Chunky Move: The human and the machine ‘Connected’

Chunky Move's "Connected"/photo: Jeff Busby

Let’s say that we wanted to take the measure of the human embrace.

On the face of it, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? How could we possibly measure a hug? And even if we could, why would we?

But imagine a world in which the hug had become undervalued, even boring, a world not so unlike our own, perhaps, because despite our immediate romantic protestations to the contrary, let’s face it, hugs are pretty small potatoes. In such a world, maybe a machine that takes the measure of a hug would be valuable. Maybe it would tell us something — either that hugs are truly insignificant or that they have, in fact, a great deal of value. And even if we were skeptical that such a measurement device could be constructed, wouldn’t we want to see the results for ourselves?

“Connected,” the rich and startling collaboration between the Australian dance company “Chunky Move” and artist Reuben Margolin, which received its North American premiere Thursday at Lincoln Hall in White Bird’s Uncaged series, does a lot of experimenting during its 60 minutes of running time. But for me, its first and most provocative accomplishment is to give us a “measurement” of the embrace, a mechanical representation of what a hug looks like. I’d never seen that anything like that before, but then again, that goes for “Connected” as a whole, a totally original, deeply satisfying performance work, marvelous and touching at the same time.

Since a hiking trip to Utah in 1995, when he became fixated on the wave motion described by the movement of a caterpillar and resolved to duplicate it mechanically, Margolin has created ever-more fabulous kinetic sculptures. Generally, these create a grid suspended by wires or string and then set in motion with pulleys, cams and motors. They create amazing representations of various sorts of waves, and if you have a very large atrium that you want to animate somehow, they are perfect.

“Magic Wave” by Reuben Margolin – Opening Show at Technorama 27.11.2008 from Technorama Swiss Science Center on Vimeo.

In 2009, Margolin and Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek met at a conference, PopTech, that brings together innovators from many different disciplines (science, technology, public policy and even the arts), and quickly decided to work on something together. Obarzanek’s work with Chunky Move (we’ve seen two of his piece here, “Two Faced Bastard” and  “Tense Dave”) was known for its inventive theatricality and, as he put in a talk at Pacific Northwest College of Art earlier this week, “my dystopian outlook on things.”

After “Two Faced Bastard,” he took six months off to recharge, and he came back in a different state of mind. “I just wasn’t really interested in doing so much about difference and annoyance,” he said. “I wanted to reconnect with things that kind of worked.” Not beautiful per se, but things that flowed well together.

For his part, Margolin was looking for an experiment outside his mechanical realm. He told the audience at PNCA that ultimately, all of his wave designs are driven by a circle of some sort. Humans, of course, don’t just move in circles. So, figuring out a way to connect his approach to a different motor, the human body, might produce interesting results, he reasoned.

The device that Margolin created (it’s a sculpture, a machine, and a representation, among other things) looks like a smaller version of some of his grand wave sculptures. It has 121 strings coming down, each connected to another at one end with paper strips. The other end can be attached either to a machine or the human body, and in “Connected,” the ends are attached to both at different times, through a system of pulleys.

In “Connected,” the dancers perform either parallel to the sculpture or in direct concert with it, either moving around inside its grid, moving outside to its rhythms or they are attached to it directly.

And when they are attached directly, the motions of their arms, legs, shoulders and torso are “tracked” by the sculpture. You could say they are generating the patterns deliberately sometimes, but at others, it seems more that the sculpture is recording their movement. There’s a difference, and the play between the difference is important to the piece.

Something else for the hopper before we get to the hug. In his talk, Obarzanek said that dancers “transcend their personalities” when they start to dance: “They are themselves but become a body in flow.” Meaning that a dance is a sort of technology (using technology broadly as a system of rules, methods and techniques, not just in the mechanical sense) that generates specific motion or “flow.” Attached to Margolin’s sculpture, which is also in flow, they “connect.” Their flow potential merges, and it is bound by the “inventors” of the technologies in question, the inventors of the sculpture and the choreography, Margolin and Obarzanek.

This sounds like another episode of Obarzanek’s Dystopian Theatre. Haven’t they created a Matrix? Aren’t the dancers either a) puppets, or b) absorbed by the technology of the sculpture, and either way, haven’t they lost their “humanity”?

The embrace.

At one point dancer Alisdair Macindoe is hooked up to the sculpture by himself. In other words, if he moves his left arm, a certain section of the grid will move. If he advances, the grid rises a bit; if he moves back, it descends. It doesn’t look easy — although the grid is as lightweight and friction-free as possible, Macindoe has to exert visible effort to move once he’s harnessed to it, as though in a windstorm, as Margolin said.

Macindoe moves in various ways and so does the grid, curling and tilting, rising and falling. Then he is approached by another dancer, Marnie Palomares, who is unencumbered by the device. she holds him, caresses him, they fall to the ground together and yes, embrace.

