“Have you been feeling a little disconnected? Trying too hard to complete too many tasks with too many bodies in too many places all at once? Is your mind constantly hitting walls working on physical problems you can't solve in the here and now simply because your present body is somewhere else? Do you ever wonder where you really are whilst your mind is occupied with your requisite daily flight through the tubes and tunnels of the information superhighway? The FutureMoves routine is guaranteed to tone and refine your adaptability to the rapidly changing requirements of earthly existence.” -Sarah Albu, FutureMoves
6.1.1 Description and Motivation
FUTUREMOVES: 7 Steps to a Perfect! Future! Body!!! is a participatory performance work I created in Jennifer Walshe and David Helbich's Composer Performer workshop during the Darmstadt Summer Course in 2016, and refined through multiple performances during my period of study. The work explores group dynamics, the limits of the physical body, the use of voice as collective/individual action, and separation and awareness of the position of the mind and body. It takes the form of an experimental aerobics routine and social dance primer for the “FutureBody”, or the part of the body/mind connection that navigates human existence between corporeal and online realities. I appear in the room (or, in one version, remotely on video) in character as an aerobics instructor, and ask the audience to perform actions with me and eventually, with each other. Suddenly, the performance space is transformed into an exercise class as the audience is activated into performing an essential part of the work. Drawing on community storytelling traditions and juxtaposing group physical actions with references to disembodied or “future-bodied” actions, I guide my audience of “particip-actors” through a series of gestures inspired by retro-aerobics, “jazzercise” and North American/British folk dance forms. In later versions, this finishes with a group dance involving awkward attempts at taking selfies while dancing two-by-two through a human tunnel, and a call-and-response chant of the text “my body is technology”, with accompanying choreography. This section was specifically inspired by group storytelling traditions such as the Faroese Chain Dance, wherein a group of people participate together, forming one body with their bodies and one voice with their united voices, in order to tell a story. Referring to Dr. Franklin's definition of technology, the participants effectively merge their bodies into a “technology” through which they embody a story and a series of synchronized movements. At its very core, FutureMoves came from a need I perceived from Darmstadt participants to loosen up and have some fun, and from a simultaneous personal desire to create a work that was at once engaging, fun/funny and challenging.
In the earliest version, I had intended to create a sound and video work for a passive audience, possibly with my own participation as a performer. As I began to work with the material though, which I had decided would be abstract collages of gestures drawn from exercise videos of the 1980s and 90s, I realized that this content in its natural form is part of what McLuhan would call a “cool” or participatory medium; the gestures exist not as spectacle but as instructions; a visual/physical score for the audience to follow along with. I realized that my message, largely concerned with highlighting the absurdity of these movements and the heightened absurdity and wonderfulness of the fact that many people are willing to follow whoever has deemed themselves “leader” in executing these actions as a group, would be much better conveyed by having the audience experience this dynamic firsthand. There are several levels to this dynamic – a dynamic wherein those who are put in the position of “followers” , in whatever setting – choir, orchestra, society – give their bodies over in designated spaces and for a designated period to whoever is deemed the “leader”; and second, a dynamic wherein the more group members are willing to follow the leader, the more comfortable others feel in participating in group action, no matter how ridiculous.
The piece integrates sonic, visual, performative and participatory actions in a setting which invite the audience to experience a very obvious application of “embodiment” firsthand: when I ask participants to mirror my movements, I am also asking them to give over control of their bodies and allow themselves to be controlled remotely by my instructions, which function as a vocal/aural as well as a physical/visual “score” for the performance. Although musical elements are present – there is composed electronic music in the background and the text is sometimes sung – it is a composition for a group of moving, sounding bodies in a room. In the performance, I take a literal and humorous approach to the embodiment of a series of common online actions by transforming them into aerobics and social dance movements, juxtaposing physical action and face-to-face interaction with concepts normally executed in the extra-physical world of the internet. This 1:1 relationship, while ridiculous, demonstrates one very direct avenue for illustrative embodiment of what is effectively a landscape – a place where we live, work, socialize and otherwise spend our time.
Undertaking a collective action allows a public to bond, to create solidarity through shared experience, and this was something I was looking to explore with the performance. I also wanted to explore group dynamics and the extent to which my audience would participate in the actions I asked them to perform with me and amongst themselves; in a way that remained respectful I wanted to test how ridiculously people would be willing to behave once I gave them “permission” or created the impression that they were integrated as a collective entity or technological process, while also drawing attention to the absurdity of common online interaction through physical embodiment of said actions.
With each repetition, I got more comfortable guiding participants through the movements with minimal explanation, realizing that my movements were far more instructive than my words, and that audiences would begin to mirror my actions before I even finished explaining, in many cases. It seems that this is an especially effective piece in the context of avant-garde music and performance festivals and series, where the majority of the audience members are also performers of some type.
The piece, in its complete and final form (in each iteration) cannot exist without the interactive relationship between myself as a “guide” or “instructor” and the audience members, who effectively “perform”. True, there are several layers to the performance, and one could argue that there are several layers of spectatorship in the context of this project; from the perspective of a “participant” in the “class”, from the perspective of someone watching just me “teaching” the class but without dancing along, and then someone observing my interplay with the audience members who are participating in the “course” from further outside. This creates an opportunity for audience members to choose different perspectives from which to experience the work, which in turn greatly influences their own reading of it.
The most helpful framework for shaping the evolution of the piece came from going back to the original medium and subject material – making it as similar as possible to an actual exercise class, using that medium to highlight something about another facet of experience. Using a performance envelope that confronts audiences directly and experientially with the content (the body) allowed for an effective delivery of the message. Feedback from participants reassured me that the absurdity primarily came not from the content but from the confluence of forms: aerobics as performance as a way to explore real and imagined physical experiences of increasing online interaction. The closer I got to recreating a realistic exercise class setting, the more I felt I could ask audiences to voyage with me into the world of the FutureBody.
