Detour collective- Aikaterini Dinopoulou

Posted on July 5, 2011

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Telepresence and Telematics

An investigation of the physical and digital body

in interactive digital performance and installation

This study will introduce contrasts and comparisons between ‘digital’ and ‘physical’ bodies, and examine questions regarding their relationship and use in the telematic interactive dance performance and installation practices that are part of my research project. On the most basic level, the physical body of the dancer can be perceived as real and material, limited by gravity, anatomical factors, and their ‘kinesphere’, whereas their digital body, as an image formed by electronic data, may be viewed as immaterial and ‘bodiless’, and is potentially unlimited in its transformational capacities. In recent times, the ‘virtual’ space of internet, created and employed by computer and video technology, has enabled the ‘capturing’ and ‘splitting’ of a body image so that it can simultaneously coexist alongside ‘the real’. This way, a person can be telepresent in a remote location forming imaginary situations, relationships and ‘double’ identities.

Digital Bodies and the Corporeal

Digital bodies are variable, weightless entities comprised, not of concrete units, but of electronic data-bytes and signals based on the binary code, 0/1. Stored in the database of a computer’s memory, any combination of binary codes can be manipulated by digital processing so that 2D digital bodies and ‘worlds’ can be “freely modified by the user” (Manovich, 2001, p. 44) in terms of such things as: 

Size, degree of detail, format, color, shape, interactive trajectory, trajectory through space, duration, rhythm, point of view, the presence or absence of particular characters, the development of a plot [etc.]

(Manovich, 2001, p. 44)

Various possibilities in changing and manipulating digital bodies can be pre-programmed into computers, following predetermined sequences, and set up to be triggered as automatic responses to different interventions and interactive stimuli (Manovich, 2001; Birringer, 2008).

Digital, and ‘virtual’, bodies and images can also be divided into two categories:

1)     Figures created by computer graphics/animation software depicting fictitious and imaginary characters and environments existing, for example, in ‘virtual reality’;

2)     Images, ‘captured’ and relayed in real time by video, of actual people and situations that are, for example, ‘telepresent’.

Hence, the digital body is a dematerialised, bodiless figure that can provide a person with ‘a likeness’ that can either be an imaginary substitute, or an actual ‘copy’ of their corporeal[1] body image and identity. Furthermore, lacking the relationship to space that physical bodies have, limited as these are by gravitational and anatomical factors, digitized bodies are freer to deal with illusory effects that alter spatial and temporal configurations, and defy or ignore the presence of weight and gravity – which is something this research explores and examines.

Additionally, digital bodies can take on symbolic qualities, for example, they can provide projected images of real people with a sense of an immaterial essence of being – symbolically and momentarily transforming them into timeless, spirit figures. Or they can depict a range of ‘archetypal’ relationships, from nurturing ‘maternal’ images, to male/female or self/other oppositions that are attempting to explore and find points of connection and balance. All of these ‘symbolic’ examples can be witnessed in the digital interactions between participants in my research project that is titled Chatrooms (2009-10) (fig.1).

ChatRooms is a telematic performative installation that uses the devise of digital double[2] as form of communication. The performers’ body image is captured in real-time simultaneously in remote locations and then interacting[3] with each other by manipulating their superimposed images on a single projection screen. After the performance, a spectator is invited to replace one of the performers and experience the piece on a one-to-one basis as participant. ChatRooms examines performers’ engagement with their digital image, as well as how the spectator can more actively embody their digital presence.

Fig 1. ChatRooms (2009-10) by Aikaterini Dinopoulou

The key aspect that is highlighted by this research is the co-presence of digital and actual, ‘corporeal’ bodies in a ‘telepresent’ arrangement, and the creative possibilities that this produces between them. Combining camera work with projected images on a screen, symbolic meanings and other kinds of images and relationships are produced by uniting various layers into one. However, these layers are not confined to the screen alone. In its set-up as both digital and ‘live’ performance, the participants do not stay imprisoned inside the camera frame, as for example in screen-based computer and video art. Because of the interactions with their physical and screen-based presences, those involved are free to move in and out of the camera frame and ‘play’ in both the stage space and the camera space.

