back printable version
 
JANE FRERE & MOSTAFA YARMAHMOUDI

Palindrome
A critical perspective and interview

Introduction to the Company

Palindrome, based in Nurnberg, Germany is one of the leading pioneering dance companies to explore the use of computer-assisted work and new technologies. At the turn of this new century, many interests in related fields (film, dance, digital arts, science and technology, design, engineering, communications, etc) further our understanding of the complementary thinking processes that drive new interdisciplinary research and conceptual models influenced by the computer's information processing capabilities and the internet's global reach. This movement has grown from a small, but burgeoning group of choreographers, performers, and media artists who experimented with computer-assisted work linking performance and new technologies. This has now developed into a growing network of collaborative projects spurning internet discussions both enthusiastic and contentious.

The company was founded in New York City (1982-89) by the artistic director and choreographer / dancer Robert Wechsler before moving to Germany where he has been working in a long running collaboration with computer engineer Frieder Weiß; developing interactive methods of performing with technology since 1995. In 2004 Robert Wechsler became head of the MA Programme Performance at Doncaster College in England.

According to their web site (http://www.palindrome.de) since 1995, Palindrome have focused on art works -- performances and installations --, which use human movement to control sound, lighting, or projected images. This means their work concerns the ways in which media and mensch can be made to interact in real time settings. They work in five areas:

  • Perform themselves
  • Design interactive software and hardware
  • Work with other artists to help them use technology more effectively in their work
  • Build installations
  • Teach university courses, workshops and seminars

Frieder Weiß is an interactive systems designer. In 2004 he became head of the MA Programme in Digital Performance at Doncaster College in England. He is a free-lance computer engineer working for various companies in Germany and United States. He is the author of EyeCon,

a digital video motion tracking software especially designed for use with dance, music and computer art. Since 1995 he has been creating hardware and software for Palindrome's intermedia work (which he now co-directs) and has been instrumental in the concept and realization of a number of award-winning performance and installation projects. In 2000 he became Director of the Media Laboratory at 01plus Institute for Art, Design and Media Technology at the University of Applied Sciences, Nürnberg, Germany. In recent years he has cooperated in installation and performance projects with Phase-7 in Berlin, Reiner Hofmann in Nürnberg, Helga Pogatschar in München, Prof. Wilfried Jentzsch in Dresden and most recently with the dancer Emily Fernandez, with whom he has created a number of interactive works.

Palindrome not only focuses on performance, but also creating and designing interactive software and hardware. Much of their time is also dedicated to teaching other artists and students how to use technology more efficiently in universities and other centres across Europe. Weiß has designed miniaturized portable devices to allow the individual muscle contractions of a dancer's body to control other media. One such system makes dancers' heartbeats available to control other media (such as the tempo of the music).

Link: (http://www.palindrome.de)

The following is an interview with Robert Wechsler, artistic director / dancer and co-director and technical engineer Frieder Weiß, conducted during an interactive workshop with Palindrome Intermedia Performance Group at the School of Intermedia and Performance Arts, Doncaster College on November 26 2003:

Introduction

My name is Robert Wechsler. I'm a choreographer and over the last eight or nine years I have focused my work in the area of interactive performing. This means using computers and other technologies allowing dancers to generate or manipulate media, music, video, images, and projections directly through their movements. I work closely with a computer engineer, Frieder Weiß. I am American although I think of myself to be a European. We are based in Nüremburg, Germany.

Q. How did Palindrome begin?

A. Palindrome began in 1982 New York City after I finished my training in dance at the State University of New York at Purchase. I did my Masters in New York University and was a scholarship student of Merce Cunningham, but I decided to work on my own with a particular concept - that of representing and acting inspired from the concepts and phenomena from science and technology. So right from the beginning there was this interest in the combination of art and science.

Q. What was your motivation for moving in this direction, bringing together art and science? What fascinated you?

The motivation is that they are not combined very often in the world and yet there is a lot to learn from combining them and a lot to inspire. I found that my studies in biochemistry and genetics, which is how I started my education, to be inspiring and to offer me choreographic material. I always yearned for a way to combine my interests. Like all of us, I think that it lies in all our nature to look for the connections between our interests.

