The Sound of Costumes / Audible Choreography

by Johannes Birringer

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for The Sound of Costumes / Audible Choreography

(Photo: Helenna Ren as “Gravedigger” in sarcophagus garment made of heat resistant material stencilled with enamel spray paint, protective sunhat, glasses and gloves. Design and concept by Michèle Danjoux / dans sans joux © 2012 Brigitt Angst. This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

As a first proposition, I ask you to imagine the sound of the costume you wear in performance, listen to its texture and note how it enables or constraints your movement on stage, how you touch it and how it touches your body. Your costume also extends your body, limbs, arms, hands, fingers, your physical shape or imagined Gestalt, and the movement figures and qualities you seek to pour out, into the present performance environment now mediated by the sound you make as it travels from your body becoming amplified, processed, and distended. You perform on a “sound stage,” embedded sensitive microphone pick up your motion.

I will address the subject of artistic innovation from two angles, namely the dance-theatre performances that our company has created over the past years, and the laboratory work that drives the experiments we make to discover new possibilities of choreography/design in the context of contemporary multimedia performance, or “digital performance” as we call it in the place where I teach (London). For nearly two decades now I’ve worked in the evolving field of dance/technology, first as a director of a small arts ensemble in Houston, Texas, and later as a workshop conductor and co-director for the Design and Performance Lab in London. The DAP Lab has grown steadily since its formation in 2004, and along with my design collaborator, Michèle Danjoux, we now work with an international group of ensemble members and research associates in numerous countries. Although we might not claim “artistic innovation” as a conscious objective for the work processes, experimenting with new technologies, design, and software programming for performance, however, adds a certain edge to compositional methods. Our wearable “design-in-motion” requires prototyping and laboratory testing, a process well known in engineering and interaction design labs set up for the production of new applications with interface/feedback systems.

For example, how do you move with a costume equipped with sensors, microphones, and small speakers? How does the dancer-actor control their sensortized wearable outfit in order to generate sound or manipulate visual/graphic projections in the stage or installation environment? And how does the actor participate – affecting the audience’s own intimate perceptional relation to the immersive environment – in a stage world created in real-time through generative processes, through this ecology of becoming?

From the point of view of composition, the dance-theatre works we create are neither based on scripts (text) nor scores (music). They are choreographies-in-the-making, installations developed through a longer process of laboratory research. They are not choreographically encoded either, but emerge with the structure as real-time processes, during which the performers enact scenes in a “nervous” environment (observed by capture/vision systems or microphones and actuated by data transmitters via sensors worn on the body or in the costume), they materialize as live theatre-film-operas… well, genres hardly matter, forms flow into each other and complement each other in a kind of “ live postproduction” on stage (in the manner in which films are edited, or directors like Katie Mitchell translate live theatre into live film).

Composing “audible choreographies” might be the best way to describe our design work. We are interested in teasing out various strands of inspiration (usually we depart from a motif or question that drives the research; the question could originate from an image or a historical incident or a technical proposition as much as it might be derived from an object, poem, sound phenomenon or garment concept). In earlier phases of my work (the late 80s and 90s), I sought to link video/film to movement, combining moving images with choreography.  With the development of the international dance/tech movement and the easy availability of software to assist in the programming of performance systems, I came to be obsessed, for a while, with the concept of interactivity. Over the past 10 years, I felt that interactive systems were too limiting, while conceptual dance in Europe had also begun to reach its limits of refusal (to dance) and postdramatic collage and montage had a predictable repertoire (perfected by companies like The Wooster Group or The Builders Association). In the era of the digital (and of social media and network culture), the pressure to adopt new instruments of course proved to be unavoidable, to an extent, especially if you worked in a laboratory and received funding to drive “innovative” design applications.

