a companion chapter to Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance
Stern › In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Near the launch-time of hektor.net, I was simultaneously learning how to develop physical computing projects and use computer vision software, so my next questions flowed relatively easily from the last. I wondered about provoking and framing activity. I began to ask, ‘How might I actually instigate exploratory movements, and place emphasis on their potential, experience, and practice?’ I was still trying to couple this inquiry with my interest in storytelling and poetry, and so became enchanted with JL Austin’s definition of performative utterances, or ‘speech acts.’

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Proffered in his posthumously published lectures from 1955 at Harvard (Austin, 1962), the basic premise is that performative utterances are spoken or written words that actually do something, rather than simply describing an event. They perform some kind of action. The most classic example of such an event is a wedding: with the spoken words, ‘I do,’ the speaker is transformed from a single person into a spouse. Words literally (pun intended) make an ontological change.13 Other easily understood performative possibilities include a declaration of war, to knight or fire someone, to command or forbid, or to ask something of someone as an act itself. In fact, all of language has some level of performative inflection and effect.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Performativity as a concept has been appropriated (and thus re-defined) by various disciplines over the last several decades, leading performance studies scholar Richard Schechner to declare it ‘A Hard Term to Pin Down’ (Schechner, 2002: 110), and to dedicate an entire chapter in his book, Performance Studies: An Introduction, to its definition, history, and use. He says that as a noun, a performative – which is no longer necessarily spoken – ‘does something’; as an adjective – such as what Peggy Phelan calls performative writing – the modifier inflects performance in some way that may change or modify the thing itself; and as a broad term, performativity covers

a whole panoply of possibilities opened up by a world in which differences between media and live events, originals and digital or biological clones, performing onstage and in ordinary life are collapsing. Increasingly, social, political, economic, personal, and artistic realities take on the qualities of performance. (Schechner, 2002: 110)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Karen Barad would later say that performativity and relation, together, make matter (Barad, 2003). You can see where this connection I unintentionally found between text, materiality, and performance eventually led to my understanding of embodiment as performed, and then my pursuit of creating interventions into that performance. Immediately following hektor.net, I wanted to involve text and activity in a recognizable way (they are, Austin argues, always reciprocally involved), and to suspend and thus make felt the potentials always present in their relation. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of the as-yet-unnamed body-language implicit body thematic.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Figure 43, enterFigure 43, enter

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0  My first foray into interactive installation, enter (2000 – 2013, Figure 43),14 asked visitors to literally chase after, bend towards, or stretch over hektor’s words on a large projection screen. Dan O’Sullivan, my professor at New York University and very influential with regards to my early work, pushed me to try and encourage styles of investigation through the same ‘jerky expressions and exaggerated gestures’ that hektor exhibits in his online videos.

enter is an interactive work that combines conceptual and aesthetic principles from traditional installation, participatory art, and performance poetry, to explore relationships between text and embodied activity. Its participants enter through black and red velvet curtains – a literalized performance space – and into a white interaction area approximately 8 meters long; the width at the entrance begins the size of a doorway and expands to that of a large projection screen.

Upon entering, viewer-participants meet with an almost real-time abstraction of themselves – an outline drawn with large black dots. The closer they are to the screen / camera, the larger their image becomes. Short phrases float around them, in animated sequence. With this exterior re-presentation of their bodies, viewers-turned-performers can grab and trigger the text; each word that a viewer’s outline touches will stop, turn red, and recite a line of poetry. enter asks interactors to leave behind their everyday movements, and attempts to accent each step and extension as a rich and performative inauguration.

The enter software does not work as one would expect, and pushes viewers to act in ways they normally wouldn’t. Rather than traditional body-tracking software, the code is written in such a way that only the outermost points on the horizontal axis are shown – for example, put your arms up in a V, and your head disappears. The piece was originally exhibited on an old 8500 Macintosh (2000), which ran relatively slowly; in the updated versions (2005 and 2013), I’ve imitated the minor lag the original computer created. The lag, combined with the paradox of its awkward ‘limited body’ interaction, creates less of a mirror and more of a ‘call and response, and response’ space – much like that of a poet and his / her audience. Meaning is found in the relation between body and text, and the half-second lag amplifies that relation.