Q. How is computer technology being used in your work and what wider applications do you think it has for other artists?

A. The first half is easy to answer, the second half is difficult to answer. Who can say today what the role of computers will be tomorrow? People are always predicting where technology is going and they are always getting it wrong, so I am not going to really try to go into that. But I can say something about the way we use computers. Dance is a stream of information, visual information to the eye. Just as my words form sentences from ideas in the mind, the computer is a tool for manipulating information, a tool for connecting one kind of information with another, so our work involves taking the image of the dancer's motion, digitising it, turning it into zeros and ones in the computer's chips and memory and then reforming it in sound and light. The reason to do this is it is fun and modern, and is or was a fad. But there are other reasons to do it that have led us to continue a collaboration that began eight years ago to this day. So to stay with something for eight years usually means there is something more than 'boys with toys lets have fun'

level of work and what that special quality is may not be so easy to explain in words, but lets just say there are special qualities to be attained, not only surprising in the sense that such special associations of movement and sound are rarely seen but are also artistically rich. There are artistic possibilities that need to be explored and that continues to interest me as much today as it did in the beginning.

Q. This field of work for many artists is still unexplored territory or at least a relatively specialised medium. Is this because the cost is prohibitive and the technology too complex and could this change in the way that relatively cheap video cameras have had repercussions on video art?

A. You've answered your own question in a way. It was the case that having access to computer technology, video cameras and the expertise to do something with them relegated the work with technology to a few, who were lucky enough to have the resources to buy the computers, but even more importantly the few who had friends who were programmers. In those days you had to programme your own video processing and today you can buy the programmes to do it. I had the good fortune in 1995 of coming into contact with an engineer, who was interested to work with me all of this time. Today most of us have computers in this society so its right we can use them and there programmes available to help us manipulate videos with dance. There are challenges - not everyone knows how to do it well. We have had the fortune of making many mistakes over the years and have learned from some of our mistakes. Others must learn by making their mistakes and going through that process on their own.

Q. Much creative work using new technology can appear quite limited in scope focusing on establishing the technology to the detriment of the artistic qualities and development of the performance. Do you think this is because the artist is still experimenting or do you think the medium is limited in this respect?

A. I wouldn't say the medium is limiting, but I do think it's tricky. There are ways to do it right. There are ways to do it so that the medium is not in the way of the message, so that the equipment is not preventing us from experiencing the beauty of the dancer in motion or distracting from it. I have certainly seen work were the technology is extraneous and in the way of the artist's impulses and creativity, but I think its just growing pains; they just haven't had enough experience with it and they need to step back and see how to handle the tools well. It's not self evident that just because you can run a keyboard and use a computer to use this program well or that program well, does not mean that you will be able to be a good artist using the technology. There is a special set of skills, knacks, and talents which are not being taught very much because the field is new. We are trying to teach this here today, trying to share what we have learned and to improve the state of education in this regard.

Q. What is the difference between the kind of technology that you and Merce Cunningham are using?

A. There are some fundamental differences. In the 60's and 70's Merce Cunningham made pieces in which the technology he used had real time effects on the movements of the dancers and visa versa. So they were interactive pieces, happenings almost as they were called in the 60's, where they would be indeterminate, where aspects of dance or music that were not totally prepared before the performance. How they played themselves out would be determined through the activity, with the help of the technologies being used. The work he does today with technology -he uses technology to choreograph, I do not. He uses a computer programme to actually design the movements of the dancers. That programme and the way the screen looks and what he is doing with the mouse is not seen by the audience, it's hidden, that's the background of his work and never comes to the foreground in his work as far as I am aware.

Whereas we are interested in the pictures and the sounds; that is what we want the audience to experience, and we want it to be real time part of the live experience of theatre. So that's the main difference.

He will use sophisticated motion tracking technology with Paul Kaiser to make a projection behind the dancers with animation's of dancers that have the movements and the qualities of his dancers because those dancers actually were suited up in special motion capture environments to put their ways of moving in to the computer and render it into an animated film that's played as a part of the dance. But the movements of the dancers do not effect the dance in any real time way. So we would not do that because we are only interested in real time use of technology. That's the difference.

Q. Do you know of any groups or individuals that are using computer technology in similar ways to you?

A. I don't know of any groups, who do it the way we do. Really I don't that I feel we are going down the same path together. Troika Ranch in New York performs with interactive technologies - different technologies than ours - and I feel their work is quite different from ours, I've seen a number of their performances and it doesn't remind me of our work. There are not that many companies around, a company in Australia, I haven't seen their work, I can't comment. I haven't seen her work but Krisztina de Châtel, I think, uses a lot of technology interactively. We do have conferences, we try to get together every few years some where in some in some auspice or other to exchange ideas. So most of us know each other, it's a small enough world that we get to know each other some where along the way.

