By Ellen Pearlman
In December 2019, I attended the U.S. Department of State-sponsored Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) on “Arts, Culture, and Transforming Conflict” in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the seminar I met Jonathan Hollander, director of Battery Dance Company in New York City who was one of the alumni facilitators. As part of the seminar, we were encouraged to come up with collaborative ideas for an Alumni TIES small grant project. Jonathan and I came up with the idea of “Dance for Transformation,” working with dancers wearing biometric sensors on their body who would then interact with audience members as part of the outdoor 39th Battery Dance Festival in New York City. I would use the framework of Art-A-Hack™, a collaborative methodology I developed that uses open calls to source technical and creative talent with team co-creation fostering the development of both the technology and its aesthetics. The live performance itself would explore issues of immigration and migration.
However, the outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent pandemic ended any hope of a live performance with an in-person audience, so we were forced to create a performance with no one but the dancers in the studio. We renamed our event “DANCEDEMIC” to reflect the difficulties of working in the midst of a pandemic. We then organized an open, global call from Art-A-Hack and its affiliates for creative technologists, artists, musicians, dramaturgists, costume designers, theatrical producers, engineers, and any other interested parties to work with two dancers from Battery Dance Razvan Stoian and Hussein Smko, who would wear the EmotiBit biometric sensors developed by neuroscientist Sean Montgomery on their bodies.
Project team members were selected from all across the continental United States, Canada, Brazil, London, Ukraine, Estonia, and India. Our teams came up with innovative solutions measuring the biometrics of the dancers who wore the custom-built EmotiBit sensors on either their fingers or forehead. The sensors measured such things as blood oxygen levels, muscle contractions, humidity, and a performer’s location within a room. This allowed them to stream that data to the virtual Art-A-Hack collaborators who would create live interactive changes in both the visual and sonic content of the performance.
We also partnered with eˉlektron, based in Tallinn, Estonia to use their custom-built performative streaming platform that was developed in early April 2020. With this platform, the eˉlektron player allowed live, blended performance including the ability to view the audience on screen, as well as chat together while viewing our presentation. Because of this feature, the audience was able to “feel” the energy of each other, similar to a typical performance experience. This creative solution opened up the viewing platform and extended the experience to people from all over the globe, not just people attending a dance festival in lower Manhattan.
The first performance “Hieroglyph” by Razvan Stoian drew upon the use of language to describe the perceptual experience of ‘otherness’ or the immigrant. Shifting between his native Romanian and adopted English, the work used both visuals and audio to evoke the tensions of moving through an unfamiliar landscape, both literally and perceptually. The choreography was a study in contrasts: turbulence and calm, dark and light, the inner and outer world. The live time data that was collected from his blood oxygen levels and muscle strength was displayed in real time for audience members to see the changes represented by color, size, speed, and sound of the words appearing on the screen.
The second presentation “Walk With Me” by Hussein Simko, examined an individual’s journey of finding mental strength and resilience in the face of adversity and chaos, especially as it relates to having to forsake one’s homeland. Hussein’s memories of growing up in wartime Iraq/Kurdistan formed the backbone of the piece. He was also inspired by the practice of a Ronin, a masterless samurai, where in any situation one must find calmness from within to stay grounded. The EmotiBit, worn on his forehead displayed his biometrics visually in the form of different colored strokes surrounding his body.
In the end, the collaboration between Battery Dance and Art-A-Hack proved extremely fruitful, despite the challenges of Covid-19, and pushed our thinking on executing projects outside the box. It opened up the viewing platform to people from all over the globe, instead of only people attending a dance festival New York. This exceeded our expectations and proved the power of artistic process and its ability to transform a global pandemic into global moment of creative expression.
Dr. Ellen Pearlman is a New York-based new media artist, critic, curator, writer, and educator. Ellen was a Fulbright Specialist in Art, New Media, and Technology, a Zero1 American Arts Incubator/U.S. Department of State artist to Ukraine, and an EU Vertigo STARTS Laureate where she developed AIBO, an emotionally intelligent, artificial intelligent brainwave opera in Tallinn, Estonia. Ellen is also an Assistant Professor and Senior Researcher at RISEBA University in Riga, Latvia, Director of ThoughtWorks Arts, a global research and innovation lab, and President of Art-A-Hack.
Dance for Transformation is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.