In this National Dance Forum, we are exploring the medium of movement in a digital context. And we are learning that the phrase ‘digital context’ or ‘digital domain’ is just as broad, complex and all-encompassing as is the umbrella that is ‘dance.’ On Day 1, we heard from keynote speaker Wesley Enoch about digital practice in cultural and historical contexts; from Professor Mathew Delbridge a little bit about how the augmentation of the body using digital methods can change how we see ourselves and one another. We heard from a number of artists who are situating their practice in the landscape of new and rediscovered technologies including virtual reality, augmented reality, stereoscopic imagery, kinetic sculptures, projection and complex audio sound designs. Fundamental to these discussions was an acknowledgment that new technologies demand new collaborations, and collaboration with practitioners in fields, like creative coding, that are themselves moving incredibly fast. Finding a way to ground existing practices, techniques and methods that have been carefully cultivated through generations of dance artists in these evolving and unfamiliar spaces is no easy task.
However, on Day 1 Professor Kim Vincs made a strong statement that dance needs its own digital tools—processes and platforms created specifically for this artform. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with hand-me-downs, and in fact, the repurposing of platforms created for other disciplines can offer amazing creative possibilities for dance. However, if we argue that dance is unique and idiosyncratic, that there is knowledge and intelligence in the body and thinking inherent in and intrinsic to the process of making dance, then we need the systems, and platforms and processes that will acknowledge the value that dance brings to the digital domain, as well as the value that the digital domain can bring to dance.
And so, we need, as an industry, to be on the front foot. To insist that this be a two-way conversation between artists in our own domain, and artists working in digitally-focused, data-driven, artificial intelligence, engineering, design and creative coding. What we are really talking about is not just an expansion of the definition of dance, but a meeting of creative cultures. And this meeting of creative cultures can be the territory upon which our art can spawn new art and artistic practices across media. And where, to quote Kim again, the act of choreographing can now be understood to be both the process of organising bodies and organising pixels in space.
But we also have to understand, that as much as we may want to be on the front foot and to dive in, there are significant challenges. We need to think about what embodiment looks like. We need to decide which methodologies lend themselves to digitally-based pipelines. We need to develop a language that crosses over between movement and embodied practices, and digital ones. We also have, quite fundamentally, a skills gap in our industry that is, and will, rear its head as we continue to embrace and understand, employ and adjust to new modes of teaching, research, practice, performance, training, producing and criticism that are being actively disrupted by new and emerging technology. Disruption offers opportunity, but it also demands a price. And as a sector, we need new skills. And we need to understand that not everything survives disruption.
I’m a dance historian—my research area is early 20th century Australian dance history—and prior to about five years ago, research for me involved queuing up at a library, sifting through portfolios of dusty photos, newspaper clippings and old diaries. There was a lot of micro-fische involved, and I counted myself so, so lucky that I was researching in an era where card catalogues are largely online and spell check is a thing. And every now and then, there would be a bit of archival footage to look at, and I would get the chance to see how the dancers really moved in the space at that time. And there was never really enough footage and ephemera to put all the conceptual pieces back together, but I saw part of my job as a dance historian to somehow lift from obscurity dance that had been lost.
But about five years ago, I found myself in a research job at the Deakin Motion.Lab, working with technical artists who threw around phrases like HCI (that’s Human Computer Interfaces), HMDs (head-mounted displays), VR and C#. I didn’t understand motion capture, or mixed reality, and had never previously had a conversation about graphics cards, 3D objects, screen resolutions or rendering. It was like I had landed on a foreign planet, and my extensive and hard-earned knowledge about the rise of ballet certification in the 1930s was unbelievably useless.
And it took me an really long time to realise that the motion captured, immersive and interactive art that was being made and studied at the Deakin Motion.lab was fundamentally just about something that I did know about: movement. And, once you got over the fact that it was often data and pixels moving, it was just art about stories and humans expressing complex ideas.
What was even more amazing, was that these interdisciplinary and digitally driven projects could draw on aspects that I saw as fundamental to my own field: the discipline of dance training, knowledge about how to get a production on stage or to run a rehearsal, and the ability to articulate, describe, draw out and write about movement. Five years later, I’m loads more fluent, and am now developing projects that look at other things I know something about, like archiving and documentation of artistic practices, products and ecosystems, filtered through a digital lens.
The role of archiving was a key theme in the last session of Day 1, when Lucy Guerin and Kylie Pappalardo spoke with Helen Simondson about copyright, access and the dissemination of dance. One of the things about a landscape that takes dance from the body to the pixel, is that it is much more difficult to control, contain, and manage history, heritage, authenticity and ownership when content is free and freely available. On that note, I lovingly refer you to Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Beyonce. (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
There are economic implications as well, and these will no doubt continue to bubble to the surface, so long as dance in this country operates within an uncertain funding climate and amidst a culture of insecure work practices. If dance is free online, and the experience of a screen-based audience is getting closer and closer to a live one, what does that mean for the artists trying to make a living?
We can begin to think about the potential for digital practices to reach new audiences, make regional work accessible, and connect artists. There are also potential new funding streams, as David Throsby and Matt Campbell discussed in Day 1. These can be expensive, like broadcast livestreams direct to the cinema or employ state-of-the-art capture and haptic systems, but we can all start small. You can live stream content on facebook and share ideas, footage, and performances on YouTube. After all, to quote Jonathan Burrows, quoting Jerome Bel, “Youtube” is dance’s first library in its digitised form. Dance historians a hundred years from now may well be grumbling about Youtube the way I grumble about microfische.
But equally, and I think this is an important thought that has not fully been articulated yet, some in the dance sector may decide that they’re happy staying analogue. That their desired mode of expression will never be through virtual reality goggles, and that the space and place for their dance will always be in the physical body. And that’s ok too. Dance is a big umbrella, there’s room for lots of ways of telling our own movement stories, and lots to share.
This is Dr Jordan Vincent's summary of the themes of Day 1 at National Dance Forum 2017.