ODC Resident Artists Kinetech Arts presented AI Sensorium at ODC Theater, February 21–23. I attended the Saturday evening performance with a friend who had spent several decades managing the Help Desk in the Electrical Engineering/Computer Science Department at UC Berkeley. Said friend is also a dancer, so I figured she’d really get Kinetech, a company that brings dancers, choreographers, scientists, and digital artists together to make work at the intersection of human kinesthetic experience and increasingly post-human technological change. I mean, what do I know about artificial intelligence and Deep Fake? I still think AI refers to people pretending to be smart in graduate seminars and Deep Fake is the dude who seems to be getting away with it.
I took miraculously legible notes during the performance (I don’t look down while I’m writing in the dark and usually create an indecipherable palimpsest of observations) and talked to my friend about it on the ride back to the East Bay. It was clear to both of us that the evening-length work sought to explore how recent technological “advancements” impact our humanity and how we humans, as the very progenitors of that technology, have a mammoth stake in understanding what we’ve made, where we’re going, and what our bodies know to be true despite what the algorithms say. And we both thought it was beautiful: beautiful dancing, beautiful lighting design [by Harry Rubeck], beautiful visual effects. The theater was bathed in a glow that for some may have conjured the feeling of being alone in a dark room watching Netflix, kept awake by the flickering blue light emitting from their laptop screen. The dancers, regardless of how staccato and spasmodic the movement vocabulary, betrayed the lusciousness of the human form. The funhouse mirrors; the network of invasive spaghetti strands projected on the walls and floor; and the faces projected an enormous white helium balloon tethered to a green apple, the white tutu-ed rear end of a dancer, and most eerily, other faces, contributed to an environment at once humorous and creepy, familiar and defamiliarized.
To think through how the work’s ideas came together with the artists’ aesthetic choices, I sat down with Kinetech Arts co-founders and directors, Daiane Lopes da Silva and Weidong Yang, and dancers Gizeh Muniz and Chelsea Reichert, the Wednesday after closing night. What follows is an edited version of our conversation in which I reveal my Deep Luddite and the artists respond patiently.
Sima Belmar: The other day someone asked me what tech-and-dance performances have stayed with me and I could think of two, both from 1999, both collaborations with digital artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser: Merce Cunningham’s BIPED and Bill T. Jones’ Ghostcatching. These dances resonated with me because of the ways the human form, in all its racialized, gendered, and idiosyncratic glory, both informs and competes with its digital avatars. You had some of this going on in your work but first I want to talk about the sound. Was the stuff you were doing with sensors generating sound by responding to people’s movements?
Weidong Yang: That’s right.
Sima: Were the sensors doing other things?
Weidong: There’s a layer of translation so we treat the input as data rather than as a signal.
Sima: Ok, you have to explain what that means.
Weidong: So you can amplify the sound. I hit it [hits the table with his hand] and it makes the sound. With the data, that hit gives you a signal. The signal may represent something else. So rather than just record and play back, we actually detect something. For example, when Daiane was going down the staircase [through the audience], she had a contact mic on her body that detects the event of contact.
Sima: So the sensor’s input is connecting with other recorded data that triggers it in certain ways?
Weidong: This is a concept of Patricia Alessandrini’s [assistant professor of music at Stanford]. She’s the person who came up with the concept of making those stainless steel panels as a speaker. She has been very interested in Artificial Intelligence, as are we, and proposed using machine learning to treat some input as a data stream. I’m a physicist, so it’s like, Yay! You speak my language.
Sima: Not mine! I kind of get it and I kind of don’t.
Daiane Lopes da Silva: [Laughs her infectious, slightly maniacal laugh.] Don’t worry. There are some things I myself don’t know.
Weidong: As a geek I really appreciate data. Machine learning, that’s what I’m doing at work.
Sima: Well, I’m a dance geek so I’m curious about the interest for the choreographer and the experience of the dancers in relation to all this technology. I’m always looking at movement very carefully, that’s my primary interest. What is the experience of and interest in taking the human form and colliding it with our most recent technological inventions?
Daiane: I think there’s no such thing as a body that is not affected by technology anymore.
