Synaesthetic Syntax: Gestures of Resistance

Synaesthetic Syntax is a one-day symposium on Sunday 11th September as part of the 10th Expanded Animation section of the Ars Electronica Festival. The event explores the complex relationship between sensory perception and expanded animation. In focussing on the primacy of the senses, the symposium aims to ask questions about the seduction of technology and how to maintain a discourse of what is fundamental about being human. This year’s theme is touch, gesture and physical movement. For more details about the presentations and how to view them online, go to the website for Expanded Animation.

We are delighted to welcome our keynote speaker and winner of a Golden Nica at this years Prix Ars Electronica: Rashaad Newsome. He will be giving his keynote presentation at 14.00 (CET) on Friday 9th Sept.

To be human, to be in a body, is to move and to feel; to move as it feels and to feel itself moving.[1] However, bodies do not exist in isolation. Bodies collide with one another in social contexts. They have the power to affect others or to be affected themselves. Bodies are structured by culture, but they can also resist. Motion and sensation felt in the body leads to change.[2]

At the time of organising the symposium, a line of tanks, armoured vehicles and troops 40 miles long were approaching Kyev: literally illustrating change in motion through technology. How can animation respond to this? How might technologies of gesture, proprioception and motion be used to create animation that goes beyond formalism and is able to reflect upon the forces that seek to contain movements towards change?

The sensation of touch can be brutal and violent or tender and loving. Through ‘haptic visuality’[3], a sense of touch can be evoked in animation by triggering physical memories of smell, touch and taste that engages the viewer bodily to convey cultural experience rather than through a use of language. How can touch be used in animation to create community or share memories?

Presentations:

The presentations respond to the following questions:

  • How to critically reflect on the tools and technologies of touch and movement used to create animation – motion capture, tablets and pens, sensors – and the data sets and libraries that they create?
  • How might the capture of motion, gesture and proprioception be used to innovate and tell stories of new communities?
  • What is the role of touch in conveying memory?
  • How might touch and biofeedback data be used in new ways to create animation?

[1] Paraphrase from p1. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002, Duke University Press)
[2] Cf. Massumi, op. cit.
[3] Laura U Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (2000, Duke University Press)

Ephemeral Animation: Nenagh Watson

Nenagh Watson is a puppeteer currently researching into what she calls ephemeral animation. She is fascinated by objects that move without human control at the mercy of the elements. Consider the following umbrellas as they are carried by the wind. Their movement is created by natural forces rather than the hands of a puppeteer. Watson uses this motion to inspire works of puppetry:

Observing umbrellas, as well as her earlier work with Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor (whom she describes as having said that the umbrella’s metal skeleton explodes like fireworks) inspired Conversations with an Umbrella, a collaboration between Nenagh Watson and sound artist Kaffe Matthews.

Umbrellas, plastic bags, pieces of rope… all discarded items of human debris that fly in the wind or float in the water. From Watson’s Duchampian notion of ‘found’ movement that has been created by chance, she examines moments of tension and freedom, stillness and motion and uses these to inform her work in puppetry. She says her eyes have become opened to the world of random movement around her. For Watson, this is all part of making herself and her presence obsolete in the work, in striving to be without ego.

In her Plastic Bag Labyrinth, shown below, she uses her observation of how air fills discarded carrier bags to create an installation in which the bags are caused to move through the actions of visitors to the installation.

For more information about her working practices, see a review of Nenagh Watson’s Ephemeral Animation workshop at the Central School of Speech and Drama and another account of an earlier workshop.

This post was written in response to her presentation at the Talking Objects Symposium at Loughborough University on 9th March 2012.

Recording the Trace of Movement: Norman McLaren

Scottish / Canadian animator, Norman McLaren, was an innovator who experimented with the technological processes of his time. McLaren’s film Pas de Deux from 1968 is clearly influenced by Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography mentioned earlier. Using high contrast photography and optical printing, the flesh of McLaren’s dancers dissolve into outlines of light. The characters multiply across the image in the shape of the the movements that they dance.

As McLaren was born in the town of Stirling, there is an extensive archive about McLaren’s life and work at Stirling University.

Pas de deux from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Recording the Trace of Movement: Past and Present

In her current exhibition, Motion Capture Drawings, at London Gallery West (3rd February – 4th March 2012), artist Susan Morris has captured her own movements over a period of time in a motion capture studio and painstakingly converted the data via algorithms into lines, which are printed onto photographic paper. The images resemble a fragile, dense fog of movement.

Her work references Étienne-Jules Marey, born in France in 1830 and a pioneer of motion analysis through his work with chronophotography, which, unlike the sequential images of Eadweard Muybridge, used multiple exposures recorded and combined together in one photograph to analyse the trajectory of a movement. Here is a selection:

Marey’s work was a clear influence on the Futurists and other artists concerned with representing speed and motion in painting. Compare the image above, Etienne Jules Marey, Étude de l’homme, chronophotographie, 1887 with Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Nude Descending a Stair, 1912.

Beautiful as Morris’s images are, they bring to mind a tangled web of technological references to the history of motion analysis that she does not acknowledge. Capturing the trace of movement is the aim of contemporary motion capture technology, beautifully illustrated in Ghostcatching, 1999. In this digital dance piece shown below, movement data from choreographer and dancer, Bill T Jones, has been used by Bill Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar of the OpenEnded Group to create graphic lines. The data was not used ‘straight out of the tin’, but required extensive clean-up and artistic input from Kaiser and Eshkar.

Another example of graphic black and white linear imagery inspired by Marey’s motion analysis can be seen in Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux.