also structured so that if they are
struggling my text is such that it can help them along or fill in
for them altogether. I also have a selection of drop-in lines ready
for certain types of responses – and I can disengage them verbally
and technically without the audience realizing that its not part
of the show if its not working or they become disruptive.
While Cat Jones responds to an audience as a performer onstage
and onscreen, Steve Shoffner responds to viewers through the guise
of video installation, in the context of a visual and spatial illusion.
A character in his own art, Steve Shoffner manipulates video images
of himself, either by controlling existing clips or responding live
to viewers via closed-circuit transmission of a live camera feed.
His sets include video extensions of the architecture, with the
video component bleeding into the real (and real time) environment.
Steve Shoffner :
My video installations explore the interactions
between people and things in a space where expectations and perceptions
are askew. I play with the surrounding environment, sound and imagery,
all of which are both virtual and actual (due to the performative
element in the work, as my real-time recorded image is inserted
into the live piece). With the use of closed-circuit video cameras,
false walls, and my own physical interaction, I set up illusions
for the viewer to negotiate the validity of real time and real space.
I want there to be an elongated fuse between the time that the spectator
approaches the work, and the time that they deduce what is actually
happening. Once the viewer becomes aware that the installation might
be a live broadcast, and is not pre-recorded, or in some cases,
is pre-recorded but the footage is controlled and manipulated live,
I interact with the viewers to further bewilder them. The increasingly
startled viewer can then reflect on how awkward it is to interact
with another human being through technology.
I want my projects to be humorous without being
confrontational. All of my installations aim to reenact scenarios
where technology leaves us confused and disconnected. The intention
of my installations is to provide an experience of discomfort, to
provoke an odd interaction, and to emphasize the strange things
All of the artists exploring the possibilities of interactivity
depend upon their audience's active interest in the relationship
between an event and its stimulus. Art that plays out uncertainly,
letting viewers discover its unknowns, is decidedly braver than
art that follows a prescribed order, since the unknown is not always
successful. Audience response corresponds with cognitive awareness
– the ah-ha – that occurs when the viewer makes the connection between
an interactive digital system and the performance. Without cognizance
of this interactivity, the audience is wary, deeming the piece illogical,
a sequence of disconnected actions when in truth the actions are
interconnected by a technological interface, one that proposes a
digitally infused reality. While those who recognize the interactivity
within the digitally indexed performance may respond with an ah-ha,
those who are unaware remain outside the interaction – disconnected.
The structure is interactive and non-linear,
but it's not random. It's structured within an inch of its life
– this is a key component for catgURL to exist as a ‘successful'
live show. It's quite punchy so the timing and energy is quite important.
There is a relationship between the viewers' interaction, though,
because they contribute content – in the chat booth they can say
anything to me – and that will determine my responses and how the
rest of that piece turns out and then what its meaning is. Their
interaction with media is perceivable to them and to each other
(and fun). The audience members are guided to the interaction –
some space is allowed for the discovery – because in this show that
creates a whole other fascinating performance. Audience members
watch each other experience the interactions – they share each other's
excitement, discomfort, surprise – and either want to do it themselves
or are so relieved it wasn't them.
In chat noir, I have made a structure that
supports the audience's interaction. My spoken text is ordered/indexed
to allow both for audience spontaneity as well as control from my
end. That same structure can limit the audience – I want them to
be involved with the media. When I see shows that have some really
fun-looking contraptions, I get really excited but so bummed that
I can't play with them. It's a rare opportunity as an adult to be
immersed imaginatively and get to play physically at the same time.
So I am creating an environment of fantasy/fiction that the audience
can get their hands on too. They get to become someone else – the
show is about exploring identity. When they log on at the beginning
of the show they create a logon name and answer questions about
their logon ID. I call them from the audience for chat noir by their
logon name – so they come to chat noir as a created persona – one
that they created. They enter a booth so that physically they are
protected from the rest of the audience. The audience can see them
on a screen, but the image is mixed so that it's also a fictional
version of them.
