The web browser window opens onto a nightmarish vision of death, disembodiment, and decay engulfed in the darkness of a black screen. Twelve thumbnail snapshots lie in a grid, each linking to a corresponding scene.1 Mousing over the grid of images stirs up sounds of an audience’s restless chattering as they wait for a performance to begin. Dancing specters and haunted souls—casualties of digital disembodiment—appear throughout Somnambules, a 2003 Macromedia Flash hyperdance with digital visual art by Nicolas Clauss, music and sound by Jean-Jacques Birgé, and dance by Didier Silhol.2 Each violent, melancholic scene displays a different site—picture frames, mirrors, docks, ballrooms, and many more indeterminate electronic sites in which the dancers execute never-ending cycles of repeating movement, caught in loops of time and unable to escape their nightmare. As a dance made for the computer screen, Somnambules emphasizes the computer user’s navigation and exploration: “Click, enter, get out, that’s all, but everyone in his or her own way,” the introductory screen advises.3 Users do not simply click through Somnambules following hyperlinks, however. Their mousing movements cue changes in visual, sonic, and choreographic elements throughout the piece, summoning new sounds, images, and motions. Visually, users explore sensuous fields layered into dense textures of reds, blues, greens; physically, their fingertips glide across the smooth, small geographies of a mouse pad or track pad as the speed and trajectory of their touch shape the piece’s landscape as well as soundscape. The sound score adds malevolent violins, scratching record players, drizzling drips, and spooky circus tunes. With its layered sound and imagery, multiple scenes, and exploration of the possibilities of user interaction beyond point-and-click, Somnambules represents a level of aesthetic and technological sophistication that few other artists attempted and fewer achieved with dance online in the early 2000s.4
This chapter considers several of what I call hyperdances, or choreographies created for computational devices, including choreographies for web, CD-ROM, and tablet that support user interaction but do not incorporate user-generated content. Although the term hyperdance has an archaic ring, referencing, as it does, hypertext and hypermedia from early web and optical disk technologies, it proves more flexible than terms that specify an exact medium or platform, such as net.dance, while also serving to distinguish this constellation of works from dances that appear in other contexts, such as social media, art galleries, the theatrical stage, or film and video. Because artists constantly blur the boundaries among these approaches, I do not intend to define the contours of hyperdance as a genre that can be easily policed but rather to gather together diverse practices that share key formal attributes. Hyperdances are composed of media elements that appear on a computational device and that invite or require what has been called “nontrivial”5 interaction from a user. Dancers and viewers are not physically co-present, and the dance occurs in a context of personal computing rather than in the context of spectators gathered together to simultaneously observe or participate in an event. In this chapter, I want to focus on the repetition of looped sequences as a key formal device that most hyperdances use to create a sense of movement, momentum, and rhythm in digital spaces and the use of repetition in tandem with user interaction.
For a book that largely concentrates on dance as a commoning practice in social media spaces, it is not obvious why I should begin with interactive web-based dance experiments of the late 1990s and early 2000s or with repetition as a compositional device in these digital works spanning two decades of creative investigation. Admittedly, hyperdances follow a different logic than the examples of what I call social dance-media6 that make up a majority of this book. However, they are extremely important in the ways they created a space for dance in digital environments in the years prior to social media’s cultural dominance and in the ways they migrated from one digital platform to another. Hyperdances laid the conceptual and technological groundwork of user interaction in dance onscreen, setting the stage for later experiments with user participation that feature in the remainder of the book. Furthermore, the centrality of repetition and reperformance to contemporary social dance-media finds a precursor in hyperdance.
Indeed, repetition is key to dance practices, regardless of where they circulate. Repetition makes-common by making an idea, gesture, or style familiar. Built into dance training as a mode of cultivating bodily discipline, and fused with the practice of rehearsal, which works movement into muscle memory, repetition is signally important to dance as a physical practice and performing art and is a recurring theme in choreographic structures, where it can function to establish symmetry, call-and-response relationships, or meditative spaces. It can manifest as citation, mimicry, and parody or as narrative foreshadowing, memory, and déjà vu. Repetition can call out the importance of a movement idea or, conversely, act as the means through which a gesture or sequence of gestures disintegrates into indistinguishable equivalencies. Already familiar as an aesthetic of postmodern dance, repetition, rather than movement invention, has become a dominant compositional logic of dance in early twenty-first-century digital cultures. In the digital environments of the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s—the time period on which this book focuses—repetition offered artists a practical means of enabling continuous motion onscreen, while at the same time maintaining manageable file sizes and processing speeds. Repetition is a vital ingredient in creating new dance experiences across a diverse and changing set of technological platforms, from the zoetropic cinema of animated GIFs in the 1990s and their resurgence in the 2010s to the early twenty-first-century phenomenon of internet memes and their iterative logic, the looped six-second video clips on the popular but short-lived platform Vine (2013–16), or the many apps and online videos that perpetuate themselves through repetition and reiteration, generating an online movement commons through a process of replication that makes-common through circulating and proliferating.
But repetition does not occur in isolation; interactivity is another key element that informs hyperdance, and it is with the question of user interaction that I begin this chapter. Many authors have attempted to define interactivity as a way to differentiate modes of engaging with digital versus analog media, but rather than defining interaction per se, I find it more useful to think about what interactivity meant in the 1990s and 2000s. I use the first section of this chapter to introduce many hyperdances so as to make visible these early practices that social dance-media have now eclipsed in volume and reach. In the next section, I follow Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of neorealist cinema to consider a crisis that dance artists faced when crafting dance for digital environments, initially overcoming the limitations of the early web’s static HTML pages, but then falling into the infinite motion introduced by replay loops. As examples, I turn to Carolien Hermans’s web-based dance Trilogy (2003),7 scenes from the multisited Invisible (2002–5)8 by Compagnie Magali et Didier Mulleras, the iPad app 5th Wall (2013)9 produced by the 2wice Arts Foundation and choreographed and danced by Jonah Bokaer, and the web-based Somnambules, described earlier, which is the principal case study I explore in this chapter.
Some hyperdances dramatize the repetition of the replay loop, and I turn, again with Deleuze, to evaluating the role of repetition in Somnambules and windowsninetyeight: lo-fi kitchen sink dancing (1996–98) on CD-ROM.10 Somnambules is the most ambitious of Clauss’s choreographic ventures and explores darker themes than much of his other work, which generally tends toward cinematic storytelling structures and richly painted visual textures. Windowsninetyeight was produced and directed by the London-based digital artist Bruno Martelli and choreographer Ruth Gibson, known collectively as Igloo. This piece fashions a soap opera out of the lives of three women, where the tedium of maintaining a household is a prominent theme. Part of what interactivity signaled in hyperdance, as in other interactive media, was a democratization of creativity, with interactors positioned as co-creators. But when repetition drives narrative and is not only an engine for the generation of movement, the ability of both screen performers and interactors to intervene and introduce meaningful differences into the unfolding work is suspect. Using Deleuze’s explorations of difference and repetition, I posit what I call indifferent differences at work in these narrative hyperdances.
Acknowledging the rise of social computing, around 2005, some dances in digital spaces pushed beyond interactivity toward user-generated content in a move that aligned with Web 2.0 aesthetics. Inviting users to upload their own video and other material for inclusion in the work, such pieces broke away from the compositional norms of hyperdance. At the end of this chapter, I discuss one such example, Katrina McPherson and Simon Fildes’s Move-Me (2006–8),11 as a way to show how repetition remained an important structuring device for dance in digital spaces even as social media opened new avenues of dance exploration. As we will see in chapters 3 and 4 especially, repetition as reperformance is equally vital to the ways dances circulate through social media environments, particularly in the embodiment of danced gestures by fans. What is key in Move-Me is the way participants’ contributions repotentialize the choreographic scripts they each follow. Bringing Deleuze’s analysis of the Nietzschean concept of the eternal return as a “gift of the new”12 into conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of unworking, I suggest that the way these and other artists have opened up their work to crowd-based interventions destabilizes a singular identity of the work, while simultaneously reasserting the work’s identity as an assemblage of its iterations. Such dances break out of the restrictive cycles of automated replay loops and employ the creativity of the crowd, whose collective unworking produces a gift of the new. Through such unworking it is possible to produce the uncommon from the common, mundane space of repetition.