Q. How do you foresee the future of this technology developing?

A. I can't forecast the future of the technology, whatever I say it will not be that. I do think that there is a lot of work to be done in what we do. I feel we have a lot of work to do because we are discovering all the time how important inter activity is to the performance forum - the performance thing that humans do with one another. We are discovering that technology touches on it and can enhance it in certain ways. The interactivity itself is a human phenomenon. Humans interact with each other - that is what humans do. We get each other on the phone, we touch each other and we kiss each other - we prefer to dance with someone than to dance alone. Technology is not what makes it interactivity for us, but what it can do is in performance situation here we have audience here, performer here, musicians here, it can connect us it can allow us to inter act with each other in a forum where, that wasn't previously happening so we are enlivening a structure of performance.

Introduction

I am Frieder Weiß from Nüremburg. I am basically a computer engineer. I studied electronic and software designs and then started working as an engineer in the industrial field and also as a musician. I tried to combine my two lives as a musician and computer engineer so I found this field of computer mediated dance very interesting for me.

Q. When did you join Palindrome?

It was in 1995, and actually it was a few years before, I started experimenting movement conversion into sound. I did that with my jazz band in Nuremberg. It was experimental music and I introduced different technology and music making. One system was based on an industrial video based computer system and I connected my synthesiser. It was the first time I had a physical interface between these two worlds, computer engineering and creative music making.

Q. What about your early days with Palindrome and with this computer system that you are using?

There wasn't actually a system at this point. It involved very specialised computer equipment. You couldn't do it on a PC. The work we are doing now involves specialised systems that are very expensive for us. Actually I was happy I had these jobs for the industry then so I could get hold of these systems. It was back in 1992, my first experiments were very limited. The system could just pick up black and white - it couldn't look at a normal scene. So we had to have a sheet in front of the scene and do a shadow piece, and it could just pick up the difference between the shadow and white sheet. So it was limited in many ways. Also the musicians where not so trained in movement and it wasn't so satisfying for us. That's how I met Robert. I knew that he was interested in this combining conceptual ideas from the science field with his art. That's how we met. I gave him a video tape and I think a year later he came back to me and said lets try to do some thing together, let's see if we can do some thing together, and work in that field. That's how we started sitting together brainstorming about what could be the possible ways of interacting between movement and media. We came up with all kind of sensor ideas and just tried everything. For me the first kind of experience was like a big circus with all kinds of things used - sensor based systems and video based systems

Q. What is Eyecon?

Eyecon is a system that allows movement of visual events that are seen by a video camera to trigger media. The special thing about it is that it is a simple interface so there are now many systems that can do similar things but usually you have to be kind of a programmer. If its based on MAX MSP you have to really be into all the details. You have to know about video in computer and its actually pretty tricky. I think the special thing about Eyecon is that it's a little closer to the user and dance students can use it.

Q. Many artists regard this still as unexplored territory or at least a relatively specialised medium. Is this because the cost is prohibitive and the technology too complex?

Well I wouldn't say it's the cost. The technology is basically available. Everybody has a PC and I was always interested in usable technology. I have seen experiments by - lets say MIT. They use expensive computers to do similar things. We couldn't really afford that so everything we did was based on a simple approach, on a normal PC - something every body can afford - and a camera is not really expensive any more, so it's available technology. I think its not so much introduced in how we make art. People still tend to focus, like a dancer tends to focus on dance, he won't even make music. Some do but I think it's a question of specialisation and it's a small field and just a few people jump over this border. Maybe it's even a gender thing; most dancers I know are women and even not so interested much in technology

Q. Do you think artists are in general afraid of new technology even though artists are by their very natures innovative?

A. Many artists I know are interested in technology so I'm the wrong person to ask because I'm mostly in touch with artists who are interested in technology. But actually many of the dancers wouldn't touch a computer system.

Q. In the past there has always been the problem of the integration of three dimensional movement with the static two dimensional image on stage, now at least you have a moving image on stage, but none the less its in two dimensions and there is this conflict. Can this be reconciled?

A. I doubt whether this is the most crucial question whether it is 2D or 3D because for me the system should confront you with something. It shouldn't just reflect what is happening, it shouldn't be just an exact representation of what's happening on stage in the 3D world. Through the abstraction in the system maybe this is like a built in filter and some thing new is coming out. For me this is not a disadvantage. I always liked the simplicity of the two dimensional world. They are 'work around' so to speak, but we were never into the exact representation of the performer, because this is leading the wrong way for me. It is just leading in an illustrative approach like just representing a very explicit way what's happening on stage that's not our focus.

Q. And how do you break away from that illustrative approach?

A. Well for me the main factor is that we have this implicit simplicity. We just cant find an exact representation of the body so its automatically an abstraction that is adding some randomness some weakness in the mutation and through mapping scheme, how we assign the media and how it is used - that's basically the technique, the understanding that you want to leave something open that you don't want the exact representation of the media. The media shouldn't just support the same expression the dancer is trying to get across, it should add a new dimension to that.

