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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.


Contours project Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth

Contours project Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth

Contours. Images courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


Abstract maps evolved and were extracted, which Valerie and I translated into specific spatial routes, each aligned with a particular movement and qualitative limitations. Valerie improvised their potential in the studio, alternating the grid into multiple planes within real space. These improvised choreographic phrases were recorded and passed back to London.


CJC: As you mentioned with “anarchives”, each movement ripples out into the next response. What did this mean for the work on a technological level, and what implications did this “feed forward mechanism” have on the work?


JF: Iteration definitely motivated some of the more innovative uses of technology, as I tried to make my practice more accessible. I used Emacs[4]“org-mode” for writing code, which provides a neat way of interlacing text and images with snippets of code that can be evaluated inline, creating a live document.


Jamie Forth view on coding within MMCC

Jamie’s view on coding within MMCC. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


I set up a simple website using Gollum wiki to act as a bridge between my code-based practice and a more familiar web interface. I could publish parts of the documents I was working on, along with generated images and video content. Importantly, all content was editable by the collaborators, with changes synchronised to my laptop. Publishing on a public website made me more conscious of the thought processes behind the code.


video of coding experiments within the MMCC

Public video of coding experiments within the MMCC. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


Data was another pillar in our collaboration, especially in images and video. In our experiment scan lines, I was curious about finding simple ways of generating movement from images. We started by thinking about images as tables of numbers and simply processing rows or columns of pixels to create textures. The algorithm was simple, but putting the procedure into practice using Susan’s Turbine Hall images produced animated sequences that brought to life the hidden, subtle hues of the floor surface. Small cracks or blemishes in the surface suddenly became gestures in colour.


Small cracks or blemishes in the surface suddenly became gestures in colour.

CJC: Each small gesture fanning out into larger contours: finding its place in a larger body. Can you speak on fragmentation and bridging together these gestures?


SS: I shot the Turbine Hall images to recollect bodily relationships from months of performance I experienced in that site with Tino Seghal. Through the algorithmic processing that Jamie used on the photographs, a sense of movement returned, opening to another choreographic sensibility. The original gestures stretched, allowing new questions to arise. We fragmented whatever was given to us to extract further ways of making, meaning, languaging.


JF: The idea of creating and sharing traces of gestures between different locations was something we wanted to investigate. Earlier in the project, Isabel and I experimented with movement data from a depth camera. After the pandemic hit, I started developing a system for streaming and visualising movement data using mobile phones. For our depth data experiments, we had access to an Intel RealSense Camera. I mainly used the Python API alongside OpenCV[5] for quick prototyping.


With only a few sessions before COVID-19 struck, we were finding interesting intersections between the relatively simplistic algorithms in the live-coded visualisations and quality of movement. We tried improvising with different visualisations of a classic background subtraction algorithm, which detects moving objects against a static background. Isabel quickly realised there was a certain duration of stillness required for her to become invisible to the algorithm. Applying motion detection to depth data meant we were able to capture not only a two-dimensional image but turn movement into a three dimensional digital kinetic sculpture. This enabled us to explore a choreographic language in relation to both the space and the affordances of the technology. The images and videos gathered from these sessions became part of our “anarchive” — material for Susan and Valerie to work with.


Code text on the wall

View of text/code wall. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


CJC: You kept strengthening those technological affordances. How did you further adapt as the pandemic advanced?


JF: As COVID-19 restrictions in the UK tightened, Isabel and I could no longer meet. I wanted to find a way to collaborate remotely and share what we were doing with Susan and Valerie through the movement sensors embedded in our smartphones. Using everyday technology was a practical necessity, but also a challenge. I wanted to shift attention away from screens and scrolling content to the phone as an object in relation to body and space.


The technical infrastructure required to realise this was fairly complex, but I used WebRTC and WebSockets[6] to stream the smartphone data. I wrote a Python server to handle the behind-the-scenes stuff, and a Vue.js web app[7] that provided a simple interface for creating what we called “traces” — like a group call exchanging motion sensor data instead of audio and video. When someone initiated a trace, a notification was sent so that others could join. Joining a trace meant data representing the phone’s position, orientation, and acceleration in space are streamed across the Internet to everyone else in real-time on their screens. All data exchanged became part of the archive, creating a resource to be used by ourselves, and potentially artificial intelligence, for collective pattern making.