What Was Interactivity?
In “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun urges scholars to ask not what new media “is” but rather “what was new media?”13 In a similar vein, in situating Somnambules and other hyperdances historically, it no longer feels appropriate to ask what interactivity is but rather to consider what it was. This is a difficult task since, on one hand, the utopian rhetoric that greeted early digital media built up a seductive narrative that paired interactivity with democracy and introduced untenable ontological distinctions among media to reinforce the newness of new media. On the other hand, interactivity is now so normalized in everyday digital media use as to be completely unremarkable. In his now-classic book The Language of New Media, cinema and media theorist Lev Manovich contends that “to call computer media ‘interactive’ is meaningless—it simply means stating the most basic fact about computers.”14 Still, even though yesterday’s new media appear quaint by today’s ever-evolving standards, it is important to understand what the promise of new media was. That promise hinged in large part on interactivity.
In a 1998 essay tracking the development of interactivity as a concept, communications scholar Jens F. Jensen offers the following summary of a turn-of-the-century perspective: “The concept seems loaded with positive connotations along the lines of high tech, technological advancement, hypermodernity and futurism, along the lines of individual freedom of choice, personal development, self determination—and even along the lines of folksy popularization, grassroots democracy, and political independence.”15 Such inflated hopes for interactivity reflect the priorities of business communities and advertisers as much as cultural commentators. In 1997, Jon Katz declared in the technology and culture magazine Wired that “the world’s information is being liberated, and so, as a consequence, are we.”16 The scholarly community was not untouched by the hype around interactivity. For example, the early theorist of hypertextual literature George Landow follows Roland Barthes’s distinction between classical readerly texts and more contemporary writerly texts to argue for a similar shift from readerly to writerly modes inaugurated by electronic hypertext.17 For Barthes, a reader absorbs a readerly text but coproduces a writerly text; a writerly text displaces the centrality of authorial intention and requires a reader’s active participation. Landow compares this scenario of coproducing meaning in literature to interacting with hypertexts, going so far as to suggest that electronic hypertext fulfills Barthes’s vision of the writerly text, which “make[s] the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.”18
Where Landow emphasized the nonlinearity of hypertext and the user’s active engagement in producing meaning, other authors emphasized that this active engagement was specifically a bodily engagement with the text. Media theorist Margaret Morse, for example, argues that audiences “have always cognitively ‘interacted’ with the text by filling in the gaps,” but that interactive media are different in that “the interactive user/viewer corporeally influences the body of a digital text itself . . . in real time.”19 For Morse, the difference is that interactors must use their bodies in some way to shape a text at the moment of its unfolding; the text emerges only in relation to that corporeal engagement. “One interacts,” Morse contends, “by touching, moving, speaking, gesturing, or another corporeal means of producing a sign that can be read and transformed into input by a computer.”20 Media theorist and philosopher Mark B. N. Hansen likewise contends that digital media put the body to work and that “the self-differing condition of the digital ‘medium’ . . . requires bodily activity to produce any experience whatsoever.”21 David Saltz, a scholar and practitioner of interactive theater, also attempts a definition of interactive media. His parameters are a bit less fleshy and include a “sensing or input device” that translates input into computer-recognizable data, output that relates to the input, and the translation of output “into real-world phenomena that people can perceive.”22 These definitions of interactivity from the late 1990s and early 2000s show a shared understanding that physical engagement made interactive media different from other forms of media. By interacting with digital texts, users were supposedly emancipated from their previous roles as mere consumers and passive spectators. From this perspective, interactive media opened a door to creative collaboration in which users coproduced what occurred onscreen.
The speed of technological change troubles the rhetoric with which interactive media were heralded, whether as tool of liberation or of artistic co-creation. Still, keeping with what interactivity was rather than what it is, it is crucial to remember that at the turn of the twenty-first century, web media and especially Flash animations were a novelty,23 a seemingly radical departure from static web pages, streaming video, and other uses of internet technologies associated with the one-to-many distribution of so-called Web 1.0, but not yet achieving the many-to-many dissemination of Web 2.0’s socially integrated models.24 Whereas platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, and especially Instagram dominated the way users created and shared dance online by the mid-2010s, a spirit of experimentation permeated early examples of dance on the internet, which made a space for dance in computational environments only equipped for textual communication.
For example, Richard Lord’s Progressive 2 (1996)25 stands out for its early use of Macromedia Director, which could support video as well as more complex animations, and its gridlike structure anticipated the aesthetics of juxtaposition used by many hyperdances in the early 2000s. His later work Waterfall (2002),26 a multifaceted work on CD-ROM, features Emma Diamond dancing atop a river, below the ocean’s surface, on a cresting wave, in a rainforest, and on a glacier, among other sites through which users navigate. Invisible (2002–5) and 96 Détails (2006–9) by Compagnie Magali et Didier Mulleras recontextualize material from stage-based choreographies and installations as hybrid web-based works that combine video and interactive media. Both Invisible and 96 Détails allow users to set small clips in motion and change their position within a grid to experience the complexities of repetition and juxtaposition core to minimalist choreographic approaches. Screendance artists Katrina McPherson and Simon Fildes have a series of what they call “hyperchoreographies,” such as Big (2002)27 and The Truth: The Truth (2004).28 In both of these pieces, dancers cycle through movements in multiple frames, offering users an opportunity to compose the brief video clips into a multipaned choreography. Triad HyperDance (1999)29 repurposes material from a telematic performance by butoh performer Akeno and modern dancer Molissa Fenley, enabling users to move their dancing images within the screen space. And Koert van Mensvoort’s Drift (2003)30 features a motion-captured dancer that liquefies and shatters in response to user movement.
Taken together, these hyperdances demonstrate the basic repertoire of interactive possibilities, which remains the same across media platforms. This repertoire includes simple navigation; means of cuing scenes or sequences such as with play and pause controls; and the ability to resize images, change their orientations, or reverse movement sequences. In Igloo’s CD-ROM windowsninetyeight, for example, users move the dancing images around the screen, alter their size and scale, and trigger the women’s performances of caretaking and loneliness. Similarly, in the iPad app 5th Wall, interactors can select from a few preset arrangements of the four windows in which choreographer and dancer Jonah Bokaer appears dancing his four movement phrases, or they can move and resize each of the viewing panes. Some pieces, such as the web-based Somnambules, also layer dancing images with other visual and sonic elements that users can trigger. Somnambules limits user interaction to a combination of mousing, hovering, and clicking—no dragging or resizing—but provides a rich landscape of sound and imagery that registers user input. For example, in the scene “Frontal,” the user peers down onto dancer Anne-Catherine Nicoladzé, who stands and faces sixteen replicas of a seated Didier Silhol. Hovering over Nicoladzé produces whistling and chirping sounds to accompany her arms sweeping to the side and overhead or gesturing presentationally in front and to the side of her body. Mousing over the images has a comical effect: as though responding to the force of the mouse pushing its way through the seated crowd, each Silhol topples forward and circles back to his default seated posture, righting himself like a child’s punching bag toy each time he is struck. Clicking on Nicoladzé, the user is taken to a duet between Nicoladzé and Silhol (only one of each), again seen from above. Without user input, they approach and retreat from each other, swaying back and forth like out-of-sync pendulums in what Alexander Galloway calls an “ambience act” in his analysis of video games,31 but mousing over the dancers’ images causes their arms to extend into the space around them and a complicated conversation of gesture and sound—she chirps and tweets while he screeches and creaks—to unfold between them.
According to Morse and Hansen, interactive digital artworks are built on a premise of bodily participation, not of observation at a remove. In hyperdance, a user’s bodily movements explicitly shape the images and sounds, and changes onscreen have the capacity to provoke new bodily responses and movements. For many artists and scholars, interactivity in arts practices hearkens back to the disruptive participatory performances of the 1960s,32 which employed techniques for interfering with the autonomy of a work and upsetting the sanctity of the art world and its exhibition spaces. Hyperdances similarly explore the aesthetics of interruption and nonlinear progression seemingly to open or repotentialize a screen-based choreography. Artists create possibilities for encounters, determining the nature, number, and types of objects and behaviors in advance, but their authorial intentions otherwise recede into the background, making room for interactors to discover and play with the work on their own, taking as much or as little time as they prefer. Artists provide the interactive framework and the media elements, and then computers and computer users perform the work together. In this way, the ideal spectator is not someone engaged in dispassionate contemplation but one whose experience is predicated on their physical engagement with and immersion in the interactive scenario.