What is created by the two performance spaces of the stage and the screen is a split focus in the participant between the ‘immateriality’ of their digital body and the sensations and abilities of their ‘material’ or physical body. While the participant may be free to move out of the camera or screen space, they are bound, not only by the natural laws of gravity and physics, mentioned earlier, but by the anatomical limitations of what the movement theorist, Rudolph Laban, calls their ‘kinesphere’. Explained as determining “the natural boundaries of the personal space” that “travels with the body in the general space” (Laban, 1971, p. 38), the kinesphere shrinks or grows in relation to how open or closed are the physical body’s gestures and postures. Ultimately, the nature of being ‘inside’ and at the centre of one’s kinesphere, or personal space, is a key part of being ‘embodied’.

However, when dancing with digital technologies and a digital double, a performer is not only at the centre of their kinesphere but also ‘outside’ of it, giving them two perspectives. While performing for a spectator or an audience, they are at the centre of their kinesphere, but they must also be aware of their digital projection and envisage how the camera sees them from its external vantage point (Birringer, 2008). The dancer thus exists and moves as both a physical and digital body in physical and virtual spaces, experiencing not only embodiment but also disembodiment. This process requires the mover to be both subjectively engaged and, through the presence of the projection screen, to be an observer and witness of their own action, about which they then make objective judgements and decisions.

By means of digital doubling, the kinesphere of the physical body expands into the virtual environment and connects with the digital body image. If sensing, according to Laban, is related to weight (1971, p. 127), then sensing through a weightless body changes the relationship between space and time and produces a different kinaesthetic awareness – one that initially often commences with a sort of ‘ataxia’, or physical confusion. As Birringer points out, dancing “with streaming image environments…”

[…] can produce the  collapse of the sensorimotor logic of images, and thus an affective experience of haptic space within the body rather that outside through optical perception.

(Birringer, 2008, p. 159)

Not only do participants experience coordination and spatial disorientation when first attempting to manipulate the live transmission of their digital doubles, the slight time delays that computer networks can sometimes create between physical and virtual selves, makes their connection even more ‘distanced’, and turns ‘telepresence’, which is what this research project is based on, into a practiced art.

Finally, the normal relationship between what a person sees and what they touch in the real world is disrupted by the projection of their live image onto a 2D screen. Spatial re-alignments of digital bodies to allow them to simulate connection and physical contact is one the main skills that participants must ‘learn’. Furthermore, while the users of telepresence systems can see that their screen selves are touching objects or others, they have no physical sense of any actual touch, which raises questions about the nature and degree of the social and emotional interactions that these disembodied methods are able to generate, by comparison to real life – a consideration partially answered in the next section by dancer Susan Kozel’s experiences of telematic performance.

Telematics

According to Manovich, “telepresence means presence at a distance” and is a means by which a person can use a digital signal to ‘teleport’ from “a real remote physical location via a live video image” (2001, p. 165). A simple application of telepresence used today is Skype software, which allows users to make ‘video calls’ in real time through the internet. Moreover, telepresense enables people to not only see and be seen in real-time over distance, but to use their digitised bodily representation and its behaviour to remotely influence or affect others. As Manovich explains:

Telepresence allows the subject to control not just the simulation but reality itself. Telepresence provides the ability to manipulate remotely physical reality in real time through its image. The body of the teleoperator is transmitted, in real time, to another location where it can act on the subject’s behalf.

(Manovich, 2001, p. 166-167)

Telecommunication allows two different spaces to be linked together to create a third dematerialized space for communication and interaction. Fundamentally, to be telepresent in virtual space is for a person to be digitally present in that space through networked technologies, and is a real-time extension of their physical presence. This is also the basic condition and structural set-up of the digital performance practice referred to as telematics.

A number of telematic performances by other artists offer insights, and models, for the various issues and considerations encountered and examined in the course of developing this research and its interactive project, Chatrooms. For instance, in the telematic performance, Espace Velocity, by Company in Space (1999, website), the dancers’ digital images, relayed via the internet from their ‘live’ performances in two different locations, are projected and layered on top of each other on screens that become a ‘third’ performance space, in-between and interconnecting them. I have followed this idea for Chatrooms’ first section, although I have chosen to layer the video feeds of two different perspectives (front and above) exploring also the temporal experience that is affected by this illusionary perception of gravity. Furthermore, in order to ‘look’ and stay connected with one another across their separate locations, the dancers in Espace Velocity move very slowly, which is an issue encountered in my own project that produced the same result.

