WiTNESS: if the computer is in control, will it remain ambivalent?

Ed: Imogen Cranna had a one week full time Curated Residency at QL2 Dance in April

In 2012, I had the incredible opportunity to work with Tony Osborne who created a solo work, Palimpsest, for me to perform during youMove Company’s season, tenofus. It was during our rehearsals that a persistent idea formed in my mind and after three years of dreaming and testing various aspects surrounding the concept, I have finally been able to realise a major part of it in the QL2 Theatre.

I am fascinated by the organic way in which movement is generated when someone is dancing in an authentic state with their eyes closed. Authentic Movement (AM) can be traced back to the 1950s and was started by Mary Starks Whitehouse, who said “When the movement was simple and inevitable, not to be changed no matter how limited or partial, it became what I called ‘authentic’ – it could be recognized as genuine, belonging to that person.”*  I think it is that element of truth and existing in the moment that captures my imagination, both as a dancer and as a witness to an authentic movement session. I have also observed how viewers are drawn into the dancers’ personal world, as the sensory movement that occurs can be hypnotic and akin to watching the shimmer of light on water or clouds moving across the sky.

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Since watching and participating in AM during my rehearsals with Tony, I have wondered whether it is possible to enable an authentic movement session to become more than a warmup, creative task or therapeutic exercise. I wanted to be able to share this world with a wider audience in a way that would enable the dancer to remain true to both the ethos of AM and to their spontaneous impulses of the moment.

Part of my artistic practice is working with interactive media through the use of the program Isadora. When thinking of how to replace the human witness in AM, (i.e. another person in the space who ensures the dancer stays safe while moving with their eyes closed), I came up with the concept of using a topographic camera that would constantly monitor the space. Hooked up to Isadora, I could then use the information within the visual image to create a barrier of sound, so that whenever the dancer moves too close to the walls, an interactive sound would alert them. This is the basic concept behind WiTNESS. From that arises an important question; if the computer is in control of the allotted dance space, will it remain ambivalent or turn into a manipulative, micromanaging witness?

Over the past week, I have had the invaluable experience of using QL2’s Theatre to shape WiTNESS. The first stage of my residency was focused on setting the theatre up to be an interactive space and I was extremely lucky that my husband Guy Harding (lighting designer/technical director extraordinaire) was on hand to help me! I have dabbled in infrared tracking using a Kinect with Isadora, but this was my first opportunity to set up my own tracking system using specific lighting gels, filters and a black and white Firefly MV camera. Through the struggle, I now know what I need to create a solid, interactive space. The filter gel I used with my camera (Lee 87 placed between the sensor and the lens) worked a treat with the fluoro worker lights, as even though the whole room was lit up, the camera was seeing black. This meant I could now use a few theatre lights (with congo blue gels) to flood the dance space in infrared light and allow the program to consistently track the dancer. Although this did not look visually theatrical for my residency, this testing has provided me with important information I will need to create the finished design.

I see WiTNESS as an installation set in a gallery space, rather than as a ‘performative’ work. Many would argue that in this setup, with an audience in the room, it would no longer be possible for the dancer to move in an authentic way, as they would be aware of the audience and as such, their distracted mind would get in the way of the improvisation. I definitely agree that WiTNESS is no longer a purely authentic exercise. But after having experienced authentic sessions in front of an audience, I feel it is possible for the lines to become blurred between performance and authentic movement. The positive response that I have received from these previous projects (wItness bench, INwitness) has confirmed for me the idea that we are fascinated by other human beings and that watching a performer in this state reveals new insights and connects people more deeply to another’s inner world.

It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with Quantum Leaper Caroline De Wan during this residency. Caroline was extremely patient as I tapped away at the computer, trying to get the program to behave in the way I wanted it to, and I would never have got as far as I did without her help. But this residency was also about questioning what it is like to be ‘in the system’ and receiving feedback from a dancer who has never moved authentically in an interactive system was crucial during this development. The fact that Caroline felt as if she could be more true to her dance in connection with Isadora than with a human witness, (as the human witness felt more like an audience to her), was fantastic feedback. I would also like to thank Quantum Leapers Luke, Nasim and Caspar for exploring WiTNESS in the final hours of the residency, as the feedback I received confirmed and built on my own experience in the system.

One of the crucial elements of the work that I wanted to test were the sounds of the barrier. I didn’t want the performer to feel as if they were in an old school computer game, bouncing off the wall in response to a short, sharp ping-like sound. I was aiming to create the impression of a malleable membrane surrounding the safe space. In the event of the dancer triggering the barrier, I wanted them to feel as if they could continue moving with the knowledge that a wall was close by and that they could not go much further in that direction. After a few days of testing and programing the sounds, I found that I had successfully developed the ‘membrane’ effect. It even allows for the dancer to interact with the barrier as if they’re playing an instrument. Having the Quantum Leapers test the system at the end of my residency gave me this valuable feedback and with all the jumping and sprinting around with eyes closed, I knew that they felt safe enough in the system to be able to push at its boundaries.

In terms of whether the system is ambivalent or malevolent, I am surprised to have discovered that it can be both. I only finished programing on the second last day, with the aim of getting the computer to randomly shift the size of the space, so I can’t be truly conclusive. However, the final day of testing revealed that with the capability to shift the space in any way and direction, the system appears to take on certain characteristics. I can’t wait to test the system further and see how much of a personality develops over time!

So what’s next for WiTNESS? Having had this incredible opportunity to test an idea that’s been banging around in my head, I now know how I would like to develop it. I’ve been contemplating whether projected imagery would either add to or detract from the aural world that the dancer inhabits. After watching the rehearsal footage, it appears that projections would greatly enhance the experience for the audience. Sometimes the connection between the sound barrier and the dancer becomes unclear for the viewer. So I would love to see how layering visual imagery into the work could depict the changing spaces and enhance the audience’s experience. For the work to be truly immersive, I will also require surround sound and having tested the programing of the sounds, I would like to develop new sounds to be added into the score. A final element I need to address is the sound barrier itself. Without going into too much detail, a second perimeter of sound will be necessary, as sometimes you can lose the ‘safe space’ when the computer shifts the size/place of the area. This has only happened occasionally, but with a second sound perimeter in place, the dancer will have that extra guide to move in the right direction.

This has been an incredible week of testing, creating and movement. A huge thankyou to everyone at QL2 for your generosity and support in making this happen!

*.     Adler, Janet. Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2002.

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About Imogen Cranna

Imogen is a multi­disciplinary artist. In 2009, she joined youMove Company, and has had the opportunity to work as a dancer with both established and emerging Australian choreographers such as Kay Armstrong, Emma Saunders, Anton, Tony Osborne, Ian Colless and Sarah Vyne­Vassallo. Following her desire to create hybrid art with the interactive media program, I​sadora,​Imogen held an artist residency with Eramboo Artist Environment from 2009 to 2012. In 2010, her multimedia work T​yche a​ppeared in the Sydney Fringe Festival as part of the triple bill, T​hree Steps Towards. I​n 2012, Imogen toured nationally as the new media artist on Vicki Van Hout’s critically acclaimed production B​riwyant​and in 2013, she collaborated as both a performer and media artist for The Living Room Theatre's premiere of Michelle St Anne's award winning theatre work, I​Love Todd Sampson. S​he also appeared in her own work, w​Itness bench,​as part of AIOP/Australia/2013 and presented ĭ​n­dwĕl′ f​or Dance Meets Music, 2014. Most recently, Imogen collaborated as composer and media artist for Cloé Fournier's full length work, D​ining [Uns]­Table, a​nd presented a public interactive sound installation entitled "p​lay", ​for Enliven Pittwater.