M(app)ing Dance

Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts in “Six Degrees of Freedom” From left to right: James Graham, Lisa Wymore, Stephen Buescher, and Sheldon Smith (on the floor)
Photo credit: Stephen Texeira

Galaxy S8 Plus, Xiaomi Mi 6, ZTE Axon 8, OnePlus5, Moto Z. These are just a few of the many sci-fi sounding named new smartphones released this past year. My own phone is only a year old but in technology time, it is already on its way to being obsolete. Supported by elaborate marketing campaigns that both feed and tap into consumerism, these technological tools hasten time, pressing us more quickly into tomorrow. In essence, technology has fastened the pace of our lives, crunching the space between present and future and thrown us into a constant state of being-ahead-of-ourselves.

Live art, which so uniquely activates the present for both performers and audience members, functions in a different time frame than technology. So what if you bring dance and technology into dialogue with each other? Sheldon Smith and Lisa Wymore use dance theater to explore the points of friction and connection between technology and human life, with a great dose of derision and humor (for a good laugh, check out their website “Merch” page). With Six Degrees of Freedom, co-presented by ODC Theater this week, they continue their investigation of how the ever-growing technological field impacts the way humans interact. In what ways is our technology-augmented reality affecting us? What does the study of technological developments reveal about our humanity?

According to the press release, “the basic premise underlying the construction of [Six Degrees of Freedom] is that a supposed computer system has fallen asleep and begun to dream. Within this dream, the system anxiously confronts an unusual demand by an unseen force, that it must construct an evening-length dance theater performance.” In addition to the two choreographers, the evening-length work features long-time collaborators Stephen Buescher and James Graham, as well as Rami Margron, who recently relocated to New York but returned to the Bay to rehearse and perform.

Making a work about a program constructing a dance theater performance could be the perfect occasion to reference dance history and confront common dance tropes. “We’re certainly conscious of this being a device to pour all our influences in the work but also have the freedom to freely mash up everything we know and are interested in,” Smith offered in a recent phone conversation. “Honestly one of the best things working on this piece for me is the way in which it’s freed up my fears about choice making. As artists, we often ask ourselves: Does this make sense? And we can get very obsessive about it. In this work, we’re still very concerned about that. At the same time, we’re challenging ourselves to follow an instinctual process that is being reshaped by our relationship to technology.” Wymore added: “We’re allowing ourselves to let things that are weird and odd sit next to each other and see what happens.” For Smith, “that kind of working is nothing new. There’s a whole history of artists experimenting with chance. We’re replicating older times at the same time we are dealing with the present.”

Sheldon and Wymore’s work is often set in imagined futures, not necessarily so distant or different from our present. In Number Zero (2014) a computer system dictated prompts to performers, thereby acting as a digital co-choreographer. “There was a computer system that was influencing our choices throughout the piece in different ways but it was actually acting upon us in real time,” shared Smith. “In Six Degrees of Freedom, it’s a similar idea in the sense that there is a computer trying to understand human logic to some degree but in this case, there’s very little that is digitally dictated. Imagining how a computer is trying to understand us is revealing a lot about who we are.”

Both self-described sci-fi fans, Wymore and Smith aren’t referencing any specific science-fiction work in Six Degrees of Freedom but explained that the piece structure mirrors the way people interact daily with technology, notably the way they surf the Internet. “We can’t help but reference a lot of Star Trek,” Smith admitted. “A group of people, some type of ship… But the piece is more referencing YouTube and Internet searching.” Wymore added: “When you search on the Internet, you go from one thing to the next. You could have many tabs open, you’ll go from watching this to that. So the piece has this jumping quality, it is a collage of sections.”

Smith and Wymore met and created their dance/theater company Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts in Chicago, before moving to the Bay in 2004. Chicago’s important physical theater scene was quite influential to them and their work weaves text and movement seamlessly. In Six Degrees of Freedom, the text is derived from a computer. “One of the many starting points is that a computer is grappling with the making of a dance piece. It is generating mostly text, in the style of many current actual projects where computers are generating the content. So the text we’ve been developing is really nonlinear, with references that don’t necessarily go anywhere. At the same time, something is trying to make sense. But it’s also a piece about not making sense.”

During our conversation, Wymore referenced John C. Havens’ Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines. The author of many books, essays and articles about how technology is affecting our lives, Havens advocates for the creation of an ethical model to abide by when building artificial intelligence machines. Touching upon the relationship between data collection and loss of privacy, Havens writes in Heartificial Intelligence: “Individuals don’t currently control the data relating to their identity. IP trumps I.D. (…) As things stand now, we’ve passively accepted the loss of our personal data that fuels algorithms, AI, and the Internet economy as status quo. By the time we see how our identities look in the virtual world as controlled by others, it will be too late to get back the rights we’ve let go. It’s time we stopped relying on artificial measures to increase our genuine well-being.”

In their work, Smith and Wymore highlight and tease out the humanity of the performers who have been caught within a digital reality. In celebrating what makes us human, they point to the ways we can avoid being swallowed up into a world where we have lost touch with ourselves and each other. Consider Human Apparatus (2016), in which Smith and Wymore diverted the use of data collected around their bodies to make dance vignettes instead of graphs. In the piece, they used dance theater to reclaim a domain that has been invaded by corporations.

When it comes to building new technology and the issues at play in Six Degrees of Freedom, Smith builds on Havens’ thesis: “Technology is obviously intensely very seductive and that seduction tends to shut off our ability to see or have a willingness to grapple with the underbelly of our humanity. We have to keep paying attention to how it’s affecting and reshaping us.” Wymore asks: “What’s our mission? What’s our goal? Are there ethical people making these things? Is it just feeding consumerism and capitalism? I feel that we are at a crossroads, where we need to make more ethical technology that looks at our behavior and vows for our humanity to still exist. If we can bring the best of our humanness and be collaborators [when building new technology] we can have a better world.”