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One Flat Thing, reproduced…In So Many Ways

April 25, 2011

opening duet visualized using 3d alignment tool

I think for most people, including myself, the first image conjured up when thinking about data is somewhere along the lines bean-counters, excel spreadsheets, statisticians and their mean, modes and medians, and generally just dry, unexciting numbers. And that’s ok…a lot of data is totally boring for those outside of the people who are studying it, but I was recently shown a piece of artwork that, after some of my own research, forced me to completely rethink the possibilities of what data can do, and the tremendous and varied ways in which we can visualize that data.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start here…I don’t know a thing about dance. I have never been to a ballet, until recently I never knew a dancer, I have never been a part of flash mob, pretty much just straight up about as non-dancer type as you can get both in terms of knowledge and ability–best I can manage is a slight, rhythmic bobbing of my knees. Nothing about the art form has ever really struck me. I can appreciate the skill and physicality of the dancers but the ability to see a choreographed piece as a whole and appreciate it as a piece of artwork eluded me. Unlike a photograph, painting, film, sculpture, or play, I just didn’t have anything of value to say about bodies moving through space. That being said, when I friend recently showed me William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, my mind was thoroughly  and completely blown…and that was before I looked at the data. So go watch the dance before we talk about it. I found it so eerie and alien yet elegant.

Ok so now that you have all gone and watched the dance we get get down to the data. Enter Synchronous Objects, an interactive web-based research project by the choreographer William Forsythe and Ohio State University. The project is an interdisciplinary approach to visualizing data in new ways and exploring the spaces of interaction between the realms of art and science. Ohio State university worked with statisticians, mathematicians, choreographers, computer scientists, and geographers (!) to take this single piece of artwork, One Flat Thing, reproduced, and explore ways to take the core movements of that dance and represent them visually in some very complex, fascinating ways. One of my favorites was a web-tool that uses a pattern-generating algorithm that controls what the programers call “widgets” as they move within the point of view. Where this tool becomes interesting is where you use it to map the dancers movements, specifically when the movements of individual dancers synchronize perfectly in time with each other, and the beauty of the counterpoint tool is that that information can be displayed more effectively than the dance itself, allowing for the lay viewer to catch those beautiful moments of perfect synchronization that make the choreography so amazing. I will let my dancer friend elaborate a little more fully on this concept. She wrote to me recently in regards to this piece and this is what she had to say,

“my initial reaction was how valuable a choreographic tool and reference point it is.  The counterpoint application essentially takes super basic choreographic seed phrase modifications and allows you to layer them on top of each other, and preview.  For example, in a “choreography class,” or any choreographic project, really, the foundation is often a “seed phrase,” or, your simplified movement phrase – a very linear set of moves without a lot of frills like repetition, level changes, or dynamics in speed.  To create a dance, you take your seed phrase and ask questions such as, “What would happen if I did it backwards at half the original speed?  What if I put it on the floor and the ceiling was the audience?  What if two dancers did this first part of the phrase facing the front, and three dancers did the second part of the phrase coming from the back corner?”  (Note that this is just one, very simple and often-used approach to choreography.)  The counterpoint tool lets you take an object (dancer) and mess with speed, alignment, direction, etc, much like you might do with physical bodies and a piece of work, but all at once and quickly.  Now what’s fucking AWESOME about all of this in terms of creating a whole piece, or mapping it, for that matter, are those magical, serendipitous points at which things sync up.  I remember watching people’s work in choreography classes, and everyone getting vocally excited and awed when beautiful things would happen from experimentation with direction and speed and placement – it’s all by chance.  The idea of mapping these shapes and where things meet in space (or completely juxtapose each other), to me, is a documentation of those moments of synchronicity or complete opposition – documentation of an intangible moment in space.  !!!!!  It’s exciting enough to find these moments and shapes and spatial relationships, but it’s ANOTHER to map it and chart it and find its data and patterns.”

She, obviously, gets totally stoked on bodies and space…and so do I for that matter I guess, but it is cool to listen to a dancer talk about these data visualizations and get outside of the head of guy who can barely bend his knees to a beat. I played around on Synchronous objects for a good two hours, and had a blast thinking up uses for this kind of visualization on mapping bodies moving and taking up space. Imagine using that Motion Volumes application to map the movements of of say Shibuya crosswalk in Tokyo for the pure pleasure of it, or a more grounded application of using that technology to study movement patterns of pedestrians on busy sidewalks. Another favorite visualization (being a geographer and aspiring cartographer) was the movement density video that used geographic visualization software to create a temporal map of where the dancer’s spent their time within the grid of tables. Lastly I would just like to say that if you only watch one visualization on the site (which would be a shame because really they are all fascinating in their own ways) I would make it the 3D Alignment Forms one. What I found so incredible about this one, which maps the opening duet, is the concept of the creation of “independent architecture of form and flow” as the site’s authors’ put it. I find it strangely beautiful to see the final bodyscape of the duet and the lasting structures of their dance as a whole rather than just the fleeting movements of the dancers. There is something for me about seeing the entirely of the duet three-dimensionally and completely that is just…satisfying.

What really grabbed me about this project was my experience of going back to watch the dance a second time after poking around Synchronous Objects for a couple hours. The dance took on a whole new meaning for me and my appreciation for the artwork had been completely altered. I saw patterns that I missed my first viewing, I kept my eye out for the choreographic hotspots pointed out in the movement density maps, I looked for those dancers that had the majority of the cues as pointed out by the statistical counterpoint tool. I saw the art in a different light (dare I say a scientific one?) and I was able to view the performance critically. I also found it…comforting…to think of something so artistic as mappable, and the pursuit of mapping artistic endeavors has sparked my interest with this project as well as a panel that I sat in on at AAG.

So go. Go watch it again. And then think about applications for the programs and about mapping artwork and then email me or comment and we can start a project because I for one am totally blown away by the implications of this kind of visualization in geography and would love to work with some other people who are too. Cheers

-S

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