On Dance, Mediation, & The Start of the Final Semester

One of my English professors this fall advised us to engage in art forms that we didn’t know shit about. I’ve been taking that to heart. In September, I met a dance MFA student on campus, and incidentally discovered our shared obsession with cyborgs and cyberfeminist theory. I attended their thesis show Friday night.

The concert featured three performances, three theses I assumed, and I realized that all of them incorporated video projection. One projected a portal of water and flame, one scrolled the words of a poem backwards against the backdrop and bodies of the performers. During the last performance—the dance thesis of the MFA student I’d talked to—I found myself trying to reverse-engineer their projection from the perspective of a spectator: was it pre-recorded or generated in real time? TouchDesigner or Unity? I remembered a software that one faculty member had showed me earlier this semester, while demonstrating video synths: Max by Cycling ‘74. They had used Max to program their light installations, but from what I understood, Max can do a lot of A/V choreography for stage and live performance.

I’m taking a motion-capture class right now, and while most students are from my own department, the lecturer, grad students, and grad TA bring to the studio a background of theater, dance, performance, and art history, all far outside of my area-of-undergraduate-expertise. Of course I knew this already, but nothing hammers it harder than your last semester of senior year: there is so much I have yet to learn. Although my degree program boasts the label “multidisciplinary,” I’m realizing that it’s kind of boxed us into a discipline of no discipline: a program for high school graduates who like multiple things but have no formal training in any of them. I wish early on that we were introduced to more art history than what revolves around the digital screen. While applying to college, I was frustrated that all of the cool multidisciplinary tech+art programs were for grad school. Now I’m starting to understand why.

Not that I want to go to grad school quite yet, but it kind of bums me out that I’m only just starting to get into the fun stuff in my final semester. I’m glad that my 400-levels are breaking the echo chamber that is a new major that no one quite knows what to do with, but I wish this started happening in sophomore year. (I was going to say “freshman” but then I realized starting college itself is culture shock enough.)

Back to the thesis show. I know this blog is about “new media art reviews” but I don’t know how to review it other than just saying it was mad cool. I don’t have the terminology, yet, to describe the stories told by a moving body. I don’t even know if a dance show even “counts” as “new media art” just because it had a couple of projections, because the whole point of the show is the dancers, not the props. Is dance even considered a medium? The movement of the live body through thin air is ephemeral, traceless, on its own. The film that captures it, the painting that recreates it, the footprints on the ground were the stage made of wet clay—the material recording that freezes a moment in time is the medium, from my understanding of what “medium” means.

I was just digging through my last semester’s notes to find where it was that Philip Auslander said that live performance was not a medium. I realized that he never said that, but rather wrote that “live performance and mass media are rivals on the scale of David and Goliath” while discussing the use of recorded media in ephemeral performance. A rock band will light up their arena stage with a live feed of their performance for squinting fans in the nosebleeds. A karaoke party will blast the YouTube lyric videos for the tipsy performers. MFA students will generate audiovisual projections for their cyborg dance thesis. My friend is trying to start a livecoding scene in the DMV, like the ones in Boston, Richmond, and New York. I’m drawn to this kind of thing in the same way I’m drawn to the MCU's Loki and Thor: rivals, then hand-in-hand.

So much digital innovation has been driven by the dream of disembodiment: the early Internet envisioned as a utopia where race, sex, and disability don’t matter; today’s VR headsets that promise to uproot you to another world. The stereotype of the lazy software engineer living off pizza in their parents’ basement. Growing up, I was never an athlete or an actor or a dancer. I was an Elphaba, hiding my face and shying away from any situation where I was forced to perform, to put my body in front of other people. This is the shit I know about, and I’d imagine a lot of people who work with technology and digital media grew up in the same way.

That is why the intersection of mediation and performance, the worlds of VR theater and live MoCap performance, have caught my attention. It’s not a combination that your desk job tech geek will have dreamed up. Using technology in live performance is nothing new but it’s a whole field of art and media history that I was never exposed to, and I’m doing my best to seek out more.

#500-1000 words #dance #live #performance #umd #video