Embodied thinking: The antidote to being in the zone

Newsletter on 25 July 2022

Chelly Jin at her laptop at Choreographic Coding Lab 14 with various screens visible in front. (Also on screens: Irini Kalaitzidi, Mark Coniglio, me and Allison Costa.) Photo by Tim Murray-Browne.
Chelly Jin at Choreographic Coding Lab 14. (Also on screens: Irini Kalaitzidi, Mark Coniglio, me and Allison Costa.)

Earlier this month I was at a residency called the Choreographic Coding Lab with an amazing group of dancers and coders. I shared my recent work on building complex full-body interfaces with AI. I was encouraged by how people responded, not just to how it feels but also the critical ideas I'm exploring through this work: how digital interfaces shape the way we think and move.

Here is dancer/computer scientist Allison Costa playing with my Latent Voyage system.

I've heard it said that if you want to know what tech everyone will be into in 10 years then look at what those in the Silicon Valley bubble are excited about today. When it comes to tech, they see just a bit further.

Today, this is, apparently, trans-humanism and augmented reality glasses. I'd also add self-custody of our digital content. Ten years ago, I have to stretch my memory – online privacy and bitcoin?

I think there may be an equivalent observation with dancers. If you want to know what everyone will be doing in 10 years to recover body and mind from technology, then observe how dancers work today. When it comes to the body, dancers sense just a bit deeper.

Irini Kalaitzidi dancing in front of a projection screen at Choreographic Coding Lab 14. Photo: Stathis Doganis.
Irini Kalaitzidi at Choreographic Coding Lab 14. Photo: Stathis Doganis.

In the paper on AI-generated interfaces I published last year, I quoted the dancer Bettina Neuhaus:

The performer’s body and mind need to be specifically tuned for perception, imagination, intuition, inhibition and action. At the same time one must be able to constantly read and respond to one’s body, the other dancers and the composition itself, including all its different layers.

The impact of technology on our bodies is not just the caving in of the chest from the laptop, or the drooping neck and shoulder from the phone. There's an accompanying loss of embodied thinking – that sensitivity to the space and people around us at the level of intuition. Something to think about next time you realise you're lost inside your phone while in a public space.

Participants wear virtual reality headsets in a work by Carston Höller, Hayward Gallery, London, 2015. Photo: Tim Murray-Browne.
Participants on a VR work by Carston Höller, Hayward Gallery, London, October 2015. Photo: Tim Murray-Browne.

For me, a big attraction towards dancing is that the state of mind it brings is so far from coding. I love coding but it scares me a bit, because when it's really good and I'm blissfully in the zone for 10-12 hours, it can, afterwards, be a few hours until I'm able to connect with other people, or feel connected to the bustle of a street or a tree shivering in the wind. Being in the zone feels like the inverse of embodied thinking. I worry that too much will cause my capacity for embodied thinking to atrophy and decay.

So, for me, the focus of dance has always been about reconnecting my consciousness with my body and all its sense. It seems like it should be as ordinary a part of everyone's lives as exercising or reading. I don't dance with an intention to perform as a dancer. I do it to keep that part of myself alive. This is probably why my collaborations with dancers often tend towards interactive experience such as Movement Alphabet.

My hope is that AR glasses and full body interaction are going to define a totally different relationship with machines. To us today, it might be more recognisable as dancing than digital activity. Rooms of people all staring into their phones will look stranger than offices filled with cigarette-smoking workers look today.

If this seems crazy, put an event in your calendar for 10 years from now to check back in on where we're at.

St Agnes, 25 July 2022.

P.S. In other news, Adriana and I will be moving to Montreal for 9 months from October. We're still looking for a place to live. If you know anyone there you think I should meet, please let me know.

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