Smartphone visualisation

Smartphone visualisation of streaming movement data. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


CJC: Let’s speak about the elements in the exhibition. They all were connected, continuations of months of prior virtual practice, and still in the process of accumulation.


SS: The “anarchive process video”, assemblage 2, nested all the tasks, mediations, still and moving images collected through our process period. This was played on loop, on a large plasma screen on the floor against a wall, in dialogue with the other elements.


The “anarchive performative video”, assemblage 3, continuously grew. The first footage was of Valerie performing in the gallery space via a created score in response to Jamie’s archive algorithmic visual films (assemblage 4). Within that score were five sections, each calling for particular movement explorations, qualities, speeds, and uses of space. Everyday, I filmed her interacting with either that score, with the smartphone app and/or with the work or responses of the visiting artists:  Moses Tan, interacting with drawing and sculpture, and Zeekos Perakos, making with sound.


Lastly, assemblage 5, the “image fold”, also expanded through time. I took photographs of all the performative activities and agents throughout the exhibition, selected 10 to 15 images daily and placed them onto a suspended, folded sheet of paper. By the end of the exhibition, the full length of the material held a matrix of images, inside and outside of the fold. The play of repetition and differences exuding from the images would bounce back and forth through the exhibition site.


Images accumulated during the lab/exhibition

Figure: Images accumulated during the lab/exhibition and scan lines. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth


The space became alive. A second skin, another body. The technological mediations within this curation yielded a soft porosity — merging with the live body with it. There was also an excitement of the live performative body punctuating the space, becoming an extension of languaging and sense-making from the orchestration of assemblages. 


Susan Sentler Movement Project

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


A viewer who visited the work noted how the exhibition’s coupling of tactile, haptic elements with the virtual and technological modes were greatly appreciated and needed at this moment. Perhaps after a constantly interacting with the screens, post-lockdown our processes began to yield more subtle relationship possibilities. Instead of spilling the virtual image throughout the space, the laptop and smartphone were the containers of the images — the scales of each element within the assemblages allowing an intimacy of relationship.


The space became alive. A second skin, another body.

CJC: You mentioned guest artists who responded to the work. There were other collaborators besides the core four?


SS: Multi-media artist Moses Tan brought in his practice of drawing and sculpture, mixing other hues and textures to layer a 3-dimensional vibrancy to the space, weaving his responses specifically into the “text/code wall”.


Moses Tan at work

Moses Tan at work. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


Sound artist Zeekos Perakos created his response by sourcing sound happening in the moment and blending other sonic textures. He left four varied mixes, as an expanded voice, which I added into the curatorial choreographic-scape of the exhibition.


Zeekos Perakos and Valerie

Zeekos Perakos and Valerie. Image courtesy Susan Sentler and Jamie Forth.


To maintain the play and exploration of a “lab” was crucial. This was only a momentary docking of our research. It was never envisioned to arrive at a conclusion, but a vibrant conversation that involved an expanded use of the word… conversing through different sources, knowledge, languages, materials, senses. Allowing appropriate time to listen, pause, absorb… to go on.


  • 1.

    OpenFrameworks is a software toolkit for creative coding.

  • 2.

     A Forsythe Company research project: http://motionbank.org/

  • 3.

     An extended reflection of Susan Sentler’s participation in artist Tino Sehgal’s work “These Associations” in 2012, considering the merging of site, mark and body.

  • 4.

    A programmable text editor first released in 1976.

  • 5.

    language https://www.python.org/. OpenCV (Open Computer Vision) is a widely used software library for processing images and video. https://opencv.org/

  • 6.

    WebRTC and WebSockets are standard Internet protocols for real-time communication.

  • 7.

    Vue.js is a software framework for creating dynamic websites.

  • 8.

     Standard technologies used for streaming voice and video calls over the Internet.