Diego S. Maranan


Academia, Dance, The body, Thesis journal

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Different dance styles have different notions of what “precision” means. Here’s how I’ve seen it used (in different ways) in contemporary dance.

This piece by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (b. 1960) is set to music by Steve Reich (b. 1936), who is one of the pioneers of minimalism in music. He uses a lot of repetitive patterns and rhythms. (A lot of modern electronic music owes a great deal to him!) In the first piece (Fase, created in 1982), two pianos playing identical repetitive patterns slowly go in and out of phase. And so do the two dancers. It’s kind of stunning.

The second video is from the 1983 piece Rosas danst Rosas, a piece that’s now been made famous because of Beyonce using (without the De Keersmaeker’s permission) the original choreography.

In this contemporary ballet piece by Jiri Kylian (b. 1947), precision is important to highlight little gestures, like how the lower leg straightens partway and then suddenly completely, creating a fluttering effect at around 0:17. They do a similar (but not identical) movement with a sideways pelvic thrust at around 2:17, which they accentuate by extending their hands at the wrists. (I love the music Jiri Kylian chose for this piece. Love Baroque music for the same reason I like some kinds of electronic music…. when pure structure and formal rules are balanced with expression and emotion.)
Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) used algorithms in his choreography. He sometimes used chance operations to put together sequences of movements. Because the movements were not always in a “logical” fashion, they were often very difficult to perform… but that’s also what made them very interesting. He also used chance operations to put together entire pieces; in 2003, he collaborated with two bands (Radiohead and Sigur Ros) on a piece called “Split Sides” and, as the New Yorker describes,

“made two separate dance sections and ordered up two lighting designs, two backdrops, and two sets of costumes. Nor was any element paired with any other. Everything would be sorted, by chance, before each performance. Mathematically speaking, there were thirty-two possible combinations.”

I studied Cunningham’s technique as a dance undergraduate student, and it was a totally amazing experience. My entire body had to be paying attention to patterns, directions in space, where the walls of the the room, all the while keeping count. You had to be precise in time, precise in space, precise with the body (especially with the spine). It was an unnatural experience at first (“biomechanical rebellion“, as a group of science researchers called it), but as Merce pointed out, if you do something long enough, it becomes natural.

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Kraftwerk Retrospective

New Media, Performance, Technology, The body, Thesis journal, Visualization

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I can’t stop watching.

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William Forsythe: Making visible hidden intentions

Academia, Dance, New Media, Somatics, Technology, The body, Thesis journal, Visualization

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The choreographer William Forsythe was very much influenced by Rudolf Laban in the way he treated the space around the dancer’s body. Working with a ballet company, he created a series of videos that used visuals to show some of the techniques he used to move in new ways. In these videos, he superimposes lines and shapes using  post-production editing to show how ballet dancers could think about the  space around them in a way that could help them break out of their  habitual patterns of moving. Those videos are part of a multimedia CD that was released in 2000, called Improvisation Technologies. I think that his ideas share many commonalities with the techniques that I’ve seen employed in EDM dance styles.

Someone posted many of his videos online. Here are a few of them:

Shearing space

Using lines to create organic movement

Axes and transforming/scaling axes

Following a curve to its logical conclusion

Rotating inscription with lines

Point-point extrusion

Transporting lines

Soft body part trajectories

And this is what some of his techniques, when ballet dancers apply them while freestyling, can look like:

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Constraining through fabric

Academia, Art, Dance, Movement, New Media, Performance, The body, Thesis journal

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Some very well-known examples of changing dancerly ways of moving come from the work of Loie Fuller and Martha Graham through their use of fabric.

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Our bodies our changing because of the things we’ve created

Academia, Dance, Movement, Performance, Somatics, Technology, The body, Thesis journal

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That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it. But I suppose that by “bodies”, I mean the way we carry our bodies: the way we move, the way we hold ourselves, our posture, our movement abilities, our movement qualities. Our body’s sense of well-being. The invention of the chair has changed forever the way our back and hip flexors are configured.

And by “things we create”, I mean specifically computational technologies and concepts. Computers and the configuration of the desktop keyboard and monitor are changing the way our spine, fingers, arms, scapulae, clavicles, heads, etc. etc. work together. Lyn Bartram has pointed out (and I need to ask her for a reference) that the one thing that has been proven to have changed with younger generations as a result of technology isn’t their ability to concentrate: it’s their ability to use their thumbs. Thumbing dexterity has increased! New interfaces such as touchpads have changed (to a certain extent) the way we generate written text, although there is to some extent a kind of a return to more analog strategies for text input. (I just ordered a set of 5 stylii for my iPad from eBay.)

So that’s the general area I place my research on: the way technology has changed our bodies, and specifically the way digital technologies have changed the way we move.