Sima: Or ever. This pen, this chair.
Daiane: Also, I’m just like you. I don’t know anything about technology. I grew up in Brazil. I had to go to the library and wait for one hour before I could use the computer and I could only use it for one hour. But then I met Wei —
Weidong: — the dark side!
Daiane: In the beginning — 2013 — I was like, I don’t know about this. We were doing lots of experiments with technology and everything became about the technology and I was pissed. Everybody was excited about coming to the lab [Kinetech’s Open Lab], lots of dancers, it was like a playground. But after a while I didn’t think I could do this.
Sima: Because your training is what?
Daiane: I’m trained as a dancer. I’ve been dancing since I was five. I started with Brazilian dance, ethnic dance, dancing with the kids in the neighborhood. Then I went to school, formal ballet training, and then went to Europe for contemporary dance. With time, as we investigated more and more, I realized that we could find technology that was actually interesting to me; that there was a dialogue with technology and not the technology dictating what I had to do, but that I had my own agency as well.
Weidong: Traditionally, dance is considered in relationship with technology as either mapping or control. What we found out is that control is a difficult approach to go; it’s very restricting on one hand, and could probably produce about a couple of minutes of interesting performance. Beyond that our brain just gets bored. So we started to think, What if the technology is actually an intelligent agent that works in conversation with the dancers rather than in controlling or restrictive connection with the dancers?
Daiane: I think that’s what Gizeh [of the white tutu] experienced when there was an interaction between her and Wei.
Sima: Do you mean when Wei’s screen was visible to us on the wall and floor of the stage and Gizeh was dancing in/on it? So Wei is in conversation with Gizeh?
Weidong: Yeah, we’re in conversation with each other.
Gizeh Muniz: It’s basically like a duet.
Weidong: Usually I create the technology to have a conversation. But it’s never repeatable. It’s always unpredictable.
Daiane: I’m curious to know from Gizeh.
Gizeh: Of all the pieces it’s the part that I enjoy the most. Having the opportunity of communication and another way of relating to the space with technology in that specific moment was really pleasurable. It really felt like connecting to space in a different way. As a dancer I work somatically, feeling my relationship with space and time, but seeing how my movements were creating space was really interesting to me.
Sima: So you had access to the ways you were affecting space and time, even though as a dancer you’re always doing that, but in this case it was feeding back to you?
Gizeh: And also how I respond to whatever he’s giving me too. And vice-versa.
Weidong: And I can’t control what came out. My system is never deterministic, it’s always random. So when I do something in creative response to her, I can’t have control of what comes out. Even for me it’s unpredictable.
Daiane: And every dancer is very different. That worked really well for Gizeh. It really energized her.
Sima: So it was improvised. How much of the evening was improvised?
Daiane: My opening solo is totally improvised. I have one movement that’s set. There is very little choreography. There are a few sections that are choreographed but it is always different because the dancers are always choreographing on top of the choreography. I have a problem with set material and I’ve been struggling with it for a long time. I just said, Let go.
Sima: So do you just give a score?
Daiane: A structure and parameters. They are very experienced improvisers, so I don’t actually need to do a lot. It’s just coming up with the situation and staying with it to figure out the things we should not do. Or spatially and energetically where does it go. And then they compose it in real time. If I put too many rules they feel closed. I’m always trying to figure out what the right form is for a group of people.
Sima: Well, Chelsea [of the gray pants suit], in particular, I thought had a limited palette. Something you were cycling through, in particular when you were in the gray suit in the third act, which was the least clear section for me. I couldn’t access an investigation that was clear to me. Which is not to say that whatever investigation I intuited from the other sections had anything to do with what you were aiming for or working on. In your solo, Daiane, the cap you were wearing: my friend was like, She’s an electrode! And to me it was a swim cap so I was thinking about swimming and then about Esther Williams, the Hollywood actress who was always swimming with the synchronized swimming sequences. So I was making associations of you swimming in a particular world and also in relation to an older technological feat. And then it was contrasted by these very staccato movements. You say that you gave few parameters for the movement but there definitely seemed to be qualitative parameters. What was the guiding principle for the choreography?