By integrating the viewers' personal chats
into the performance, the private and public converge. The contributions
and responses from the audience contribute both to the work and
to how the rest of the audience sees the work. In this sense, form
influences content – in the same way that identity is formed by
the influence of environment.
Steve Shoffner relies upon the same discomfort that catgURL provokes.
That moment when the unknown becomes known is crucial to the piece,
as is the relationship between performer and viewer.
My video installations are built to appear pre-recorded
so that the viewer feels free to gaze at the subject (me). Viewers
feel comfortable gazing at the subject, as they have become familiar
with examining people on TV and in movies without fear of the subject
matter looking back. When they realize that the video is actually
interacting with them, the role of the voyeur reverses. The viewer
now realizes that he or she is the subject – the concept behind
the work. This feeling of awkwardness arises from the sensation
of being put on display without notice.
The boundaries of public and private space become
blurred when the viewer becomes aware that the assumed pre-recorded
video is actually live. Viewers feel as if they have been placed
on stage, therefore tossing all comfort zones out the window. The
relationship of the performer/audience contrasts with traditional
interactive performances, primarily due to the fact that the audience
is almost always initially unaware that what they are viewing is
a live broadcast, and because of course there is no traditional
stage. That relationship is again inverted when, conceptually, the
viewer becomes the performer.
What, beyond the compelling parallel to the mathematical and the
digital, makes the computer-enhanced experience enhanced? Is it
the live aspect of the work that creates the discomfort, the surprise
and, optimally, the eventual ah-ha? Is it the novelty of multiple
modes of viewing – live action and recorded phenomena, or perhaps
the remarkable clash between the physical and the ethereal – human
presence vs. technology? The parallel between life and numbers acted
out by artists and computers, though certainly taking new forms,
may not be novel. Consider the musician, converting numerals into
notes, or the dramatist, matching players with words, actors with
stories. The interplay between performers and their art is perpetually
hyphenated, the physical and ethereal connected by time. Story unfolds
and action falls steadily forward.
The technological, when introduced to live performance, acts as
an applied index, an ordering of sorts. This ordering may be linear,
as when one toggles through scenes, though more often computers
allow for the non-linear: programming a random control or creating
a reaction to external phenomena recorded as sensory data, like
movement in a room or the moisture in the air. Add a random repeat,
and time hiccups. That hiccup is what makes the piece computer-enhanced.
Digital input/output – the overlay of data over time-based performance,
enhances: program random into art and press play .
When we work with computing, and data processes
through specialized software that analyzes and does something with
the data, we are not doing video anymore – i.e. there is no direct
realist/representational or mimetic relationship between dance and
image. Even experimental digital video based on shooting a dancer,
and then manipulating the image, is not the same as what I am talking
about here (although final cut pro, or whatever you use for editing,
and Adobe Aftereffects, are of course allowing you to work with
digital manipulation of the data, but it is recorded data). So I
tend to distinguish between postproduction (editing) and real time
synthesis, and in our workshops we explore what we mean by telepresence
and live synthesis. So when you have a dancer perform with sensors
applied to her body, or tracked by infrared cameras or by a camera
linked to an interactive software system (Isadora, Max/Msp/Jitter,
soft VNS, Eyecon, BigEye, Eyesweb, Soundbeam… The former are standards
in our community and, like Lifeforms and BIGEYE, which have been
around since the late 80s and early 90s, some since the mid 90s,
so we are talking about a 10-year history of interactive dance),
then you are designing a work or a landscape (for improvisation)
that is unstable and depending on constant, continuous input. The
movement is tracked and processed in real time and the software
activates various outputs (sonic, light, video, graphics, text,
3D animation, etc.). That relationship defines for me a new era
in the development of composition and of working with computing
tools, concepts of the digital as medium, and interaction design.
