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Dökk – Live media performance by fuse*

“The thing’s hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — it’s full of stars!” [1]

The post-anthropocentric urgency of recent years promotes a reconsideration of the judgment toward an opening to pre-rationalistic (pre-Kantian, pre-Cartesian) forms of knowledge of the world. The media historian and philosopher Sean Cubitt proposes a search/return to the ancestors – i.e. to a universal archetypal knowledge – whose knowledge is no longer linked to a personal and collective ritual directed to the preservation of memory, but is entrusted to the machines, inside which, he imagines, they are metaphorically enclosed, imprisoned.[2] From Africa, Greece, Asia, the Americas, through the study of the four major proportions (geometric, arithmetic, harmonic and golden), the science of our fathers has institutionalized over the millennia the codes of “measurement” of the harmonies of nature, of the micro and macrocosm.

In ancient cultures, dance has represented a major instrument for contact, dialogue, knowledge of the sacred seen as a rationally immeasurable other-than-self. It does not seem a coincidence that on June 18, 2004 a large 2-meter statue, depicting Shiva Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer who represents eternal energy while creating and destroying the Universe, was donated to CERN in Geneva by the Indian government.[3]

These – and many other – starting suggestions gave rise to Dökk, the new live-media performance of fuse*: a multimedia immersive narration that tells about a journey into the unconscious, interpreted by the dancer Elena Annovi, in the constant search for a balance between light and darkness; a sequence of ten rooms/digital environments in succession forms a path composed of universes that materialise in space and mind and immediately dissolve, following a cycle where the end coincides with a new beginning. Dökk is the Icelandic word that means darkness, a reference to those cultures interpreting the absence of light as a metaphor of earthly life and of the perception of reality, seen as the shadow of a light that cannot be seen, but whose existence can only be guessed. It represents the natural continuation of Ljós (“light”), a performance created in 2014 and staged in some of the most important international festivals.

Dökk is the result of three years of work of the group, aimed at the creation of a work capable of stimulating a deep empathy, generated by the synchronism and unpredictability of human existence. To achieve this result, it was developed a unique complex system, capable of presenting on stage elaborate audio video compositions, result of the close interaction between different data generated in real time: the analysis of the sound, the movement of the performer, her heartbeat, interstellar maps and sentimental analysis of content shared on social networks. The combination of this information makes every staging unique, always different because it is the result of randomness and unpredictability of the analysed information.

Carlo Rovelli writes: “to a keen view, time “does not flow” and the universe is a block of past, present and future, but we conscious beings dwell in time because we only see a faded image of the world; in this blurring of the world it is born our consciousness of the passing of time.” [4]

Creating a temporary bubble of simultaneity, it proposes to the spectator a visual, spatial, corporeal, sensorial and multimedia “vertigo”, only possible thanks to the strong interpenetration between the physical world and its technical expansion.

The particular, deeply immersive setup, composed of a double projection crossed at the front on a semi-transparent holographic screen and of a rear projection on the back of the stage, was designed to represent, even visually, the idea of a deep connection between performer and digital landscapes. These latter, generated in real time with custom software, are mapped on two projective surfaces, thus increasing the depth and the dynamism of the visual solutions. The stage therefore becomes a suspended dimension, which allows losing track of space and time, a “place of the mind” in which reality is reconstructed as a result of one’s own actions, where every gesture has an immediate and precise consequence.

The depiction of the known universe that opens Dökk is a double cone composite diagram showing the distribution of the galaxies starting from the point of view of the Earth. This characteristic hourglass shape, formed by two almost symmetrical sectors, is actually the result of a problem of space perception: the Milky Way creates two large shadow cones that prevent a full visibility. Dynamic views of the stellar map derived from different data sources alternate during the whole show: in some cases, they are the result of real space observations, in other cases simple simulations. The universe is seen and represented as a symbol of human spirit, given as an evolving representation: the starting simulation for the positioning of the particles is called “EAGLE” (Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments) by the Virgo Consortium.

The collected data represent various developmental stages of the starry sky, starting from a completely uniform zero time up to the current situation showing filaments, voids and galaxies altogether similar to the ones that we can observe. In the first part of the journey, the visualisation of galaxies has been built through data collected from studies on the observations of the displacement of the stars, through the analysis of the spectrum of the light emitted by celestial bodies. In case of redshift, the found value indicates that the celestial body is moving away from the earth; in case of blueshift, however, it is approaching. In the third room it starts to deform in a distortion around the galaxy 16154609-6055071 (ESO_137-_G_008), which is roughly in correspondence of what is called the Great Attractor, a point where it has been identified a gravitational anomaly such to divert all galaxies within Laniakea, the Super Cluster of which the Solar System is part. From room 8, the landscape gradually returns to be displayed as an accurate realistic representation. Room 10, which closes the show, exploits the simulation engine EAGLE, applied to an invisible network of particles that influence a gravitational field. The calculation software GADGET-2 has worked on the servers of fuse* for almost a week, generating five hundred “photographs” of states of matter. They represent the contribution to the formation of a velocity vector field, the final result of the fuse* research: a cube having a side of 100 million light years. By exploiting this field, it has been possible to move the particles already on stage to generate a vortex around the dancer, so as to outline the synchrony between its evolution and the one of the Laniakea.

As already stated, the scenic elements – exclusively composed of video and audio material – are designed to convey a sense of deep interconnection between the protagonist and everything around her. The direct interaction between the choreographic gestures and these elements represents one of the focal points of the project: wishing to convey a strong sense of unity and synchronicity between the digital component and the body, fuse* has used Perception Neuron, a system of motion capture composed of eighteen accelerometers directly positioned on the body of the performer, which allow tracking in real time each individual movement. These data are then crossed with those from two Kinect placed on stage, to calibrate the positioning in the scene and further accentuate integration.

