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Artifacts of Touch
Thecla Schiphorst re-choreographs the relationship between technology and the public body
by Jeanne Randolph
Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, computer-dependent art provoked an intellectual crisis: Would sensations prompted by computers someday replace, or become preferable to, traditional psychosomatic experiences (i.e., the five senses registering the pleasures and pains of our earthy lives)? If you believed Marshall McLuhan about technologies extending the prowess of the human body, then digital potency was big: big for business, big for the military, big for advertising, big for entertainment, and so of course, big for art. Even though the hype promoting computerization was often little more than a fantasy of omnipotence, the relevance of human flesh as the sine qua non of meaning became controversial.
Enter Vancouver-based digital artist Thecla Schiphorst. In 1996, following Schiphorst's contribution as a principle creative force behind the development of LifeForms choreography software, she was in a position to bring a uniquely materialized stance to the debate about bodilessness. LifeForms is a compositional tool for digital animation and choreography -- a software program that allows the movements of a virtual dancer to be synthesized and edited, then displayed and replayed as a 3D animated figure (i.e., an avatar) on a computer screen. This enables the choreographer to view even very complex dance moves over and over again from different angles and perspectives, saving real dancers the trouble of performing body-punishing maneuvers endlessly during rehearsals. Since its creation as a choreography tool, Vancouver-based Credo Interactive has also developed another version of the software, LifeForms Studio, a tool for generating animated cartoon characters, and creating and editing "realistic" motion sequences.
Schiphorst has typically built artworks premised upon her conclusion that computing science and dance are "absolutely discontinuous frames of reference and knowledge,"1 at least in terms of their relationships to the body. This is a statement that could only be made with confidence by someone formally trained in both disciplines. It offered a provocation while implying a conundrum: What manner of relationship can possibly accommodate both computing science and dance, assuming that such a relationship is worthwhile in the first place?
As Schiphorst wrote:
Computing science training includes notions of elegance and appreciation of mathematical or algorithmic construction and form, and tends to literally represent the body borrowing from medical mappings or often, in Computer Graphics, from mass cultural cliches of representation. My interest lies in the recognition that I am dealing with two highly technical systems, that of the human body on the one hand, and that of computer technology on the other hand. And let us not forget which of the two is infinitely more technically complex.2
Having thrown down the gauntlet, Schiphorst took on the conundrum she had created. Her art was made to elucidate the relationship between these frames of reference. She attempted this by producing work informed by her own personal history, as well as questions about identity and knowledge as experienced through the human body. The result was Body Maps: artifacts of touch, a video-based interactive installation presented in Vancouver and Linz, Austria in 1996, and again in Japan in 1997.
Artifacts of Touch
BodyMaps: Artifacts of Mortality, one of several alternate incarnations of this project, presented a table covered in white velvet. Participants could caress the table, stroke it, hover close, or lean into it, and so activate
the artwork's interactivity through gestures and physical proximity. Embedded beneath the table were two grids: one of force-sensitive resistors, and another of electromagnetic field sensors. By triggering these, sounds could be activated (for example, the sound of stirring waters), while videodisk images of Schiphorst's body (projected onto the table from the ceiling) could be caressed and thereby transformed. Through variations of a user's touch, the body could be made to shiver, shudder, roll, be drowned in water, disintegrate, die, sleep, become aroused, and otherwise evolve through any number of states. The archetypal allusions to (and illusions of) earth, fire, and water suffused these images of a female body steadily revealed through a tactile, even intimate communion with the user. Suffice it to say that the experience contrasted dramatically with the more common sensation of sliding a slick plastic mouse around on a computer table.
"This piece is not a video game where you win or lose," said Schiphorst in an interview for the October 1996 issue of Wired. "By letting us listen to our physical experience of ourselves, this work moves from technology to art." This point is crucial to an ethical stance about the relationship between culture and the Technological Ethos3. Schiphorst had created an environment that had no practical function, of course, but also remained meaningless until the personal psychosomatic contribution of the audience enlivened it. BodyMaps was meant to transgress the businesslike agenda of pushing mice and poking buttons. The BodyMaps experience was a reversal of pragmatism, especially the brute pragmatism of digital games.
