Postcards from Italy

Postcards from Italy: Making an Effort with Interactive Art by Renata Shepard Renata Sheppard is a dancer, choreographer, and media artist currently enjoying a Fulbright Fellowship in Turin, Italy. Her Fulbright research involves a live interactive performance that will soon become a dance for the camera work in a 3D virtual environment.  Exploring sound, Laban Movement Analysis, and choreography as frameworks for the analysis and design of interactive systems, she is integrating these ideas into teaching dance for the camera and Laban for computer animators.  In addition to playing with accelerometers and circuits, she is currently falling in love with Italy (again), and  embracing her Italian-American roots with frequent gelato therapy. She obtained an MFA in Dance from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is currently writing a thesis in order to complete her CMA (Certified Movement Analyst) from the Laban Institute of Movement Studies in NYC. Technology is seductive.  And as we Float, paddle, and/or Glide down the river of life-as-an-artist,  technology is a sexy piece of driftwood that can slip by, provide support, or block our Flow altogether.  And “technology” is a trendy word that really should be identified in terms of its appropriate (scientific?) nomenclature.  We could be talking about anything from the ever-increasing accessibility to editing software that is driving Dance for the Camera, to tele-immersive environments allowing remote dancers to interact in 3D virtual reality, to the myriad options of open-source and DIY programming tools like Arduino,  PD, and Isadora that enable artists to make fun, interactive systems.  It’s an expansive, overwhelming, and very, very inviting world. But, before jumping into this pool of wires and sensors here are two hints to borrow from the rules of courtship: first of all, boundaries— the presence of technology should not cloud, obstruct, or distract from your personality and creative voice.  Secondly, you have to know when to stop.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of loving technology: we invest so much time (and funding) into an idea and sometimes we resist the reality that it just isn’t working.  We have to be ready to let go just as we need to know when to hold on. The most important distinction I make with technology and its cross-breeding tendencies with the arts and sciences is the difference between a project’s genotype and phenotype.  The nugget of this conversation is about where creativity is felt, which is another way of saying how it is valued.  For computers and the programming side of interactive art, the creativity lies in the genotype.  The genetic material, the blueprint of the technological experience is usually not seen nor entirely expressed in the final product.  For the performing and artistic side of interactive art, this “genotypical” information is present, but what we, the audience, respond to is actually the “phenotype”, the observable, physical expression of this “genetic” information. In my opinion, the genotype of a choreographic work does not matter when it comes to the living performance.  If it’s a performance and you want to call it art, the bottom line is the performance itself.  And the “genotype” can be the most advanced new accelerometer-based sensor set or years of research on Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic style but in the end, I think today’s audiences have seen enough “genotypically” cool pieces that feature an innovative protocol.  Now, they want to feel the interaction, they want it to be “embodied” and resonate with their human experience. In this same thread, the idea of novelty has different weights in different worlds.  With programming and computing, novelty means coming up with the next, new algorithmic process to transform this data set into that model of human creativity (for example) but in performance the novelty comes from the afore-mentioned felt experience, the arrangement of this next to that, presented in a way that feels new, different, significant…
And this is where my dear friend, Laban and his (and Irmgard Bartenieff’s) Movement Analysis comes into the picture.  Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is codified and specific, yet infinitely expandable and applicable; it is theoretical and physically tangible.  I guess you could say I was “hooked” from the start considering my introduction was via the legendary Sara Hook at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  It satisfied an aspect of my scientific and logical tendencies but enabled the creative process and improved my dancing… I am not alone in my curiosity and exploration of Laban Movement Analysis as a bridge and enabler with technology.  Thanks to my continued Laban education at LIMS in NYC, I am joining in the actively evolving conversation of innovators like Peggy Hackney, Thecla Shiphorst, and Lesli Bishko (among others) in using LMA as a framework to get inside other disciplines and reference its DNA. LMA enables me to think of movement as a resource for translation, giving me words and concepts that fit into a hierarchal structure that resonates with the logical, repeatable lexicon of computer-talk.  It’s a framework, an approach, a lens and a valuable reference to the human experience.  I have used it as a tool for interpreting user feedback and defining parameters within an interactive system, for the creation of meaningful mappings between data, gesture, and performance environment, and to hypothesize about the audience’s “felt” relationship to the interactive environment.   For me, it really has become the lens I use to create an embodied and multi-dimensional experience in my work.
