Workshop Report (ZKM-Karlsruhe)

Robert Wechsler (
Thu, 18 Feb 1999 20:50:09 +0100

Dear dance-tech!

Getting ready for our idat workshop,

reminds me that i had promised a report about our workshop in Karlsruhe...

Palindrome conducted a 2-week workshop in January at ZKM in Karlsruhe,


The likes of zkm (center for art and media-technology) in Karlsruhe Germany
are, I believe, unknown in the states. It is a multi-million dollar
complex, an enormous former munitions factory now devoted entirely to new
media, particularly visual arts and music. The dimensions of thing are
mind-boggeling. It houses the largest collection of interactive art in the
world, a media research institute and a "hochschule" (the rough equivalent
of a College in the U.S.) with departments in film, video, computer
graphics, and scenography. The latter invited us to do this residency -- a
2-week workshop. As a part of the deal, we got the chance to perform in
their media-theater. We arranged to do the show before the workshop so
that students would have a chance to see our work before they got started
with their own. So that was last month. The shows were quite a success,
sold out every night. They also precipitated a number of further gigs for
us so we were very pleased how that worked out.


Session 1)

We had 9 students, all were scenography (stage design) majors. Most had
dance experience as well. We decided to postpone most of the theoretical
talk -- what _is_ interactivity in art, for example -- in order to give as
quick an entry as possible into the actual systems we were making available
to them. I.e. "hands on" first, theory later. Thus after laying out our
"master plan" for the week, we dove right in. We showed a short video of
our work followed by a descriptions of what we had with us. We produced a
"Table of possibilities", listing available INPUT and OUTPUT devices. Thus
the students decisions were from the beginning on limited and guided by
various strictly defined parameters. The table looked something like this:

Movement.based Movt. Dynamic
Position in space - tracking from over-head view
Position of bodypart - touchline triggers

Muscle tension
Heart beats
Text (spoken live)
musik (live)
music recorded
light movement

Musik (synthesizer, MIDI banks)
Sound Samples (Text, Sounds, sampled music)
Images (Projected) (eg. Xpose)
Light (stagelight)

Additionally, we added "other". Indeed, zkm houses a hell of a lot of stuff
-- equipment which might be applicable.

The category of human motion is further refined according to the
limitations of the sensors and processing. Thus (with our equipment) we
have 1. the absolute position of body parts in space 2. the relative
position in the room 3. the position relative to other dancers 4. the total
quantity of movement in a given area 5. the amount of muscle tension in
particular muscle groups or 6. the beating of the heart. What is really
helpful in understanding the possibilities is to understand the limitations
inherent in each system are. For example, to
understand that a camera does not see in a 3-d way like our eyes do. To
make a movement "seen" by the computer you have to plan camera positions
and angles carefully in advance. Each student was asked to try to think up
a project or two -- leaving aside all questions of feasibility. We then
went to work on building up the labs.

Session 2)

Projects ideas were slow in coming. Only two of them knew what they wanted
to do by now. For Tom it was clear: "I want 3 people to stand side by side
on chairs and create, pitch-bend or otherwise manipulate the French
national anthem which is played by their movements". ok. Dominik was
also clear: a shopping cart you push back and forth in front of a projected
shopping shelf. The screen scrolls towards you, in response to your
movements. When you reach out for a product, it appears on the monitor in
the cart. Sounds like fun as well, and some serious programming work for
us. but ok. he had already videoed and digitized the product shelf.
rest of the students were either hemming and hawing or genuinely stumped.
To an extent we underestimated the problematic of designing without having
_felt_ what the machines could do. The first live _experience_ of the
systems today made a world of difference. I guess we are just so used to
working with these things we forgot what a kick it is to steer these things
with movement for the first time. That actually is what starts the wheels
turning. We decided we should try to build up the equipment before our
first meeting next time.

