Sunday, 24 May 2009

Topographies - Sites, Bodies and Technologies

Sites, Bodies, and Technologies
SDHS Conference June 19-22, 2009
Stanford University, San Francisco, California

This post is a preface to my upcoming conference at Stanford University in California at SDHS 2009 on June 20th. I will be involved in two events: This one, which is a roundtable discussion conceived by Portuguese dancer Isabel Valverdes. The title and contexts for my input into the discussion follow below. The second event will be the presentation of my paper, 'In the Company of Strangers - Negotiating the parameters of Indeterminacy; a study of the Roaming Body and Departure in Urban Spaces'. Both events are on June 20th 2009. I will be focussing on my individual paper presentation in the coming weeks.

1) Envisioning virtual cartographies for corporeal interaction: dance and performance convergent applications of Second Life 3D Metaverse social environment. (Isabel Valverde, Yukihiko Yoshida, Mike Baker)

2) Real Dance and Dancing in metaverse : from the activity by INETDANCE Japan

3) The Human Analogue in Mixed-Reality
The Analoguebody - In the Company of Strangers by Mike Baker

Question 1?
How might dance work be created around the premise that we as humans can occupy, simultaneously, two separate spaces and times in one Mixed Reality?

To begin to explore this question, I have constructed a simulacrum of Wellington Railway Station on the NZ eduisland of Koru in Second Life. Over the past year I have been investigating the process of bringing my Real Life dance videos into my Second Life railway station. When I began my Masters project, 'In the Company of Strangers' in dance and video, my commencement point for my research practice, while exploring concepts around departure and leaving in urban environments, was to take and investigate the basic premise that the 'real' is influenced by the virtual, all the time and everywhere - in Real Life; that we experience moments which could be described as 'virtual' every day. To me, Second Life as a fully-immersive metaverse is simply an extended virtual moment in which we may reside for a longer period of time; another layer of the Real. This notion is supported in Brian Massumi`s exploration of the ‘‘indeterminacy’ of the body – the realities facing the body which are incomplete without the recognition of another, constantly simultaneously-generated virtual description of ‘now’. Massumi posits that ‘this body’ is here, but also, ‘this presence and essentially when in motion, they are no longer with us, here, but ‘over there’, now ...'. When a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition ... In motion, a body is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own nonpresent potential to vary...'

Mark Hansen, in Bodies in Code, (2006) sees the embodiment of function manifesting through the human body, acting as a kind of seismographic wand - Hansen, (p5-6). He maintains that: ‘… all reality is mixed reality’, Hansen quotes Massumi who talks about the existence of the analogue as a transformative entity: Always on arrival a transformative feeling of the outside, a feeling of thought sensation is the being of the analog(sic). This is the analog(sic) in a sense close to the technical meaning, as a continuously variable impulse or momentum that can cross from one qualitatively different medium into another. Like electricity into sound waves. Or heat into pain, Or light waves into vision. Or vision into imagination. Or noise in the ear into music in the heart. Or outside coming in. Variable continuity across the qualitatively different: continuity of transformation. (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual ... 2002:p.135)

Through our internal analogue therefore, we possess the innate capacity to transform and combine continuously, the many real and virtual realities of which our existence is comprised. The blended-reality paradigm can shift the fields of 'orthodox' perceptions which have, in the past, established existing modes of seeing and understanding reality. Hansen maintains that the reason why so many of us now operate in so-called virtual, metaverse worlds with apparent ease, is because we have always done so - we encounter without comment, a myriad of moments which we could describe as virtual, every day in our 'real life' existence. The shift for us as 'analogue' where the process within us as humans which brings metaverse technologies like Second together with our natural perceptions, supports a function which expands the scope of this perception and integrates real-world and virtual realities to arrive at a more homogeonous blended-reality.