Like a performance score or script, digital artworks realize their dynamic potential with the execution of their code, which disappears as it is executed by a computer, and with the performances of computer users, who “play” the digital work.33 Writing about hypertext, media theorist Rita Raley even contends that such work “must be conceived in terms of performance.”34 She includes “the processing done by the computer, which itself performs or is even performative, and . . . the performance of the user who operates as a functioning mechanism in the text” in her understanding of performance.35 Hans Dieter Huber likewise compares the web browser to an orchestra conductor, arguing that “the browser performs the score and displays it on the surface of the monitor.”36 The interactive artwork thus emerges between the computer, where output is informed by such variables as internet bandwidth and processing speeds, and the computer user, whose interactions are informed by visual and sonic feedback. While participatory artists in gallery and community settings cannot always control for the unpredictability of co-present human spectator-performers, artists working with interactive media have a great deal of control over which human behaviors and environmental factors will be accounted for and recognized in the unfolding of an interactive artwork. Most scenes in Somnambules, for example, establish a causal logic, and users can detect the correlation between the modes of interaction available to them—mousing and clicking—and specific results. This does not negate surprise, however, and indeed, discovering the correlations between one’s actions and onscreen events is part of the pleasure of engaging with interactive media. Nevertheless, even organizationally complex works like Somnambules allow users only to cue preprogrammed events.
User input does not, indeed cannot, give rise to choreographic, visual, or sonic events that the artists have not already put in place. Discussing her piece Trilogy, Carolien Hermans muses, “The user has considerable freedom to create his own unique art work out of the original composition,”37 but she offers a caution as well. “The interactivity suggests openness and freedom of interpretation: in reality personal interpretations are restricted and limited.”38 Following Umberto Eco’s articulation of the open work,39 Hermans suggests that rather than describe her work as interactive, perhaps “an artwork in movement” is more apt.40 Dance-media artist and scholar Susan Kozel likewise contends that “in the end, [interactivity] refers primarily to decision-based mechanisms for screen-based media such as DVDs and Web sites, or automated bank teller and subway ticket dispensers.”41 Kozel prefers to describe her own media installations and performance work in terms of “responsiveness” rather than interactivity. The difference, she notes, is that “the structure of a responsive work is such that we are made aware that we are responding while we are responding, that we are playing a role in a greater system of responsivity extending beyond our isolated subjective choices. This takes some of the control away from us: we do not control, we respond.”42 For Kozel, interaction is thus fundamentally a question of selection or causation, not of creative participation.
It would be difficult to assess whether interactors feel they are controlling or responding to hyperdances, which are self-contained works composed of a finite set of images and interactive elements, programmed to recognize predefined user input that triggers predefined output. It would be even more difficult to ascertain the threshold at which apparent control gives way to response and whether these states are fundamentally about the work or the interactor. Morse would counter that such a functionalist understanding of interactivity as Kozel posits relies too heavily on unstable binary distinctions between human and nonhuman interactants or open and closed systems.43 Yet, overemphasizing the freedom of choice offered to users in interactive artworks seems too simplistic for a generation of users reared under a regime of compulsory participation and data collection. Art critic Hal Foster, for example, cautions against “a shaky analogy between an open work and an inclusive society . . . a democratic community . . . [or] an egalitarian world,”44 and media theorists Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker have lamented, “Today’s media physically require the maintained, constant, continuous interaction of users. This is the political tragedy of interactivity.”45 What seemed to be an avenue for encouraging greater user freedom by opening more choices for customizable and unique experiences showed that it could also curtail freedom by compelling ongoing user performance in service to repetitive iterations of the digital work.
Interactivity implicates users and their bodies in the performance of hyperdance, which requires user navigation, as Hansen remarks, “to produce any experience whatsoever.”46 But interaction also loosened a bind that accompanied dance’s entrée into online spaces. Whereas dance had easily migrated to film and video, prompting vast experimentation combining bodily movement with the moving image, early web browsers severely curtailed onscreen motion. Working within the constraints of HTML, many of the earliest hyperdances, including Molissa Fenley’s Latitudes (1996),47 Troika Ranch’s Yearbody (1996–97),48 Marianne Goldberg’s Be to Want I (1998),49 and Vivian Selbo and Carl Skelton’s web-based documentation of Ralph Lemon’s Tree (2000),50 were composed of text, still images, and animated GIFs, which allowed artists to respond to the logics of the internet in a way that streaming video alone did not.51 As artists continued to experiment with representing dance onscreen while making these dances more responsive to user engagement than a video’s simple controls, they turned to replay loops, including looping animated GIFs or very short video clips, to support dance as sustained movement in an environment built for static text. Replay loops thus presented a solution to a crisis of movement that the static HTML pages of the early web represented for hyperdance.
A signature element of digital art “circa 2002,” as Raley notes, the replay loop is “incorporated as both design element and thematic content”52 in hyperdance. A replay loop is a computer programming statement (do while; do loop; repeat until; do until) that repeatedly executes a block of code as long as the conditions for its execution remain true. As soon as they become false, the loop ceases. The condition that ends a loop’s repetitions may be internal to the code, for example, if a programmer indicates the number of times an element should execute in advance, or external, for example, when user input fulfills another programmed condition that overrides the replay loop in a hierarchy of behaviors. With few exceptions, the interactive elements that characterize hyperdance take place in the context of and in relation to looped movement sequences. If replay loops solved hyperdance’s first crisis of movement, however, they introduced another crisis—one of infinite motion produced by the loop’s repetitions.
Crisis of Movement: Repetition
In a scene of Somnambules called “Melting,” Silhol and Nicoladzé perform a contact improvisation duet. Contact improvisation emphasizes bodily engagement, exploring movement and touch as both objects and means of interaction. A physical practice of generating movement through the exchange of sensation between (typically) two dancers, contact improvisation offers a particularly poignant take on interactive media with which it shares a democratizing promise. But “Melting” does not portray a radical openness to the other as one might expect. Or rather, the dancers’ openness in performance does not extend across time and space to the user, whose mousing gestures have limited effect on the dance. When Silhol and Nicoladzé appear onscreen, they seem to have already been dancing for quite some time. Silhol lays on his back with Nicoladzé at his side. Nicoladzé leans into him as he suspends her feet in the crook of his elbow. They are momentarily fused, paused there, weighing the moment as they wait for gravity or a subtle intention to change their course. Silhol lowers Nicoladzé’s feet, propelling her around. She slides between his hips and ribs, perpendicular to him. Nicoladzé finds her feet and plants them, ready to stand. But it seems she changes her mind. She gives in once more to the downward pull, and her elbow leads the rest of her body into the ground. A mouse click causes Silhol and Nicoladzé to increase their pace, while mousing across the frame summons overlays such as a weathered and torn page of text, splotches of red splatter, or a blackness that threatens to engulf the entire image. Silhol and Nicoladzé sit back to back. Silhol reaches behind, takes Nicoladzé’s hand, and guides her into a brief sideways embrace. They unfold and reverse the sequence. Silhol absorbs and redirects Nicoladzé’s velocity at each of the clip’s end points, and they repeat and reverse again and again, moving forward and backward through time infinitely. As tender as their duet is, neither Silhol nor Nicoladzé has the power to escape it, nor can an interactor transform the scene in any substantive way. Mousing produces changes in foreground and background imagery, but a user can only alter the speed of the duet or leave it behind completely by navigating back to the main menu. Users neither alter the dancers’ movement pathways nor bring the dance to a conclusion; they are there as witnesses to a dance that, owing to its looped content, is endless.