My personal approach to technology is one that involves a lot of skepticism, a hint of mistrust, and a constant streaming (heh) of ideas.  Especially when you are working in a collaborative situation where C++ meets choreographic design, fear of a “stupid idea” or wondering “if it’s going to work” is completely counter-productive.  Dream big and embrace the ignorance you have for your collaborator’s areas of expertise: the freedom you have in not knowing how things are supposed to work is precious. My current project is a collaborative interactive performance here at the Virtual Reality and Multi Media Park in Turin where I am doing my Fulbright Fellowship.  I am developing an increasing threshold for confusion tolerance (this is a good thing) as the collaborative team—which includes VRMMP’s Sound Designer, Paolo Armao, and University of Illinois’ John Toenjes–merges David Sonnenshein’s Sound Spheres with Laban Effort Life and accelerometer data collected from four very patient dancer’s wrists. As the collaboration evolves I must find ways to wrap my head around what it means to write code that enables a computer to interpret accelerometer data from dancers’ movements or how an audio engine can interpret this data and trigger procedural sounds via OSC protocol.  The other day, Fabrizio, our programmer was discussing what library he would use in order to composite the 2D video into the 3D environment of MESH (a fancy acronym for an open source pre-visualization software the lab developed.  Once again, I had to let go of my childhood notion of a book-filled structure with inviting armchairs and quickly google search my brain for the image of a library as a collection of code and data rather than manuscripts. Technology introduces an exciting element into live performance.  For me it is about the juxtapostion of the raw, human experience with a prescribed, digital system that is (theoretically) predictable.  I am fascinated by error and purposely create structures in my work that force the performers to live in the moment.  I will create a set of tasks that are impossible to fully complete or I rely on the unreliability of the technology to leave the dancers with a decision to make on the spot; they must complete their given task without the necessarily feedback loop.  My goal is to let the technology “behave” like another performer, offering input, reacting, and influencing the living performance.  I am curious about the performer’s lived experience of these interactions and how it alters the internal architecture of the performance mentality, creating a kind of hyper-aware state that the audience definitely senses. The exciting challenge of all this networkable knowledge is finding the threads that can weave together a new piece, an exciting lecture, or an integrated workshop.  This is how I am approaching my career as a multi-media dance artist although it requires some slightly schizophrenic abilities to go from teaching an LMA workshop for computer animators to developing the syllabus for our upcoming Dance for the Camera Workshop. I love the ability I have to constantly define my identity and shift my interests into a project that tips the scale into theory or practice, from the dance studio, a lab, or a classroom.  This collection of interests weaves Laban Movement Analysis, Dance for the Camera, Computer Animation, and interactive performance with my main objective to dance and make dances.  Rather than being disparate and tangential, I find these parallel channels to be unique but founded in the same main ingredient.  Movement.  And in a world that is completely infiltrated with technologies that promise to keep us more connected, there is an ever-increasing need to connect to the body itself.  Human-centered computing is a call to value the expertise of people who understand movement and the body.  I think it is time Wii stand up and show them what it’s all about. Return to Journal Contents
1 Comment
  • Gina Carli
    Posted at 16:45h, 21 November Reply

    Ciao Renata!
    I loved this article! I am an MFA student at the University of California, Irvine studying dance and digital media. I just got done stage managing, choreographing for, and performing in a dance and technology show utilizing telepresence technology in collaboration with UCI, NYU, and UC Berkeley. The experience was so often stressful, confusion-filled, and I often felt schizophrenic, like you mention in this article. It is so incredibly reassuring reading about other people’s similar experiences and feelings toward this exciting world of dance and technology. I am just beginning to narrow down what I am going to focus on for my MFA thesis project, and I came across you because I was Google-searching dance film in Italy. I studied in Italy at a small school called the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo during undergrad, and I want to return to Italy, and possibly (hopefully) travel to other countries this summer to begin to gain a global perspective of dance film. I would love to hear any advice you have on any of this and I would love to hear/read/see more about your experience and applying for Fulbright. Feel free to email me any time ( and good luck!

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