Rather than presenting the virtual as a completely technical simulacrum – a portal to a fully immersive, separate or fantasy world, the blended-reality paradigm regards it as just one more realm among others which can be accessed through our already embodied perception or our ability to enact - or, in the case of both Real and Second Life, to role-play. 'We are all in the same house, but using different rooms', a good friend of mine said to me recently. So there is less emphasis here on the content of our perceptual register and more emphasis on the ways in which we access that content.

I am involved with Second Life as well as Real Life, not because I am intrigued by their differences where I recognize a separate virtual and real world, but because under the auspices of the blended-reality that I inhabit, I can perhaps more easily explore the interplay between Real Life where Second Life becomes a facet of the Real and without much suspension of disbelief when in SL, where the Real becomes a facet of Second Life. The phenomenon of telepresence engages in both facets of this single world. When engaged in either a virtual moment in Real Life, or an immersion of more comprehensive saturation in Second Life, our Real Life body/presence becomes our personal prosthetic - a role-reversed, telepresent avatar. This is a little akin to Stelarc`s 'Movatar' where through role-reversal, an avatar, through the motion-capture programming of prosthetic armatures on a human body can prompt selected movement in the human 'avatar'. In this dual environment, up to a point, I can converse, prosthetically dance (through my avatar), witness and belong as Analogue; as realcyberbody, while making critical commentary upon yet another field of departure. If I were to take and extend Hansen`s concept of the analogue, however, these 'other' bodies already manifest within us. A virtual version perhaps of the 'other' presence, that duality of personna which we so often sense but inevitably fail to define.

Massumi suggests that the body in movement means accepting the body in its occupation of space and time as a paradox: that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body itself. Of it, but not it. Indeterminate, coincident, but real and material. Something apart yet intrinsic and inseparable. Massumi calls this echo a, ‘Fellow-travelling dimension of the same reality’, a legitimate interpretation of identifiable alterity? In this time-based context, it could be said that the body is present but within its indeterminacy, the time-based embodiment of ‘body’ has already moved on. This assertion as a concept is interesting to consider in the context of my ‘in-transit’ dominated practice based on the pathos in departure and offers a framework for speculation about the reasons for what often, are the expressions of truncated, disjunct forms of communication in the street, which I believe, emerge due to our unconscious involvement, through indeterminacy in a continual pre-emptive state of leaving.

In a sense, one could say that the environment or ‘stage’ for my work, rather than a commuter-busy passageway, or Wellington Railway Station in New Zealand Aotearoa at rush-hour, is more accurately, the moving body itself - the body as a roaming stage - the human as Analogue. To use Massumi`s phrase, the body`s potential to vary suggests an alignment which juxtaposes, yet does not subordinate the Realbody with the Cyberbody, while analogue capabilites are present in both.

Question 2?
In what ways may the Human Analogue facilitate through movement, a sense of 'belonging' in a virtual environment?

In my current Masters dance and video work, I am engaging in enquiry into notions surrounding those forces of indeterminacy which initiate departure in our lives. I am interested in the processes of leaving, in both Real and Second Life - leaving to arrive or re-emerge to leave again. John Di Stefano (Senior Lecturer at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand) proposes an interesting view and description of the process and implications of time on our travelling between 'real' spaces (the inverted commas are mine): In his acclaimed video, ‘Hub’ he suggests an alternative definition for the term 'belonging' - that the idea of ‘home’ and belonging is today perhaps more ideally expressed as ‘… a sense of being between places.’ (Di Stefano, quoted in Video Data Bank, 2001). Hub proposes that we consider the airport as a home-away-from-home and also a place of ‘dis-Appearance’ – a place of opportunity which entails a transformative process rather than simply vanishing. So rather than being a non-place (ref Marc Augé), the inference here is that the airport becomes, ‘… a rich and complex repository of interlacing personal and political histories – a new space of belonging.’ di Stefano (2001) Clearly, di Stefano`s concept and articulation of dis-Appearance is another manifestation of human analogue behaviour and quite at home in metaverse worlds like Second Life where our cyberbodies or avatars teleport, constantly arriving and departing. The process(es) of departure(s) realized through our computer-prosthetic interfaces become easier than walking; opportunities for transformative practice where we transit worlds as if we were simply exiting and entering different ideas rather than tangible spaces. A Postbody construct. Horizons, views, textures, aromas, ambience and information are all accommodated. In short, we are glancing, noticing, sifting in transit because that, as humans, is what we do while on the move.

Andrew Bucksbarg, in Maintaining the Digital Embodiment Link to Performance continues with this defining of the Postbody. He argues that simulated worlds confront us with multiple layers of self and otherness at the display interface of the virtual, graphical and textual. Semi-fixed layers of otherness or identity debris gather at this point in the form of the now-familiar user names, profiles, online identities and avatars. Bucksbarg maintains that these create a schism of the self. A rift in the subject which ensures that this inventory of 'otherness' never quite fits. There is always a need for modification, updating and maintainance. However he asserts that we can never maintain this embodiment; the new media subject shadows this moment-to-moment construct of the self. This new mediated human is not only a body, but is Postbody and like Sterlarc`s augmentations which extend the body politic, it simulates the intellect and body, manifesting as the body that is data, the body that is changeable, but technically limited. Bucksbarg goes on to say that in this realm of Postbody self and other, it is not information that we crave, it is still meaning and context. I endorse this view and regard our efforts to elicit significance from the worlds accessed through this liminal interface as worthy of research and development, curiosity and exploration. I am too much the romantic to be satisfied by files of mere animation script - it is the signification of that script, the articulation of that mixed-reality which bequiles me and holds my interest.

In her article, Incorporating self into web information system design, Anita Greenhill and Hannakaisa Isomaki, while arguing from a post-structural perspective where electronic identity enables a deconstruction of the mind/body dichotomy, informs us that: Identity construction in computer-mediated environments as in “real life” environments, is influenced by existent social processes. In these virtual environments the computer screen mediates specific experiences of localised physicality; however these computer mediated experiences do not alter the overall sense of being for the individual ...

This speaks to me of a lived methodology, which seeks to support an essential link at the real and virtual interface - in this instance, the computer screen. The artifice itself, the screen and all it holds, becomes a prosthetic extension of the self, which rather than altering the self puts in place another perceptual facet of the real. My personna/presence here, now, is divided between this space and this Second Life space. To the people behind their avatars in my Second Life Wellington Railway Station, who can hear my voice and see my avatar moving, the collective personna constituted by myself and this audience at Stanford University, I suggest, is actually virtual and in that extension of this reality, my avatar-self in Second Life, is real. So at this point in time, we have an equivalency as analogues in two places at once - the constituents of a blended-reality.

Bucksbarg suggests a positive extension, rich with possibilites inherent in metaverse environments like Second Life; 'Are networked simulated worlds much more similar to our dreams and imaginings than to the clunking improbability of a physical world? Unlike traditional media forms, do video games, simulations and other newer media perform the opposite of the suspension of disbelief? Do they encourage an extension of the imaginable? If the utopic promise of humanity is creative imagination, then it makes sense that methodologies for communication and content creation, which form a blank screen onto which this imagination can occur, are the ideal medium- the metaverse or meta design system.'

To close, Massumi paraphrases Deleuze in saying that the problem with dominant modes of cultural and literary theory is not that they are too abstract to grasp the solidity or corporeal fabric of the real. The problem is that these modes are not abstract enough to grasp the real incorporeality of what we take to be real.

As human analogue in the mixed-reality world of Real and Second Life (dance) practice, however, I can physically and physiologically explore for myself an alternative or rather, an extended description of the Real which embraces the incorporeal as a legitimate, 'real' abstraction.

Mike Baker 21.5.09

Bucksbarg, A. Retrieved from:
Maintaining the Digital Embodiment Link to Performance

di Stefano, J. (2001). HUB video quoted in Video Data Bank.

Greenhill, A. and Hannakaisa Isomaki in 'Incorporating self into web information system design'

Hansen, M. (2006). Bodies in Code. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, New York. (pp5-6 and p135).

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation Duke University Press, Durham & London, (p.5).

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