SIRENS: PERFORMANCE TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNITY DANCE AND DISABILITY EMBODIMENT
(published in the proceedings of the Congress on Research in Dance, Tallahassee, Florida, 2005)
The use of technologies in community performances create nexi of problems around access, power, centre and periphery, background and foreground, ownership, presence and representation. My paper aims to unwrap some of the issues associated with collaborative working methods in a disability and performance technology framework. Specifically, the paper will discuss Sirens, an Olimpias performance that took place in Liverpool, UK, as part of a large Disability Arts Conference. In this performance, a group of disabled dancers interacted with performance technologists, and created a complex piece of work that questioned 'natural' bodies, and 'natural' sensorial access.
What are the different uses of technology in contemporary disability performance work? What are potential relations between media technologies used as part of dance aesthetics and (the contemporary developments of traditional) access technologies? My paper focuses on some of the issues associated with collaborative working methods in a disability and performance technology framework, through the discussion of a community dance project I led as Artistic Director of The Olimpias Performance Research Series. In particular, I will show how our show improvised with the different kinds of technologies that surround stage practice: new media technologies of video screens, sensors, V-Jay software and screen dance, and access technologies, like audio description, captioning, and signing.
The Olimpias is a Performance Research Project Series. This label means that under its banner people who do or do not (yet) identify as artists come together to explore issues of collaboration, (new) media, community arts and identity politics in residencies or long-term projects. One such collaborative event occurred in May 2003 in Liverpool, when Elizabeth Goodman and Jo Gell from the SMARTlab at Central St. Martins, UK and Clilly Castiglia and Kevin Feeley from the Center for Advanced Technology, NYU, asked me to work with different performance technologies that they were developing, and test them out in a community arts setting. We all worked together with a group of interested disabled artists associated with the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and North West Disability Arts Forum. Together, we explored how contemporary performance software/hardware solutions could interact with disability arts approaches of empowerment, communication and access (for more on practical approaches to integrated dance work, see Benjamin, 2002). The resulting show, Sirens, emerged out of a fast and furious working period, and its guerilla performance as research-in-process is the topic of this short article.
Many of The Olimpias themes emerge out of site-specific concerns - in previous years, we have worked with Welsh myths in order to articulate mental health difference (in shows, videos and photo-installations called Earth Stories, Sleeping Giants, and Dragon Stories), or with echoes between New England beaches and other rural locations and our fantasies of our bodies as sites (in our performance pieces Body Provisional, Bare Bone Tune, and the workshop series/photograph exhibit Tracks).
In Liverpool, an extremely short work period meant that instead of a lengthy research of locations and their associated legends, myths and stories and personal fantasies, we had to find quick access to a unifying theme, something that would anchor our concerns with transmission, media and disability politics. We found this core in the myth of the Sirens – bird-bodied women-monsters whose beautiful voices lure sailors to their death. Much of Greek myth uses different bodies as markers of extraordinary natures, and as meaning carriers. Thus, Oedipus is already limping before he is blinded, marking his status as traveler between two worlds, two kingdoms. Hepaisthos, the God of the smithy who created Pandora, the perfect woman, also limps: within the economy of the myth, supposed perfection rises out of supposed imperfection. Tiresias is blind: the blind seer was punished by the Gods for knowing too much, as he had lived both in a female and a male body, and knew both pleasures. In these stories, disability is a mark of knowing too much too fast, experiencing hubris, and undergoing change. Conceptually, there is an interesting echo here: all of these attributes are also associated with new technologies – ‘difference’ is emerging into the world of bodies, and into to the world of sensory reception.
Our bodies on the workshop stage echoed these mythologized impairments, but as disabled people, we experience them differently. If limping is part of your way of locomoting in the world, it doesn’t necessarily feel subjectively negative, or ‘secondary’ to some idea of ‘normate’ walking. In the same way, the visual information perceived by someone who is visually impaired is appropriate and orienting, ‘normal’ to them, and not necessarily experienced as inferior. My own, pain-related experiences induce me to move in our shared world in a deliberate and attentive manner, and given my adaptive strategies, I don’t experience my physical difference necessarily as a negativity – instead, it opens up new perspectives and different sensibilities for me, which nourish my creativity and my activism. This way of understanding disability emerges out of the ‘social model of disability’, in opposition to a ‘medical model’, which looks for aberration located in individual singularity and aims to adapt the ‘abnormal’ to the ‘normal’. The social model sees disability not as something that is inherent in the specific impairment or condition of a specific person, but sees restriction and problems predominantly in the interaction between a person and a social world that only recognizes some ways of being in the world as ‘normal’, and rejects other ways of being.