Although repetition is built into performing arts training, composition, rehearsal, and performance, replay loops introduce a mechanized form of repetition that is of a different order than these reiterations. The replay loop as a popular strategy of propelling onscreen movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincides with a historical moment in which, as dance and performance theorist André Lepecki notes in Exhausting Dance, experimental choreographers in Europe and the United States responded to violence and catastrophe on a global scale by practicing stillness onstage instead of dancing, because “political events in the world were such that they could not dance.”53 This was an era of war in the Persian Gulf, race-related riots in Los Angeles, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Rwanda. Not long after, fears of a computational apocalypse took hold due to rumors of Y2K programming errors that threatened to wipe out bank accounts. In the first few years of the twenty-first century, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, global terror was advertised as a constant threat. The sentiment of political powerlessness in the face of global violence and existential threats was recurrent and widespread. Stillness, Lepecki observes, was one response to the resulting fatigue. Because of the weight of the political-historical moment, dancers were unable to return to what philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls the “being-toward-movement” that is the hallmark of the dancer as such.54 Choreographers thus composed moments of stillness.55 The crisis of movement that resulted in stillness in stage-based dance performances led to perpetual motion with the use of replay loops in computer-based hyperdances. Though their approaches to motion contradict each other, both are historically and affectively aligned. Replay loops in particular resonate with what Deleuze calls a crisis of the action-image in neorealist cinema, which I explore subsequently through Trilogy by Carolien Hermans, Invisible by Compagnie Magali et Didier Mulleras, 5th Wall choreographed and danced by Jonah Bokaer, and Somnambules.
In hyperdance, there are loops that only display identical repetitions and others that integrate user feedback. Some displace the play and replay functions onto the user, who is compelled to perform or actualize the repetitions built into the work.56 Or looped movement can comprise additive modules in a larger combinatory choreography. Coded hierarchically, loops may compete for screen time, especially as user input informs which images display and when. In other words, digital loops are not singular structures but arrays of strategies that may be used to either perpetuate repetition or, through user interaction, interrupt it. Raley identifies two aspects of loops as they appear in electronic literature: “recurrence, whereby the loop cycle does not achieve a perfect re-iteration but is instead altered with each sequence, and feedback, whereby the system and its environment interact and modify each other.”57 Between these two types of loops—the recurring elements and the enfolding of the computer user—the interactive digital work emerges. As loops, recurrence and feedback necessarily produce differences, imperfect reiterations of sequences and deviations in the text. Yet, as a programming command, the replay loop does not admit difference. It is not even a question of the differences among so many copies; the replay loop as a performative command suggests that a computer is merely executing the same block of code, not reproducing or duplicating it. The replay loop is thus predicated upon the assumption that a computer can render the same information exactly—that it can and does achieve perfect reiterations.
For a majority of hyperdances, the replay loop represents a default state. Once launched, a user can navigate and explore a work actively or, having set a few images in motion, can withhold further input. In the latter case, the replay loop reigns. Movement sequences continue to play, gesturing toward their own eternality. With users as audience to their repetitions, dancing images recycling their motions appear contemplative, executing a phrase a second, third, fourth, or nth time, unable to cue a change of scene. Whereas HTML threatened dance with stasis, the use of replay loops renders screen-dancers beholden to a single choreographic idea or movement phrase from which they cannot deviate. This inability to act signals a crisis of movement in hyperdance similar to that explored by Deleuze in his analysis of cinema.
Deleuze opens his second study of cinematic signs, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, with a crisis. Whereas realist cinema required action of its characters, Deleuze argues that neorealist films are full of characters who can no longer react to their situations. There is a relaxation of the sensory–motor connection that had driven realist plots: action, reaction. Neorealist cinema, in contrast, is “a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent.”58 Characters become viewers, witnesses, or bystanders who are helpless to respond. According to Deleuze, the crisis of action reconfigures the function of dance in cinema as well. In the musical comedy genre, which is his principal framework for understanding dance onscreen, dance generally signifies a break with reality, a rupture. As dream, hallucination, or spectacle that disrupts the narrative, dance, according to Deleuze, “has already lost its motor connection.”59 Dance postpones or prevents action. It represents a world of inaction, a “to-and-fro which replaces action.”60 In Deleuze’s reading, dance sequences thus provide an ineffectual stand-in for action, a hesitation or unproductive diversion of energy funneled into the realms of wishful thinking and daydreams. Characters play out their fantasies of wealth, beauty, and courage through dance’s alternate realties.
For Deleuze, characters in neorealist and new wave cinema are immobilized by sight, by their efforts to comprehend their situation through vision rather than responding with action. Action or agency, as authoring one’s own movement in response to a situation, is no longer possible. “Thus movement can tend to zero,” Deleuze remarks of cinema, or “be exaggerated, be incessant, become a world movement, a Brownian movement, a trampling, a to-and-fro, a multiplicity of movements on different scales. What is important,” he continues, “is that the anomalies of movement become the essential point instead of being accidental or contingent.”61 Such anomalous movements abound in hyperdances. Caught in continuous loops, the dancers are no longer agents of their own motion. They have forfeited their self-propulsion to computational processes and computer users.
For example, “The Elbow Room,” one of three scenes in Hermans’s interactive dance Trilogy, explores the space of the dancer’s wardrobe. Onscreen text conveys the dancer’s inner monologue, while her movements appear minimal and stilted. “My body is the centre of action: it receives and returns movements,” the screen reads.62 She waits, still, lying down but propped vertically on the screen—apparently naked, except for bright green socks. Mousing over this image causes the screen-dancer to open and close the wardrobe doors, repeatedly concealing and revealing herself. Navigating to the next window, the user encounters the dancer’s encircled knees, an animated insect, and another text: “I am moving in the smallest / imaginary space possible. / walking-running-jumping-rolling /It has all become impossible. / I have to learn new habits soon / since my body has become / completely dysfunctional in here.”63 Hermans’s reflection on her cramped closet and musing on how a body adjusts to that space bring dysfunction to the foreground, perhaps prompting a consideration of a user’s own corporeal navigations of cramped spaces, including those of mouse pads and browser windows. Onscreen, Hermans’s spatial limitations are also temporal. Her left arm sweeps down, and the momentum lifts her right heel, which crosses her body. Left fingertips find her right elbow, crooked overhead. Her left arm sweeps down, and the momentum lifts her right heel, which crosses her body. Left fingertips find her right elbow, and so on.
Loops at once set dancers in perpetual motion and fetter that motion, containing the dancers’ movement and foreclosing the possibility of any future action that deviates from their infinitely recurring gestures. Whatever agency the dancers might have initially exercised in their moment of technological capture is removed from them and displaced onto the user. But users’ agency is also circumscribed by the behaviors and possibilities choreographed into the code. Even when producing a maximum of motion, the gestures of both the dancers onscreen and interactors in front of the screen remain limited. “It is as if action floats in the situation, rather than bringing it to a conclusion or strengthening it,” Deleuze remarks.64 And indeed, resolution is perpetually deferred throughout Trilogy, which instead sustains an ongoing investigation of small spaces and an infinitely expanding present moment. The different scenes in Trilogy promote exploration without predetermined end or sense of conclusion, such that movement, like the sound that accompanies the work, becomes “atmospheric.”
Invisible by Compagnie Magali et Didier Mulleras is a work that unfolded across multiple sites, encompassing iterations on stage, as installations, and in site-based performances,65 as well as an online work that encompasses both videos and interactive segments. Unlike Trilogy and Somnambules, which sustain a specific media investigation across multiple scenes, Invisible is an overarching umbrella that contains various media types. Only the hyperdances in the work rely on the continuity provided by automated replay loops. One of the scenes, “Chambre 317,” is composed of a four- by-four grid of which a cinema of rapidly sequenced images takes up the four central squares, leaving an empty perimeter. Mousing over the central image pauses the sequence, while clicking it populates one of the frames on the perimeter with the same image. The entire perimeter can be filled with these smaller images, and mousing over them produces both ambient sound and frustratingly brief video clips. A hallway, a locked door, a man slouched in a chair, a dour woman looking on, a set of stairs. Are they clues? The center images move too rapidly to make sense of what they portray, and the small images on the perimeter offer too little information to determine the relation among the people, the space in which they are gathered, or what they intend to do or have done. “Characters do not move,” Deleuze remarks; rather, “the camera causes the movement . . . ‘motionlessness at a great pace.’”66 Nothing in this room moves, but the image itself produces a surplus of movement, leaving faint impressions rather than an understanding of just what is going on. Viewers peer into this world of waiting, a world held in tense suspension but in which nothing seems to happen.