Q. What do you think about the wider use of this technology? Does it only concern dance or is there any other application for its use?

A. I am sure there are many other applications. Well not in an unchanged way, there are similar systems in security systems which I am not so interested in. A big possibility is for electronics for handicapped people, but in that area it's very complex. Really we need simple interfaces. I am sure there are many ways. People come up with the craziest ideas, tracking cars in the street etc.

Q. Can you tell us something about your approach when designing your programme?

A. Well actually the design was always application driven - it's an important factor. It developed when we thought we had a production and wanted to make a new piece, then I implemented new features and so it's a mixture of different things. It's driven by application. Whenever there's a new piece I'm adding new features over the years. It's basically a simple assignment of shapes or movements or positions of different inputs from the video camera to media outputs and I think the important factor is the simplicity of that assignment - that you don't have to become a programmer to use it.

Q. Which language is it written in?

A. It's written in Delphi, which is a Pascal for Windows.

Q. What hardware is used?

A. It's just a consumer desktop PC, or a laptop now, with big cameras. I would say every machine you would have now, 1000 Megahertz would be fine for sound, even less for sound, if you want trigger video or visual then it needs a bit more power.

Q. Is it possible to use software for people who are deaf and mute, and who can't use words to communicate? Could you produce words that they could communicate with?

A. Actually that's an interesting question idea because Robert's idea is to create a piece where he wants to speak with his movement by speech synthesis, which is a really complex task. How to shape language? At the moment I would say its not possible. We spoke to all the speech synthesis experts. One systematic problem I see is how language is developed in our brains its not just real time. You have to prepare the sentence before it can come out and if you run this by a video camera, you just have this real time tracking, so the system is always just in the now - it isn't able to foresee what's coming - and language needs that in the development over time. I think this is one of the problems, you couldn't just shape the mouth in that time so I see some big problems doing that, getting all the complex meaning across.

Q. Is it possible to make interactive technology between two people which expresses emotion, lets say between two lovers?

A. Yes, I could imagine. I'm not a fan of it being too explicit, so I wouldn't drop pictures of roses if someone is trying to show such emotions. The question is there something clear, is there a language for expression first of all.? I know the Italian Dr Antonio Camurri is very much into using this kind of technology looking at the expression of the movement and dance and picking that up in automated systems. It's a research project. First you have to define a language for expression, its not existing, it's still parts of development that have to be done before that is possible, its a far goal, because there is not a representation of expression or emotion in computers, there's no language for it.

Q.What about Egyptian hieroglyphic language?

A. Yes if its written language the computer can pick it up its been developed over the years, but for emotion there is no real language you can write down, even for dance there is no language, for music its different, for music there has been language for centuries, but for dance there is nothing similar. The symbols for movement has not been so developed as for music. Because there's a language and language is a basis for signs.

Q. How do you wish to progress using this technology.

I want to make some interesting installations, that's my focus. It's not so much a performance piece. It will be introduced to the public in open spaces. We did some experiments in public spaces. It's very exciting to see how people respond to that and how it opens up new ways of communicating. It's very exciting for me.

Links:

http://www.palindrome.de/

http://www.troikaranch.org/

http://www.dechatel.nl

http://www.megaproject.org/

MOSTAFA YARMAHMOUDI

is undertaking a PhD in Performing Arts at Brunel University. His research topic is "New technology in Performing Arts". His primary concern is in the emerging motion capture systems that can be used to create enhanced, innovated and interactive dance techniques developed in performance by such practitioners as Merce Cunningham and Stelarc. Having studied both BA in cinema and MA theatre directing at Tehran Arts University and The University of Tehran he has worked as a first assistant director in many feature films and made his own films for Iranian television networks some of which have been presented at international film festivals. He has been a guest lecturer in film and photography at Tehran University, Al- Zahrah University and other universities in Iran and has been active in running and managing academic and cultural organisations.

JANE FRERE

is a theatre practitioner working as a creative producer and scenographer. Having trained at Central St Martins and The Slade school of Art she has designed theatre productions both in the UK and Europe. Moving into international producing she set up her own production company Jane Frere Associates and has been working with theatre primarily from East Europe. Moving further afield for the past three years she has been involved with Iranian theatre as a producer and earlier in 2004 gave a series of design workshops in Tehran and Shiraz. She is currently working on a project bringing acclaimed Gardzienice from Poland to the UK to give performances combined with a series of Master classes and workshops at The Royal National Theatre.

link: www.gravitas.f9.co.uk/theatre/