The one aspect of human movement that seems to be understudied is in its most expressive, creative way: dance. I’ve come across one paper by dance scholar Naomi M. Jackson, “Rethinking Humanness: The Place of Automata, Puppets and Cyborgs in Dance”, delivered in 2001 at the Society of Dance History Scholars, which has touched on this. Of course, the work of choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe have done much to explore the use of technology in expressive human motion, but what I’m curious is about is popular, grassroots explorations of the same.

I am also interested in these genres because they (and particularly liquid) signals a departure from the angular, hard computation of Cunningham technique. There’s an organic-ness to the aesthetics of the genres that had been missing from Cunningham. Both explore space, absolutely, and yet there’s something more complex and, well, liquid about Liquid.

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Where are investigations and narratives around the actual dancing “electronic dance music culture”?

Academia, Dance, Movement, The body, Thesis journal

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I’m currently scouring academic references about the dancing that happens as part of electronic dance music, and I’m pretty shocked at how little has been written up about it. There’s tons that have been written up about the music, but so far nada on the actual dance. This is incredible. I am hoping to run into more soon, but for the moment, primary and “non-academic” secondary sources online sources (Wikipedia, Youtube, community discussion forums, blogs, etc.) are really all that there is available.

There’s been tons written up about hip hop, of course, about four decades’ worth of literature, and a lot of it concentrates on issues of race, culture, gender, otherness.

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Wiremap/Lumarca construction update 3

Blog, Dance, Learning, Movement, New Media, Performance, Technology, The body

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(Background: I’ve been building a half-sized version of Lumarca/Wiremap, an open source, low-cost, low-resolution volumetric display, and hooking it up to motion recognition systems as part of the research that I’m doing at SIAT. I posted an update a while back. Here’s the latest one.)

I’ve been able to get an older project (a Wiimote hack) to integrate with my implementation of Lumarca. I can control the size of a “3d diamond” in the display using the distance between my thumb and middle finger, and control its color based on the speed of my fingers/hand. It’s still pretty simple right now, but I’m excited to have finally gotten it to work. I’m beginning to appreciate the need for a lot of forethought in designing Wiremap visualizations (as I outlined in a previous post), because in a dark room, it can be hard to really appreciate the 3D-ness of the visualizations.

Much thanks for helping me understand some of the more technical parts of designing the display and coding against it goes to Albert Hwang, who managed to come out to Vancouver last week. I showed him around SIAT and I got a chance to introduce him to some of the grad students, who talked about their research here. It turns out that Albert is also a dancer (in a different genre than mine), and we spent a lot of time showing each other YouTube videos and websites. I hope he enjoyed his short trip here!

Anyway, here’s a (rather poor quality) clip that explains where I’m at!

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Cinema Sundays at the Organizing Centre

Advocacy, Communities, Learning, Teaching

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I caught the last 15 minutes of the film, Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden, at the beautiful intimate space of the Organizing Centre for Social and Economic Justice in Vancouver, on Broadway just off Fraser. They hold movie screenings every Sunday at 1:00 pm. Entrance is by donation, and kids are welcome! There were about 5 or 6 running around there yesterday, plus a super cute dog. Entrance is by donation, which gets you popcorn and coffee. (Coffeeeeeee.) The next two films are going to be about social medicine and agriculture/food. It’s a really great way to spend a meaningful Sunday with your kids.

The film was set in India’s northernmost state of Ladakh, and illustrates the pitfalls of “Western-style” education and makes links between language, culture, globalization, and colonialism. I have to admit that I love much of the knowledge I have gained in my history of studying in Western educational institutions, but that’s because I love and value all kinds of knowledge. But I also value other kinds of ways of knowing. As one young student from Ladakh recounted, “If a student speaks Ladakhi or Hindi [instead of English], they get punished.” After the screening, we had a round of feedback from the audience, some of whom spoke powerfully and eloquently about damage they or their ancestors have sustained from colonialist educational experiences.

Here’s the trailer from that movie. (By the way, you can host a screening of Schooling the World, and I believe it’s affordable to do so. It’s also worth reading the comments on the welcome section of the movie’s blog, where a small and thoughtful discussion took place in the comments section.)

Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden trailer from lost people films on Vimeo.

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Lumarca/Wiremap construction update

Blog, Dance, Learning, New Media, Performance, Technology, Underground


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I’ve been building a half-sized version of Lumarca, an open source, low-cost, low-resolution volumetric display, and hooking it up to motion recognition systems as part of the research that I’m doing at SIAT. Lumarca’s creators, Matt Parker and Albert Hwang, have already hooked it up to a Kinect, which is great:

Here’s a couple of short videos of what my Lumarca system looks like.

Lumarca is a wonderful tool with so many subtleties. I’m realizing a few things about it as I’ve been replicating it.