In another scene of Invisible, “Velours,” a woman enters through each of nine curtained doorways displayed on a three-by-three grid. She emerges tentatively, only to be pulled back every time. With each hopeful, if cautious, attempt, she is jerked backward and hidden from view. Dragged by foot or head, caught by arm, waist, or neck, she will never make it beyond the doorway. Though she never appears desperate, her perseverance seems increasingly ridiculous and tragic in the inevitable failure of her attempts. In “Assis,” also on a three-by-three grid, a seated man faces away from the interactor. Mousing over the nine images of the man causes him to topple over, head down, butt in the air, and sometimes the image changes color from bluish white tones to bright red. His hands smack the ground with a distorted electronic thwack, and he rights himself when the user mouses away. Like Trilogy, Invisible makes use of textual elements that layer onto the visual imagery. In “Assis,” the significance of the words and phrases remains mysterious, but they are suggestive: assis, debout, allongé, il est là, endormi, rêve, nuit (seated, standing, outspread, he is there, asleep, dream, night). The toppling man does not enact these terms, but, like Somnambules, they situate his perpetual falling within a space of dream and slumber.
5th Wall, choreographed and danced by Jonah Bokaer, is accompanied by a slightly melancholic sound score by Eric Beach, Josh Quentin, and Jason Treuting. It is among the first screendances made specifically for the Apple iPad. One might expect that, coming a decade after the peak of hyperdance online, 5th Wall would share little in common with previous generations of hyperdance. In fact, 5th Wall uses many of the same conventions, not least of which is the juxtaposition of replay loops. Bokaer dances in a box, but as the box rotates around its x-axis and the camera cartwheels around its z-axis, Bokaer’s dancing onscreen appears right side up, upside down, and sideways. Bokaer’s physical orientation to a ground is made indeterminate through his own inversions (supporting his weight on his hands) as well as those of the camera. As a result, viewers experience their own disorientations and reorientations in trying to make sense of the different orders of space Bokaer occupies in his box and onscreen. In his box, Bokaer performs four short choreographed phrases, each of which is filmed as a single take and then played on a loop. Each sequence appears onscreen in one of four windows set side by side or stacked one on top of another. The movement phrases are similar enough to each other that discerning the differences between them is a bit of a visual conundrum. The phrases are slightly different lengths, ranging in duration from just over one minute to just under two, and they are repeated indefinitely, with their starting and ending points coming in and out of sync. The similarity of the phrases ensures continuity across the clips, but their varying lengths and the user’s ability to move and resize each frame prolong user interest with the possibility of new juxtapositions. Just as is the case with live performance, each encounter with a hyperdance produces a unique event; the encoded relationships between user input and media output remain defined by a choreographic score that enables a nearly infinite range of iterations.
Replay loops provide the electrical charge, the motor force behind the condensed dramas portrayed in hyperdances—even those without overarching narratives. As programming statements, replay loops imply strictly identical reiterations, but because hyperdances frequently combine replay loops of different durations and incorporate user input, loops give rise to both slight and considerable variations that Raley calls recurrence. Hyperdance’s repeating movement sequences are entwined in a feedback loop that includes the user, whose input via mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen creates new performances out of indefinitely repeating choreographic elements. Interactors halt or initiate new repetitions and shift the layering of movement and sound in hyperdance’s audiovisual composites. Replay loops serve as a foundation to which interactive elements are added, introducing the possibility of difference into the system that would otherwise foreclose alteration. However, the persistence of the loop’s iterations renders repetition and difference indistinguishable. Difference effaces itself and takes up the mantle of repetition. The digital replay loop serves both structural and metaphorical functions, and some hyperdances stage dramas out of the repeating elements caught in a loop’s perpetual motion. Indeed, Lev Manovich suggests that “the loop [may] be a new narrative form appropriate for the computer age.”67 As I explore in the next section, when such repetition and its attendant crises of movement are not only aestheticized but also narrativized, as in Somnambules and windowsninetyeight, hyperdances represent a world that has lost its capacity for action. Through repetition, movement becomes indistinguishable from stasis.
Indifferent Differences: On the Failures of Interactivity
Bookended by an overture and a coda that establish and reinforce the tone of the piece, Somnambules questions the ability of both onscreen characters and interactors in front of the screen to intervene in this nightmarish space. In the overture, Silhol appears and disappears from view, ducking his head to leave the frame. He looks suddenly to the left and right as menacing footsteps torment him, and he appears surrounded by hands grabbing at him from all sides as he rolls his head, just out of reach of their clawing fingers. In the coda, as though seen through a trick mirror, Silhol jumps from side to side, Nicoladzé cartwheels back and forth, and a caged hand taps out a strange code. The images sway back and forth like a pendulum, hypnotizing interactors. Similarly, in windowsninetyeight, built around the experiences of three women in a high-rise, the artists offer interactors many opportunities to prompt behaviors from the system. However, even as new scenes and therefore new opportunities for exploration open up as the women’s day goes by, there is not a sense that users can have any transformative effect on the women’s reiterative choreographies or relieve the women of their challenges presented as nightmares. Dishes stack up and fill the screen, and table settings frame and serve up dancing images to viewers for consumption. Washing machines hum with activity, rooms require cleaning and redecoration, and the weight of solitude slowly creeps in. In both Somnambules and windowsninetyeight, the repetitive gestures of the screen-dancers take on sinister overtones as they become core drivers of narrative. Whereas interactivity had promised to open works up to the consequential input of interactors in an overall democratization of art and authorship, these two pieces employ repetition as a form of temporal torture, whether haunted souls trapped in a cyberpurgatory or women overwhelmed by caretaking responsibilities and loneliness. All the screen-dancers are compelled to repeat themselves as they await an ever-deferred conclusion.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze seeks to correct what he sees as an error in philosophy, which has not approached either repetition or difference as concepts with adequate rigor, resulting in a subordination of difference to repetition. In his study, he identifies two types of repetition that are entwined: one of a static sort he calls “bare repetition” and another of a dynamic sort with difference at its core. Bare repetition is an envelope or shell, an exterior effect that disguises an interior difference: “variation is not added to repetition in order to hide it, but is rather its condition or constitutive element, the interiority of repetition.”68 For Deleuze, difference is neither opposition nor diversity, nor even analogy nor resemblance,69 but that which gives diversity as a given, “that by which the given is given as diverse.”70 Reading Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal return, to which I will turn shortly, Deleuze posits repetition as a function of difference. Rather than reduce difference to identity, this maneuver repopulates the category of the same without rendering all elements equal and interchangeable. Deleuze paraphrases Heidegger on this point: “The equal or identical always moves toward the absence of difference, so that everything must be reduced to a common denominator. The same, by contrast, is the belonging together of what differs. . . . The same gathers what is distinct [whereas] the equal, on the contrary, disperses them into the dull unity of mere uniformity.”71 Deleuze broadens the scope of difference within repetition, allowing difference to diversify the same. Difference is an originary multiplicity, while repetition is only “difference without a concept.”72 Deleuze gives difference back to repetition and the same from which, he argues, it had been excluded but always remained in disguise.
In this section, I would like to think further about difference without concept, not to affirm bare repetition or the subordination of difference to repetition within Western philosophical thought but to suggest that in the context of hyperdance, the play of difference that seemed so crucial to digital artists is a surface effect. As we saw earlier, the rhetoric of early interactive media promised that the differences that users introduced into digital artworks were consequential. User interaction activates and amplifies the “self-differing”73 of digital media through feedback, but while the replay loop’s repetitions are internally differentiated, experientially and narratively, it is repetition rather than difference that dominates. In examining hyperdances that narrativize repetition, I argue that the differences they generate are differences that refuse to differentiate, differences that make no difference, or what I am calling indifferent differences.
