Why work with technologies and dance?

Susan Kozel combines dance and philosophy in the context of new media. She works with bodies, ideas and technologies, and is professor of New Media at Medea. In this post, she tells the story of why she became interested in the the area of technology and dance.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

By Susan Kozel

In 1994, riding the bus through central London, I saw a poster saying, no… SHOUTING, “Seduced and Abandoned? The Body in Virtual Reality”. This was promoting an upcoming conference at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) which would draw together most of the leading speakers and creators in the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), which at that time was causing quite a stir in cultural, social and technological circles.

The poster had its desired effect: it provoked a strong reaction in me. Playing on people’s fears and desires over our technology-dominated futures, it was intended to provoke. It made me angry: not again, I thought, not another cultural advancement that was hostile to bodies. I had just received my Ph.D. from the University of Essex Philosophy Department, where I had written on the phenomenology of dance. I had looked at philosophical models to see how they could or could not account for moving bodies. Phenomenology seemed to have the most potential for opening out and respecting the fluid complexity of the moment of dance, not from the choreographer’s perspective but from the dancer’s. But I had decided to let all that philosophy go, to see what I might do next, you know, in the “real world.” What I did next is attend the conference at the ICA on the virtual world.

Those were the days of the celebrity conference. For 3 days, people crammed themselves into the seats, isles, and bar of the ICA to hear and see what presenters from many countries were saying, making and getting excited about in the field of virtual reality. Out of approximately 20 speakers, only 3 seemed to me to have any way of integrating physical experience, and I wasn’t looking for any particularly sophisticated account of embodiment, just the fact that all of us have bodies and that Virtual Reality is experienced through the body. (One speaker actually made a joke out of how his body only participated in this glorious digital world because he had to leave VR occasionally to pee.) Interestingly, the three presenters from that event I selected are still strong producers of compelling performative, hybrid work with technologies and various forms of embodied interaction: Orlan with her gruesome but powerful plastic surgeries, Blast Theory with their interactive performances (but we did not use the word interactive in 1994) and artist Paul Sermon who continues to explore the nuance of telematic installations. (I should also say that Sandy Stone’s account of her own transgender status in VR also provided a distinct way of challenging VR through physicality or sexuality).

Paul Sermon invited me to perform in his installation Telematic Dreaming, this important early telematics work of his initially linked two sites in Finland in 1992 and had a place in a large contemporary art exhibition in Amsterdam’s Boers van Berlag called Ik & de Ander (I and the other) curated by Jeanne van Heeswijk and Ine Gevers (1994). Van Heeswijk had said to Sermon that she would set up his installation, which linked two beds in two different rooms by means of a video projection loop, if there was a performer in one of the rooms for continuity. The installation had never had a performer before. He asked me to try this out. So I moved to Amsterdam, and for 6 weeks I spent 4 hours a day, 6 days a week in the almost-virtual space of Telematic Dreaming.

It was a simple but tremendously effective set up and it did not even use wifi or a telecommunications network. Long, long video cables linked the camera over the bed in the public room with monitors around the bed in my private room. I lay on a chromakey blue duvet cover – and I remember how it would dye my clothes blue after long hours lying and moving on this horizontal surface. A video camera captured my movement and sent it (needless to say, through another long, long cable) to the video projector over a nice white duvet cover in the public room. The white duvet cover became a live projection surface. When people sat or lay on the bed next to me their image was sent back to the monitors around my bed and by watching these monitors I could enter into a sort of duet with them in real time. Now we would say “I interacted with them”. It was a protected play space, an improvisation space for those who were more physically experimental, and also a site of great tenderness and violence. I have written at greater length about moments of “cyber sex’” as it was annoyingly called at the time, as well as the times when I was “attacked”, see Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology (Cambridge & London: MIT Press 2007).

As it turned out, my experiences bore little relation to the rhetoric about technologies of the time, which was all influenced by the cyberpunk era’s claim of “leaving the meat behind”, or uploading our consciousness into virtual space. In short, the rhetoric was all variations of seducing and abandoning the body, and I soon realised, as I inhabited my telematics space, that this was utter nonsense. My body did not disappear, but it participated differently. So how could I understand how, why and what this might mean? Through phenomenology. The philosophical approach that I thought I had left behind came back to me and was my greatest tool for understanding embodied experience. In the 18 years between then and now, I have continued to explore physical performance, expression, and communication using a wide range of technological systems. And phenomenology has continued to be a useful methodology – I have transformed it and expanded it like any good tool box, but it always makes me listen to what my embodied lived experience tells me. This is particularly important because my embodied experience is never isolated, it is deeply entwined with other bodies, other lives and other hopes, fears and desires regarding our shared futures and how they are shaped by technologies.

Image from “Other Stories”, photographer Devon Cody.

Related publications
AffeXity: Performing Affect with Augmented Reality
Mobile social choreographies