Monday, December 7, 2009

e-Thereal Dancing

I am here at the UK All-Hands Meeting as the co-Director of the North-West e-Science Centre, ESNW. Several projects in the North-West, in particular at the University of Manchester, have concentrated on advanced video-conferencing, specifically the Access Grid technology. I have always regarded this as a very exciting vehicle to enable distributed participants in collaborations to have a feel of each others presence and to respond to each other even though we may all be in different locations. So it was some interest that I attended the first keynote talk of the meeting given by Helen Bailey from the University of Bedfordshire describing the work of the e-Dance project. I have also to confess to a very amateur, enthusiastic (but not, alas, very skillful) interest in dance myself, so getting some tips from the professionals was also a lure.

AccessGrid is often represented as just another videoconferencing tool but it is actually a very flexible technology for managing audio and video streams from different sources and displaying them in a flexible manner using the H261 procotol for high-quality transmission of video. AccessGrid spaces can be purpose built or can consist of cameras, computers, mikes etc that can be rolled into and out of locations. Helen's talk emphasise this latter point strongly because dancers want to make imaginative use of space and do not want to stay in fixed locations with a microphone and camera statically directed to them. Helen described that the interdisciplinary nature of the project meant that the e-Science technologists and the performance artists had to understand each others methods and skills. This led to the dancers needing to understand the application technology and the e-Science technologists joining in the dancing. This last bit made me rather jealous, one of the things I dont like about being heavily involved in computing is the sedentary nature of the work.

Helen described that a feature of the technology that was particularly fascinating to the performers was the ability to make video panes partially transparent so that video images could be composited and layered. The freedom accorded by the Access Grid software in the placement of video windows allowed the artists to explore non-physical movement such as when the top half of one artists body appeared joined to the lower half of another's and so non-physical movements such as the rotation of the trunk through 360 degrees about the legs can be explored.

The ability to record and annotate Access Grid sessions has been developed in the Memetic project and this permits analysis and collaboration to be added to the immediate experience of the performance. Also by combining movement tracking with visualization software, the movement of an artist in space and time can be translated in a sculpture recording the movement in purely three dimensional form. She showed some very beautiful patterns created by artists dancing to music such as Bach's Goldberg variations. She then went on to describe how all this can be linked to conventional notations designed to capture movement that have grown up in the pre-electronic era.

The project has achieved a great deal in just two years. When I first saw Access Grid demonstrated in the US in 2000 I was very excited by the possibility of its use in performance arts. At Manchester we invited a performance artist, Kelli Dipple, who got a scholarship from the the Australian Arts Foundation, to perform in the Manchester node which was then the first in the UK. This work was linked to joint performances with artists in the US and in Australia. However in the work Helen described, these experiments are being synthesized into a framework that can provide for systematic exploration of the interplay between technology and performance. This is very exciting, because technology is sometimes represented as being impersonal and potentially alienating. Our experience of our bodies in movement and response to music and to the movement of other humans, on the other hand, is an essential part of our experience of being human and appears across many different cultures. So they act like two poles of a battery and the liveliness of the presentation showed the sparks that this can generate.

Altogether a very good beginning to the AHM09. And some inspiration to me to go back to my salsa lessons when I return to Manchester.

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