Loops impede and constrain dancing images such that their continuous motion mimics the effects of stillness as “going nowhere”—a condition that achieves narrative import in windowsninetyeight and Somnambules. It is possible that, being screenic dancing images of the dead and the dreamt, the screen-dancers in Somnambules and windowsninetyeight are simultaneously overburdened by and disconnected from the past. Hence they are doomed to repeat it, unable to act in any other capacity. The past requires a measure of forgetfulness to allow room for life in the present.74 In Somnambules and windowsninetyeight, however, forgetfulness does not function to enable life or to unburden the present. Rather, stuck in a time outside of time, the performers take their own digital forgetfulness to a radical extreme. Caught in a perverse form of temporal synthesis that offers only a relentless present, they are unable to recognize that they are infinitely reiterating the past. Both Somnambules and windowsninetyeight explore a loss of agency by dwelling in the space of infinite reiteration, and they challenge this loss of agency and implied inability to act by working through the repercussions of return. However, screening replay loops from which dancers and users cannot escape serves to aestheticize the absence of agency. The computer’s memory counters the dancers’ forgetfulness and regurgitates their movement through the incessant motion of replay loops that circumvent the possibility of alteration. “It is as if total and anarchic mobilizing of the past now responds to the character’s motor powerlessness,” Deleuze remarks of neorealist cinema. “Dissolves and superimpositions arrive with a vengeance.”75 The performers are reduced to a pure present beyond which they are unable to move, unable to access either past or future except as an explosion of the now rendered through the multiplication of their superimposed images. Hyperdances do not offer a place from which the screen-dancers can act, nor do they offer an alternative to spinning one’s wheels—they expose bare repetition or repetition of the identical as the core of turn-of-the-century interactivity.
The looped sequences in windowsninetyeight and Somnambules suggest a passive state that allows for differences, but only differences that cannot make a difference: indifferent differences. The dancers onscreen cannot propel themselves into subsequent action, nor transmute their gestures into reiterated movements of a higher order, nor annihilate or dissolve the identity of their repetitions through return. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze briefly mentions indifferent differences as a mark of repetition’s blindness to difference: “repetition is attributed to elements which are really distinct but nevertheless share strictly the same concept. Repetition thus appears as a difference, but a difference absolutely without concept; in this sense, an indifferent difference.”76 Dissimilarities, reduced to similarities or repetitions, are indifferent and unrecognizable. In hyperdance, prolific differences can be observed in changing color palettes, soundscapes, spatial configurations, gestural vocabulary, and so on, yet all of these differences have been rendered indifferent, inconsequential. As an aesthetic, difference has been gutted of any transformative capacity.
Windowsninetyeight: lo-fi kitchen sink dancing on CD-Rom offers an example of indifference in narrative hyperdance. It is a meditation on being stuck. Some dancers get stuck in their repetitions of familiar gestures—short or long phrases of movement—while others are fixed in their stasis, awaiting a user’s interventions to temporarily give them back their motion by mousing over them. In their own performances of stillness, some images in windowsninetyeight cannot move unless the user provides his or her own movement to support or partner the dancers. Interactors thus enable the dance’s unfolding, but rather than users exerting control over the interactive scenario, the image borrows movement from them, whose interactions feed and sustain the work in such moments.
Windowsninetyeight opens with still shots of urban environments cast in shades of purple. An apartment high-rise comes into view. Sounds of a clock ticking, birds calling, children playing, and cars driving by weave a sonic landscape as shadows cross the buildings and clouds change shapes. Still photographs bleed into one another: people and cars come into view but soon dissolve into the next image. Three white squares frame windows on the apartment building, indicating to the user that these are each points of entrance into each of the three women’s lives. Clicking on any of the three buttons takes the user to the first clip in that particular series. The clips are connected to the time of day depicted onscreen, which in turn represents how much time the user has spent with the piece. Windowsninetyeight compresses a day into approximately twenty-four minutes, at which point all clips are available for perusal. At the end of twenty-four minutes, the twenty-four-hour cycle recommences, but user access to the clips is not restricted accordingly. Rather than coming to a close after twenty-four minutes, the piece continues indefinitely. Days go by, but all conditions for access have been met and all iterations may now recur.
Artists Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli describe the work as a nightmare of sorts, exposing the deepest fears of three women. They state:
Windowsninetyeight is a provocative portrait of three women living alone in a highrise. One evening, a mysterious event takes each on a cathartic ride through the deepest fears of the other. The saga chronicles a single 24 hour cycle in the lives of these women. The magical world of their private behaviour, their habits and chores, their dreams and fears, becomes exposed to our scrutiny. As we navigate a passage through their day, three raw and personal domestic existences open up for our viewing pleasure.77
Domestic disturbances are confined to the infernal realm of housekeeping: decorating rooms, removing spots from carpets, and, of course, doing the dishes. While the artists describe the piece as nightmarish, there is little to suggest the horror of these chores, except for their unceasing continuation and the women’s inability to escape. Household chores, it would appear, have a tyrannical hold on these three women who are unable to opt out of the scenes depicted onscreen. They wait, suspended in time, anticipating a change, hoping that morning will liberate them from their domestic labor, but it does not. Catharsis is never achieved, because the nightmare never concludes. At best, interactors can walk away from the nightmare by closing the application, but the women’s characters will always be fixed in “the deepest fears of the other.”
It is notable that these women’s “dreams and fears” pertain to laundry, dishes, and loneliness. The artists bring humor to their feminist critique, offering advice on home décor and modern living. Their quasi-camp aesthetic makes it difficult to distinguish, at times, between what is an aspiration and what a horror. Humor and campy nostalgia, however, do not mitigate the real sense of alienation these women at times convey through snippets of video, which is exacerbated by the pressure that reiteration exerts on the depictions of cleaning and waiting.
One woman waits at the window, blinds closed. With a mouse click, the blinds open, revealing the seated woman who turns to stand and look out, sits opposite from where she had just been, and then retraces her revolution to return to her original position. Is she waiting for a friend? A lover? Someone to rescue her from boredom and isolation? Seated again, the blinds close in front of the watching woman who continues to wait, unseen. Later, she dances confined to a snow globe where flecks of digital plastic snow swirl around the dome. Imagining herself unable to escape from the prison of a bookshelf tchotchke, the woman performs a meta-commentary on her entrapment and the aestheticization of that condition.
Elsewhere a green ASCII silhouette dances against a black screen. Her body-as-code gathers the empty space around her, pouring dollar signs into her body, which has multiplied into a trio of dancers. She is as liquid as her assets. She financially manages her household, keeping track of expenditures and other transactions as commercial interests invade the screen: “But luxurious doesn’t mean expensive,” “do not apply to broken or irritated skin,” “money back guarantee.”78 Representing the individual as the sum total of one’s data, this figure is rendered in terms of marketing strategies and purchasing power. The person animating the data has disappeared; only information remains as Derridean “supplement”—though propped up by the dancer, the data have already taken her place. She is tethered to her information, but it circulates freely in excess of her, entering into systems of exchange without her awareness or agency.
In another scene, the third woman arches backward over her couch to reach the carpet below, but the stains she hopes to remove do not respond to her innovative cleaning technique. A doorbell rings and she runs down the stairs, up the stairs, or down a hallway to answer, but she never arrives, and no guest enters. Past dinner parties remain as residues—martini glasses, table settings, dirty dishes, laundry, and carpet stains—but the outside world cannot trespass into these women’s socially sealed-off spaces, nor can these women leave their apartments. They are cut off and tucked away.
Because the movement sequences are looped, users cannot hope to see any dance through to its completion. The dancing, which can always be mined for choreographic possibilities and juxtapositions, will always continue beyond the user’s ability to see it. As a result, the dances are always cut short. The reiterative bodies gesture toward an idealized whole through continuous motion, though the work never reaches a final conclusion or resolution. There is no abrupt waking from the women’s bad dreams. Repetition has become nothing more than a mechanical operation, and it has rendered these women passive. They have relinquished their agency to nightmares, computation, and user manipulation. Any difference introduced into the work by an interactor is not enough to provoke a transmutation that would electrify and give purpose to their reiterations. Windowsninetyeight offers viewers a vision of the diversity of the same, combining the return of the identical in replay loops with differences introduced through user input and feedback loops, but diversifying the same is inadequate for the task of introducing efficacious differences—differences that can make a difference within the overall work.
