The majority of my work is made in close collaboration with composer/media artist and Troika Ranch co-founder Mark Coniglio. For the past 23 years I have been creating large-scale ‘hybrid’ performances that combine dance-theater with sophisticated computer and video technology. I have been using ‘sensory devices’ worn on the body or placed in the stage space, that measure the movement and vocalization of performers and use that data to manipulate media materials in real-time. Troika Ranch presented three works in Los Angeles in the early 1990s but was officially launched in 1994 with the presentation of our seminal work In Plane. This work features Coniglio’s MidiDancer sensory costume. In 1989 while still students at CalArts, we presented a collaborative work that premiered Mark’s MidiDancer in its clunky infancy. For In Plane the MidiDancer was developed into a costume embedded with eight flex-sensors; thin pieces of plastic that measure the flexion and extension at the major joints of the body, specifically the hips, the knees, the elbow and the wrists.
Troika Ranch has become known for its sophisticated integration of media and live performance. The term “interactive” was used in the 1990s to describe live works such as ours where data from the bodies and/or voices of performers were being used to manipulate media materials in real time. The word interactive implies equal participation and agency between two entities. Believing that computers have no agency and only do what they are programed to do, Mark and I began referring to our work as “reactive”, the computer reacts to the performers movement or vocalization and a reactive feedback loop between performer and computer is created. Still, the term interactive dominated the field. The early 1990s were the rise of the “technologists” – DIY artists building sensory devices from scratch and writing their own computer code to interpret the data. Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was the protocol that allowed music synthesizers to communicate with each other and became the communication of choice for these homemade devices. The speed and fervor in which new technologies were arriving seduced many to continually move to the next new piece of gear without fully investigating the first. Mark and I considered the MidiDancer to be an instrument. Understanding that a person could not learn to play a musical instrument in any less than ten years time, we committed to work with our system for at least ten years – the MidiDancer was invented in 1989 for The Need and we made our last piece with it, Future of Memory, in 2003. At the time we referred to recorded audio and video material as “dead” media because once recorded it was fixed and could not be changed. We were using the MidiDancer (and later other sensory devices) to give what had been “dead” media some semblance of the liveness that the performers have. The exploration of the relationship between humans and their machines became our central topic of inquiry and we continue to create physical and metaphorical linkages between the two. In 1994 Mark and I began by touring the electronic music conference and university circuit demonstrating the MidiDancer and showing In Plane. Later that year we moved to New York City, hired three dancers and began making larger group work.
In 1999 a major conference called IDAT99 happened at Arizona State University. We were invited to show In Plane and talk about our work. This conference marked a crucial moment in the realization, and subsequent organization, of a genre. All of us “early adopters”, those working at the bleeding edge of computational capability and artistic performance application, were gathered in the same place for the first time. We had found each other’s websites and communicated via email since 1994, in the Wild Frontier of the brand new Internet, but now we had met each other face to face. We had shared ideas, approaches and problem-solving methods over dinner. We had seen and discussed each other’s work from a greater knowledge base than those from the “outside”. We were now a community. Our community came to be known as Dance & Technology and we convened regularly at conferences and festivals, primarily in Europe, for the next decade. Not long before this conference, in 1997, Mark and colleague Scott DeLahunta reinvigorated the DTZ – Dance & Technology Zone, a list-serve where members of our community could share information.
1999 was also the first year that Mark and I offered our Live-I (Live Interactive) Workshop, a two-week intensive on composing interactive live art. We wanted to share the practical and theoretical approaches that we were discovering with dancers and choreographers specifically. The métiers of music, visual art and stage design were already using computers in their processes. But most dancers still had no access. There were not yet university departments where media and performance were truly integrated. In a short time the workshop came to include practitioners from many live genres drawing artists from Korea, China, Japan, Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Canada and the US. The teaching structure of the Live-I Workshop was the ground where our creative practice informed our educational practice. This transference allowed us to refine and codify both simultaneously. We coined quantifiers such as The Sphere of Interactivity, The Quadrant of Video Use, and Micro/Meta/Mega Events to help our students understand complex concepts associated composing for live performance, video projection and interactive sensors, concepts we ourselves had grappled with in the studio.