Daiane: Well, going back to the cap. That has been a back and forth — put cap on, take cap off, no cap, yes cap, the cap is good, No!, the cap is not good. I decided to keep it because every time I put on the cap I felt like a different entity. I felt like I was this AI robo kind of thing. I was holding my body differently. It gave me a feeling of dehumanizing. I identify myself a lot with my hair. I do a lot with my hair when I’m dancing. This time there will be no hair. The cap gave me the feeling of the robotic, not fluid kind of movement so I kept it. I just followed my impulse, this is happening, I feel weird with this.
Sima: All this stuff about data and control and being manipulated by technology — because the dancing is so precise, none of that representational thinking matters to me. For me, it’s so human. I loved your royal blue halter jumpsuit, seeing the muscles in your back. It’s so deeply embodied that the technology has no chance in my view. So it winds up looking like a collage of human movement and light and sound, and even though I understand — a little bit — how it’s working technologically, my experience in the room was of a really powerful kinesthesia. It’s just interesting to me what arises depending on one’s relationship to technology and to dance.
Gizeh: There was a lot improvisation and a lot of research too. Sometimes when you’re improvising there’s a lot of freedom to take the space and do whatever you want but in this case it felt really held. The piece in my body made a lot of sense because we’d been doing research since October. To put all that information in my body changed how I moved in relationship to space and other dancers. The process allowed me to understand why I was doing what I was doing. The process was a lab, bringing new toys, how do we incorporate them. Sometimes we forget tech is created by people. And the way that Kinetech is working with it in an artistic way, the relationship with tech goes beyond the instrument itself.
Sima: Yes! Tech is made by people! I loved that the people involved with the tech were present on stage so it’s not behind the scenes magic. We could see Wei smiling sometimes. It dissolves the very facile idea that tech is over here and humanity is over there, and not only that it affects us and we affect it, but that it’s one human endeavor.
Chelsea Reichert: Often in an improvisational setting I feel comfortable knowing what the space needs or what I think it needs, taking my own agency and my own impulses into it. There was a part of the score in Act II that required a different kind of listening for me. A lot of times I felt hesitant even when there was the allowance to follow our own agency and impulses. When I was on the side of the stage waiting to enter, I felt like I had no idea what was going to happen. I had a desire to not overthink all of the information and all of the versions that we had created of different sections. What was seen was a total baby of so much input and so many versions recycled and things changed and added into that process.
Sima: It did look like there were moments of surprise when people had to navigate a person in their space that they didn’t expect to be there. Not like, Oh no, they’re screwing up on stage, but rather that there was a real time negotiation because you were like free radicals rolling around in the space.
Chelsea: It felt that way in many moments.
Sima: It also felt like there were characters but very roughly drawn. Like the woman [Julia Rubies Subiros] speaking what sounded like not Spanish and not Portuguese…
Sima: Catalan! What was up with that choice? I love when people speak in languages I don’t know on stage.
Daiane: We had text in the first act that was carefully crafted by Vidhu [Aggarwal]. For the second act, Julia is very good at free associating and I wanted to use that. I wanted her to talk about the things that are separating us, segregating us. She talked about the Catalan politics. It felt connected. I prefer to use a language that people don’t understand because I’m interested in the rhythm and the color of the language. I’m not very attracted to having text and dance at the same time. I’m just really tired of having to explain the dance. It always feels like the text is so strong that it seems to be explaining what the person is doing with the body and the brain goes somewhere else.
Sima: It hooks onto the language.
Daiane: Exactly. And when it’s a language that you don’t understand then you’re just listening to the rhythm. It creates a curiosity. What is she talking about? It connects with the bubble [a giant blow-up bubble in which Julia dances] because of this idea that we are living inside this curated world on social media.
Sima: I was just afraid she was going to suffocate in that bubble. I could not get past every warning on a bag — don’t stick a plastic bag over your head! The bubble was clear as a symbol. I liked watching it be blown up. I liked that things were laid bare as much as they can be given how not bare they are — like I have no idea how my phone works. I don’t even know how electricity works. You can explain it to me all day long and it will not make sense to me. I think I lost Vidhu and the poem because it was early on and then it got deconstructed and then it didn’t come back.
