Interviewing YCAM: Past, Present and Future of Dance-Tech

Author: Naoto Hieda (Academy of Media Arts Cologne [KHM])

Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) is a media art center located in Yamaguchi, Japan. Over the last two decades, YCAM has been producing its own artworks and performances using media technology for a broad range of communities; not only as a front runner in the global media-art scene, YCAM feeds back the knowledge to local Yamaguchi communities for education and creation. Notably, YCAM has made a significant contribution in the field of dance and technology. YCAM Interlab, the R&D team, has been developing digital-dance platforms, including the recent project YCAM Dance Crew, explained later in detail. As I have been researching and creating dance-tech works, YCAM kindly offered me an opportunity to visit and to interview them in person. In this article, I summarize the path to today’s dance-tech, review the projects by YCAM, and speculate the next steps of dance-tech through a conversation with Richi Owaki, an artist and researcher at YCAM.

The history of dance-tech started from a notion of using technology (not limited to digital media) to augment or alter the body. Loie Fuller, an American dancer, produced dance performances with an extended skirt in the 1890s before the introduction of electronic media. This idea of costume as a body extension is a precursor to the boom of dance pieces with real-time video projection after the first release of Microsoft Kinect in 2010 as well as video effects and filters of the current social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

Merce by Merce by Paik (1978) is the first videodance piece created by Merce Cunningham, Charles Atlas, Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota. The choreography is made specifically for the screen not for the stage. In the video, Cunningham with background subtraction appears in different positions and angles, questioning the role of choreography, which is not only about the coordination of the body but also about video editing.

The notion of technology-mediated choreography has transcended dance and physicality of the body; online performance artists such as Annie Abrahams and Joana Chicau work with texts, algorithms and markup languages as choreography. Embodied practices are reflected in web design, and the texts and web pages become a duet partner for a body, or become a durational performance as an online installation.

Japan has a notable scene of technology-mediated performing arts, and YCAM has been a hub for Japanese and international artists’ productions. Hiroaki Umeda mixes movements of street dance with minimal procedural-art aesthetics, such as flow-field particles and voronoi patterns with electronic sounds, pushing the boundary of Dumb Type-like audioreactivity into a space with a strong presence of flesh. Elevenplay and Rhizomatiks (directed by MIKIKO, and Daito Manabe and Motoi Ishibashi, respectively) have been actively incorporating new technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and recently with artificial intelligence, into delicately choreographed performances with generative and mesmerizing visuals.

In 2021, YCAM released YCAM Dance Crew, an installation and a platform that democratizes movements. The installation consists of two parts; a large portrait monitor with a motion capture camera and a controller with a secondary monitor. The primary monitor shows the body as a mirror with real-time visual effects. Movements are captured by Apple ARKit on iPhone and sent to TouchDesigner for visualization. The interface is a MIDI controller pad that has buttons durable enough to be pressed while dancing (3 photos; taken by the author).

The experience starts by selecting a music track and exploring video effects. Once the user gets used to the control, they proceed and record the video for 30 seconds while the user dances and triggers different effects. The last step is to edit the effects; after dancing, the user can change, add and remove effects as post-processing. The rendered video can be downloaded on a smartphone, and recommended to post on their social media, the user being a creator of the content.

Various expertise of YCAM collected through hackathons and workshops are fed back to the design of YCAM Dance Crew, and furthermore, the team iteratively had feedback from dancers and choreographers including hip-hop and contemporary dance for creating video effects. At a glance, its entire experience resembles a Japanese arcade video game console such as Dance Dance Revolution. Indeed its gamified interface aims at lowering the barrier to dance and choreography; nonetheless, YCAM Dance Crew is not a competition and encourages the user’s creativity. The pop-culture-inspired user interface attracts from kids to elderly users to start the experience, and when video effects such as lines between body parts, RGB shift, delay line and kaleidoscope are multiplied and become dominant, the body is no longer visually present; thus, no matter what their dance skill or appearance is, the participant is encouraged to move and to create.

The process of post-editing the video effects becomes a crucial role for the creation, which can be seen as an analogy to Merce Cunninghum and Nam June Paik’s work. But even further, the user themselves becomes a dancer and video director at the same time, switching the medium of choreography from dance into a digital medium. Today, artists such as Annie Abrahams and Joana Chicau conceptually choreograph different mediums from dance movements to algorithm and code; I see that Dance Crew has a potential to accelerate this trend without the user having deep understanding of dance and technology (image; screenshot of YCAM Dance Crew Instagram).

One of YCAM’s missions is to feed back their knowledge from dance-tech research into a broader scope beyond dance. Akiko Takeshita, the performing arts + technology producer at YCAM, explains:

Dance Crew’s interface and eye-catching effects make one want to move even if they are not familiar with dance. As a result, YCAM Dance Crew contributes to the local community; as most of the users visit repeatedly, techniques and tips spread through word of mouth. Even though the experience looks intimidating at first to someone not familiar with dancing, their friends and family guide them, forming a community that is different from a regular dance community.

YCAM video engineer and “mediaturg”, Richi Owaki says that one of the next steps of YCAM Dance Crew would be an online version that can be experienced by anyone with a modern computer or a smartphone to become an online collaboration tool for two or more dancers to move and create synchronously using browser based motion capture technologies such as PoseNet. Similar to the current trend of social virtual reality, e.g., AltspaceVR and VRChat, online collaboration tools could connect multiple users for a long duration rather than an ad-hoc connection for a short period of time. Thus, the online version of YCAM Dance Crew would be a platform where users spend more time, becoming a new form of online collaboration and creation.

Being a dancer and a digital artist, I resonate a lot with Richi’s focus on the dance-choreography creation. Best Practices in Contemporary Dance, my project with Jorge Guevara, is a playground for us not only to perform but to develop and to reimagine digital dance using open-source tools and platforms. I would love to see more experimental projects to appear from initiatives like YCAM so that not only tech-savvy artists but also any artists and dancers interested in movements and online collaboration can explore its potential.

I would like to thank Akiko Takeshita and Richi Owaki for the guide and valuable inputs, Hikari Fukuchi for coordinating the visit, and Federica Patti for valuable feedback. For inquiry of YCAM Dance Crew, please contact information@ycam.jp to be in touch.

Photos by Shintaro Yamanaka (Qsyum!) otherwise specified. Courtesy of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM].

Naoto Hieda is an artist from Japan, based in Cologne with a background in engineering (B.Eng. from Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan and M.Eng. from McGill University, Canada) and currently enrolled in Diplom II at Academy of Media Arts Cologne [KHM]. They question the productive aspect of coding to speculate its new form, namely post-coding, through neurodiversity and live-coding.

YCAM | Naoto Hieda

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