The birth and development of Mark’s Isadora® software added more clarity to our ability to describe and teach our strategies. Mark had presented Isadora® at the Monaco Dance Forum, one of the Dance & Technology community’s regular meeting grounds, in 2000. Isadora is the media platform used in all of our performance work from 2001 onward and is our primary teaching tool for the Live-I Workshop. Mark would build everything we needed for our creative work in Isadora, writing new code so that we could achieve a new technological idea. We would then teach our students processes that we ourselves had just gone through creatively. The Live-I Workshop is a fluid testing ground that continues to push our growth as teachers, creators and as software developers. We have taught this workshop extensively in universities and art institutions in Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. We rented space and offered the workshop annually in summer in New York City from 1999 to 2009 and in Portland, Oregon for 2010 and 2011. The annual workshop is currently on temporary hiatus. Here are a few links to response from participants: one, two, three.
Being in regular contact with our larger Dance & Technology community exposed us to other methods for gathering and presenting the data coming from performers. In 2004 we discontinued using the MidiDancer and in 2006 began using camera tracking software (EyesWeb) in concert with infrared light to track performers in motion while projecting video imagery into the same space. This was a technique of interest at the time. Examples of work using this technical combination are Troika Ranch’s 16 [R]evolutions , Golan Levin and Zack Lieberman’s messa di voce , and Klaus Obermaier’s Apparition.
By 2006 the Internet was prevalent. Cell phones were in the hands of many and were getting smarter and smarter. YouTube, MySpace and Google had already been launched. People from our Dance & Technology community were spearheading Mediated Performance departments at universities. The media playing field had changed and information was wide spread. Seeing a live performance that integrated video projection was no longer the exception, it was the rule. Fewer and fewer conferences were happening and the Dance & Technology community began to disperse. The moniker “… & Technology” was no longer needed. By the early 21st century computers and digital technology were simply part of the larger toolbox for artists.
My personal theories, aesthetic and methodology have all been developed in collaboration with Mark Coniglio. I was just twenty years old when we met. We made our first work together in 1987 after being randomly paired in a composition class as students at CalArts. Because of my relationship to Mark, my development as a choreographer happened in tandem with my use of computer technology in performance. I had only choreographed two short student studies before my first large collaborative work with Mark, The Need, which featured the MidiDancer and was presented at CalArts in our graduating year 1989. I have not yet made a performance work that did not include the use of a computer and audio-visual technology. The métiers of body and computer were merged right from the beginning for me making me unique in my generation of choreographers.
CalArts, infused Mark and I with curiosity for the experimental and the collaborative. In the beginning our creative process was chaotic and organic; we just followed our noses. As time went on we began to codify aspects of our practice. We keep what we call “the imaginary rule book”. This is a non-material database of rules that we follow both in the business management and creative practice of our artmaking. An early addition to the “book” was “no technology before need”. This means that no technology would find its way into a work unless it had a creative purpose. This notion expands out to include any medium we are interested in. Early on we understood that each artistic medium has its own strength. For example, dance is not terribly specific as a communication medium, so if I want to say something specific it might be best to simply say it rather than try to dance it. For me dance is first an expression of being a human, an expression of living in the world with a particularly evolved body that has some greater or lesser capacity for movement. Since we all have essentially the same body, this idea is something that everyone can relate to. Video can offer perspectives not available in the physical, real-time world. Mark and I often use video projection to reveal the inner perspective of a character, or as memory, or to place the performers in an environment. We use video to dramatically enhance aspects of the stage action with close-ups and magical effects. We use live video as a means of amplifying a stage event or capturing it to reiterate the event later in the piece. Music creates mood. Dance, in addition to its base statement of being human, is a poetic language of the body that can also create mood, tone or attitude. Objects and spoken language can be literal or obscure. Each element must be “auditioned” before being used to present a facet of the work’s content
In the early 1990s while still living in Los Angeles, Mark and I studied Performance Art with theater director Scott Kelman – . Scott was a descendant of Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theater and his improvisational approach to theater became an integral part of our creative process. We use many of his techniques for creating monologue, dialogue and character. After working with Scott’s methods for at least a decade, I took his method called Rap (now called Riff), which is meant for improvised speaking and modified it to be a method for improvised moving with specific ways to stay in it and keep evolving. I call it Instant Choreography. I from a diagram found in a book on Laban Notation. The system began by assigning a letter of the alphabet to the 26 vectors in the diagram, then writing out sentences to translate into movement sequences. I call this system Estrella. I have used both of these systems extensively in my work with Troika Ranch.