Similarly, Body>Data>Space’s Sceentouchfeel (2009) is a telematic event that explores choreographic interaction and overlap between dancers in two remote spaces. However, after the performance, the audience is allowed to participate and ‘play’ with the telematic system (Body>Data>Space, website)[4]. I have also adopted this model by developing both a choreography for separately located dancers in the first section of Chatrooms, and then inviting spectators to enter and physically experience the telematically-styled set-up in the second part, with the difference that they dance and interact with a performer rather than other spectators.

A third example of a telematic, interactive, performative installation that is relevant to this research and its investigation is Paul Sermon’s Telematic Dreaming (1992), which connects two separate locations by using overhead cameras pointing down onto large beds, one placed in each (fig.2). A performer then lies on a bed, and their image, in real time, is projected onto the surface of the bed in the other location. Spectators are then invited to lie with the performer’s image and interact with it. Kozel’s experiences as a performer in Telematic Dreaming is revealing for the insights it provides into the range of psychological and emotional connections and disconnections that can be generated by a digital double. What surprised her was that the dislocated, “computerization of human experience” (Kozel, 2007, p. 94) did not necessarily weaken the connection between her physical self and her digital image. Reflecting on a specific circumstance involving her virtual other, she reports: “someone elbowed me hard in the stomach and I doubled over, wondering why since I didn’t actually feel it. But I felt something” (Kozel, 2007, p.97). In another case her double experiences a sexual attack, which causes the opposite result, a complete disconnection from her digital self:

The attack caused me to separate my physical self from my virtual self… paralyzed with horror at what they were doing to the woman’s body – no longer my body.

(Kozel, 2007, p. 98).

Kozel’s experiences and discussion show that touch, trust, and vulnerability are very much present in telematic interactions, and further highlight some of the ability, mentioned earlier by Manovich, for telepresence to alter and affect reality at a distance.

Fig 2.  Telematic Dreaming (1992) by Paul Sermon (www.mediaarthistory.org/Images/Big/BigImages/Sermon.JPG)

Telepresence encourages a connection between physical and digital bodies, real and imagined, whereby users can communicate and interact through the technological medium of ‘a simulation’. For the social theorist, Baudrillard, simulations have become a dominant feature of contemporary life, about which he remarks: ‘It is now a principle of simulation, and not of reality that regulates social life…’ (1988, p. 120). Beyond symbolic or archetypal representation, it can be seen that very real levels of emotion and engagement are present, or can be generated, through the synthetic simulation and production of digital doubles and their interactions with real users.

To finish, telepresence involves real-time connections between the physical and digital body. Thus in the framework of a telematic performance, the performer directly influences and affects the movement of his of her projected image, which requires a cooperative and co-existing ‘double awareness’ of their physical body in the stage space, and of their digital body-image on the screen. The interaction of the digital body with their ‘screen environment’, and with the actions of other screen presences, also in turn influences the actions of the physical body. My research explores the above principles of telepresence in order to investigate the engagement between physical and digital bodies, and to expand this relationship beyond basic social interactions into more poetic and surreal states and imagery. Through the combined frameworks of interactive performance involving just performers, and performative installation, which mixes spectators and performers, the focus of ChatRooms is on the dialogue, rather than the conflict, between physical and digital bodies, and reality and imagination.

Conclusion

Through my research I realized that people experience a ‘re-configuration of self’ as they become more familiar with interacting with computers and digital technologies. Nowadays, communicating through the internet network lacks the presence of corporeality and physical contact, and so the resulting form of communication is often impersonal. Additionally, users may identify themselves with a digital alter-ego. In recent years, various websites have chat rooms as well as computer software such as Skype, which personalises internet telecommunication through the use of web cameras. The users perceive the resulting low quality, distorted, digitalised physical body images as a representation of themselves, which enables them to develop ‘face-to-face’ dialogue with others in remote locations. The digital reflection of a user enters the physical space of another user through a computer screen, and in interactive communication, this is repeated by the other person. The mutual engagement of users communicating through the internet with their digital double, keeps their physical body relatively passive in the web cameras’ frame. However, when the digital doubles of the performer and the spectator were layered onto the screen in ChatRooms’ interactive system, their physical bodies became active in the camera frame to reveal a combined greater involvement of both body and mind.

