A History of Performance Online
by Dr. Kate Sicchio
From the August 2020 Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.
Still from "The Triad Project"
Internet In Our Homes
In the 1990s computers entered the homes of many, and soon after they were connecting through telephone lines and modems to a network of websites. These early days of the internet transferred data slowly and even still images and animated gifs were at times considered large downloads. In this spirit, Troika Ranch, some of the first to create digital media dance works, created “Year Body” in 1996 and 1997. Every day for a year a photo was taken of a dancer (choreographer Dawn Stoppiello) that was added to a gif. The final work was the resulting animation that lived on the web. This piece used the asynchronous time aspect of the internet. Not everything on the web is live. Things can accumulate and grow over time, whether daily as Year Body or even longer.
This use of synchronous and asynchronous aspects of time can also be used to create work where audiences view choreography in different ways, even of the same piece. In 1998, “The Triad Project” by choreographers and performers Akeno & Molissa Fenley premiered, consisting of a dance with two different parts. The first part being a real-time live internet stream and telepresence performance between Helsinki, Tokyo and New York. The second part is a “hyper dance” where the web audience can interact with video and sound to combine choreographic and audiovisual elements as they choose.
But perhaps the most ambitious digital performance for the internet in the1990s was choreographer Amanda Steggell’s work “M@ggie's Love Bytes” which was performed from 1995-1999. The work played into 90s aesthetics with “cyber femme” characters complete with cone bras and brightly colored wigs. It used video conferencing software, multiple computers and various other communication technologies to live stream dancers and musicians to its audience on the internet. While watching clips from the original work one sees how small and poor quality the images were. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the work is the call to embrace the technical failures that happened during the performances. As the website states:
This project focuses on connection and disconnection, appearance, disappearance and reappearance. Fluctuations in transmission and reception rates between the geographically separated participants are embedded in the expression of the performance, and define the dramatical development of the piece.
This idea of connection was what struck most viewers of “M@ggie's Love Bytes”, with one critic even calling video conferencing software a way for humane contact on the net. I am not sure the current culture of Zoom calls would be described as humane but this was the optimistic internet of the 1990s where anyone could join in and watch performance art as long as they had a dial up connection.
Interactivity as a Creative Tool
Image from "M@ggie Love Bytes" website
While video was part of the early work of the 1990s, it was the 2000s that found video being woven into the web as a critical part of its design. This was due to higher bandwidth for transferring data and faster home computers. More and more dance was being created through internet video, beyond documentation and as a choreographic output in its own right. Dance for camera ideas could be pushed beyond just a cinematic frame to include global collaborators and interactivity.
Sita Popat’s internet and dance work began in the late 90s but culminated with her 2006 book, Invisible Connections: Dance, Choreography and Internet Communities. One of her research projects discussed in the book is “The Hands-On Dance Project”. Here Popat focuses on how the audience at home on the web can log on and become part of the choreographic process. These “arm chair choreographers” help make decisions about a dance from anywhere in the world. This form of interactive dance making was a novel use of the internet and pre-dated many sites with comment sections where now audiences freely interject their opinions on uploaded choreography.
Also in the early 00s, the development of faster international internet connections were being explored at research institutions and universities. The Access Grid was technology that could allow for more bandwidth and less delay in video transfer. The Digital Worlds Institute at University of Florida hosted several dance projects where performances happened live and online simultaneously in different countries such as the United States, Korea and the United Kingdom in 2003-2004. The international yet synchronous aspect of the performances meant that video projections of dancers were often used to demonstrate what was happening in the other locations. These projects were often criticized for the lack of artistry and compositional aspects of the live performances and often found to be seen as tech-demos that were made simply because the technology was available and not because there was something interesting to say with the technology. The heavy use of screens to bring internet performers on to a stage with live performers, weakened the concept of connectivity by highlighting the dancers in different spaces, rather than joining them on one screen as seen in The Triad Project discussed before.
An important landmark of the 2000s was the launch of YouTube in 2005. Suddenly video was not only technically accessible online but easy to upload, access, and share. It is the sharing of video links that is most notable in how one thinks about dance videos on the web today. YouTube provides dance as content for an audience to browse, consume and click through, perhaps even forgetting that it was made on the other side of the globe. Anyone can comment on a dance, but usually without engaging in an interactive conversation with the creator. But beyond uploads of static works, the web is still finding approaches to choreography, particularly to find moments of intimacy and togetherness.
Working Within the Medium
Sita Popat explaining her "Compendium" Project
The past ten years have also developed the ideas of dance and the internet, beyond early technology and into a space of further collaboration, composition, and embodying of presence.
“The LAND Project” is the ongoing explorations of artists Lisa Parra in the US and Daniel Pinheiro in Portugal with other collaborators and partners across the globe. Starting in 2014, they have used various video conferencing tools to perform together in work that uses scores for performers to interpret within an online video space. Their work focuses on sensing bodies, intimacy and presence in mediated spaces. Their collaborations focus less on the technology that allows them to perform together but more the notion of being together through technology.
Other interactive web projects from the late 2010s have included Michelle Ellsworth’s “Choreography Generator” and Google’s collaborations with Bill T. Jones and Wayne McGregor. These projects are all interactive ways to view, make, and further understand choreography through digital displays of movement and bodies. Each project takes a different approach, but composition through screen-based means is the underlying theme, with users clicking through websites to arrange videos, animations or even text to create personalized performances. These are all asynchronous and individual experiences for audience members, truly exploiting the affordances of the web browser as a performance venue.
“Project Trans(m)it” is a global group choreography project, from Rebecca Weber, Megan Mizanty & Lora Allen, performing together since 2015 . They rehearse weekly through a rotating array of online communication, including Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Skype, Google Hangouts, Snapchat, and Rabbit. The idea was to experiment with making dance together via internet technology, which has resulted in several live performance works and workshops across the globe.
Still from Michelle Ellsworth's
Lessons Learned Along the Way
As the dance world embraces the internet during a global pandemic, it is important to remember that artists have been exploring this virtual world for quite some time and that we do not need to reinvent the wheel, nor just upload documentation of stage works onto Vimeo. Of course there are many other projects and platforms that have not been discussed here. Social media in particular has had a large impact on dance and choreography in the past ten years, but many of these platforms are repackaging what we have seen in early work.
The use of time, interaction and collaboration and global participation have all been utilized in works from the past in different ways for use to build upon now. The internet allows one to create dance while using time in different ways, rather than just live. With both asynchronous and synchronous options, one can stream to an audience or interact over time. Choreography can unfold in new ways, over seconds, days, or months. Choreography online allows for different interactions with dance works to take place. Whether it is feedback during a creative process, a collaborative work with artists across the globe or letting the viewer take control of the composition, the web allows dances to have new dialogues with both audiences and makers. And the internet can connect with other parts of the world in real-time. Audiences can be global and so can rehearsals or concerts. The internet allows new possibilities for dance, but we have been exploring them for quite some time now.