Sutil, Nicolás Salazar and Sita Popat (eds), Digital Movement: Essays in Motion Technology and Performance

Nicolás Salazar Sutil and Sita Popat (eds.) Digital Movement: Essays in Motion Technology and Performance (London: Palgrave 2015) xx + 317 pp. £55 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-43040-3

The study of digital movement, as propounded by the editors of this volume, treats the space between those monadic instances (specific times or places) in which alone humans can pinpoint (and therefore theorize) space. This elusive space of change exists between substances and defines (à la Bergson) a’nothingness with potentiality’ (4). If one takes this liminal space to be motion itself and then conjuncts with it current capabilities of digital technology, one identifies the context for the project of digital movement. The essays collectively mingle the computer (as an extension of the mind’s capabilities) with other forms of technology (as extensions of the body’s capabilities) and thus explore a mutually gubernatorial (or cybernetic) process of technology and human motion (7). The resultant theoretical space is one in which it is possible to broach questions of how humans create and/or experience motion – whether by living only in the instances of embodiment that calibrate motion, we ultimately reside outside motion and can therefore only sense it obliquely, or whether we somehow (re)create and learn anew both ourselves and our milieus (7) in a perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, an eternally repeated anagnorisis.

Digital Movement begins with Sally Jane Norman’s history of the discipline that covers early twentieth-century Russia’s use of motion capture to study and prescribe human motion at the mass level and Oskar Schlemmer’s 1920s research into gestures. In ‘Intelligence behind Movement: Laboratories of Biomechanics and the Making of Movement Utopia’, Nicolás Salazar Sutil’s account of the (pre)Soviets’ establishment of a technocracy using ‘human movement as a form of intelligence’ (36) seems to provide some evidence of methods that serve as a precursor to cybernetics, and by extension to today’s digital motion. Sally Jane Norman’s essay ‘Oskar Schlemmer’s Programmatic Gesture Research’ presents Schlemmer almost as scientist and his treatment of performance as an experimental space containing parameters that could be varied as a sort of dynamic crucible.

Brian Rotman’s ‘Mathematical Movement: Gesture’ makes a compelling case for mathematical operations to be seen as formal manifestations of original gestures. This fact goes unacknowledged because creative aids to understanding are omitted from ‘formal systems that like to buckle shut a grammar of gesture’ (59), given that the language of serious mathematics suppresses all reference to the suspect intuitions that underlie visceral understanding. While details of Rotman’s supporting examples understandably risk being technical and abstruse, his judicious use of diagrams mitigates this difficulty. Nicholas Toothman, Tyler Martin, and Michael Neff offer a complementary perspective via their digital tool CAT –’a system for quadruped animation’ that actually resembles a cat. In ‘Embodying Digital Creativity: Designing Computer Tools to Support Spontaneity and Creative Work in the Digital Arts’, they explain how CAT’s algorithms allow the user both to measure and cleverly to adjust degrees of freedom in order to invite creative input into its algorithms. Similarly, using the example of the software program LifeForms/DanceForms, Thecla Schiphorst’s and Tom Calvert’s ‘Practising Choreography: Digital Movement as Emergent Praxis’, shows how technologically supported use of  aleatory methods – essentially statistical mathematics – can generate and combine elements of choreography in a way that aids (rather than expels) creativity .

In ‘Virtual Choreographic Objects’, Stamatia Portanova uses cultural topology as tool for understanding the propagation of choreography throughout populations. Unfortunately, the quoted definition of cultural topology proves too cursory even for a person with a general understanding of mathematical topology. Ultimately, its conclusion that successful dances can be broken up into learnable segments, distinct and discontinuous – posed as an answer to why large numbers of people want/try to learn Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance – seems accurate, though perhaps not entirely revolutionary.

Digital Movement contains several essays re-defining materiality. James Charlton’s ‘catch/bounce: Stack Overflows and Digital Actions’ argues that ‘the digital […] should also be located in a dynamic non-representational space directly between artist and material’ (83) and identifies materiality as an epiphenomenon of interactions between active beings (actants). It studies and exploits (among other things) what occurs when the mind fills in the blanks between, for example, between a hand-throw and ball-catch (84). Maaike Bleeker in ‘Movement and Twenty-First Century Literacy’ defines materiality with respect to twenty-first-century literacy, acknowledging the connection of digital to earlier recording media (writing, film, etc.). The essay further identifies ‘gesturo-haptic writing’as motion’s data trace and which (like script) can be read (i.e. re-executed) after the actant has gone.

