From the October 2020 Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.
The following text is an excerpt of a transcription of a conversation between Joana Chicau and Kate Sicchio about their work with the body, choreography and technology. They discuss their works “Tango for us Two/Too” and “What the computer can’t do”.
Kate Sicchio (KS): I actually would like to start with a piece of yours I have not seen live, only documentation. It is “Tango for us Two/Too”. It always piqued my interest, this attempt at the tango with a web browser... tell me more about the piece to start.
Joana Chicau (JC):
Yes. So the piece was developed in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of a residency that was a joint venture between Untref/Espacio Nixso and V2_ Lab for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam. So, interestingly, there is a hackerspace and a university involved. So I was very lucky that I could do some kind of actual anthropological studies while there. I learned Tango from scratch when I arrived there and I was there for two months. But it was a bit of a sprint. I think it helps the fact that I already danced. I've studied ballet for many, many years and after that in contemporary but I never worked dancing in pairs, like ballroom. So that was challenging for me, the leading and following in tango has this kind of dichotomy. It was also difficult for me because I wasn't really ready to follow.
But I must admit, it was a very quick process of understanding the conventions and also understanding there's been people working towards breaking them pretty seriously, being playful and changing roles and changing modes of coordinating as many improvising together. So it was really liberating, to be honest.
The underlying experience for that piece speaks of the struggles of sometimes programmatic structures controlling you and other times you feel like you're in control of them. Also the role of language or how much that plays in communicating with people with programmatic material and also how emotional. How language can also be not just technical, but have other layers and other complexities on top of it. So, I guess that's kind of the journey.
KS: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I think the language part is really interesting. In the piece you're using Google Translate and typing into the browser. This idea of playing with language, playing with translation is very much like a choreographic act. But usually we are asking bodies to translate something, whether it's verbal instructions or a physical language. So there's something really interesting about turning Google Translate into a dancing body.
JC: For me, it was important to understand how the communities [I met] would name or rename or verbalize their connection to the movement and to the whole experience of dancing together. So you could see these kind of two streams running together, one, which is the breaking of certain conventions around the body, how the body would perform with others, and the language side, how also breaking the language boundaries are formed or associated with certain regions.
Yeah, I guess for me, I'm always interested in digging deeper into big tech products and online interfaces. So for me was an opportunity to understand what I could do with online translation that I haven't learned yet. So, yeah, I guess that's how it got connected.
KS: And then later in the piece, which I think is like the really stunning moment for me is, is you get up and dance with the browser. Maybe you can talk about how that that came to be.
JC: I like having elements of surprise in my performances, so to do something that the audience doesn't expect.That moment where I stand up it's also very ritualistic. So I take off my shoes, whatever I'm using. And I put on the tango shoes and I go towards the screen and then I have these sort of solo with the, browser and I also feel like it's it's a moment that that binds all the other sections of the piece somehow because it's also the embodiment of so much that has been touched upon until that moment.
KS: That's what's so great about that piece, is you did find a way to dance tango with with the web, with something digital.
JC: So, I know that you've been also moving towards other processes that include machine learning and other sorts of automated processes for composing your choreography. And, I'm just curious to discuss it in regards to thinking through the body.
And I keep on being a little bit nervous about the notion of intelligence and how that is put into the algorithms. So I'm just curious to see how you take it, if your mood is more of a critique or if you're teasing these assumptions also. Because the notion of intelligence that we carry is so embodied that I just was more interested in your opinion on it.
KS: I've been asked a lot about this recently, actually, because A.I. has become such a buzzword. I think part of it is we are making these faster, more sophisticated systems. Whether they're necessarily intelligent, they're full of biases, they're filled with things that go wrong. There's all these things in them that we don't understand why something’s happening and why they're making decisions.
Yeah, I guess I’m critical of the word but I do think there's useful tools. What I've been really doing is layering them in other processes that are much more human or choreographic. Or even layering them with more analog technologies so they just become one step in a process that's still human. An example of this is an algorithm I’ve used a lot called t-SNE and it's a machine learning algorithm that takes large datasets and then sorts them into similar clusters.
So I've been using this sorting algorithm with photographs of dancers. The process I've developed starts with taking thousands of photographs of a dancer. And I've just been doing time lapse series while the dancers are moving. I end up with thousands of photographs, but I it is still actually like a boutique data set compared to big tech companies.
JC: But when it's such a craft process of you having to take care of the data or dataset, I think the scale matters differently. Right?
KS: Yeah, it's big to me but in terms of other photographic data sets out there, it's very, very small.
After sorting these via algorithm, then you can start to navigate them. Then it’s easy to actually perform those as movements and link them. So I've done this lots of ways. Last year I did this with a group of students at Virginia Commonwealth University and we took these images, and then they learned every single frame as a dance.
JC: To actually relearn on your body what the computer's telling you is a tense process. But also playing with these notions of intelligence and taking that as an embodied endeavor is an interesting thing. But these processes for me are very telling. And I am curious, what are the things that you find most revealing? I guess temporality certainly is one of them.
KS: Yeah, definitely. I think also this idea of impossible movement. There're these moments where, sometimes a person would just disappear from the image and then come back in the next. Like we're learning this to perform on a stage. How do we deal with someone disappearing and reappearing? Just a sudden shift where they're in a completely different thing. So there's that element to it, this impossibility, which is really interesting as a dancer and choreographer, because then you have to figure that out.
The dancer has to usually be the one doing some kind of in between to connect things, creating transitions. And so I think that becomes a huge part. It’s less about hitting these key frames. It’s really about finding that in-between or the connective tissue as the human, because the computer did not generate that part yet. And there’s not knowing what you have to move through, just knowing where to get to.
JC: And how empowering that is, also. It becomes quite beautiful when understanding that you're an agent; you're an active agent. That you have a voice and that you carry your movement forward.
KS: It's very much about a starting point and then letting the dancer improvise with that and go in different directions. Algorithms are part of the process, but not dictating. And I think, particularly the dance world, can get caught up in this idea of ‘technology means no agency.'
But actually, that's the role of dance in these works, to show where the agency lies and how important it is.
JC: Well yeah, it's really beautiful how you put it. And it made me think when you zoom out a little bit as a choreographer, when you're devising a piece and you think through the absence of one element or another and what that does to the experience and how much it enhances presence as well. To start playing with these is indeed your playground, right?