Re: Did you get what was supposed to be happening?

Robert Wechsler (
Mon, 22 Mar 1999 10:13:57 +0100


thank you for your comments.

I actually have some mixed feelings about your point, as you will see.

At 06:41 PM 3/17/99 -0800, you wrote:
>>Dear Dance-tech:
>>Even for us "experts" it was often a challenge to discern what the
>>computers were doing at many of the IDAT performances
>>and demonstrations. Were these challenges what the choreographer had in
>>mind? If not, then why is this mistake so often repeated?
>YIKES. I may have missed out on some of the earlier thread, but I feel
>strongly that the audience does NOT need to know what the computers are
>"doing". Yes, it's important for there to be some perception by the viewer
>that the system, or the environment, is enriching the movement, and that
>there is something going on here - but it should be wrapped up in the
>reaction to the movement and the work itself, not to the technology that's
>present, but uninteresting in it's own right.

That, I think, is pretty idealistic. We knew this was a computer piece,
and we wanted to experience what that meant. This, like it or not, is what
was in our minds.

We, a lot of us anyway, _wanted to know_ and therefore i think we should
somehow be given an even chance to "get it". This is my opinion. I think
it can be even more distracting (from the dance and music) _not_ to know,
and to have to wonder and ask each other about it afterwards.

And, I think the technology _is_ interesting in its own right. Discovering
what it is doing can be part of a piece of such art. I believe strongly
that art can be something that happens on quite an intellectual level and
that this in no way needs to negate our experience of it on a more organic
or intuitive level. Of course, it _can_ negate. I mean obviously it is
something we may want to be very careful with. In our own work we have
pieces which integrate (or at least layer) these two kinds of experiences,
and others where one comes before the other.

Having said all that, I want to say I quite liked your pieces with Jools.
the effect of the computer system was quite subtle. For this, for most of
us, I think the technology lent a sense of "spontaneity" or "liveliness" to
the movement/music experience (in way that a more direct-control system
would not have done). In fact, seeing your work goes a long way towards
validating much of your larger argument to me. I like your approach very

Still, I think I have a point too: Maybe someday we will be able to call
for our car and it will come drive up and get us, and we'll not even notice
the technology. But for today, we would be quite astonished to see that
happen. That is, in the present world, when a dancer's movements _by
themselves_ create or control music, it is actually something quite
remarkable. And this is important to our experience of the piece. As much
as you, or all of us, may wish for our devices to become transparent or
ignored in lieu of more (traditionally) artistic considerations, I am not
sure we are at point where we can realistically expect that.

>It's why Jools and I in our current work never talk about the technology -
>at least until afterwards if it's a showing that allows for audience
>interaction afterwards. In a concert situation, we won't talk about the
>technology at all.

Still Jools _did_ begin her dance by saying that her movements were going
to be controlling the music (or something like this). She wanted us to
"get" this point _before_ the piece started. And, I think for most of us,
it was nice that she said that -- it did not detract from the piece -- more
the opposite.

>If there's no perception by the audience that something
>organic is happening between sound and movement or image, then the work has
>failed anyway.

Has the work failed if the organic thing which is happening in the piece
has nothing to do with the computer? or practically nothing?

I remember being astounded at how marvelously the music would merge with
the movement in the Cage/Cunningham collaborations, even though there was
no feedback system connecting them at all, neither rhythmic/melody-based,
nor visual (Cage and the dancers did not watch one another).

That an organic moment can occur through a computer-controlled system is
actually quite marvelous part of this kind of work, and i think, while it
is similar to the Cage-Cunningham thing, there is, in fact, a quality
unique to this type of work (speaking from the experience of both of our
work). This -- we agree do we not? -- is a real exciting part of this kind
of work.

>I agree with most of Robert's points, except this one:
>>2. Begin the piece, or at least have some part of it be _real simple_
>>and clear. Yes, _hit them over head_. Later in the work people will be
>>more patient with subtlety if they have at least had some opportunity
>>to really "get it".
>I really don't want to hit anyone over the head. The audience does not
>even have to realise that they are "getting" something. It should be so
>organic to the work that it's not necessary to separate it from the work
>itself, which is what you are seeming to suggest.
>Actually, having re-read Robert's 6 points again, I don't really agree with
>most of them...Sorry, Robert, but I feel that the work should not be
>"about" the technology- although I agree that the technology becomes
>totally intrinsic to the work. In the end, our technology should be as
>transparent as the lighting board - everyone see it's effects, but no one
>thinks about how it's working.

I like that you said, "sorry Robert". Actually, I am enjoying this
discussion very much. The truth is, as I said, I have somewhat mixed
feeling. Some of our newer work is more in your vain, though I am not sure
we would present this work alone in a concert. That is, we always do at
least some "hitting over the head". (which, though it sounds pretty awful,
if you know our work, we do it in a pretty light-hearted way).

We discuss this issue within our company. At one of our workshops, for
example, someone proposed a project which used one of our systems in a way
in which in the final outcome it would (probably) not be clear what the
role of the computer had been. I argued then, "well then the computer and
sensor system is little more than a randomizer of events. why not do it a
much simpler way". (ie. this is not a legitimate project) Frieder Weiss,
my partner and engineer/composer argued, "no, let's try it. Maybe the
effect is indeed subtle or even unclear, but who is to say that that is
wrong or artistically weak."

Would you agree, Richard, that at a certain point, when a system is subtle,
or benign enough, someone can legitimately complain that they read their
program or whatever, and felt frustrated that they _didn't get it_. Ok
granted, if a piece is good, then it is good, but I just think that this
point about feeling that you are included, is very important to many people.


>R i c h a r d P o v a l l
>Director, Div. of Contemp. Music/Assoc. Prof of Computer Music/New Media.
>Visiting Researcher, Exeter College of Art & Design, Exeter, UK.
>TIMARA/Studio 5, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College
>Oberlin, OH 44074 USA
>Voice: +1.440.775.1016 | Fax: +1.440.775.8942