In her first blog post, Caridad Svich writes:

For the last several years now I have been looking for ways to experiment with dance theatre in my playwriting. But there are no viable funding opportunities out there that I can see anyway for an individual playwright who is unaffiliated with an existing performance ensemble to walk into a theatre and say “Hello. Can you give me a few weeks or even one day a week for a few months to play with movement and text and maybe even with different choreographers and actors to see what happens?” And is there – unless we ask  a funding body to create it – a sustainable program – sustainable for the artist fiscally as well as in regards to process – at a resident theatre, alternative or otherwise – … to support an open-ended, none-product-driven endeavor, but one that only may yield artistic “dividends” in years’ time?

My answer would be, yes, there must be grants and labs to support this, and if not, there is always the option of creating your own experimental group or connecting to other existing networks where such experimentation is happening – many platforms have developed in the past years, and the model of sci/art is now familiar, not to mention the various historical precedents of art schools or media labs (from the Bauhaus to places like ZKM, Harvestworks, STEIM, The Kitchen, or YCAM) that have inspired current “meta-academies” that exist in the independent network of affiliated artists, hackers and instrument builders (see http://www.dance-tech.net/ and its various filiations, or look at the research driving the Motion Bank project in Frankfurt, the new media art ventures of Furtherfield Gallery in London, the SPAZIO partnership between dance organizations in Italy, Poland, Croatia and The Netherlands, the  INTERFACE project on Arte, Cuerpo, Ciencia y Tecnología in Chile, etc).

Innovation is relative, of course, and in the work of our DAP-Lab we hardly desire to  claim that we’re doing cutting edge research on wearable design. We tend in fact to look backwards, historically minded and aware of earlier analog visions for a “new theatre of the scientific age” (Brecht), remembering Antonin Artaud, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Schlemmer, the Russian Constructivists, looking at transcultural concatenations of movement and “landscape plays,” new old investigations of body weather and  physical, sensory engagement of the environment. After creating our first expanded environment (Suna no Onna) in 2007, adapting Hiroshi Teshigahara’s mysterious 1960s cult movie, Woman in the Dunes, into a dance installation that merges virtual and real images of a life of existential entrapment in an inhospitable habitat, our ensemble worked with Japanese network artists and butoh dancers for three years (2008-2010). The meeting with butoh masters in Tokyo further opened up the transcultural imaginary, leading to a dance installation titled UKIYO [Moveable Worlds]. Danjoux built a series of ever more complex garments that were partly interactive (digital sensors woven into the fabric of the costumes) and partly organic, for example stitching accelerometers into a dress made of real Ginkgo leaves we had collected in Tokyo.

Katsura Isobe dancing the 3D creation scene in Ginkgo LeavesDress in UKIYO, Sadler's Wells, London 2010 © DAP-Lab

The dancers in UKIYO move in an ephemeral environment – the audience is invited inside the space and wanders across the five hanamichi corridors I designed for the movement of real actions and projected graphic animations/film, thrown onto two suspended screens and a spherical globe (air balloon) that is pumped up by audience members. The virtual space is populated at one point in Act II with animated manga characters in Second Life, created by our Japanese collaborators and beamed out to an internet audience able to follow the physical dance and its virtual phantom world. The dancers move in close proximity to the audience who witness close-up the manipulations of sound generated by the costumes, and this environment becomes a sounding space, intermingling noise created by dancers and their expanded bodily instruments (microsound) and music that is spatialized through the amplification system. We collaborated with composer Oded Ben-Tal and sound artist Sandy Finlayson, both working closely with the performers and Danjoux’s sound-generating costumes in a polyphonic ensemble of improvised choreography. The latter slowly evolved over many months, in a continuous dialogue with the Japanese butoh dancers who came to work with us on the European tour, inspiring us to pay extreme attention to the metamorphic qualities of subtle movement, somatic resonance, the slow motion of interspaces, vibrations, morphologies and what Sandra Fraleigh described as “alchemy in motion” (Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy). The alchemy, for me, lies is the particular consciousness of wearing the sensortized garments, moving them in a sensographical way that encourages the audience to listen to motion.