For many disabled people who become interested in their particular perspective as a cultural minority, a different way of being in the world emerges as our own, familiar, central identity (and a lot of recent work on the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty emphasizes this point, as I have argued elsewhere (2003)). This split between disability as metaphor and disability as lived experience is an important feature of much current work in disability arts and theory. The sense of disability as a form of different and therefore valuable access to the world in its own right, and as a dance language, became the core political centre of the show. In Sirens, we issued a call, a song, a seduction: we wanted to share some of the richness of our different access points. Thus, in an intense and short work period, we collected aspects of our different access to the world in a collaborative process, and translated these differences into new forms of creative engagement with one another, with the stage technologies available to us, and with the audience.
Here is what one of our technologist/artists, Kevin Feeley, wrote about the performance in his independent study report for NYU (he participated in our show as part of his MA work) about his experience with disability performance, and the specific challenges of accessible work:
The performance was intense but went amazingly well. Considering that these people had only met and begun working 56 hours prior, Sirens was a huge success - the technology genuinely provided a rich, multi-modal supplement to the movements of the artists on the stage. All audio cues had to have an accompanying visual or kinesthetic cue; and all video cues had accompanying audio cues, etc. The performance had a signer on stage, and text was used whenever possible to describe audio assets or captions for movement. The performance was so well received, that the audience requested a question and answer session immediately after.
The performance technologies provided by NYU and the SMARTLab helped to created this ‘rich, multi-modal supplement’, and the notions of connection, nodality and supplementation were the core theme and methodology of the choreography.
In the dance choreography and the technological play with dance, connections and distances provided anchor points. Play with perspective, for instance, allowed videographer and dancers to interact in different ways, using close-ups and changing distances. One of our videographers, Max, has a mobility impairment that meant not only discomfort on the stage, but also the need to be flexible with time arrangements. Traditional performance would have problems with these access needs but our use of a more diverse theatre machine allowed for Max to be a fully integrated artistic voice – he didn’t have to be physically in the theatre for his unique perspective on movement and space to be part of our show. Instead of dancing in person on the stage, the images he captured with the video-camera, and mixed onto the video screen echoed his way of being in the world, and made it differently experiential to the audience.
We used the software Viewhear, which functions like a keyboard - videos, sounds, etc. can be fed into it, and can then be 'improvised' into an audiovisual score during a live performance, creating something akin to a multi-disciplinary V-Jay working practice. Video material, sound clips and still images can ‘slide’ into the show with controls similar to a lighting set (i.e., the slides you run up or down to coax light up on the stage). Thus, we were able to feed Max’s dance video material, worked on it short but intense moments during the workshops, into the software and mix it into the live performance.
During the workshops and performance, we paid particular attention to the relative power and status of different live, technological and embodied/technological methodologies and their interplay. Important technology we begun to work with were audio transcription and captioning. Two of the performers were visually impaired, and two identified as Deaf. This allowed for many interesting moments of improvisation - the vibration of the wooden floor and a reliance on kinesthesia as information source were some of the techniques we explored.
In one moment in our working process, a Deaf dance artist, Ruth Gould, gave an audio transcription of a dance between two other performers, and a camera captured in close-up her moving mouth. In a movement/Viewhear montage, these different performance moments can now interplay, and their status as 'aesthetic objects' or 'information systems' become undecidable and problematized. At any moment in this show, numerous ‘representations’ of dancing bodies could be on stage at the same time. Beyond the 'presence' of live dance, other channels included the video-taped mouthdance of the narration of the audio description on screen, this footage could visually interact with dance-close-ups on screen, and all of these images were mixed with amplified voice-overs, and with the ‘live’ sounds of moving bodies on the wooden stage.
Other forms of access could be provided visually at multiple points – a signer occupied a corner of the stage, and put any language used on stage or on video into an elaborate hand-dance. Using Sign Language as an fully equal partner (to spoken language) and creatively rich source of bodily poetics on stage is by now a well established practice for many companies, including Graeae and Common Ground Sign Dance Theatre in the UK and the National Theatre of the Deaf in the US.
In addition to these channels of communication and creativity, the whole show’s audio transcription was provided live by a transcriber, and could be fed into the whole auditorium through the intercom system at the discretion of the sound engineer, or could be accessed by individual audience members through am audio loop system, independent of their impairment status. And many people did avail themselves of this audio-description, even if those didn’t ‘need’ it, who were neither visually nor hearing impaired: it provided another aesthetic, poetic channel of movement translation.
