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  • Contemporary Performance/Technology
  • Johannes Birringer (bio)

1. Movement/History

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Figure 1.

Stelarc, The Third Hand, Tokyo, 1992. Photo: S. Hunter. Reproduced with permission of the artist.

The history of Western performance in the twentieth century, outside of the established traditions of theatre, ballet, opera and orchestral music, is indebted to the avant-garde movements in the visual arts. It is also intertwined with the evolution of technological media whose impact on our cultural environments has now entered the [End Page 361] digital stage at which the computer recodes all communications and art forms. In this global context, recent exhibitions such as Out of Actions: between performance and the object, 1949–1979 (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998), along with many international theatre and dance festivals of the 1980s and 1990s, have prompted us to recognize the forgotten history of complex transcultural connections between Western avant-gardes and contemporaneous process-based art in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Performance is a cosmopolitan media art, so to speak, its ephemeral existence inevitably linked to a technological dimension since its gestural visuality has always tended toward capturing the fleeting moment in photography and film.

The photograph of the performance allows the performance to travel, and in some cases (for example, Ana Mendieta’s “Silueta” series created in Mexico from 1973 to 1977), performances are staged exclusively for the camera. Choreographers discovered that dance-on-film or videodance is a composite medium in its own right: the choreography is created specifically for the camera. Making dances for the camera has become not only a cinematographic alternative to theatre-dance, but has motivated choreographers to re-conceive the aesthetics of dance for the theatre, the impact of which is evident in the cinematic quality of many contemporary dance works. Video has thus effected a transition in two directions, opening up a new screen space for movement images (concurrent with the evolution of music television), as well as bringing new modes of digital image processing and nonlinear editing to the practice of composition and scenography onstage. This essay addresses similar transitions and will examine new dance and its pioneering research on the interface between movement and computer.

In light of current experiments in motion capture, computer animation, digital paint and sound programs, 3-D modeling, and interactive design, the history of motion studies and choreography in photography, film and video seems vital for a critical recognition of the shift that is taking place in performance technologies. Contemporary videodance and motion capture technology can be historically traced back to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge at the end of the nineteenth century. Muybridge had invented a system of positioning numerous cameras in a line and snapping photographs in rapid succession to capture movement in ways never seen before. These momentary, frozen shots, when viewed in sequence, created a cinematic unfolding of movement in both human and animal subjects in a manner that revolutionized our ability to comprehend movement itself. Douglas Rosenberg, video artist and director of the American Dance Festival’s Video Archival Program, has pointed out in numerous internet discussions that dance for the camera occupies a wholly different space than dance for the theatre. On the one hand, it is true that video dance, as the precursor of digital dancing and web-based dance, is a hybrid form, existing in a virtual space contextualized by the medium and method of recording. As Rosenberg emphasizes,

it is not a substitute for, or in conflict with, the live theatrical performance of a dance, but rather a wholly separate yet equally powerful way of creating dance-works. From Eadweard Muybridge to Maya Deren and beyond, into the contemporary era, image makers have rigorously explored dance for the camera in all of its permutations. Since the earliest days of photography, artists working with optical mediums have been fascinated by the possibility of recording human movement, and in particular, dance. In doing so, they have [End Page 362] left us with not only an archive of the history of dance situated in the architectural space or site of film and video, but as well, are responsible for creating the...

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