Somnambules similarly stages repetition without agency and difference without concept. Where windowsninetyeight portrays a feminist nightmare—women confined to their homes with only chores to keep them company—Somnambules takes a gothic approach to nightmare, combining rich coloration with the frailty of the images—ghosts and shadows surrounded by blood spatter onscreen. Somnambules plays with light and pixilation, shadow and saturation, in its vision of death, disembodiment, and decay. These not-quite-bodily images acquire a digital texture, a depth and materiality based on information divorced from the bodies of their donors. Yet, the bloody visual references to violence and trauma bring this play of colors and pixels back to bodies as memories of corporeality prior to their seduction by a video camera, before the traces of their movement were ingested by a lens and rendered onscreen. Gasping breath, grabbing hands, menacing mechanical dolls, clockwork, creaking doors, and shadowy reflections feature throughout the work.
The fantasy and fear of disembodiment is a recurrent theme in Western metaphysics and artistic practices. Media historian Jeffrey Sconce traces the parallels between the history of communications technologies and the dead, the alien, and the disembodied. He notes that electronic media have seen their fair share of hauntings and that they repeat a utopian rhetoric of technologically facilitated liberation from the human body and physical labor.79 Somnambules also participates in this fantasy, creating monstrous bodies that can occupy cyberspace, disembodied bodies extolled by prophets of the internet as a fleshless domain, bodies of information reduced to genetic or binary code. The idea that information exists without material instantiation or that information is more essential than matter is undermined in a piece like Somnambules. Rather than presenting ideal consciousnesses or information free of bodies, Somnambules constantly brings users’ attention back to the confinement that attends the immateriality of its dancing bodies as the program compels the dancers to repeat their movements indefinitely. These fleshless, lifeless, reiterative bodies are not the incorporeal ideal that so many cyberenthusiasts hoped for. They are instead dilapidated technologic ghosts, the bodiless spirits of trapped and tormented souls controlled by the program’s constraints and a user’s whims.
“Docks,” the seventh of Somnambules’s twelve acts, includes approximately ten sound tracks distributed over the frame’s four quadrants and the browser window, which change in relation to each of six randomly ordered visual landscapes. The number and ordering of these visual terrains and the many different sounds make it difficult to discern whether an image is exactly as it appeared before—whether an image is identical or if, instead, it is the same. Mousing inward, sounds increase in complexity—from gasps and footsteps to drizzling drips and cavernous echoes to carnivalesque music. But they do not remain consistent across all the images. Each mouse click produces an alternate scene. Vivid, light-filled blues and greens surround an eerily empty space. Vertical lines, glitches in the visual field, travel horizontally across the screen. Sepia tones alternate with violent red spatter. The dancers, all images of choreographer and contact improvisation dancer Didier Silhol, are placed within each of these scenes, sometimes alone and sometimes in tandem. One Silhol is seated, rocking from side to side while he crosses and uncrosses his legs. Another hops in a circle, arms extended and left leg reaching behind, pushing at the capacity of his white suit. A third Silhol stands, swings his arm like a weighted pendulum, and steps out. His arm catches at waist height, and he reverses the gesture. There are only these three distinct movement phrases in “Docks,” but Silhol’s placement onscreen, his reflections and shadows, and the visibility of his dancing images constantly shift in relation to the other onscreen events. Furthermore, in Somnambules, Clauss has looped both forward and reverse motion. Thus dancers do not continually move forward through the choreography and time, only to be stopped in their tracks at the end of the movement phrase, as occurs in windowsninetyeight. Rather, the dance unfurls and retracts in equal measure.
Though their movement multiplies infinitely, the dancers in windowsninetyeight, Somnambules, and the other hyperdances discussed in this chapter are fundamentally immobilized. Advancing and retreating, the dancers neither gain nor lose ground. They achieve an equilibrium that equates movement with stasis and evacuates difference, rendering it indifferent. Unable to produce “real” or significant differences, the dancers’ screened gestures are devoid of efficacy—their insignificance is a mark of their difference neutralized and subordinated to an oppressive repetition. That users are unable to intervene except superficially by rearranging parts of the whole only adds to the disempowerment of this difference: the dancers cannot break out of their temporal cages, and users cannot free them. Indifferent differences show the faulty logic of the liberatory rhetoric that greeted interactive media early on. Enthusiasts promised user determination in partnership with artists, but the interactive scenario is ultimately not one of collaboration or coauthorship. Pursued insistently and dramatized in these pieces, repetition comes to represent a politically disabling surrender to the present, an inability to transform the rote, mechanical movements portrayed onscreen into action.
Confined by their movement, the dancers remain overdetermined by the repetition to which they are consigned. The disempowerment portrayed in Somnambules and windowsninetyeight is not intrinsic to repetition or reiteration, however. The screen-dancers in Somnambules and windowsninetyeight are committed to their gestures—executed to the nth degree—but the dancing images cannot transmute their movement into a higher form or make room for what Deleuze calls a “creative instant of time” through which repetition “consists in beginning everything again, in ascending the path which is imprisoned by the cycle.”80 In his reading of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return, Deleuze suggests that repetition, with difference at its core, is transformative. Repetition can give rise to something new. To examine this type of repetition, I turn from the preprogrammed behaviors of hyperdance toward social dance-media, which invite greater participation from users than does interaction alone.
The Creative Instant and Choreographic Unworking
Nietzsche suggests what the eternal return might be across passages in multiple texts, but he nowhere fully develops it as a concept. As a conglomeration of enfolded and sometimes contradictory ideas, the eternal return is further complicated in that it appears variously as a cosmological principle, as an ethical stance, and as a philosophical postulate of being as becoming or, as Deleuze suggests, as the “being of becoming.”81 Often, Nietzsche indicates some combination of these ideas. For example, in the parable Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche intertwines three types of unspecified repetitions throughout the narrative: the return of the identical through cyclical time, the return of difference through the complex combination of all possibility, and the eternal return as the synthesis of past and future in the present moment. Each type of return introduced in the text is distinct in its conceptual and ethical implications, but Nietzsche seems to keep all three versions in continuous play, while at the same time positing the eternal return as difference’s only exception: “excluding the return, there is nothing identical.”82 Yet it is difference, and not the identity of repetition, that Deleuze foregrounds in his analysis. In this final section, I would like to shift my focus to how repetition, with difference at its core, might give rise to a Deleuzian creative instant by which to escape entropy and produce something new. The primary example I turn to is Move-Me, an installation and online work by Katrina McPherson and Simon Fildes. Move-Me straddles the interactive aesthetics of hyperdance and the participatory aesthetics of social media. In particular, I contend that Move-Me activates the creative instant through reperformance and not through the mechanical repetitions we see in hyperdance. Such reperformance opens a space of choreographic “unworking” in Jean-Luc Nancy’s terminology. I thus bring both Deleuze and Nancy to bear on the iterative performances found in Move-Me and their repotentialization of repetition.
In his first study of cinematic signs, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Deleuze briefly elaborates on repetition in the cinema of surrealist Luis Buñuel and the literature of Raymond Roussel. As he contemplates the psychology of characters driven to repeat their actions, whether to recover what has been lost (Lucius Egroizard’s daughter in Roussel’s 1914 Locus solus) or to rediscover a moment of salvation (the Angel’s guests in Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel), Deleuze configures their repetitions in terms of the eternal return, through which he seeks a repetition that saves, that changes life.83 Within repetition lies the possibility of differentiation, the possibility of escape, even the possibility of resurrection: a “creative instant”84 that will bring an end to the cycle. Deleuze thus distinguishes a reproductive from a creative version of eternal return: “It is repetition which ruins and degrades us, but it is also repetition which can save us and allow us to escape from the other repetition. . . . To the eternal return as reproduction of something always already-accomplished, is opposed the eternal return as resurrection, a new gift of the new of the possible.”85 Deleuze seeks a “decisive instant” that will overcome the failure of indefinite repetition as a closed repetition and bring about a radical difference through an open repetition that “recreates the model or the originary.”86 Hyperdances, however, espouse indifferent differences, which mark the greatest gap between the loop’s reiterations and the ethical imperative of repetition underlying the eternal return and its capacity for transmutation.