Captioning (spoken text running as subtitles) also functioned in an complex way. Text Rain was another software solution brought by the NYU team. We fed various pieces of creative writing created by workshop participants in response to the Sirens theme into the program, and mounted a sensor to capture movement on stage. The resulting material shows text scrolling down on the projecting screen. Where moving bodies are captured by the sensors, the text-color changes. The text seems to flow around the bodies, it moves with them. Image and presence merge and divert in interesting ways in this circus of meanings and input devices.
As I am writing this, I know that this montage and mélange of sensorial access, some translated and transformed through visual or audio media, sounds like a circus, a spectacle, a mass of too much information. And it was, in some ways, but the resulting show was always anchored back in the movement material – its translation into language, image, presence, sound, smell and kinesthetic nearness provided the focal point. Many of the audience members were well used to elaborate communication set-ups – they were disabled people, like ourselves, and were willing and happy to grant time and space to serious reflection about inclusion and access. At disability culture events, many of us wait while the speech paragraph we’ve just given is typed out and appears on a screen, we interact respectfully with the ASL transcriber, and ensure that there is good lighting on our face and mouth for those in our audience who read our lips. We shuffle wheelchairs, seats and move guide dogs to ensure that we can all participate. This spatial and sensory awareness of difference has always been a delight (and necessity) to me, and is significantly different from the atmosphere at most non-disabled events I participate in. This multi-layered access provision and play with technologies emerges therefore seamlessly out of a disability aesthetic, or at least more seamlessly than it would emerge from (some) non-disabled dance viewers’ sense of stagework as relying on an ‘invisibilized’ or naturalized technology. In Sirens, we aimed to foreground our sensorial differences, and therefore to thematize difference not just in the choreography on the stage, but also in the choreography of the stage, and the audience/dancer interaction.
The performance was the opening evening of the Effecting Change: the Future of Disability Arts conference at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, and thus the audience was filled with fellow disabled people, and non-disabled allies. As Kevin described, once the performance ended, the audience wouldn't let us get off stage: in a world where access issues often play second fiddle to aesthetics, it was very refreshing for many to see a dance performance that deliberately plays with the call and response of video, audio, and human bodies. We had a great conversation.
In the hope embodied in productions such as Sirens, disability as a socially assumed lack vanishes, and the body/technology stage instead bodies forth a richness, the pleasure of difference in collaboration. No one's access is (only) privileged (although the visual remains the potentially strongest draw - our common theatre machine and its audience seems to require more training to the seduction of sound and touch). But of course, this stage description presents a longing, not a state: this is work-in-process, pursuing a stage methodology that allows difference to live. Sirens emerges as a cauldron of experiments. The purely spectacular, objectifying the performers and disembodying the technology, is one of the dangers encountered by the work. But the stage presence of the performers seemed to hinder their vanishing behind the multi-media light show: they were very present, very focused, and remained the core of the performance. The reduction of the literal, fixing participants into certainties, is another – taking either ‘normate’ viewing, audio-transcription or sub-titling as full representations of dance as an event that can be wholly captured. The sensory overload and multiple access channels, all providing slightly different information, and often slightly shifted in time against the action occurring on stage, aimed to undermine this kind of fixity. Sirens was a process, an intervention, a shifting of foreground and background, performance technology and access technology. It wasn’t designed to ‘succeed’, but to set thoughts in motion. To me, engendering and playing with a balancing act is thus the play mode for different bodies and different performance technologies that want to work together in a political realm.
The show relied on collaboration: the technologist-artists went with the flow, improvised just as much as the dancers did, and the audience was happy to engage with the resulting experiment, overlooking technical difficulties, and engaging very nimbly with their audio loop gear. To me, it was very exciting to see where we can take things, how far improvisation can flow, and how generous performers and audiences can be with one another. Video and audio technologies were here not used to 'supplant' the dancing body, but to engage with it, partner it. Access technologies, often seen as supplementary to the ‘actual’ performance event, became here exciting dance partners, full participants in the multi-nodal collaboration. I learned that new dance technologies AND access technologies can play important and creative roles in the future of community dance performances, and I am looking forward to playing with them some more.
Adam Benjamin (2002) Making an Entrance. London and New York: Routledge.
Petra Kuppers (2003) Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. London and New York: Routledge.
© Petra Kuppers, 2004
P.S. Having researched the Sirens for Liverpool, I am still haunted by them, and a different kind of Siren performance took place in Rhode Island, on a beach, in September 2004. We had sand, water, rocks, wood, food, voices and bodies. The only other technology in sight and earshot was a Tibetan singing bowl. Our main access technologies were proximity and kinesthesia, and the pleasure of a communal picnic - in these close quarters, we communicated in different ways, accessible to everyone present.