A consistent method of developing a work for Troika Ranch was to keep a stack of 3×5 notecards handy. We made six major works between 1998 and 2006 that began with a single word as inspiration. Any time Mark or I had an idea that related to the word we were working with we would jot it down on a card. The idea could be visual, movement, technological, texts, anything. Each note card contained a germ of an idea that would be fleshed out later in the studio. In our work 16 [R]evolutions one note card said “the history of evolution in 2 minutes”. This note transferred into the entire opening of the piece and is the prologue to the overarching ideas expressed within the full work. We used this process for Vera’s Body, the word was body; for The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz, the word was transformation; for Reine Rien, the word was nothing; for Future of Memory, the word was memory. For Future of Memory we also used a special game that we devised specifically to invent lives for imaginary characters. We began by leaving secret anonymous “gifts” for each other, Mark and us four dancers. We’d sneak them into shoes, coat pockets or dance bags to be discovered later by surprise. At the end of a month each of us had a dozen or so little objects. Then using the Rap technique mentioned previously, each dancer laid their objects out before them and Rapped about them. The concept was that each person had amnesia and these objects were all they had left to remember their lives. It was out of these improvised speeches that each character was developed for Future of Memory. We used our single-word-3×5 notecard-process in Surfacing, the word was surface; and lastly for 16 [R]evolutions, the word was evolution. And this brings us to loopdiver.
In 2007 Troika Ranch received a major grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in collaboration with the Lied Center for Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We engaged in a two-year process to make a new work, loopdiver that would mark a radical shift in our working process and our use of digital technology. As part of the grant, NET, the local Nebraska PBS station, made a documentary about the process. loopdiver caused a seismic shift in our creative process and our use of media.
Prior to loopdiver our process had been to use the body to disturb the “dead” media, but now 20 years later, we wanted to use the media to disturb a relatively “dead” body. As half of the Troika Ranch collaborative partnership I have made significant contributions to a genre. My creative investigation was centered on a merging of mediums rather than forging new approaches to making movement itself. But for loopdiver I wanted to rigorously disturb the way that I made movement. Having become somewhat bored with my own choreography at this point, I was seeking a fresh method for generating choreography. I wanted to push the boundaries of my OWN medium. The merging had happened. The “multi” was all around us. I came back to the dancing.
Mark and I had become increasingly disinterested in digital scenography. The capabilities of video projection systems had skyrocketed and everything was spectacularly visual and gawkingly beautiful. Many performances we were seeing were visually overwhelming but emotionally insubstantial. Where were the unpleasant and unsettling investigations of technology’s impact on our society, the cautionary topics we had all been so interested in the 1990s? In response, we started on a journey to create a computer-mediated physical process and our most computer-mediated work to date. The detailed process of making loopdiver is documented here. Here is a link to a live-stream of our most recent performance of loopdiver in Berlin.
Many Troika Ranch’s early explorations with computer and video technology were enough ahead of the time that audiences had trouble understanding not only the techniques we were using but also the messages we were sending. We were critiquing human relationships to technology that a majority of society had not yet experienced. The magical results of the computer tools we were using sometimes distracted from the work as a whole as audience members got caught up in trying to figure out how it was working technically. But most often our blend of digital-dance-theater was understood and appreciated for the hybrid expression that it was, and still is. Many people have expressed that Troika Ranch’s work, though heavily technological, is still human at its core. We make work about the human endeavor. At times we use technology to highlight a particular aspect of the relationship that humans have with their technology, and other times we use sophisticated technology to tell a story that has nothing to do with that sophisticated technology. We have called ourselves Maximalists because we overlap and overlay many methods and mediums at once. Our work has been called “content driven”. Rather then exhaust the possibilities of a particular technology, we choose to use aspects of its capabilities to express aspects of our content. “Content driven” work is driven by the demands of the content. Materials driven work is driven by the exhaustion of the capabilities of the material, aka the technology.
In sum, Troika Ranch creates contemporary, hybrid artworks through an ongoing examination of the moving body and its relationship to technology. This aesthetic framework has informed Troika Ranch’s artistic output on every level since its inception. The name Troika Ranch refers to a creative methodology, which involves a hybrid of three artistic disciplines, dance/theater/media (the Troika), in cooperative artistic interaction (the Ranch). Troika Ranch produces art that values live interaction – between viewer and viewed, performer and image, movement and sound, people and technology. Troika Ranch engages in creative endeavors using all that contemporary invention has to offer. Troika Ranch was based in New York City from 1994 – 2009. Troika Ranch now operates out of Berlin, Germany and Portland, Oregon.
In addition to my work with Troika Ranch, I am currently exploring methods of generating improvisational scores for solo and group works. I am most interested creating these works for non-traditional spaces or reconfigurations of traditional spaces. Here are links to three explorations made in 2012: this is where i am, Improvisation with Doug, Enter Comma Prepare. You can read about my process and inspiration here.