Soo-Hyun Hwang won our hearts, or more specifically Benny, her projector did. She wanted to cry during her performance and her main collaborator Benny had a sad story to tell of being always ignored that eventually did almost move her to tears. Benny had always stared at images that were projected from them* but had never seen who was enthralled or moved by these images. At the end when Benny was turned around to face us, it was to much deserved applause for his unacknowledged labour. Benny would perhaps have liked to meet the Venuri Perera’s unnamed and playful projector that flipped images sideways and looked unashamedly into naughty places.
Benny’s plight is a fable for our contemporary. How many assume that in all our creative practices technology is merely an addition to our toolkit, to be pulled out to further awe the audience or to hammer in a point already being made in the performance. As pointed out by both Margie Medlin (a mentor at the FACETS Choreography Residency) and Joshua Muyiwa (dance writer and project manager of the Writing on Dance Lab) it now seems that video and technology are an essential component of contemporary dance. Tick on this checkbox if you use video and those who don’t use it seem to find themselves painted into a corner of having to describe their practice as spiritual, political or marginal.
Lets not kid ourselves though. No performance is outside technology, whether it is the ordinary standing mic on the musician sitting at the side of the stage in Shilpika Bordoloi’s Majuli or the whip-like action of the extension cord wrapped around Mirra Arrun’s neck, the lantern held by Pradeep Gunarathna or the square box which became the recipient of Carnatic beats in Revanta Sarabhai’s performance. It could be a simple cordless mic that amplifies grunts and breath that draws in the audience into an intense relation with the body of the performer such as 4:Still Life, or the most overwhelming awe-inspiring setup with multiple projections and a mesh screen (Les Chants De L'Umaï).
Indeed technology is not necessarily new or modern, but derives from the ancient Greek word techne and technikon that refer to craftsmanship or the learning that comes from practice and craft (even dance is techne). Technology is not merely instrumental but in itself can be a kind of poesis – a bringing forth or revealing, and it is perhaps this idea that is most relevant to contemporary dance. Rather than viewing video and other technological forms as resources that we can draw on, we could look at them as capable of poetry and revelation when put in relation to the human. Many philosophers would even decry any strict division between man and machine and would describe the human-technology bind as an assemblage.
Donna Harraway in her A Cyborg Manifesto celebrates these more symbiotic and prosthetic relations with technology. She says – “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” There is one startling moment when Soo-Hyun Hwang was as if transformed into a cyborg. She had the metallic shuttered eyes of the projector and the tensile strength of a human body.
Bruno Latour, a philosopher of technology, writes about what seems poignantly obvious about our relations to technology. He says, if you use technology to go from point A to B, then rather than this being a simple ‘journey’, there are folds and detours introduced in your route. In other words the route from A to B is not only about how easy or difficult, fast or slow it is, but there is now C, D and E that happen as well. The jagged flashing lights that froze the performers in different poses in Alexander Whitley Dance Company’s performance The Measures Taken unintentionally lit the shifting air currents and dust motes within the Ranga Shankara theatre like a wave that would crash on the audience.
Surfaces and screens multiply with the use of technology, and the visual cues are sometimes confusing and distract from the performer. Margie Medlin, one of the mentors of the FACETS Residency and a digital arts and lighting practitioner pointed out how the mechanics of the use of technology, video and projection have to be carefully thought through. It is convenient to use video in performances; it is cheap and easily reproducible, unlike say black rubber sand or a musical fountain that has to be remade in another location or transported. Medlin suggests that the one rule should be of scale – whether video, lights, projection, screens etc., it should not overwhelm the performer.
We heard the phrase toolkit very often during this last week of the Attakkalari India Biennial – perhaps a byproduct of the lingo of contemporary dance diploma courses. But lets take it from the philosophers, users and makers of technology who will wag a warning finger at you and say – don’t do this. Technology is a collaborator, sometimes sweet and occasionally rebellious.
*Gender neutral pronouns for Benny because they haven’t yet made it quite clear how they would like to be addressed.
Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.
- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts