"Hearing the Gender Binary Dissolve: Choreographing Sound & Body" by brook vann

What are ways that we can perceive identity and body?  How is identity performed through the body? What are the “ways of being” in the in-between? These questions are the root and inspiration for a current project–a meditation on and exploration of binary formulations and the escape thereof. As a queer artist existing in a world dominated by heteronormativity, my work has become a dissection of these forces at play as well as their impact. I am working on a project called Performing Ourselves to gain an understanding of how the body relates to identity through sound and movement. The show will be composed of a sound installation, as well as a dance performance. The performance will occur multiple times, with scores to movement, to motion capture, to data, and to sound. The sound will be a product of turning the motion capture data into a sound composition. The last transition is dancers improvising movements based on sound.  

 

The purpose of the project is to look at how queer and nonbinary folks perform in various social settings based on levels of comfort or discomfort in the space. This idea comes from queer theorist and scholar Sara Ahmed, who writes that gender performance is “shaped by contact with objects and others, with what is near enough to be reached.” I first began to notice these subtle (and sometimes not) representations of myself in places that felt uncomfortable. I was noticing that my posture became more rigid, and my overall body wanted to take up the least amount of space possible, a sort of folding in on itself. However, in other spaces, like at home or a familiar coffee shop, I noticed that my bodily reaction was to take up space, like shape shifting to an expanded form of myself to maximize visibility. I wanted to explore this notion with others to see what their body responses were, so I created a zine of writings and abstract movement scores that loosely showed my own body movements in each of the four settings: private space that feels comfortable, public space that feels vulnerable, public space where movement is disruptive, and public space where movement is comfortable and you want to be seen. The zine is meant to be flexible to offer a basis for movement, but one of the exciting things to me is seeing the improvised body movements that function as folks’ everyday body reactions to those spaces. 

I have been using motion capture to capture body movements and process them into numbers. The numbers are used to show amounts of movement between each of the different body parts. I’ve mostly conducted the project during the pandemic, so I have been using a program called PoseNet to process video and track movement into a data set. The important thing about this technology is that collaborators can perform in their own spaces and record themselves in a COVID safe manner. This opens the project to many folks regardless of their proximity to me. To really underscore the changes in body positionality within the different spaces, I have been translating the data into sound, so body angles, speeds, and decisions of the queer performers become midi notes. Sound is important because it is something non-visual, it removes any preconceived notions that a person might make about another’s identity based on sight alone and allows movement subtleties to come forward. So far in the soundscapes, I have found that different body positions correlate to different iterations of gender/queerness, supporting the idea that the illusion of gendered space has immense effect on embodiment, as well as our ever evolving (re)presentation of self.

 

In final form, the project will be composed of four tracks, for each of the social settings given, playing through ambisonic surround format. Conceptually ambisonic makes sense because it is intended to be an immersive sonic experience that does not require a pre-set array of speakers and can be reoriented for almost any space and number of speakers. This echoes the original intent of exploring how folks reorient themselves differently in different spaces. Ambisonic sound takes space and depth into consideration, by changing how sounds (derived from body movements) are heard—some sound can be forefronted, or heard more than others that are in the background. The process of understanding sound is similar to how we understand and represent ourselves, because both are heavily influenced by other people and things within the space that is inhabited. The goal is to draw folks together to think about how we occupy space because holding space and forming community with others is delicate and important.

This project is ongoing please contact brook vann at vannc2@vcu.edu if you would like to be a part of it or have feedback.

A tesselated visualization of the motion captured movement of one participant in the project.
A tesselated visualization of the motion captured movement of one participant in the project.