As viewer-participants learn how to perform this space, they move in alien ways. Whether they are trying to ‘speak,’ or doing their best to avoid it, the situation invites them to poll styles of being and becoming – exaggerated gestures or jerky expressions, for example. I’ve watched some folks crawl into a ball and lash out at words with their arms, others dance and play on the fringes in an attempt to speak quickly and all at once, while still others get up close to the screen and squirm around words, so as not to speak. enter is a recognition of the negotiations and contradictions inherent to the performance of communication, and of body. We are invited to use our flesh as a writing and speaking tool, to experience and practice a poetic, embodied, and relational language. (Stern, 2005)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 As evidenced by my artist statement, I became enthralled by how people interact with and relate to words, screens, communication, space, and themselves in and as and with bodies and matter – all at once. Although at the time my focus was probably more on identity than differentiation, on self and subjectivity rather than body and corporeality, here is when I began my attempts to collapse saying and doing, affection and reflection. Perhaps I started to see that none could exist without the other; I was at least headed in that direction.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 enter (2000)

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Download this video with artist voiceover (mp4, 51mb)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 enter (2013 update)

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15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 But I was also still playing out my interest in narrativity. For example, I began working on another video series similar to the monologues found on hektor.net. In the odys series (2001–2004), which later fed odys for your iPod (2005),15 a new character explores the same memories hektor does, but engages his trauma through other means. While hektor is lucid and antagonistic, purposefully maneuvering around explicitly speaking the past, odys is contemplative and confused: he keeps trying to approach the past, and fails. He lacks hektor’s articulation, so painfully stutters over words and explanations, and viewers are again left to fill the spaces between.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 My next interactive piece paralleled enter, but with odys’ approach rather than hektor’s. I was continuing the experimental and performative format of my ‘narrative,’ and odys enabled me to delve deeper into the physical spaces between words, worlds, and characters. I wanted viewers to explore (his) stuttering, with their bodies, and so attempted to animate stuttering text, which exploded from their movements. The effect and affect of my software, however, were not what I initially intended.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Figure 44, elicitFigure 44, elicit

elicit (2001 – 2013) explores and amplifies the continuity between text and the body. It is a large-scale, interactive installation where every movement of the viewer, small or sweeping, births fluidly animated text onscreen. Viewers’ motions elicit projected passages, character by character, which in turn elicit variable performances from them. Its software responds to small movements, writing letters onscreen slowly for us to read, or to rapid passersby, whose full bodies birth hundreds of flying characters, impossible to decode.

Here the spaces between language and meaning, movement and stasis, stuttering and silence, are framed as ongoing and embodied. elicit situates us as part of an emergent and enfleshed language, where possibly infinite meanings, or none at all, are materialized. (Stern, 2001)

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 elicit (Figure 44) also existed as a collaborative dance piece with South African choreographer Jeannette Ginslov (en/traced, 2001), where both generative and improvised variation in her and the animations’ movements made for a spellbinding performance at the installation’s premiere. I believe in the work and my statement: playful and beautiful, the piece makes a continuous and embodied feedback loop between significations and signifying practices, inscription and incorporation.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 elicit (2001)

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22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 elicit (2013 update)

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23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 But I admittedly only saw that in retrospect.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 I say this because what I really wanted – per odys – were stutters, not fluidity. As I watched participants interact with elicit, which was inspired by the work of Camille Utterback,16 it dawned on me that no matter how much I willed it to be so (as artists are wont to do), neither the text nor – perhaps more importantly – the viewers were stuttering. There was indeed an amplification of the relationships between embodiment and meaning-making, body and language, but I created an encounter with their continuity and feedback, rather than the garbled interruptions, and immediacy, of the utterance. If I wanted to make stutters virtually felt, I would have to overlay affective resonances of movement, in body and words, as syncopated rhythm (see Manning, 2009).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 This is where the beginnings of my critical framework were forming. I never voiced the precise critique above, but I often found myself in the exhibition space, examining and rethinking how participants move and relate, how they embody meaning. This led me to research on metaphor and embodied communication, which in turn led to a re-thinking and re-working of how I might frame and amplify potentials in the situation of interactive art, both generally, and in my next piece: stuttering (2003 – 2013, Figure 45).