Questions arising from this for future research are: If this interactive system were applied to internet communication, would it offer better ways of connecting people through the reconfigured telepresence of their mutual bodies? And what might remain lost or problematic in terms of physical contact if this were done? While less desirable outcomes did not become apparent, this research suggests, regarding these questions, the possibility of the kinds of joys and creativity that emerged and were experienced.

My experience of artistic experimentation was shaped by The Dream of Chuang Tzu (Borges & Casares (eds), 1973, p. 31) in which a state of consciousness merged with another dreamlike illusory state. The physical body developed communication through a digital double, but if one thinks about this further, did the physical body really communicate through a digital double, or was it the digital double that was communicating through the physical body? In other words, when the physical Self[5]projects its conscious or unconscious thoughts, feelings, senses, and intuitions onto a digital double, then I believe identification with it is achieved. The outcome is both the psychological disembodiment of the Self, and the embodying embodiment of its digital double. In this way, the Self effectively becomes its digital double in a virtual space, in between physical and digital body.

Bibliography:

Barthes, Ronald (1977), Image – Music – Text,London,Fontana Press

Baudrillard, Jean (1988), Selected Writings, Poster, Mark (eds),Oxford: Polity Press

Birringer, Jonannes (2008), Performance, Technology & Science, New York: PAJ Pablications

Borges, Jorse Louis & Casares, Adolfo Bioy (1973), Extraordinary Tales, translated by Kerrigan Anthony, London: Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic) Ltd

Dixon, Steve (2006), Digital Performance: Space, Identity, and Embodyment in Virtual Reality,Cambridge -Massachusetts –London: MIT Press

Jung, Carl G. (1968), The collected works of C.G. Jung, Vol.12 : Psychology and alchemy, 2nd ed, Read, H. & Fordham, M & Alber, G & McGuire, W. (Eds),  London : Routledge and K. Paul

Kozel, Susan (2007), Closer: Performance, Technology, Phenomenology,London -Massachusetts -Cambridge: MIT Press

Laban, Rudolf (1971), The Mastery of Movement,London: Macdonald & Evens

Manovich, Lev (2001), The Language of New Media,London -Massachusetts -Cambridge: MIT Press

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie & Sanchez-Colberg, Ana (2002), Dance and the Performative,London: Verve

Performances and Installations:

Body>Data>Space, Virtual Physical Bodies exhibition (2009), Sceentouchfeel (2009):

www.bodydataspace.net (Accessed: 16/04/2009)

Company in space, Escape Velocity (1998):

www.companyinspace.com (Accessed: 14/08/2009)

Sermon, Paul, Telematic Dreaming (1992):

www.hgb-leipzig.de/~sermon/dream/

www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/telematic-dreaming/ (Accessed: 12/01/2009)


[1] Corporeality, in the context of a dance performance, interprets the physical body as personal, social, conscious, unconscious, biological or psychological representation (Preston-Dunlop, 2002). The corporeal body expresses a sense of identity through the body image that can be related to gender, sexuality, race, class, nationality, religion and age or any combination of these elements.

[2] My research primarily focuses on the digital double as reflection and alter-ego (Dixon, 2006); linking reflection with personal identity that relates with the body image, and the alter-ego with multiple or alternative personalities.

[3] ChatRooms not only invites spectator playful participation but also implies interactivity as a significant component of the artwork, a concept that initiated by the poststructuralist Roland Barthes’ text The Death of the Author (1977).

[4] Sceentouchfeel was part of Body>Data>Space’s Virtual Physical Bodies exhibition (2009) and explores, through various installations and performances, “how innovative and emerging technologies can change and modify a new generation body into our real and daily lives.” (Body>Data>Space, website).

[5] This refer to the Jungian assumption of a ‘kinespheric’ model of the Self as a totality that embraces conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche, both its centre and circumference (Jung,1968, p. 41).

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