In the audience, we are watching the dancers and the device as we have from the beginning, mostly mesmerized by the device, which looks a little like a Computer Assisted Design experiment, but larger and moving in space, beautiful and precise and mathematical, and if we were going to get philosophical about it, maybe Ideal or Platonic.

As Macindoe and Palomares come together, the device doesn’t register anything very dramatic, hardly anything at all. It curls a little at the edge and maybe “vibrates” a little, oscillates. Very subtle. Barely perceptible. And I wouldn’t remark about it all except it suddenly occurred to me: This is a hug. This delicate, tiny gesture. I compare it to the image of fetus in an ultrasound, knowing that you’ll probably scoff and accuse me of hyperbole: That sonogram shows human life, after all. But come on, so does that hug. What does it look like? Not very big, a curl around the edges, maybe a slight oscillation. Beautiful.

Yes, the sculpture “interpreted” the physical movement of the human bodies attached to it. But what about the psychological aspect?  Can the sculpture capture that? In the talk, Obarzanek argued that it does.

“The sculpture becomes a representation of what we may not be able to see that’s going on,” he said. “ We invest that sculpture with a psychological imagination, and that was something I never knew would happen or not.” Actually, the audience itself is the medium for that psychological imagination, not the machine, the machine just graphs a disturbance. We interpret it. The ultrasound changes the psychological state of its audience, it isn’t itself a psychological state. The graphing of the hug represents a psychological state (of the dancers) and we interpret it as we will. And for me, oddly, it re-mystified this suggestion of human affection.

A few more points about “Connected” before we close?

1. Obarzanek’s choreography is really interesting all by itself. Perhaps to balance the serenity of the sculpture, he made it hyperactive, explosive, twisting and stretching, and though there were lots of unison passages, the demands of the movement meant that the dancers still looked individual.  At the beginning, I found myself looking at the dancers who were engaged in activating the sculpture instead of the choreography, which raises a lot of questions about our fascination with technology (or maybe that’s “my” fascination…).

2. The other technical aspects of the show were very good. The music (Oren Ambarchi, Robin Fox) could sound techno or heavy metal or industrial. The lighting by Benjamin Cisterne created a sense of drama and focus. Anna Cordingley’s costumes accommodated those pesky harnesses and seemed uniform-like, perfect for the dancers tending the sculpture.

3. The final segment of the dance was meant as a commentary on the piece itself and art in general, and though I didn’t find it so compelling myself, it served the purpose of showing us that the dance wasn’t simply about the dancer/sculpture interface, put the whole thing back in the audience’s lap. In this section,  the dancers dressed as museum guards and spoke lines that Obarzanek had collected from real museum guards for another project, mostly observations about patrons (some of the patrons apparently want to smell the sculpture) and dealing with tedium as a discipline useful in the rest of their lives.

One story was related about a cleaning person who had picked up a piece of art and was about to dispose of it until stopped by frantic guards.  The cleaner turned to everyone, asked, “Why is it art?”, and was told how much it cost. I bet it was one of those art works that comments on art by itself asking, “Why am I art?” Which would have been a fine answer. Why is it art? It’s art because it’s an object that asks you to consider why it is art. Which may or may not be very useful to you, but there it is.

While the museum guards were talking, they were also dancing, though with more restraint than in the beginning. The sculpture was high above the stage, gently rising and falling, hooked to a machine, not human dancers.

The conclusion was quite beautiful: With the dancers in museum guard garb on the floor, the grid descends slowly until it reaches just above the dancers, who reach toward it as the lights go down.

4.  How do we leave “Connected”? With a thousand questions, really, at least for me. We have no idea what course our experiments in technology are going to take, no idea how our sense of beauty is going to evolve, no idea what information or principles for action we’ll need going forward. Our technology is fragile. We are fragile. The forces pressing upon us are great. I understand completely Obarzanek’s impulse to find something that works rather than comment endlessly on what doesn’t.

In the Sixties, we famously sought to “go with the flow,” until we started to think that was too passive. For me, “Connected” is an experiment in mingling flows of very different types, maybe to see whether they are toxic to each other not. How deeply can we collaborate, human to human, human to technology? Maybe that’s a flow we feel OK about joining.

2 Responses.

  1. Brian Howe says:

    What a rich post on “Connected”! I can’t wait to finally see it at Duke this weekend. FYI, for anyone who wants to learn more about Margolin, we just put up a brand new interview with him on the Duke Performances blog:

    http://thethread.dukeperformances.duke.edu/2011/10/interview-into-the-5th-dimension-with-reuben-margolin/

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    Brian, Thanks and thanks so much for the link to the interview with Margolin — very interesting. Yeah, I think you’ll find “Connected” pretty provocative on all sorts of levels.

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