Expressive Bodies and Digital Cultures

What is at stake for dancers and the dance profession in the face of technological advances? To begin, you might consider the common fear that live performance, by expressive dancing bodies, could one day be eclipsed by artificially intelligent machines and the Internet’s burgeoning DIY dance cultures. At the same time, I nurture the hope that sentient human beings will always remain a driving force in the arts world as well as in cyberspace.

The significance of placing human beings at the centre of digital cultures formed the basis for “Embodied Spaces,” the thematic orientation of the fourth Symposium IX organized at and by the Société des arts technologiques (SAT) in Montréal, founded in 1996 by Monique Savoie (still general director) and Luc Courchesne (also co-curator of this year’s symposium). This five-day event is an annual gathering of 350+ creative scientists, artists, curators, researchers, philosophers, industry professionals and computer programmers. Profit-minded industry representatives are brought face to face with open source advocates as, for instance, Walt Disney animators spar with punk performance artists over the politics of new technologies. The vitality of creativity is a common thread. And this year, a remarkable dancer-***-visionary Internet technologist was the keynote speaker.

It is interesting to recall that choreographic experimentation with digital media, in the city of Montréal, dates back to the 1980s. It was SAT co-founder Courschene who designed Marie Chouinard’s original sound-transmitting costume in the iconic futuristic solo S.T.A.B. (Space, Time and Beyond), which premiered in 1986. However, these collaborations were relatively slow to emerge in Québec in the 1980s and 1990s because of limited access to the expensive equipment required (the Musical Instrument Digital Interface and Portapak video camera were notable exceptions). Isabelle Choinière, Michael Montanaro, Pierre-Paul Savoie and, of course, Chouinard were some of the earliest dance artists in Montréal to venture into the use of computer-based creative tools for choreography, having succeeded in locating computer programmers interested in collaboration. At the time, there were also a few local arts organizations, for instance Gallery OBORO (est. 1982) and the women’s media collective Studio XX (est. 1996), which provided technical support (and still do) to artists interested in electronic media. In addition, the Fondation Daniel Langlois were instrumental in supporting and archiving media art. And then, experimentation accelerated in 2001 when the university research consortium Hexagram was founded to facilitate research and creation in the media arts, design and technology. Their laboratory studios and performance spaces are today jointly housed at Concordia University and the Université du Québec à Montréal. Local dancemakers have since widely embraced the integration of vibrant computer-generated sound and visual environments in their work, and some have delved more deeply into vital questions about the meaning and impact of interfacing live bodies with virtual worlds.

A large, green Apple desktop computer had been a ubiquitous presence in my personal and professional life since the mid-1980s (subsequently replaced by a MacBook Air), but my awakening to the vitality and impact of the digital arts didn’t really occur until 1995. That was the year a global network of new media artists chose Montréal for the annual International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) – a not-for-profit network founded in the Netherlands in 1990 as a forum for encouraging the development of interdisciplinary academic dialogue among culturally diverse groups and individuals working in the fields of art, science and technology. It was serendipity that they drafted me, as Tangente’s artistic director, into the performing arts jury for which I read dozens of performance proposals. At Tangente we presented a series of three interdisciplinary performance works in which computer programming and imagery were central. Daytime activities of the ISEA symposium included personal device demonstrations in a virtual reality lounge, round-table discussions, lectures and immersive artistic installations. As if the survival of humankind was in peril, the delegates debated heatedly the nature of their role and their responsibility in shaping the future of digital culture. Captivated by the delegates’ passion and conviction, I took their mission to heart.

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