Dance is a Vibrant Ground for Academic Research – Keynote from Baltic Movement Conference 2011

Baltic Movement Conference is a meeting of dance practitioners, theoreticians, managers of culture and people experienced in promoting and supporting dance. The goal of the conference is to stimulate a critical discussion about the new currents in the contemporary dance and exchange of ideas and practices in the field of dance research, education, production and promotion. MEDEA professor Susan Kozel was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. This is her presentation.

Susan Kozel – Keynote
When Kasia invited me to present at this conference she explained a little of the context: that Gdansk is promoting and expanding its cultural profile, that there is a desire to celebrate developments in dance both within Poland and in her neighbours, and that dance is now growing stronger in a university context. I am pleased to be here at such a pivotal time.

This conference is based on several very relevant questions:

1. Does new media and technology change the way we understand dance, movement and body?

2. Do they influence the methods of creating choreography?

3. Does dance help us find our feet in the contemporary culture dominated by technologies?

I suggest that in addition to finding our feet, dance grounds us. I would like to start by saying two things, and in many ways I have been saying these things for years and will be happy to continue to say them:

The first is that dance is a vibrant, experimental art form and has nothing to fear from embracing technologies – traditional dance forms are not threatened by experimentation, instead the whole field is lent creative energy.

The second point is that dance is a vibrant ground for research in more formal academic contexts: not just dance history or dance analysis, but choreography, philosophy, and methods for creating movement contribute to research at all levels.

Extinguishing fears can foster a spark of creativity
In Sweden there is a new National Research School in the Arts which awards PhD’s for artistic research, including PhD’s in choreography. The belief is that all research can be vitalized by reflecting upon artistic methods and content. Once we extinguish fears (of encountering something new and losing something old) we can foster a spark of creativity.

And here is an example of just that: with Telematic Dreaming in 1993 I set myself squarely into a place of ‘fear’ for me: the discourses and practices of Virtual Reality were incredibly harsh toward the body, but also harsh toward forms of intimate engagement and women’s bodies. By simply being a dancer in this system I discovered that my fears were groundless: I did not lose my body, instead I found an expansion and a transformation of dance that was highly creative, intimate, and inspiring. This is why I am still working with dance and technologies.

Expansion and Transformation
I want to hold onto these terms for a moment and ground them before moving on. I invite everyone to stand or sit, close your eyes or not and extend your bodies in space. As you do, I would like you to identify any ‘material’ qualities you might notice, of your bodies or of space. Play with the meaning of material. Hold onto whatever you discovered, write it down or just remember it.

We will come back to this.

I will show you some work and provide time for discussion afterwards but I would like to digress into something I am reading at this very moment. It will be an example of how dancers do not have to turn themselves inside out, or sacrifice their passions, in order to have a meaningful place in the world of research and ideas.

The representational and the performative
This quote, which could refer to the practices of art or choreography, is from Andrew Pickering, physicist and sociologist of science. He writes of two models of science: the representational and the performative.

The representative approach is the narrow notion that science’s goal is to represent nature, to mirror and explain the objects in the world. (Pickering, The Mangle of Practice, p5)

But he wants to go beyond this: to move away from the approach to science as knowledge, to examine the wider culture of science which includes “the material, social and temporal dimensions of science” (Pickering, The Mangle of Practice, p6) he also wants to embed the ‘machines’ or the technologies in the picture.

Pickering examines science from the perspective of ‘Material Performativity’ which means choosing to look at “a field of powers, capacities, performances, agency, and technologies.” This can easily be mapped onto skills, techniques, performances, expression, creative agency – the ingredients of dance.

What Pickering identifies in science I notice with the designers I currently collaborate with: there is a shift in discourse and values. The performative has become a very popular notion, with the terms choreography and even improvisation coming close behind.

The delight in materiality
I see material performativity as – of course – being about the manipulation and exploration of materials, but also the delight in materiality. Celebrating it. Extending it and transforming it. With care and generosity, with joy, with the recognition that the materials around us sustain and nurture us. Above all, in some ways I see the fear of technology in dance as a fear of instrumentalisation or technological determinism, fear of a machinic, harsh, manipulative deadening approach to the body and the art form.

This does not have to be so.

I have a friend who is an engineer, she did her PhD in Materials Science and looked at metals: their composition, strength, how they bonded with other metals, how long they lasted over time, and in particular, how they rusted. She had a special relationship with metal, tactile and reflective. Almost poetic, at the same time as scientific.

I ask you now to recall how you expanded your bodies in space a few minutes ago. What sort of materiality did you discover? It might have been the weight of exhaustion, the humidity of the air, the expansion of your lungs or the extension of your muscles. You may have bumped into the bulk or materiality of another person.

