On Movement, Rhythm and Data

Chief Editor Christina J. Chua speaks to choreographer Susan Sentler and musician-coder Jamie Forth about their collaborations in the fields of technology, choreography and more.

SO-FAR studios

Susan Sentler Movement Project still image

Valerie, image fold, digital video of both Isabel and Valerie. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.

Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down… It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Sometime last year in the confusing, early phases of the pandemic and just after the first, long lockdown in Singapore, I visited DECK, a photography and mixed media space. It was upon invitation of choreographer Susan Sentler and musician-coder Jamie Forth. Susan had kept me in the loop of an ongoing movement laboratory she had been working on with the support of their respective colleges, that was spanning across disciplines and cities. Her intention to stage it physically at the DECK gallery was in an effort to break the extended isolation we had all been forced into.

Much of the writing SO-FAR has published in the past year has covered how interdisciplinary artists are resisting the silos of closed borders and quarantine, and leaning into newfound,  technological ways of companionship and collaboration. With the mode of dance, where embodied presence is so necessary, MMCC is a prime case study and testament to how creative potentials can be amplified along the unexpected, winding steps of data. “Where does it start?” Solnit asks, or “How can I start?” is a question many an artist must ponder when beginning to walk alongside others in this post-pandemic world.

Walking is a constant state of falling, allowing the momentum to flow, a conversational rhythm to emerge.

SS: First off, thank you Christina for the Solnit quote. I love her work. I believe walking is a constant state of falling, allowing the momentum to flow, a conversational rhythm to emerge.

CJC: How did you two meet and begin this durational, open-ended conversation-collaboration?

SS: Well, Jamie found me! He was looking for a collaborative research partner in dance, to apply for the Goldsmiths-LASALLE Partnership Innovation Fund for 2019. I was excited — it was the first time I had met someone from the world of code and algorithms with this duality and interest. He also had a beautiful way of aligning that with my interests and aesthetics, paralleling my choreographic, bodily, and curatorial language and knowledge.

SS: I first chanced upon this interstitial world of algorithms and dance through the work of Kyle McDonald. SO-FAR published a diary entry about his collaboration with the high-tech Japanese dance troupe Elevenplay for our second Issue on Artificial Intelligence. I understand this fringe field is already around ten years old, if I am correct. Jamie, are you familiar with the recent history of dance and technology?

JF: Somewhat. Kyle McDonald is a key figure in creative coding and a key contributor to free and open-source software such as OpenFrameworks[1]. There has been a lot of interest in machine learning in the arts in recent years, and thanks to free and open source software, cutting edge tools are now more accessible to artists.

As impressive as many of these projects are, I wouldn’t say I was particularly influenced by them directly within MMCC. When Susan and I first met, I didn’t want to make something where technology was foregrounded. Instead, we concentrated on what we could share and learn from each other given our respective backgrounds. Both Susan and I also teach, so the desire to share knowledge was an important dynamic within the project. As a result, we avoided falling into prescribed roles of “technologist” and “artist”, and instead explored the intersections of our respective practices.

Previous work that shaped my thinking regarding MMCC was the project Motion Bank[2], which investigated ways of working with dance, data, and systems of notation. One outcome of that project was Choreographic Coding Labs , which I heard about via another collaborator and ex-student of Susan’s, Janine Harrington . Another influence was the work of Kate Sicchio and Alex McLean from around 2013 on feedback loops of influence between live code and live choreography. I was particularly interested in the idea of mutable scores, which are both produced and interpreted — by people and machines — in performance. Underlying this idea is constructing languages to think differently.

MMCC is a conversation, not something aiming to produce a finished piece. The title of the project, Mediated Movement, Choreographic Collaboration, is very prosaic, but describes our starting point. The acronym “MMCC” is also a suitably futuristic date in Roman numerals, which appealed to Susan and I.

Language, like the scores that you mentioned, is open to interpretation.

CJC: Language and dance are both forms of communication and expression. Language, like the scores that you mentioned, is open to interpretation. Both also require precision, an “inborn” sense that informs their movement: whether in terms of the body with dance, or language on the page and in speech. How does that necessary sensitivity inform your work?

JF: I’ve always been fascinated by the sensitivity and intelligence of dancers and performers, practices where body and movement are so central. From Stanisław Lem’s book Solaris, there were resonances with the non-linguistic intelligence of the seemingly conscious ocean, creating intricate, unfathomable sculptures through movement, which I couldn’t help returning to.

SS: This intelligence is a kind of virtuosity. But not one that’s normally associated with technical prowess — both in dance and technology. Choreographically, my work is rooted in somatic practices, as well as in ongoing research with my colleague, Dr. Glenna Batson, called The F/ol\d as Somatic/Artistic Practice . Through these creative investigations, the process supports complexity, yielding more subtle, sophisticated palettes.

JF: I came to work with code via electronic music and research in music cognition and computational creativity. I find working directly with processes — codified as algorithms, which generate patterns when put into motion — a fascinating way of creating simple processes that has great potential for surprise, producing complex and subtle behaviour. Susan and I acknowledged the similarities between our respective practices, such as working with simple tasks and repetition as a way of generating knowledge, or building archives — sorting and arranging material to search for meaning.

SS: Really “anarchives” — not documentation, but rather feed-forward mechanisms for lines of creative process, under continuing variation. I came across the term, coined by theorist Erin Manning , within her “SenseLab”. Describing a wonderful cyclic interchange of stimuli — it was perfect for our democratic working group (Jamie, me and our dance collaborators Valerie Lim and Isabel Phua).

CJC: This project took place remotely between London and Singapore, as well as during lockdown, a context which created numerous hurdles to its eventual exhibition at DECK. How did you choreograph together, electronically and via various online platforms?

SS: Our initial proposal emphasised creating space across disciplines and geographical locations. We were interested in the distributed nature of collaboration and its manifestation in the work.

In June 2019, I met Jamie in London, and in August, Jamie travelled to Singapore. These opportunities to be physically together were very important for building relationships within the project. The rest of the research was done in both London (Jamie and Isabel) and Singapore (Susan and Valerie). However, though the pandemic’s impact on international travel is inevitable, it has shown us new ways of collaborating virtually.

JF: I would say theoretical tools and practices were more important than computer technology. “Anarchiving” allowed us to work asynchronously while staying connected with the material. But technology, used in both mundane and bespoke ways, becomes necessary at some point to enable things to happen.

SS: For example, we used Google Drive. I shared with Jamie 250 images I shot of the TATE Modern Turbine Hall floor, titled 3 months after[3]. Jamie selected manipulated them in two modes. One, scan lines, dissected the images into fragments, creating an animated play of the grey hues. In response, Valerie and I juxtaposed the body in varied vibrating and falling states — a choreographic extension of the continuum of line, colour, movement, and energy.

Valerie in scan lines project

Valerie in scan lines. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.

In contours, Jamie devised an algorithm to find pathways within the photos.