Dancers In White, Standing
A dance performance that explores the possibilities surrounding the involvement of non-human and non-anthropomorphic performers in live dance performance.
produced by: Amy Cartwright
full report: https://amycartwright.github.io/dancers-in-white-standing/
Bringing a set of three non-anthropomorphic autonoma together with a human dancer, Dancers in White, Standing focuses on the bold new forms of creativity and physical performance that result when art embraces computation and robotics. The otherness of such foreign bodies engaging with one another through dance presents a unique relationship that gives the improvised performance a truly genuine air of exploration. The work takes a firm and practical step toward a new intersection between dance performance and Artificial Intelligence.
Dancers in White, Standing avoids the anthropocentrism of replicating human motion in the non-human performers by instead using forms of motion that are pre-existing in non-human forms. The fragility and uncertainty of the robotic arm allows for explorations into movements that are markedly different from a human dancer. Responding to its fellow dancers in real-time, the improvised choreography allows each arm to demonstrate its own identity, as both a non-human entity and as a performer.
Dancers In White, Standing is the first practical exploration into what has previously been a largely theoretical research path into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and dance performance. I am Interested in exploring the non-human within dance performance and so decided to focus this project into finding a way to create a dance performance that included non-human performers.
A large challenge in creating a non-human performer is the audience. Often live performances rely on the audience’s ability to relate to the human performer and much of this relationship comes from shared sensory experiences. It is therefore natural that humans find it much harder to relate to non-human objects, an experience that is only intensified when the object is also a non-anthropomorphic.
To try and combat this my first instinct was to move away from a screen based performer. I felt that by giving something a physical form that exists in the same physical space as the human performer the audience would be more likely see it as an additional performer as opposed to set or decorative scenery.
Some of the artists/projects that inspired me whilst developing the concept of this piece are: Eric Minh Cuong Castaing, Zimoun, Industrial Improvisation, Pinokio, Fabricating Performance, Alexander McQueen, Madeline the Robot Tamer & Mimus
Building the non-human dancer
Once I had decided that it was necessary for my non-human dancer to have a physical form I began to think about what form that would be. I wanted something that had its own unique movement style, had a certain amount of fragility, was not so small that it seemed like a toy and not too large that it became a set piece. I had no experience designing something like this so I began to look at what was available in the open source community. I found the meArm and decided to use this as my prototype non-human dancer.
The final design is not too far away from the meArm but I did have to make some fairly significant changes to the original design. I needed to scale it up and redesign the base of the arm to fit it onto my stands and also redesign the point at the front of the arm as I did not want to use the fourth motor. I have to spend some time improving the structural integrity of the arm which was lost slightly in the scaling up. This included cutting new parts using a laser cutter to deal with the extra weight and adding new points of contact to improve stability. I also needed to source stronger servo motors to cope with the increased weight.
Programming the non-human dancer
To establish a relationship between the human dancer and the non-human dancers I needed to find a way of creating awareness. The human dancer can easily be aware of the non-human but what about the reverse? I needed to find a way for the non-human dancer to see the movements of the human dancer. Written in openFrameworks, I decided to use computer vision, more specifically blob detection and colour tracking. A Kinect checks every pixel in an image for a blob (more than one pixel) of a specific colour, in this case pink. It then finds the location of the central point of this colour blob which becomes the x and y coordinates that will be sent. The Kinect then takes these x, y coordinates and calculates the depth in a grayscale image. The darker the colour the farther away the points. This colour is converted into real world data which then becomes the z coordinate.
The x, y, z coordinates become the ‘vision for the non-human dancer. They are sent from openFrameworks via a serial connection across to the Arduino Mega that controls the robotic arms. The non-human dancer can now understand the exact location of a specific part of the human dancers body in space. The coordinates are sent along with a message which indicates to the Arduino what it should do with these coordinates. Once the Arduino has received the coordinates it then maps the data to the servo motor range and instructs the motors to move to that location.