Session 3)

Day 2-6 all begin with a lecture on various aspects of the work, so there
is a growing theoretical and technical base now. The titles of our talks

What is interaction in art? (incl. video showings)
Classifications (and systems analysis) of interaction in art.
Introduction to MIDI (its development, it functioning, its 'larger'
Introduction to video and digital video
The problematics of interactive theater

Five projects are now underway. We did not expect (nor want) every student
to realize a project. Some of the ideas did not work for technical
reasons, others just did not make sense. The "effect" a system might have
was sometimes falsely predicted. A common error is to expect the
interactivity to be obvious to the audience, just because it is clear to
the performer. To achieve a transparency is much harder than most realize.
Of course, one may really intentionally _not_ want or care if the
causality is clear. One student wanted to use the heartbeat signal, for
example, merely as a kind of randomizer for a series of images. I was
rather quick to put the idea down: "Why go through the trouble..." etc. But
my partner was much more sensitive to the idea. He refined the idea to
allow a group of heart-rate zones, each prescribing a different image.
That is, a subtler and less easily defined control parameter as a way to
introduce media manipulations. Point well-taken. I am sometimes far too
quick to put down this kind of idea where the medial link is softer. (we
discussed this at some length later on). Every student except one is now
either leading a project, or is participating in a project from someone
else. A very nice spread. This seems pretty natural in a sense. Every
dancer does not choreograph, for example. In this sense the team structure
was ideal. They are settling into teams of 2-3 persons. Four teams plus
two solo projects. From our perspective, there are two kinds projects:
things we knew and had done before, and things which we had never tried.
Although the latter seemed at first of much greater interest to us (being
in our heart of hearts, experimenters), very few of the students ending up
with projects necessitating us to break new technical ground. Of course,
of this stuff is _all_ new to them. Like the man who played chess with
dog. When the neighbor says, "my god, that's incredible!", the man replies,
"Oh not really. I beat him 3 out of 4 games." Students sign up for our
time. To try to bring our exhaustion under control, we've started taking
turns being on duty. We discuss progress as we cross. We set a date and
time for a showing of works in progress.

Session 4)

I think there is a highly basic and intractable problem to work of this
kind. Back in the 70's and 80's I was fond of predicting that the world
would see a great renaissance in the 90's. I figured it should _at least_
match the artistic and cultural revolutions of the 1790's and 1890's. More
and more we would see artists with arrays of talent, artists who were also
scientists or technologists, a great flourishing of the multi-disciplinary.
Now in 1999, it seems pretty clear that our modern western societies are
not much good at breeding people that can do more than one thing well. I
see this as a big problem for interactive art work because you really need
expertise in more than one discipline. If you want, for example, to create
music thorough your movements, then you have to be a composer as well as a
dancer. This may sound a bit obvious, but it is a really serious problem.
Working together with others is only a partial solution, because in the end
the dancer in the interactive environment is still massively more
sound-empowered than the non-interactive dancer. I mean these students are
motivated, and talented, but who knows how to do so many things!

Session 5)

What we are finding out, is how even a system we think we have exhausted
can still be used in startling new ways. Two students are shuttering
through video frames of their dance, in the rhythm of their heart beats
(like those early flip-films where a series of images start to make a
moving picture. The choreography alternates physically quite taxing and
sitting back relaxed (one relaxes while the other pumps, etc.).

Two are carrying on a conversation at 2-levels across a table from each
other. By sorting 65 words and phrases into their grammatical position, and
then spreading them along the edges of a long table (virtually speaking)
they are able to create sentences together by moving body parts along the
table. A third voice has been sampled (the person they are talking about in
their own concurrent conversation). In addition, Objects are periodically
placed into the middle of the table, triggering background environmental
sounds (a restaurant, a stream, a bird). When the wine is poured,
additional background sounds are added (the transparent glass sits on a
touchline). The two sit on rolling chairs so that they have a wider reach,
but after a while even this does not suffice their needs for movement and
they begin to dance around the table. Intelligible language becomes
nonsense. Meanwhile, Tom's Marsielle has evolved into a "Walküren Ritt"
(sorry, I don't know the English). He is in drag now as well while the two
beside him are dressed in army fatigues. Each must trigger short samples
in order that the melody of the piece continues. At the climax Tom himself
begins to sing along (an accomplished contra tenor!). Totally hysterical.

Sessions 6-10

Too busy to report. Showing went quite well (and quite a crowd... this
interactive stuff sure does stir up interest!) I gotta get some sleep.

My best regards to all! Robert Wechsler