Weidong: We wanted Vidhu to come back but she got food poisoning.
Daiane: You felt like the poem should come back.
Sima: Well, I’m not sure if I felt like it should, I just know that it didn’t and then I forgot all about it.
Weidong: If she hadn’t gotten the food poisoning, she would probably have come back.
Sima: It’s interesting how a production gets affected by life, as opposed to being this perfectly organized, tightly wound machine.
Weidong: If you had been there on Friday, you’d have noticed that I accidentally lost connection with the projector.
Sima: Happens a lot with tech in performance. That kind of stuff makes me nervous. I can barely do a Power Point.
Gizeh: Going back to the Catalan thinking, I thought it was about having something in front of you that you can’t actually understand. That’s kind of our relationship with technology, especially people from certain generations. This feeling of not understanding and wanting to understand.
Sima: But I didn’t feel like the piece emphasized alienation. When you have superior dancers and witness the knowledge in their bodies, that intelligence, nothing can get in the way of that fundamental relational connection. Like the tutu and balloon section, what I call the deconstructed Coppelia duet, the broken doll ballet. I can spend time trying to make connections between the balloon and the movement and what’s happening there in terms of what is classical language, what is a deconstruction of classical language, what does that have to do with what’s happening technologically. But sometimes I’m just as happy to revel in the virtuosity. Question: Was there a moment when the dancers’ faces were projected onto their own faces in real time?
Weidong: Yeah, it’s real time. But what happened during the show was that I took live video feed from the phone the dancers were holding, ran it through a series of processes, and projected it to the scrim live. We experimented with projection to the dancer’s face live during the lab, but decided not to do it in the show.
Chelsea: There were also projections that were Deep Faked. There were combination faces.
Sima: Those were weird.
Chelsea: Those were really creepy.
Weidong: The dancers morphing into each other with the Deep Fake using AI.
Sima: At the beginning of Act II, a woman two people down from me said, “I have so many questions. I’m not sure there are answers.” I thought that was hilarious.
Daiane: [That maniacal laugh again!]
Sima: I was curious about the costuming.
Daiane: I wasn’t quite sure of what we were doing with the costumes. The idea in the beginning was they were going to exchange costumes because in the score there was a little bit of that trying to be in the skin of another person. Like the AI is learning someone’s movement and until it does tons of trial and error and learns. But it didn’t happen. It just felt so forced. What about the apple? I’m curious about what you thought about the balancing of the apple.
Sima: It was an apple! See, my vision’s not great. I thought it was an apple and then I thought, I hope it’s not an apple, then it bounced in such a way that made me think it was a ball. Well, William Tell, and obviously Adam and Eve. Apple is just a loaded fruit. That section didn’t really resonate with me. I enjoyed seeing Chelsea do it when other things were going on, like, look at her back there randomly balancing a balloon which is a head on her head with an apple or ball. But I got a little bit pulled out of the piece at that time.
Daiane: That’s good to know.
Sima: Well, someone else might have been totally riveted at that moment.
Daiane: The apple was supposed to be in the third act too. Every act is inspired by AI and privacy and Deep Fake, worshipping technology. I wanted one thing that carries through to the next act. My handprint on the mirror from Act I stays on stage in Act II. But the apple didn’t make it to the third act. To me, carrying the apple is like trying to hold the truth but she can’t, it just falls. It’s like a lie is revealed.
Weidong: Also the apple as what opens up the knowledge. What AI is opening up to us or whatever is going to come after human beings. For us it’s a symbol for what’s coming, post-human. The second act is the present. The third act is the future. Where are we going? Leading to the monolith when human and machine became one. It’s kind of ugly.
Sima: That helps me understand the third act better since I didn’t know what I was seeing.
Daiane: The end of the piece was a big deal because Gizeh disconnects the device. What are we choosing to do next? Do we turn it off or do we leave it on? The human is behind the machine. AI only exists because we made it. So when Gizeh disconnects, we are the ones controlling. We are the ones behind the machines controlling us.