Given a certain combination of distance between the strings and the projector and distance between the viewer and the strings, what may appear to be smooth movement by the graphics on my monitor is revealed to be quantized when projected onto the Lumarca strings. That is, pixels become more obvious. This isn’t a big revelation; we see this all the time when we project onto traditional, larger screens. One solution to adapt anti-aliasing techniques from 2D graphics to motion graphics projected onto Lumarca.

I’ve also been thinking about how visually striking the string I have been using is, and how it really can’t be ignored. A viewer can’t pretend that the strings are “not there”. We need to consider the materiality of the display, and doing so would open up new possibilities. For example, one could really play with the architectural properties of the strings. I think it should be possible in theory to build a variation of Lumarca that uses strings that cross each other at different angles or clumped in different ways.

Also, although 3D objects can be represented using Lumarca (as evidenced by Matt and Albert’s Kinect video above), I don’t exactly see 3D objects in the display, especially if a viewer stays in one spot with respect to the display. In the real world, we perceive 3D through a combination of strategies, including motion parallax and shadow+light perception (which is difficult in Lumarca because the audience sees only light and no shadows). There are a few potential solutions to this problem of creating a more 3D look in Lumarca graphics if applied for live dance/theatre performance:

  • Set up the performance so that the audience can shift perspectives. If you look at the Lumarca videos that Matt and Albert have online, you’ll notice that whenever the camera is moving around the display, that’s when Lumarca’s 3D-ness becomes most apparent. If that isn’t possible, have the display (or the audience) shift positions (either once in a while or constantly) to generate motion parallax. This isn’t always possible, of course, but it would certainly make a big difference if implemented.
  • Position the audience so that they are looking at Lumarca somewhat from above or below, not parallel to the projected light.
  • Create motion graphics that somehow give the illusion of shadows. This might be tricky given the nature of the display, but it’s an interesting challenge.
  • Simulate depth of field by simulating “blur” in the strings furthest away from the audience. I’m not sure how that would look like exactly, but it might be that the further back the strings are from the audience, the less saturated or less bright they are. Not sure if that would work, and you probably don’t need to do this a lot. Also, this approach means that the audience can’t shift positions, else the illusion would fail.

I’ve also been beginning to think of how one would build an immersive version of Lumarca where one can actually step inside it and play. Holes and pulleys and climbing rope figure in my designs. :)

Back to tying strings to nuts!

Update: I should point out that Lumarca is largely based on Albert Hwang’s project, Wiremap. It turns out that what I want to build is actually closer to Wiremap than to Lumarca.

Albert got in touch with me recently, and he’s thinking about visiting Vancouver and SIAT. Sweet. It turns out that 3D technologies for the stage are among his interests.

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A tool for 3d, real-time visuals for live and interactive performance

Blog, Dance, Learning, Movement, New Media, Performance, Somatics, Technology, The body, Underground

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For my class in Computational Poetics, I’m looking into how somatic-based and phenomenological knowledge of human movement (I studied dance and computing science in my undergrad) can be used to inform the creation of new media-based live performance. As part of this research, I’m investigating the use of Lumarca—an open source, low-cost volumetric display created by Matt Parker and Albert Hwang at ITP—for use in theatre and dance performance. I was totally fascinated with what they had done, and I was thinking how cool it would be use Lumarca as the basis for a complex, custom-made theatrical set piece. Like equipping the strings with flex sensors so that physical interactions with the strings could be detected (for example, the strings could be regarded as vibratory bodies which could then be used for making and visualizing music). Or using different kinds of materials to create a very different look and feel, such as using beautifully-grained, polished wood (something we had discussed in my previous project, Biomodd [LBA2]).  Or even eventually creating a theatre-sized version of the Lumarca/Wire Map so that dancers could be moving through and interacting with a sea of strings.

Basically, I’m tired of seeing 2D displays in dance performance, where they are projected on the floor, or on the ground, or rounded surface. I want to see/make something that surrounds the performer more!

What I especially love about Lumarca is how new media artists in resource-restricted contexts (such as in the third world; I normally live and teach at a university in the Philippines) can use it to create interesting work.

Construction on the Lumarca-based volumetric display is going well, though slow. I showed a super early version of it in a previous post, but I’ve come a long way from that. I’ve become recently become obsessed with making it as stable as possible. Not a bad obsession, and I justify it by thinking about how much I can save when I actually get around to positioning the strings. At any rate, this photo shows where I’m at with the construction.

I also have to write a paper around this project. So first I need to identify as many performances as I can that come close to what I want to do. For example, Improvisational Tools and Synchronous Objects come somewhat close, except that the viewer doesn’t actually get to experience these things live, in 3D space. I’ll look through the dance-tech maillist, my Delicious bookmarks, and YouTube for this.

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