Tuesday 10 May 2011

Mark Coniglio: Repetition and invention

Mark Coniglio

Before you read this article, make a small movement, then repeat it.

Repetition. Looping. Over and over again. It's something that we assume that we can do. The performers of Loop Diver will give you a rather different view.

Loop Diver is a work from New York-based group Troika Ranch, led by Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello. Coniglio's seemingly unrelenting flow of creativity has resulted in work across media, performance, and software – with no jarring between these supposedly individual, different disciplines. Indeed, one might consider Coniglio to be one of the forerunners of much of the contemporary thinking around transmedia.

Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick played a vital role in shaping Coniglio's career, enabled him to mentally conjoin composition with technology. Making software with Subotnick, as well as learning composition from him, enabled a practical understanding of the role that new media and technology could play in composing, and performing, artistic work. Subsequent innovations have included, for example, the first MIDI-powered system for dance, measuring joint inflection on the dancer and allowing them to create music by bending their limbs. Meeting choreographer Stoppiello at CalArts set off a partnership that has flourished over two decades. Through Troika Ranch, they have made pieces which carefully integrate performance with media, spanning film, performance, and installation.

Loop Diver is the latest piece in this partnership, recently performed in the UK as part of London's Digital Stages Festival.

It is a five-minute piece of choreography and music, with an iterative routine.

One of the focal points of the partnership has been the development of sensory systems within performance. Coniglio's software, Isadora, allows directors to combine, synchronise and integrate digital media with performance. Loop Diver is the latest performance to use Isadora, and one which started as a simple idea - to loop a performance.

Performing Loop Diver required new intellectual and practical approaches. Coniglio and his team created new modules in Isadora to facilitate sophisticated looping, where start and end points change with every iteration, allowing for material to be gradually revealed to - or retracted from - the audience, as if it is an auditory sunrise or sunset. Two years of experimentation and research into how Loop Diver could be performed were undertaken in advance of its performance.

The preparation that the dancers have to go through to perform Loop Diver is almost hypnotic, even painful. The initial performance was recorded with six cameras and looped in Isadora, expanding a 5-minute video into 45 minutes. The resulting 45-minute loop is shown to the dancers, whose duty of performance is to undertake 3000 individual choreographic instructions.

Loop Diver offers a clear metaphor for the basic differences between computers and humans. Computers can undertake the same instruction in exactly the same way, over and over again. Humans try, but cannot. The dancers were given the task of doing exactly what they saw on the screen, which is impossible. The digital material therefore provides a perfection in replication: the video, the light, the music - all looped by the computer. No complaints, thousands of times.

It was clearly as powerful an experience to compose the work, as it is to perform it. As Coniglio explains, it inverts the pyramid of authority in performance: the computer is at the top, followed by the composition, and, finally, the dancers. In this troika, the control has been reversed. If dancing is supposed to make someone feel good, then this is a very different kind of dancing. It's challenging to watch, and very difficult to understand and perform. "There were times where the group went into a kind of depression... asking them to memorise this material which was completely unpleasant to do. It's the 'attack of the machine'".

Another, more human, aspect to Loop Diver is the involvement of the American Creative Campus scheme, which facilitates collaboration between artistic groups and academia. Troika Ranch worked with the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, a Nebraskan institution which deals with severe spinal cord injuries - including many casualties of the war in Iraq.

The group met patients that were facing severe physical challenges in their lives. Coniglio gives the example of a piano teacher, whose arm was almost severed at the shoulder in a car accident. Learning to use the arm again required repeating the same movement, over and over. The experience of visiting the hospital clearly affected Coniglio's composition. "We saw the range of people that were not to be conquered [by injury]. Their stories were the human stories that entered into our process: that let us see our idea of repetition, of looping in the body, in a very different way.

"For us, there is an idea of there having been a trauma that these 6 performers now face. What you are witnessing is them working through that trauma. At a performance in the States, there was a person that has studied trauma. Apparently, if you have an extremely traumatic event, the reason that you start dreaming about it and reliving it in your mind if you have post-traumatic disorder, is because [the memory has] gone to the 'wrong bit of the brain', and it's trying to work its way back to where it's supposed to be. I think that some of these ideas are felt when you see the piece."

Given these notions of repetition and physicality within the performance, Coniglio and his team have noticed that audience members often move their body in the same rhythm as the performers, as if they are unconsciously participating. This is understandable, given the level of concentration required on their part.

Coniglio is clearly interested in the possibilities of how man interfaces with machine. Our "soft acceptance" of technological innovation happens in every minute of every day: across media, hardware, pharmaceuticals, and the environment. However, the questions remain: will we evolve into something we don't want to be? Do we lose something along the way?

The potential is clearly there to exploit those possibilities with forthcoming work, as does the potential to exploit something that is fundamental to Loop Diver: variation. Minute details within variation interest and excite Coniglio, as, in variation but not in repetition, natural elements win over technology.

"A violin is an instrument that's been around a lot for around 500 years in its current form. It continues to be wonderful in its ability to express new ideas, because it's sensitive to human gesture. It gives surprise to the player – for example, when the instrument is cold, it responds differently. This combination of sensitivity, and being influenced by the environment, is something that hasn't happened yet [in technology].

"We're at a bit of a stuck point right now. With the systems that all of us are using, the resolution is incredibly low. None of these systems require you to practice for ten thousand hours, because they are not sensitive enough to make meaning meaningful. There is no way that you will get to the level of variety and expressibility of a violin in the way which these things currently exist, because there's just not enough resolution and and sensitivity."

If technology can break these "natural barriers" of infinite environmental adaptation and variation, then the possibilities for composition will be extraordinary. New instruments could be developed, becoming part of new compositions. A production of Loop Diver with natural variations, as if the software has taken on the varying qualities of a violin, seems both extraordinary and rather ironic. Knowing how to handle these infinite variations of input will be a challenge that both technology and humankind will have to tackle, in partnership rather than in conflict.

Mark Coniglio is co-founder of Troika Ranch.

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