Moreover, every time that the show is staged, the system samples and analyses a stream of tweets filtered on the trending topics of that actual moment. The collected information is processed to deduce the “sentimental composition” of the moment, through an algorithm of sentiment analysis[5] (the same developed by fuse* for the installation Amygdala). These data, interwoven with those generated by the dance of the performer, make the show take forms that are always different for each show. It so happens that while Dökk goes on stage, if a particularly important event is occurring in the world, the visual and sound landscapes change, taking on different nuances. The public is therefore induced to take part in an involvement that goes beyond the physical space in which the performance takes place, thanks to thousands of invisible connections with the rest of the world.

The formal element that indicates this type of variations in different locations is once again the red colour, which also indicates the intensity of human warmth: as demonstrated by the study Bodily maps of Emotions, different emotional states correspond to determined thermal spectra of single parts of the body. The data obtained from the sentiment analysis of the tweets act then on the “heat” of the scenes, modulating in every moment the hue of the red.

Even the sound setting is affected by this stream of data: there are six “ghost” tracks, one for each basic emotion, mixed with the main soundtrack depending on the percentage distribution of analysed emotions from which also the surround diffusion that envelops the audience depends. The music of Dökk was thought to be the narrator that accompanies the entire show, expressing a series of emotions and moods that can hardly be described in words.

According to the theory of synchronicity, case meant as a sequence of non-linear events does not exist, but on the contrary it can give a key to help define the direction of events. Also the approach to the production of Dökk, and in particular of the soundtrack, was influenced by a non-linear approach, recording and editing within the compositions generative musical sequences able to create unique sound events and random sequences of notes and noises. During the production and editing of the sounds, various audio synthesis tools and processes were used – from semi-modular synths, to sound-design and field recording techniques, to audio programming through Max MSP (graphic development environment) – creating chains of effects and audio synthesis patches in real time for the interactive parts of the show. One of these patches uses a system that includes four granular synthesis modules, where each parameter is controlled by the position in space of the Perception Neuron sensors in the performer’s hands and feet.

However, the fundamental sound element that characterizes this experience from beginning to end is the heartbeat. The heart is the first organ that is formed when a new life is born and it is the last to stop when it ends. In the same way, the beginning and the end of Dökk are punctuated by the real heartbeat of the performer, acquired through the BLE heart rate sensor that transmits information via bluetooth to an ad hoc software, which in turn processes and sends the necessary data through network messages. From the beginning of the journey to the last room, the real-time analysis of the heart rate is connected to the blinking of one of the stars that make up the Universe displayed on the scene; an idea suggested by the recent discovery of the existence of a group of binary stars whose brightness is really described by a graph very similar to an electrocardiogram.[6]

The study of body movement by Elena Annovi has developed starting from the awareness of the existence of some fixed structures to be followed, respected and modified according to the narrative evolution. A fundamental element in this path was listening to technology seen as a true work partner. Sound, digital landscapes become active elements, reactive to movements just like another dancer on stage. The result is a dance bringing interaction to such a deep level to allow the body to claim its own space and the role of the only true architect of every occurring change; a deep knowledge of all employed technological components has made it possible to elude and exploit them to amplify the physical gesture.

“Those who seek the true origins of dance would tell that it was born at the same time as the Universe and that it appeared together with the ancient Eros; for example, the circular motion of celestial bodies, the interweaving of the planets with the fixed stars, the eurythmic relationship and the balanced harmony that governs them, are proof of the primordial existence of the dance.”[7]

Inside the rooms of Dökk, the scenes are then generated by the dance taking place between the performer and the complex and reacting system, her primary interlocutor. Like the ancient ritual dancers, Annovi also follows and interacts with a succession of geometric patterns that represent the symbolic key to the approach and knowledge of the Universe. The generated environments are characterized by peculiar behaviours, defined by specific physical laws that determine the interaction with the dancer and the various data analysed in real time. Each of the ten environments is thus constituted as a symbolic Universe, which evokes different phases of life. The dance then becomes a sort of evolutionary path accompanied by music and technology: the performer is a Starchild that is born, grows, dies and is reborn cyclically, according to an upward movement that every time allows her to reach a new level of evolution.

From galaxies to molecules, all that surrounds us is nothing but a set of vibrating atoms, particles and electromagnetic fields without any apparent meaning. When these impulses are interpreted by the human mind, they become colours, music, memories and emotions: the foundations of what everyone perceives as reality. The idea of rhythm and dance comes spontaneously to mind when one tries to imagine the flow of energy transmitted through the configurations that make up the world of particles. Modern physics has shown us that movement and rhythm are essential properties of matter; that all matter, both on Earth and in outer space, is involved in a continuous cosmic dance. Eastern mystics have a dynamic view of the universe similar to the one of modern physics, and therefore the common use of the image of dance is not surprising to communicate their intuition of nature. The metaphysics of the cosmic dance found in Hinduism the most profound and splendid expression in the image of the dancing god Shiva. According to Hindu doctrine, all life is part of a great rhythmic process of creation and destruction, death and rebirth, and the Shiva dance symbolizes this eternal rhythm of life and death, which continues in infinite cycles.

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[1] A. Clarke, A Space Odyssey, 1968
[2] http://seancubitt.blogspot.it/search/label/ancestors
[3] https://goo.gl/images/Z9E3br
[4] C. Novelli, https://goo.gl/4vypvQ
[5] Based on the open source library developed by Krcadinac U., Pasquier P., Jovanovic J. & Devedzic V. Synesketch (An Open Source Library for Sentence-Based Emotion Recognition, IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing 4(3): 312-325, 2013).
[6] The positioning of this star in the representation of the Universe in Dökk respects its real coordinates.
[7] Luciano di Samosata, De Saltazione