I did not want the arms to be continually moving and also did not always want the movement of the arms to mirror human motion. I decided to use the music as a timer through the piece, when different events occur in the musical score the movement or both the dancer and the non-human dancer adapts. I also experimented with different choreographic techniques such as cannon, repetition and call and response. One of the more complex problem to solve was how to make the arms move on their own while the dancer was static. At first I attempted to use random movement but the outcome was very unsatisfying. Instead I created a buffer of data saved from a previous section of movement which was then saved and sent to the Arduino when the command came around. I preferred this option as there was a faint echo of the movements performed by the dancer previously.
The steps up to the space give it the feel of an informal stage, not imposing when there is no performance but remnant or a traditional proscenium arch re-enforcing that this piece, although shown in an exhibition setting, is very much intended for performance.
Once the space had been chosen I experimented with different staging options. I wanted to fill the space and give both the non-human dancer and the human dancer individual space. I settled on this configuration:
I had to consider how I would show the work during the exhibition outside of the performance setting. I knew that I would have a video of the work playing but I also wanted to find a way of having the robotic arms moving. It was very important to me that they not lose their integrity as performers and so I decided not to have them move constantly. After considering the relationship that I wanted them to have with the audience I also decided against having them move in response to audience motion. I felt that this moved away from them being performers and moved more into the realm of interactive art. My final decision was to have them move when the video is being watched. I achieved this by using face tracking. When someone is watching the video their face is detected, if they stay for longer than 5 seconds data is sent to the Arduino and the arms will move. Once the person moves away the arms will stop moving. They only move when someone is paying attention to them.
I can see a lot of potential for future development within this work. As with many live performance pieces it can remain fluid, adapting for the needs of each showing. Perhaps at times it becomes a more intimate performance with just one non-human dancer or in a different situation it can become an ensemble piece with many non-human and human dancer sharing the stage.
Before adapting any of the computational side I would like to work intensively with the robotic arms and other movement artists in a rehearsal environment. As the piece is very much about exploration, working intensively in this way will allow me to discover new and natural routes of progression with both the choreography and the computation.
As this was my first attempt at working with robotics there is naturally a lot of room for development with the build of the non-human dancers. I would like to begin experimenting with more durable motors that will allow the robots a full 360 degree of movement. I would also like to spend sometime researching and developing different robotic forms, using different materials and discovering the types of motion that result from different movement options. Currently the robots move based on a hinge system, how different would the movement capabilities using a gear system or a pressure system?
Dancers In White, Standing is the first piece I have made that allowed me to extend my computational knowledge into my artistic practice. During the course of its production I made very significant steps forward into understanding the nature of a computational performer. I am very satisfied with the research development and the outcome of this work. In many ways the end result surpassed my expectations at the start of the process. That being said it remains my first exploration and it is very much a small step into a much wider field of exploration.
One of the more significant problematic elements of the final work was in the link between the human movement and the robotic movement. When I began to rehearse with the arms outside of the lab setting I found that the choreography had to be slightly adapted. The colour tracking was very efficient but transferring the data to the Arduino resulted in a small amount of latency. Although small, this latency proved extremely problematic when trying to establish a clear relationship between the dancer and the robotic arms. When the dancers movements were rapid, observers were not able to establish a connection. At this stage in the project I did not have the time to explore different and potentially more efficient methods of data transfer and so I made the decision to adapt the choreography, slowing down the motion and adding a rhythm to the movement that mirrored the rate of data transfer. Although this did work and allowed observers to see a clear relationship, for future development I would prefer to find a way of ensuring that the movements of the dancer are not restricted.
Another element of the work that I am unsure of is the program that runs whilst there is no performance. The subtlety of the interaction was definitely the right decision however the movements of the robotic arms, in this program, were repetitive and very set and I felt that this gave a false impression of the performance. It did not reflect the more nuanced and complex motions that occur during the performance. For future showings I would like to find a way to make the movements subtler and less predictable, allowing for more apparent agency.
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