In our current production, for the time being (Victory over the Sun), we take this concentration on the sonic morphology to the next level. Using the 1913 futurist opera Victory over the Sun as our template, Danjoux challenged our ensemble to push the idea of “sounding garments” even further, creating costumes that are like architectures in motion, geometric abstractions and small apparatuses. Following El Lissitzky’s brilliant re-drawings of Malevich’s original designs for the fantastical “futurian” characters Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov created for the libretto, Danjoux built costumes, supported by electronics engineers John Richards and Aleksandar Tomic, which stimulate the dancers to invent actions or gestures that delineate a strangely hallucinatory poetics of noise, light projections and sonic irritations, onomatopoeia and zaum interventions beyond sense and yet sensory –  an experiential Ganzfeld of synaesthetic events.

Helenna Ren with TatlinRadiotower Headdress (incorporating motors, rotating spring, piezo--for the conversion of mechanical to electrical data--receiver and transmitter) and black box (housing amplifier, speaker & battery pack) wears productivist white suit and manipulates sensor. Design and concept by Michèle Danjoux / dans sans joux © 2012 Brigitt Angst

My second proposition, then, relates performance to the intersections of design, fashion, science and technology  – design concepts of retro-futurist dimensions declined into choreographic enactment. How to wear a Tatlin RadioTower on the head, with a black box emitting radio noise held in front of the body and the dancer, with her hands, bending the sensor that activates a spiral metal piece inside the tower? The performer has to take on the role of a transmitter: bending a sensor between her fingers, she actuates the metal spiral in the tower which begins to spin, the crackling sound is picked up my microphones and sent to the speaker box. The microsounds are then picked up by onstage mics that send the input to a software that further processes amplified transmissions until the stage begins to reverberate, just as Artaud had imagined the vibratory contagion of a poetics in space.

Later the Tatlin dancer becomes a “Gravedigger” who captures the sun with her hands (see photo at top), burying the golden sphere and creating darkness on stage, her movements watched by a Kinect camera that translates motion into sound and the eclipse of light. Just as this eclipse is performed, so is the construction of the new world in Act II,  Yoko Ishiguro, Aggeliki Margeti and Ross Jennings joining Helenna Ren in a choreographic polyphony. There is no prerecorded music: all of the sound is created live on stage and processed in real-time, thus opening up a form of artistic innovation, namely the creation of an “audible scenography.” Amidst the hieroglyphics of the non-objective geometric abstractions on stage, the dancers in white overalls – in an early scene we developed in remembrance of the Fukushima disaster – examine the space like engineers measuring radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The sounding of the space is a choreographic effect produced through the articulation of kinetic costumes (with built-in sensors) and inter-action with camera-vision systems actuating audio-visual objects. This implies treating spatial architecture as a score and drawing attention to ways in which the performing bodies “wear” space and receive/process environmental information. Intelligent-costume design, mobile media transmission and computation thus combine to create processual architectures that can ceaselessly readjust relationships between collected data in real-time. Performance within such Raumpartitur (spatial score) involves subjective experiences of a continuously re-generating system, a virtual architecture of listening/composing through participating in the dynamic potentials of such theatre.


Johannes Birringer is artistic director of AlienNation Co, and professor of performance technologies at Brunel University (London).  He has directed numerous multimedia theatre, dance, and digital performances in Europe, the Americas, China and Australia; collaborated on site-specific installations, and exhibited work at film and video festivals, including DanceScreen and Dança em foco. In 2003 he founded a laboratory in Germany providing artist residencies for collaborative interactive and screen-based performance projects.

For the last nine years he has co-directed the DAP-Lab together with designer Michèle Danjoux, conducting research into sensor choreography, wearable computing and soft technologies.  Michèle is leading the design research into audible choreography and for the lab’s label: http://www.danssansjoux.org. Their current production, for the time being (Victory over the Sun) premiered in London in 2012.