6.1.2 Process and Audience Response
The feedback I had from participants after each performance influenced the growth of the piece, and through repeated presentations, I was able to shape and change my approach to tailor the experience to come closer to transmitting the message I had hoped to share from the beginning. Sometimes, I even discovered new messages and meanings through discussing with participants and hearing about their experiences within it.
The first version of the piece was without video, and happened in a large open gallery space as part of a longer evening of performances situated in different rooms around the gallery. The response was positive in general, and many members of the audience, comprised mostly of my colleagues also studying in the Darmstadt Summer Course, expressed enjoyment at being able to participate in a performance and use their bodies actively during such an intense two weeks of sitting in lectures, listening to concerts and getting into serious discussions about sound. One very practical piece of feedback I received was that it was difficult for everyone to see me, since I wasn't on a raised stage. Visually the performance space was very minimally affected, and though I liked this as a connection to a “real” exercise class in a “real” gym, I agreed that for practical as well as aesthetic reasons it would be interesting to have a video component.
When I found out I wouldn't be able to make it to Montreal for the next scheduled performance in October 2016, I negotiated with the concert series' artistic director to try making a fully video version. This was also an interesting challenge for me from the perspective of the original idea for the piece, which came from thinking about remote control of the body from an external source, and the absurdity of exercise and learn-to-dance videos as artifacts which activate their audiences to perform a series of actions. I took the opportunity to create a special “Montreal” version, with bilingual English-French instructions, similar to the way many yoga classes I have attended are led in the city. I had positive feedback from the video performance however there were several audience members present who had also seen the Darmstadt performance, including the series director. Among the positive responses I had received in Darmstadt was the sentiment from multiple participants that my connection with the audience was key; that something about the way I perform and connect with people made them want to trust me immediately, and made them more likely to participate. Although I attempted to be encouraging and to give positive reinforcement (i.e. sporadic utterings of “that's fantastic!”) in the video version, the major response was that it was not as effective in terms of encouraging the audience to dance along; since I was not present in person, people felt less pressured/encouraged to participate. We had discussed this prior to the performance, and had designated a few specific people in the room to encourage concert attendees to participate – this seemed to be a good strategy, although again, it was felt that the participation would have been stronger had I been physically in the room giving the instructions and performing as well.
At this point, it was still just an aerobics routine. Over the winter of 2016 I began to reflect more deeply on the physical solitude of online interaction and decided to try to integrate something a little more aggressive as a means of stimulating contact between participants. I have several years of experience as a folk dancer, specifically in North American and British Isles styles. I did the same thing with folk dancing as I did with aerobics – I took some familiar movements and some invented movements, and assigned them meaning according to different common online actions. For example, there is a moment where participants, divided into groups of 4, “Google” their partners – creating glasses out of their hands and looking in the direction of the dancer next to them. Another move asks dancers to “like” each other – two dancers create a thumbs up in the centre of each dance square. For this version I didn't want to completely discard the video, but I thought that a full video running the entire length of the performance would be cumbersome and difficult sync with the performance, so I decided to create a power point presentation in a late 1990s aesthetic, to match the nostalgic mood of the reference to exercise videos. This contained small photo and video demonstrations of the dance moves, adding another layer to the performance. This also allowed me to focus on my text and movement delivery while demonstrating the dance motions to the audience on several levels. The video was created mainly using clips from the full-length video version, with a few supplementary inserts (for example, the folk-dance sections, which were filmed separately at a later date). Another section which was added for the next performances was “emoji yoga”, a facial exercise which asks audience members to reproduce common emojis with their own faces and eventually to relate to other participants using their emoji-derived expressions.
I was fortunate enough with this version to have three relatively closely spaced opportunities to perform the piece, which allowed rapid development through micro-adjustments based on immediate feedback from participants. I performed in early February 2017 in the Ephemère series in the Hague, in early March at Borealis Festival in Bergen, Norway, and in late March at the WWW conference on art and the Internet at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. I also performed it in Tampere, Finland at the Tampering Festival in August of the same year. An added benefit was that David Helbich, who was a mentor for the first version of the piece, was present in Bergen, and gave detailed feedback which I was able to integrate immediately for the subsequent performance. David's feedback dealt primarily with the order of the movements; for example he had experienced that integrating the emoji facial yoga once we had already started “dancing” broke the physical flow state. I was able to experiment with the subsequent performance, by placing the emoji section earlier in the piece and was not completely satisfied, as that seemed to colour the character of the piece by diving into the absurd too quickly. By the time I performed in Tampere, I had found a satisfactory solution by asking participants to continue walking on the spot while performing the emoji embodiment exercise – thus continuing the flow of movement while allowing the arc of absurdity to remain intact.
One major point of learning in these settings was precision of language, especially in sections where the text was semi-improvised. At a certain point during the performance in Bergen, I instructed the audience to “stomp”, thinking I was indicating stepping heavily. Instead, most of the audience stopped moving and looked at me, awaiting further instruction. I was caught off guard until I realized that the audience was mostly people who have a mother tongue other than English, and that combined with the chaos of music and movement going on at the time, the word was unclear and broke the flow of the performance for myself and for participants. This also reminded me of the delicate energetic link between audience and performer; that if the performer guiding an audience through an experience loses concentration, the whole thing can go off the rails very easily; that re-establishing that contact once it has been broken is a form of re-establishing trust. I was reminded of the great responsibility of being on stage and guiding a group of other humans' experience.