(and other observations)
By Amanda Steggell
(The following was first published in the 1998 spring edition of the DANCE RESEARCH JOURNAL.)
For the past three years I have worked as co-director and choreographer of "Motherboard", creating performances and installations which utilise and relate to digital pop culture and social interaction. Motherboard use a combination of ancient technical gadgetry and modern hard- and software to create interactive environments for performers and audiences, and seek to make visible the seamless connection between on- and offline network existences. From the poor man's telematic presence evoked through the use of videoconferencing shareware, to sound, image and text exchange, movement - the shifting of information - is of essence.
Shifting text- and soundbytes in realtime via the internet is an easier task than shifting the physical body. The transportation of organic matter as implied in the original Star Trekian phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" remains a prehistoric vision of the future that never came, causing technocrats to run away from the bodyness of the body as fast as the"nature babes" run from technology, and dancers most often adhere to the latter group of runners. The human body is considered to be either too simple to stay with, or too intricate to leave. It's like an inverted relay race where the runners never get to pass on their batons as team members speed away from each other in opposite directions. The myth of technology as being a new, non-human entity only adds to the flight.
I meet these attitudes regularly in my work, attitudes which have been moving in and out of fashion throughout history, notably hitting the headlines in eighteenth century Europe, and iconised in Mary Shelley's novel, "Frankenstein".
Frankenstein's fear of his act of creation has become a means to describe every invention which has proven to be dangerous or threatening to it's creator, and a popular metaphor for describing the technological developments in all walks of life occurring now at the turn of the third western millennium.
On the one hand Frankenstein's monster can be considered as a "nature child" - an individual growing up in isolation from other humans. Constructed of adult body parts from several individuals, he is childhoodless as a complete structure, and therefore without the influences of civilisation. On the other, he is also a cultural product - a synthetic post-human designed and created with technological know-how, and brought to life by the application of electrical stimulus.
I prefer to refer to the monster according to the "Shuffle Brain" theories of Professor Paul Pietch at the University of Indiana, stating that each body part, when given new life, will remember it's previous existence as part of a complete structure in the skin tissue, the bone tissue, the muscle structure, the veins, in fact every cell. These memories are not restricted to the brain but are passing in continuous streams of electrical signals through the body's neurological networking system, which in turn communicate with the external environment through the interface of the skin. Each life experience contributes to future movement patterning and communication. Memories may be conscious or unconscious events occurring in the blurred boundaries between social life, the psyche and the physiology.
What the post-human body, be it Frankenstein's monster or our inter/net-connected bodies of today, as a complete structure may not remember when "collaged" together in a new oneness, will nevertheless be remembered in the disjointed, fragmented memories from diverse human histories, habits and experiences.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that the monster's first uncentred, uncoordinated, erratic actions scared the living daylights out of his creator. The monster's first gesture, an arm extending and a hand contorted in a grip-like action, was interpreted by Victor as a threatening, violent act, heightening the already distilling fear of his own act of God-play. Victor's monster desperately needed a good dose of body/mind repatterning and centering in order to function as the harmonic post-human he could have been.
Mary Shelley intended to scare the readers of her day, blending gothic fantasy with romantic immersion, drawing upon the knowledge of scientific breakthroughs, and toying with the social changes that occurred during the period we now know as the industrial revolution. All this embodied in Victor Frankenstein, the creator. Today, apparently in the throws of the digital revolution, "Frankenstein" has popularly come to mean the monster, and not the creator. God has left the stage, and the body is often left to lie passively on the altar of technology. The monster is no longer a contained entity but a shared notion of remotely connected bodies in a continual process of repatterning and designing.
The application of electrical stimulus to the body can be dated back to the very period in which Mary Shelley wrote her novel. In 1745 a scientist named Ewald von Kleist found a method of storing electricity, and by releasing this storage, a spark was produced which ignited alcohol. During further electrical experimentation in Leyden, Pieter von Musschenbroek constructed several glass vessels (Leyden jars) coated inside and out with metal, which could hold enough electricity to kill a living animal. Following these experiments a phenomenon of fashion developed; to let oneself be electrified and to watch others being given electric shocks. Where previously a flame had ignited curiosity, an invisible electrical current witnessed and experienced as involuntary body movement, confirmed the very existence of electricity in the consciousness of an otherwise skeptical public, flaming also their imagination.
This phenomenon has experienced a revival during the last decade, notably through the work of body artists such as Marcello Antonez Roca and Sergi Jorda, who collaborated to create the performance "Epizoo", and most notoriously, Stelarc. In "Ping Body" Stelarc submits his body to a series of electrical shocks and spasmically writhes and twitches accordingly - human movement without intention, and apparently without memory. His intentions are not to reveal the existence of electricity, but to suggest the ability of remote invisible humans (or absent bodies) operating as virtual agents in a digital network, to inform and manipulate a human body through the interface of the skin. Stelarc believes the interfacing qualities of the skin to be far superior to the body's automatic, internal monitoring system, which will eventually become obsolete. -The present organ-isation of the body is unnecessary, says Stelarc, -the solution to modifying the body is not to be found in its internal structure but lies simply on its surface. In order to move into cyborgian utopia, we merely need to redesign the skin.
Choreographers and dancers with anything to sell on the electronic stage can contest this Stelarcian vision by drawing upon the knowledge of their dance heritage:
These bodily skills are as valuable on the digitally enhanced stage and in the design of interactive installations as they are in more traditional dance settings. We just have to make the right connections. All we have to do is to move out of a time when technology seems to threaten our art, and into a place where acquiring new technology-related skills simply changes the way we interface with the world.
During a telematic rehearsal situation, I explained to a skeptical dancer that she should put "on" her interaction possibilities as she would put on a costume and let it affect her presence accordingly. She needed to learn to move within the specific qualities of the digitally extended performance environment, trusting that her presence is as powerful in her local space as is the manifestation of her body-electric in the simultaneously occurring remote locations.
While negotiating a co-production with a theatre director the comical situation arose when she asked me if I was intending to involve real, live performers in my production. This was a prerequisite for continuing negotiations, and a serious concern of hers; performance art requires the presence of performing bodies. I replied, yes, if I could afford them. Otherwise I would invite my absent friends. Curators and theatre directors alike are having problems tuning in to the hybrid nature of the current art scene. They simply don't like being caught unaware as visual artists insist on exhibiting soundscapes instead of hangable pictures and musicians deliver graphical representations of their sound. Performance art is all the rage. Contemporary urban artists are jamming with culture and, as always, challenging their predecessors. The results of their work are accordingly unpredictable. I do understand the theatre director's concern, though. A bodyless Stelarc is no fun to watch. A blown-out lightbulb cannot reveal the presence of an electrical current, but your finger in the socket can. Perception is a bodily skill.
In my opinion Shelley and Stelarc have managed to light the bulbs of imagination within their public where many technology-related dance projects have failed. Though their chosen mediums of communication differ, their visions are strong and their methods bold. Having once chosen to open the digital toolbox, choreographers and dancers should be throwing caution to the wind and run towards their electronic playgrounds with the senses wide open to the world around them, rather than staying home with their soft bodies.
In 1998 we have reached the stage where the "shock of the new", the technology hype, has worn off. While I am typing away you can be sure that there are thousands, if not millions, of kids jamming, mixing, scratching, moving, sampling, hacking, morphing and grooving with any equipment they can get their hands on, oblivious of the intellectual discourses surrounding them. Mixing high-tech with lo-tech and no-tech, technology has become as natural to them as sliced bread - there is nothing to discuss.