According George Lakoff, author of Philosophy In The Flesh (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999), human communication is always already mediated. Our emotions, our past and the memories it carries, cannot be separated from it. He says, ‘The mind is inherently embodied.’ Because of our flesh, our multi-sensory perception, and our personal experiences, our communications engage with much more than transparent information.

stuttering, an interactive installation, proposes a space which accents how we effect, and are affected by, conversation and comprehension. It suggests that stillness and stumbling play a role in the un/realized potentials of memory and storytelling.

Computer printouts are scattered about the floor, containing quotes and passages about stutterers, situations in which stuttering, in its broadest sense, is common, and suggestions of when and where we should ‘make stutters,’ in order to break ‘seamless’ communication. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front them. This projection is broken into a Mondrian-like mirror, where each sub-section, initialized by body-tracking software, animates one of the floor-found quotes; every animation is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.

stuttering thus creates an intense environment through its inescapable barrage of stuttering sound and visual stuttering: noise. Only by lessening their participation will the information explosion slow into an understandable text for the viewer. The piece asks them not to interact, but merely to listen. Their minimal movements, and the phrases they trigger, literally create new meaning.

The spaces between speaking and listening, between language and the body, add to the complex experience of communication. stuttering is not displaying data, but rather, pushing us to explore these practices of speaking and listening. It suggests that communication comes to and from us, in ways that even we do not fully comprehend. (Stern, 2003)

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Unlike enter, where movement and text are frenetically paired, stuttering is contrary in its interaction. In enter, you must physically pursue hektor’s words to communicate, encountering text and activity as intrinsically active, together. In stuttering, you practice the labor and intimacy of embodied communication. Sweeping gestures in front of the screen execute a storm of visual and aural stutters. Move carefully, even cautiously – stutter with your bodies – and speaking, listening, meaning, and bodies are all felt. We slowly move our fingers, legs, or heads on and off, back and forth, across each individual button, intensifying a rehearsal of techniques for the affection and reflection of language.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Figure 45, stutteringFigure 45, stuttering

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Nicole, in the aforementioned NY Arts biography, later said:

Stern’s interactive pieces work to implicate participants in his narratives, weaving them into events shot through with thoughtful intention and distracted passivity…. The tangle of text, voice and motion, makes our first encounter with stuttering feel almost perilous. We are dragged into the frenzied tension between body and text that the stutterer endures, but are then invited to slow down and stop doing. Seducing us into delicate gestures, and almost Butoh-like awareness, the piece allows us to perform quietude, but not acquiescence. (Ridgway, 2006)

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 stuttering (2003 – 2013)

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36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 And more broadly:

Staged via various media, Nathaniel Stern’s work enacts the interstices of body, language and technology. It seeks to force us to look again at the relationships between the three, and invites us to experiment with their relation. His body of work can, perhaps, be described as an exploration of the interstitial itself – revisiting between technology and text the dangerous spaces of enfleshment, incipience, and process. (Ridgway, 2006)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 stuttering invokes and evokes a complex and careful exploration of how sign and body relate. It is a space for the experience and practice of embodied listening. Over the past few years, I have spent days at a time at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and stuttering’s various other installations, watching everyday gallery-goers, dancers, children, and academics all play out stutters and quivers between signs, exploring their relationships to, and as, flesh and text and image.

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40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 ‘In Production’ main page

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42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 NOTES

  1. In his lectures, Austin breaks these down further, into several categorical types, depending on their implementation and on what they accomplish.
  2. The multi-year designation here represents updates made to the software or installation, necessitated by changes in computer technologies. For example, a 2005 update saw a move from OS9 to OSX on the Mac – and while I was at it I also changed the installation area to reference performance more directly. The 2013 update, which I am working on as I do the final edits to this chapter, moves to the cross-platform and open-source coding platform, openFrameworks. I will again rethink the situated space in this latest version, since I intend to install it along with three other interactive pieces.
  3. See http://odys.org/. Both hektor and odys are ironically named after characters from Homer’s epics.
  4. Two years before, Camille Utterback had been working on Text Rain, discussed in the full-length book, while we were together at NYU. I played with several prototypes.

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Source: http://stern.networkedbook.org/body-language/