Analogous to choreography -- whose effects, for example, are enhanced by stage lighting -- Schiphorst's LifeForms software had accentuated the enchanting effects of thoroughly embodied performance through digital capture and animation. The difference with BodyMaps, however, was that here the bodily performance of the interactive's "dancer" (i.e., the video-projected body) was represented through simple light-and-shadow video photography, rather than digitized augmentation. Meanwhile, it was the bodily experience of the individual audience member that was enhanced -- through the use of their own senses of touch, hearing, and of course sight. With BodyMaps, the user's individual physical and mental participation was not reduced to reflex acceptance or rejection of abstract, push-button choices. The opportunity to engage proprioceptive intelligence -- to listen through touching, see through hearing, learn through the physical senses -- was layered into the experience. In Schiphorst's work, the meaning of a human relationship with computer-dependent art was elaborated by an audience referring, and deferring, to their own sense-inspired experiences.
The Stage Door
In 1999, Schiphorst created Felt Histories (re: the fact of a door frame) for the Kenderdine Art Gallery and the Humanities Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan. This installation consists of a worn and aged door frame and, projected within the frame, the image of an older woman's body waiting silently, her back turned away from the gallery visitor. As the visitor approaches the frame, the image responds very slightly, quivering and waiting. The visitor can initiate further movement of the woman's image by touching it. Images of the viewer may unexpectedly appear in the framed space as well, having been captured by a nearby camera. A breeze drifts over the visitor. Schiphorst was again relying on the intensity of tactile experience to initiate the gallery-goer's curiosity, empathy, and personal memories. The choice of an old woman was certainly a derailment of the sort of desires usually exploited by commercial digital entertainment.
Felt Histories presents a theatrical experience, but the stage is personal in size, and situated in an art gallery. The gallery visitor becomes the protagonist in an open-ended, highly subjective ambiance. The gentleness and aesthetic calm of this installation literally set the stage for the viewer to contribute to it, both intellectually and non-verbally.
Choreographing the Public
Though the audience for traditionally-staged contemporary dance is presumed to be sensitive, minimally imaginative, and of course opinionated, these characteristics are not a topic per se for choreography. The visibly-sensual activity of the dancers is the medium through which meanings are presented and implied. Hundreds of theatre-goers sit in roughly identical postures in a ceremonial public location, whether outdoors or indoors. As thrilling and evocative as this experience can be, while the performance lasts the audience's role is to become a tapestry of eyes and ears. The dancers maintain the privilege of (and indeed flaunt) full bodily engagement with one another, as well as with the set and music.
In a society dominated by a Technological Ethos, choreography could be said to operate as a "meaning machine". Schiphorst's installations, however, confound typical audience expectations of their relationship with a publicly-staged meaning machine. While using and responding to Schiphorst's installations, it is possible that audience members might come to understand, in some sense, the various ways in which they are at that moment choreographing themselves spontaneously -- without requiring the technical expertise of the dancer to make such interpretations. Analogously, the members of the audience need have no interest whatsoever in technical devices; they require only the heightened awareness of an opportunity (or a threat!) to explore the consequences and effects of their own embodiment.
What art, science and philosophy have in common is the hope of wisdom. Sometimes technical devices contribute to this, and sometimes they don't. In the realm of art, as in science, technical devices are often neither the subject nor the object. In art, technical devices -- from ashes to chisels, magnets to sewing machines, screwdrivers to electrical wires -- have always been subordinated to the artist's wish for meaningful aesthetic and psychosomatic effects. Digital media have now been added to the list. The latter have from the beginning inspired artists (such as Norman White and Doug Back) to display and dramatize the gawky, ineffectual blunders, and even the dumb traits, of computers. Schiphorst's critique of computing science, however, is implied primarily by the sensual richness her installations evoke from the viewer. The allure of her work is the demonstration of technical devices extending so far that they can only honour our corporeal wisdom.
Jeanne Randolph is a psychoanalyst, cultural theorist, and interdisciplinary arts writer. Her books of inventive art criticism include Symbolization and Its Discontents (1997) and Psychoanalysis and Synchronized Swimming (1991). A new anthology, Why Stoics Box, will be published by YYZ BOOKS in 2002. She lives and works in Toronto.
1. Thecla Schiphorst, Body Maps: Artifacts of Touch, artist's statement
available online at art.net's "Dance and Technology Zone"; http://www.art.net/~dtz/schipho1.html
(link no longer active)
2. Thecla Schiphorst, Bodymaps: artifacts of mortality, interfacing through,
and into, the self, artist's statement for la Fundación Telefónica, Art
and Technology Division; http://www.telefonica.es/fat/eschip.html
(link no longer active)
3. The term "Technological Ethos" was coined by Jeanne Randolph in her book
Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming and other writings on
art (Toronto: YYZ Books, 1991). It describes an ideology that quantifies human
and other organic life, rather than recognizing qualitative aspects.