- Performance and Science
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Cybernetics and Rhythms
By the end of the last century, it was apparent that the impact of media and digital technologies on the performing and fine arts proffered some of the irreversible evolutions Nam June Paik, who died earlier this year, had already anticipated in the 1960s. As Paik envisioned the electronic superhighway and, for example in Global Groove (1973), pioneered many of the techniques of morphing and collaging moving images which are the common language of digital multimedia today, he not only helped to engineer new tools, such as the Paik-Abe Synthesizer, but insistently probed the instrumentalities and properties of a medium. Magnet TV strikes us today as a microscopic scan of the cathode ray, exposing the interior flesh and the arteries of electric energy. In the exhibition "Cybernetics Art and Music" at the New School for Social Research (1965), Paik's experiments with electronic signals and feedbacks anticipated the infra-sound and image manipulations so pertinent to the digital culture of the re-mix described in Paul D. Miller's (DJ Spooky) audio recordings and his recent book, Rhythm Science.
What's surprising about DJ Spooky's tracks is that they mix music with early modernist writers or Dada artists (James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Kurt Schwitters), and his recent video installation ReBirth of a Nation provocatively combines D.W. Griffith with other "found objects" from history. The "science" he thinks of is a methodology of cultural engineering on an aesthetic level of sampling and re-recording poignant enough to crystallize dialectical images, constructive moments of re-cognition, in the manner in which Walter Benjamin thought of modern technology's complex reorganization of the visual. Though less fraught with the ethical quandaries encountered in the debates on genetic engineering, nevertheless the "rhythms" in question are deeply connected to inquiries into cultural knowledge and cognition, and the DJ's "science" is a filtering of sounds, beats, movements and torsions amidst a raving biopolitics of information-processing systems. DJ Spooky works with the mobile, performative aura of tracks and iPods, channeling the listener's rage against the machine.
My concern here is not with styles of re-mixing and recombination as a phenomenon of the digital media or a superficial reflection of science in art (sci-art), but with [End Page 22] the underlying history of the interrelations between performance and computer science/engineering. Cybernetics offered explanations of phenomena in terms of information flows and feedback loops in mechanical and biological systems. Its influence on composition and the aesthetic concern with the regulation of a system (homeostasis) has expanded, while computer models of information processing and artificial intelligence merged with experimental studies in physics, molecular biology, and neuroscience. This raises questions about the arts as partners in scientific research, engineering and tool invention. It also invites us to ponder the kinds of work processes necessary for sustained laboratory experiments that can yield new art works, new inventions, and new knowledge.
Rather than looking at a theatrical play (e.g., Michael Frayn's Copenhagen) or choreography (Rambert Dance Company's Constant Speed) thematizing modern mathematics or evoking a scientific hypothesis through a particular abstract compositional aesthetic (e.g., Robert Wilson/Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach), I want to ask how performance might use an instrument of analysis or generate a conceptual system to analyze the organization and structure of the system, its metabolism and its boundary. Regarding dance, for example, it is indicative that choreographers like Alejandro Ahmed (director of the Brazilian company Cena 11) speak of research into "behaviors" and modes of adaptation. Rather than inventing movement phrases, his work deeply probes physical conditions for the re-organization of the body, for example in the company's extensive work on patterns of falling (involving gravity, weight, muscular strength, pressure, etc.), and specific instances in which changes emerge in states of stillness and movement. Addressing this research at the 2006 IN TRANSIT laboratory in Berlin, Fabiana Britto used analogies with quantum theory to...