When I arrive at Prague’s MeetFactory, the building is bathed in the chilly March sunlight. I can’t remember ever being here in the morning. It’s as silent as the grave. Hidden in the usually inaccessible first floor of the former factory I find a studio with a makeshift dance floor. I get to know sound artist Aleksandra Słyż, who has come here for a two-week artist residency supported by the platform SHAPE+. The residency will culminate in two performances in June: one on the 12th here at MeetFactory and another two days later at Pawilon in Poznań, Poland.
I’m welcomed by Max Dvořák from SHAPE+, who explains the collaboration with the factory space in Prague’s Smichov neighborhood: “MeetFactory is one of the thirteen partner organizations that make up the international music platform SHAPE+ and is the main coordinator of its activities. This is the eighth year of this European collaboration of artists, and this year, for the first time, MeetFactory is hosting two residencies, of which a total of twenty-six will be taking place in thirteen countries. But in a different way, it fits into the local residency program for visual artists here, which is now in its sixteenth year and invites artists from all over the world. Our goal is to facilitate collaboration between international artists and local ones.”
Aleksandra Słyż’s project focuses on the development of interactive sonification systems. Since 2017 she has been conducting artistic research involving the use of practical experiments with the sonification of movement, gestures, human proprioceptive reflexes, and various other types of interactions. In the scope of the SHAPE+ residency, she was able to invite other artists to collaborate, and her invitation was accepted by choreographer Anna Kokocińska, visual artist Maks Posio, and two dancers from the Prague-based group 420PEOPLE, Eliška Jirsová and Simona Machovičová.
AN AUDIOVISUAL MOVEMENT EXPERIMENT
For the first few moments, I don’t realize what I’m witnessing. It all looks like an ordinary contemporary dance set to electroacoustic meditative music. However, I am suspicious of the performers’ uncanny synchronization with the music, and the luminous bracelets on their arms raise further questions.
Musician Aleksandra Słyż gradually draws me into the technological backstage of the project. On the work table there are lots of cables and boxes, a computer, and four bracelets with sensors. The ones on the dancers’ arms use accelerometers and magnetometers, collecting movement data based on the principle of a gyroscope and sending it wirelessly to a laptop where, using a specially developed program, they manipulate the base layer of sound. Słyż demonstrates by waving her hand in front of me with the sensor. As she slowly moves her hand, timbre and dynamics shape the original sound—the base layer of the composition. I begin to understand that the entire composition arises simultaneously in real time—the movement creates the music in close conjunction.
Słyż has been working with sensors for seven years and has already realized several similar performances. For this project she has joined forces with choreographer and eurhythmics teacher Anna Kokocińska, who taught Słyż movement improvisation at university. Kokocińska saw performances using similar sensors during her studies in Stockholm and was tempted to try them out, and a few years later she approached her former student to work on a project together.
“I’m inspired by the theme of so-called primal rituals. Through this project, we are trying to discover the human bodily heritage—to figure out how the first human beings used the body to express themselves, to interact with each other, to communicate. For us, this means a close collaboration between everyone involved, in which we find and highlight natural bodily processes and use them to influence the music. In the beginning, Anna, Maks, and I discussed this topic a lot and shared what we were interested in. Together we came up with the concept of original rituals.” Słyż takes on the role of conductor in order to exercise her own aesthetic expression, which in her interpretation tends above all toward slowness. Long-held notes and harmonies in which time stretches out into infinity are typical of her work. Perhaps this is why abrupt movements are interpreted by the program as unpleasant sounds. The conductor thus deliberately slows down the dancers’ movement, and they learn to move only gracefully, smoothly, and slowly because quick movements correspond to the strike of a harsh sound. The dancers ascertain which movements create harmonious sounds and vibrations that are pleasing to the ear and body. Within this frame, the final work is created with the input of all of the artists together. Ten intense days of training have to suffice to get the performers in tune with the principles of generative music and data sonification.
TO FEEL ONE’S OWN BODY AND CREATE MUSIC WITH IT
The base layer of the electroacoustic recording is the processed sound of a cello. The dancers manipulate the recording by moving the sensors on their arms, resulting in a convincing choreography for an electroacoustic symphony. The artificial intelligence bracelets on their wrists have given the dancers supernatural powers, but they must learn to control this technology. “We don’t want the technology to control us. We want to explore how best to use it. We don’t want to lose control, nor should we ever sacrifice our self-expression to technology. In my work, I seek the perfect balance between progress, technology, and artistic value,” explains Słyż.
Dance and music usually have a clear hierarchy for us. We dance to music. Music can inspire and provoke, but we almost always understand it as an initiation or accompaniment to dance. In this project it is the opposite. The movement is detected by sensors which wirelessly send coordinates to the computer. The coordinates are assigned certain programmed values, which then change the base layer of the soundtrack, creating a new, multi-layered composition. Słyż is already accustomed to motion capture tools, but the dancers find themselves in a new reality. Although all of the dancers have experience with unconventional movement, the collaboration with Aleksandra Słyż opens the door to a hitherto unknown creative process. “It was a challenge for me. I had to become aware of the movement of my entire body again. In the beginning, I was thoroughly focused on the hand with the sensor, and the rest of my body was hardly moving. It’s like learning to drive a car—at first there are a lot of new functions that a new driver has to focus on. I was looking for new ways to use my body and the sensor in a natural symbiosis,” says Kokocińska, recalling the reality of the last two weeks. One of the other dancers nods in agreement. “When I dance, I usually move dynamically and quickly. But that doesn’t create nice sounds here. I had to find a new way of moving. Plus, the box itself physically limits my wrist in some positions, like when I want to work on the floor with my hands. At first, I was constantly directing myself and searching for the range of motion. On the other hand, now when I remove the sensor and switch from the role of the music creator back to the standard mode, it’s like coming down to the ground after jumping on a trampoline,” laughs Eliška Jirsová.
Instead of playing instruments, the performers play coordinates in space. They co-create the music by dancing. They have to orient themselves in a complex environment of several dimensions: movement – space – sound. The basic effects are programmed in advance, and the performance is created spontaneously, often with improvised movements. The choreography is not fixed. The dancers are “merely” synchronized: they perceive and react to each other, communicating with their own movements and gestures. All of this is inscribed into the resulting music. “You’re used to improvising freely, and then all of a sudden you have this small thing on your wrist, and you start concentrating on making music. I felt completely disconnected from the rest of my body. I was only focused on my hand. It was also disconcerting when I didn’t hear the expected audio response to my movement, and I felt disconnected from the sensor as well. Over time, I got used to all of this. And one other thing is different: for me, music is an inspiration to dance, but here it’s the other way around—I create the music,” says Simona Machovičová, the second dancer from 420PEOPLE.
After the two-week residency, a solid foundation for the final performance seems to be in place. The whole team will meet again for the final rehearsals just before the premiere in June, but until then only the three Polish members will continue working on the project. They will refine the piece with additional programmed codes of tonal ranges and connections between tones and their transitions, and they will also enrich the composition with a visual component that will similarly react to the gyroscopic sensors. We will soon have the opportunity to experience, with all of our senses, this multi-layered project full of video-acoustic responses to movement.
Miharu Micha, Full Moon Magazine
Photo: Maria Karlakova