And this is what the workshops and the collaborative process are
about, and one important dimension of working in a digital team
(i.e. multi-user, multimedia, and multimodal platform) is that in
such live performances, everyone is able to access the media and
transform each other's live data so that there is no more solo,
no more duet, not more dialogue: it is always more of a complex
The hiccup introduced by technology may not be random at all. It
may be a coordinated insertion of a pre-recorded motion into the
video backdrop of an elaborate theatre piece, or perhaps a storm
of static produced by the computer in response to the level of audience
applause. The hiccup enhances, or it annoys, depending on the viewer,
because of the uncertainty of the relationship between random and
play, between technology and life.
The structure of 16 [R]evolutions is linear but
quite flexible, as several sections of the piece are improvised.
It has always been our feeling that, if one is going to offer the
performers interactive control over the media, then it is important
to allow some level of improvisation. All live performance is a
negotiation of a work's fixed and performative elements: the ideas
behind the piece itself, the choreography, the interactive systems
versus moment-to-moment awareness between the performers, the audience,
and the space. So, while the overarching structure of the piece
is the same each night, each improvisational section can be fairly
different, depending on how the performers interpret these tensions.
The work is presented quite traditionally, in
that the audience views the work in a proscenium or black box theater,
watching the action from their seats. But, in terms of their how
they are called to interpret what they see, I would say that I am
happy to offer clues, but not to provide explanations. My hope is
that by providing a rich and compelling series of images, and by
placing those images in contrast to each other, the audience will
form their own personal narrative, that they will engage with the
symbols and metaphors provided by the work and integrate them into
their own experience of the world. I have always found that the
artworks that affect me most profoundly operate in this way.
Well, as I said, the structure is not random.
That being said, the images presented do not build up to a climax
in any sort of traditional way. I do think that some viewers are
puzzled as they search for the "message" of the piece,
because the symbols and metaphors don't add up for them. Others
have found the work deeply moving. The way an audience responds
depends completely on the individual. A recent performance of 16
[R]evolutions in England generated two emails, one very, very negative
("It amounted to digital graphic shapes and patterns and nothing
more; loud, brash, and unsophisticated") and another extremely
positive ("the dream logic of the piece resisted instant gratification
but was deeply affecting & rewarding"). If we were to make
a piece that everyone could understand, then I reckon we'd be making
television. The fact that we receive disparate responses to what
we present is, to me, a good indication that we are neither being
too obtuse nor catering to the obvious.
I don't think that the interactive structures/systems
have much to do with their being able to "get" the piece.
But, if they are aware that these images are being created by the
performer interactively within an improvisatory structure (which
is made fairly clear in the opening section of 16 [R]evolutions)
it will only enrich their appreciation of being "in the moment",
which is one of the core reasons to see live performance in the
first place. That being said, the fact that a performer takes control
of the media is actually an important metaphor in this particular
work. In several sections, the audience sees characters who have
become totally numb and disconnected from their environment. The
moment at which they control the media is a moment of empowerment
and engagement for these characters.
If anything, interactive indexing emphasizes
the chaotic nature of contemporary life. As I said above, the piece
does not move through any kind of narrative arc. Instead, different
scenes are presented, moving from a dance section to a very theatrical
section, a section that emphasizes the powerful side of our animal
nature versus disengaged intellectual beings. We mix these things
up, because, for Dawn and me, the context of the materials is key.
By placing these dialectics in opposition to each other, we feel
deeper opportunities for interpretation by the audience are created.
The complexity of a digitally layered performance reflects the
unruliness of life – the chaos that Mark Coniglio relates to nonlinear,
interactive indexing. The initial query, “Do actions result from
numbers?” retreats as questions of reality and illusion, reaction
and interaction, and physicality and digitality emerge.
Performances integrated with new media almost always relay an ambiguous
relationship between the physical and digital. That ambiguity and
the resulting disconnect and then connect between the performance
and technology, or action and numbers, requires an active audience.
With the blurring by the digital – the unknown and variable – the
mapping is indistinct, the viewer left searching, the experience
now a quest. Of course not all audiences search deeply; not everyone
really experiences. Yet there is something compelling – that which
is unexplained, the ghost in the machine.