How we can think of materiality
Materiality relates to objects, bodies and actions. These qualities are accessed phenomenologically, which is to say by reflecting upon the lived experience of bodies in motion. I suggest that we can think of materiality in terms of:

flesh

motion

touch

weight

imagination

memory

duration

breath

& contact with others

Dance and media projects
Now let’s consider some dance and media projects and identify which of the above qualities are embedded in each piece.

1. Simon Ellis “Full” (2001) >> fragility of the flesh >> memory (on Vimeo)

2. Jeannette Ginslov & Cath Mathilde Borch Jensen “There are Stairs in the Real World” (2010) >> flesh >> breath >> duration (on YouTube)

3. Gretchen Schiller and Susan Kozel “trajets” (2000-2007) >> weight >> motion >> imagination (on YouTube)

I read something relevant to ‘trajets’ while on the flight to Gdansk, it was a discussion of Slow Cinema and how it is possible to be drawn into your body, drawn into the experience of the moment, of every small motion and its responses: “films that are poetic, contemplative – cinema that downplays event in favor of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality – the viewing process becomes a real time experience in which, ideally, you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching” (Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, Feb 2010) (cited in Herald Tribune, 17 June 2011 by Dargis).

4. Tara Cheyenne Friedenburg dancing the medical visualization section of “immanence” (directed by Susan Kozel 2005) >> flesh (from the inside out) >> imaginative space (on meshperformance.org/immanence)

5. Inka Juslin, Svitlana Matviyenko, & Susan Kozel “The Yellow Memory” (2009) >> expansion and transformations of materiality >> memory >> motion >> duration (on YouTube)

6. Mia Keinanen, Susan Kozel, Leena Rouhiainen “IntuiTweet” (2009-2010) >> imagination >> motion >> touch >> duration

The visuals for this piece are on Twitter, so some words needs to be used to describe it here. We worked from the starting point that any technology that is networked, mobile, and carried around on bodies is not necessarily superficial but can be used to access intuition. We intended to use a system differently, so that new expressive modes can emerge. In effect we wanted to shift the social choreographies associated with Twitter.

The non verbal, the corporeal, the kinaesthetic
There is a resonance with what Matt Locke says about ‘transactional analysis’: “A social interaction is an exchange of “strokes” between two people, and a stroke has a context or meaning.

… where a stroke is a ‘unit of recognition’

…like sending a blank SMS, or not requiring a response. This is where people who study human communication begin to reflect upon what we are good at: the non verbal, the corporeal, the kinaesthetic.

The three main dancer-researchers (Mia Keinänen, Susan Kozel and Leena Rouhiainen) initiated a series of improvisations using the SMS function of Twitter following a few simple rules:

a) take a moment to listen to your body and notice a movement intuition or sensation

b) code it into a Tweet of 140 characters or less

c) send it to other participants via Twitter

d) when a Tweet is received, improvise it immediately or with a time lag (hours or days)

e) notice how it has morphed in your own body over time and through space

f) re-code it into a fresh Tweet and re-send it to be received and improvised once more

Next phase: “Alone or Not”
The next phase of this project, “Alone or Not” (2011, Mia Keinanen, Anne Koutonen, Susan Kozel, Samu Mielonen, Leena Rouhiainen) will be launched in September 2011. More information and instructions on how to register.

I’ll close with a quote from Bob Ostertag:

“artists who uses machines must do so critically: not celebrating technology but questioning it and probing it, examining its problematic nature, illuminating or clarifying tensions between technology and the body, and thus offering the kinds of insights only art can provide concerning the nature of life at the dawn of the third millennium” (Bob Ostertag Human Bodies, Computer Music 14, PDF)

Returning to the context of dance in Gdansk and this Baltic Movement conference, over the course of these three days we can ponder the following:

These are our bodies.

These are our technologies.

What do we want to do with them?

Susan Kozel is professor in new media at MEDEA, contact her here.

Read more
see Kozel’s presentation “Social Choreographies”
read about Kozel’s research project “Alone or Not”

About the Baltic Movement Conference
18-19.06.2011, Club Zak – Gdansk, Poland. Baltic Movement Conference is a meeting of dance practitioners, theoreticians, managers of culture and people experienced in promoting and supporting dance. The goal of the conference is to stimulate a critical discussion about the new currents in the contemporary dance and exchange of ideas and practices in the field of dance research, education, production and promotion.

The main theme of this year’s Baltic Movement Conference is “new media | new dance”. Together with a group of dance and media researchers and artists who work on the verge of arts and genres, we will try to answer such questions as: did the new media and technology change the way we understand dance, movement and body? did they influence the methods of creating choreography and composing its dramaturgy? does dance, as an art form and a means of expression and communication, help us find our feet in the contemporary culture dominated by new media and cybernetic technologies? Read more in this PDF.