In hyperdance, digital loops fall into exactly the impulses of undifferentiation that Deleuze, following Nietzsche, critiques: identity, equality, equilibrium.87 An agential return is thus impossible in hyperdance, where dancers have lost their ability to act, but we can find it in other examples of dance circulating online and, in particular, in the phenomenon of reperformance that is prevalent in social dance-media. Although reperformance is not unique to digital cultures,88 it is of signal importance in considering transmissions of dance vocabularies and choreographies via the web. As I will discuss in depth in chapter 4, reperformance engages choreography as a gift that travels through the bodies of internet users and video game players, dispersing cultural capital and masking indebtedness as it circulates. Amateur dancers and dance fans participate in dance as shared cultural object, part of a gestural or corporeal common rather than personal property, and thus often do so without regard for the communities of practice that have developed the dances to which digital technologies open access.
Similar to contemporary dance artists’ restagings of work drawn from the archives of dance’s pasts,89 reperformance restages and reinterprets choreography of the present. Writing on the phenomenon of reenactment, Lepecki notes that “one re-enacts not to fix a work in its singular (originating) possibilization but to unlock, release, and actualize a work’s many (virtual) com- and incompossibilities, which the originating instantiation of the work kept in reserve, virtually.”90 “Fixing” a work is more the approach taken by artists who wish to achieve some sense of historical accuracy or authenticity by reconstructing dances, whereas reenactment, according to Lepecki, unlocks them. As dance theorist Mark Franko observes in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, “the concern was no longer to demonstrate how the dance could be redone by simulating the original dance and the dancer’s appearance; the emphasis was rather on what it was like to do it again.”91 For both Franko and Lepecki, reenactment destabilizes the identity of a work, reanimating a dance by doing-again rather than simulating a prior manifestation. Thus we see two types of repetition play out in the field of dance’s engagement with embodied choreographic histories: a repetition that attempts to recover a lost past, to hold on to that past as static and unchanging and thereby to reaffirm the identity of a work, and a repetition with difference at its core that reimagines a work such that it becomes an assemblage of iterations. An assemblage, Manuel DeLanda observes in his Deleuzian social theory, “can have components working to stabilize its identity as well as components forcing it to change.”92 The primary process through which an assemblage achieves stability is repetition,93 yet it is also repetition, in the form of reenactment or reperformance, that, in Nancy’s language, unworks or infinishes a work. Thus, as we will see in Move-Me, participants’ reperformances of choreographic scores serve both to consolidate and to repotentialize the choreography in a manner very similar to the reenactments Lepecki and Franko describe. Reperformance activates what Deleuze calls a “creative instant” to actualize what Lepecki describes as a dimension of the work held in reserve. Reperformance offers the return of the new.
Migrating the phenomenon of reperformance from the stage to the web, McPherson and Fildes’s piece Move-Me foreshadows the online explosion of restaged flash mobs and music video choreographies from 2009 on. Move-Me offers a site of repetition in which differences can make a difference. Repetition and reperformance work together toward an unworking of the eight choreographies that feature in the work, disrupting their wholeness or totality through participant engagement such that, through repetition, the scores manifest latent vectors of difference embedded in them. Crowd-based participation and collaboration, which I discuss in more depth in chapter 3, enable the artists to explore what Nancy calls in The Inoperative Community “unworking”94 and in The Muses “infinishing.”95 For Nancy, it is not enough for art to gather fragments into a whole, which finishes them. Infinishing or “infinite finishing” suggests at once the finitude of the infinite and the opening up of the finite toward the infinite. Unworking refers to the interruption through which cohesion as completion is disrupted. If a work, for example, a work of art, can be said to be finished, then unworking engages in the activity of infinishing. A work concludes, whereas unworking perpetually defers closure, proliferating versions or remaining forever a work in progress.
An unworked work is infinished, but it is not the same as an open work, which Umberto Eco describes as a work that offers performers a variety of interpretive avenues within “a range of rigidly preestablished” possibilities.96 Examples of open works include both the hyperdances we have discussed in this chapter and the crowdsourced, participatory choreographies we will consider in chapter 3. An open work establishes capacious parameters for containing what unfolds under the auspices of the work; unworking opens and repotentializes what had previously been closed or complete. Hyperdances offer interactors nonlinear navigation, which gives rise to multiple experiences with different entry points and perhaps different outcomes, but nonlinearity still leaves the work intact. As interactive works, hyperdances are coded to select from and activate available assets that have been correlated to specific user input. Unworking, by contrast, is allied with Deleuze’s characterization of the eternal return as a nonreproductive gift of the new. Move-Me leverages broad participation, and the work is fragmented and multiplied through the many participants who contribute to it. In this way, participation from the crowd links Move-Me to social media and to choreographic unworking through reperformance. However, accessing these videos through a specially designed user interface that encloses all of the contributions in a single work also connects Move-Me to hyperdance. What is unworked in Move-Me is not Move-Me itself, which is an example of an open work expanding to accommodate the contributions of participants. Rather, with each contribution, participants unwork the choreographies that guide their performances. They offer a remarkable array of unpredictable interpretations held together only by the scores themselves and not by any overarching aesthetic, movement vocabulary, or style.
Combining contemporary choreography with participatory installation art and web media, Katrina McPherson and Simon Fildes gathered movement scores from eight well-known choreographers, established a means of collecting movement from participants on location, provided an online structure to house movement contributions, and offered others access to this content for further use or elaboration. The modified photo booth in which contributors performed traveled throughout the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, collecting videos from both amateur and practiced dancers. Participants entered the booth solo, in pairs, or in groups. Inside, they chose one of the eight choreographers whose choreographic score they wished to perform, and a camera recorded their actions and responses to the choreographers’ movement prompts. The recordings are made available in an online database, where viewable performances include interpretations of scores by American postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay, who coaches her Move-Me participants to sing a song in an imagined language; British hip-hop choreographer Jonzi D, who names specific body parts to move in time with the beat of the music; and the London-based Spanish crossover choreographer Raphael Bonachela, who tells the dancers in the booth that a wasp has flown out of their eye, which they must catch and, finally, eat.
“The core of this project,” Fildes explained in an interview, “was the relationship between the choreographer’s instructions and what you choose to do as your interpretation of the dance.”97 Some participants do their best to fulfill the choreographers’ requests, and others abandon the choreography altogether. With each performance of the choreography, the dancers introduce differences, but in contrast to the hyperdances discussed in this chapter, these differences diversify the same, repopulating the category of the same with the difference that, for Deleuze, is its proper concept. There is no romanticized conflation of dancer and dance in Move-Me; choreography is understood as external to the performers and available to all for reembodiment, reinterpretation, and reenactment, an idea central to chapter 4. Choreography acts as a score to be interpreted and interrupted as it is reperformed, generatively replaying through the bodies of participants and linking them together without reducing them to the identical or to a difference without concept. Move-Me bridges interactive and social media, taking hyperdance’s core feature of repetition and setting it in a social situation before video sharing platforms made such an activity commonplace. Move-Me points to ways repetition as unworking gives rise to the new, which we will see again and again throughout the remainder of the book.
Hyperdances short-circuit user input, promising creative difference through interaction but achieving only indifferent differences. In contrast, social dance-media activate the transformative potential of repetition. When dancers perform or parody music video choreography for wedding celebrations or political protests, or when they participate in building an affective archive in response to popular media, they engage a form of repetition through participation that interaction alone forecloses. They do not produce mere differences without concept as we see in hyperdance. Rather, they occasion repetitions that reveal the diversity of the same. Uploading their danced offerings to YouTube and the like, amateur dancers and dance fans generate an archive of the present, participating in dances—even set choreographies—as shared cultural objects rather than individual intellectual property, perpetuating their circulation across bodies and sites. Collectively, their dancing makes-common. The politics of this common are ambivalent; dancers exhibit obliviousness to cultural differences in some circumstances and reassert the sociality of embodied objects such as movement and gesture in others.
In the next chapter, we will see how dance is deployed in public settings to loosen restrictions on freedom of movement in a time when threats of domestic and international terrorism are cited as reasons to control and limit where, when, and how people move through open spaces and transit sites. Videos of events such as dancing flash mobs circulate online, where they sustain and promote a greater openness to public space. I contend that dance in public is engaged in a long-term project of recuperating public spaces as common spaces, reorienting negative affects in the wake of mass shootings and bombings and facilitating the use of these spaces for political demonstration and protest. However, while dance in public endeavors to disrupt excessive policing in a manner that facilitates other uses of common spaces, the effects of loosening public space through dance cannot be determined in advance.