Lise Amy Hansen’s ‘Movements Scripts: the Materialisation of Movement through Digital Media’ weighs in on movement as both material and immaterial using its presentation via an innovation known as the Sync tool. This device uses Microsoft Kinect to track (and convert to data) the motion, position, acceleration etc. of body parts. This perspective relates to Birringer’s embodied gestures: his essay ‘Gestural Materialities and the Worn Dispositif‘ divorces materiality from the materials used to fashion performance costumes (173; cf. Norman’s programmatic gestures). From the converse direction, Martine Époque and Denis Poulin chart a process of disembodiment that manages to separate the dancer from the dance via motion capture in what they call a NoBody Movement. Their essay ‘Dance without Bodies: Using Motion Capture and Particle Animation to Create NoBody Movement’ describes their repurposing of software (initially designed to capture the flow of water as it fills an inanimate container) into a tool that captures water particles as they flow into a digital container created by the motion of a dancer (264). Rachel Fensham and John Collomosse recount in ‘Digitizing Dance Costumes: a Case Study of Movement and Materiality in iWeave’ the process of digitizing retired costumes to make them, as well as the choreographies they facilitated, available for material interaction – ie virtual wearing.

In ‘Performativity of Movement: Coding, Segmentation and the Valorization of User Behaviour in the Development of Smart TV Technology’, Wan-Gi Lee gives an anthropologically interesting account of Smart TV’s evolution and its dependence on (pandering to) the users’ gestural and psychological behaviours. Lee’s account answers well questions regarding motivations for the evolution of technology, declaring ‘human physical corporeality as well as delicate cognitive responses now seamlessly interact with, and are thoroughly embedded into, the interfaces created by technology’ (115). The essay also contains a semantic discussion of the concept of ‘value’ and the adoption of market segmentation as its measure. Lee finds that technology that recognises and works by intuitive gestures become more valuable to certain demographics and seems to conclude that technological engagement makes declarative statements out of gestures – identifying a sort of reverse performativity. The essay, however, leaves itself open to charges of paranoia by first observing somewhat fretfully that every gestural input becomes minable data and then warning that ownership of this data should be carefully monitored/regulated. Wouldn’t such monitoring and regulating of data require its conversion into even more (and equally manipulable) data, thereby compounding the problem Lee identifies?

In ‘Communication through Haptic Interaction in Digital Performance’, Doros Polydorou, Tychonas Michailidis and Jamie Bullock advocate bridging the ‘unhealthy divide’ existing ‘between solitary and shared experiences’ and offer interesting technologically mediated experiments for bridging the self-other relation. They fail to explain, however, what makes that divide so unhealthy (its Cartesian quality, perhaps?) – an explanation that would give their essay a weightier motivation. For Sita Popat, motion as a mode of creativity also challenges Cartesian dualism. Popat’s essay ‘Moving, Withdrawing and the Uncanny’ presents a clear overview of Heidegger’s ideas on withdrawal and an interesting critique of his assertions, which use the equally withdrawn language of poetry.  But the aesthetic motion Popat advocates is also implicated in poetics and by extension in withdrawal – indeed this can hardly be escaped. And Popat’s point seems to be that thus being able to ‘explore the concealed essences […] without having to confront [them] directly’ is a favourable and useful standpoint for theorising (146).

Finally, in ‘I-CARE-US: Flying Robots and Human-Robot Interaction in Digital Performance’, Fernando Nabais discusses UAVs as ‘flying robotic performers’ that have a dwarfing presence on stage and whose characteristic drone makes them unignorable (208) His account of technology’s advancement beyond prop to become character in dramatic productions pairs well with Mark Coniglio’s caveat that technology should be engaged in drama as an antagonist rather than a protagonist. In Coniglio’s ‘Conclusion: Reflections, Interventions, and the Dramaturge of Interactivity’, he contends that the process of solving the problem which such an antagonist creates frees the performance to explore and absorb conflict in a comprehensive way that truly integrates the technology and makes the work worthy of performance.

Treena Balds, University of California, Davis