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Stamatia Portanova: Moving Without a Body, MIT Press

“It is in thought that a movement, with both its qualitative and quantitative aspects, with its fluidity and extension in space and time, becomes a dance”

What differences does the idea of the digital make? Stamatia Portanova’s book Moving Without a Body, recently published in MIT Press “Technologies of Lived Abstraction” series, offers a provocative perspective on the question of dance and choreography in the digital age. How do the digital nexus, the compositional world of video, motion capture technologies and choreographic software in the hands of artists uncouple dance from the everyday, lived body?

Defining choreography as the “thought of dance”, Portanova draws on process philosophy as well as the work of key dancemakers such as William Forsythe, Merce Cunningham, Antonin de Bemels and others, to articulate the logic specific to digital dance, where: “The dancing body is not sensed in the continuity of its motions but in their cut; this body is not recognized through causal perceptions or qualitative sensations, but is only mathematically thought. Dance is dehumanized, deformed, dequalified, and finally imagined as a relation between numbers”.

These very terms—dehumanized, deformed, and “reduced” to binary code—are often mobilized against digital dance, to name what is lost in the translation between the irreducible continuity of a body in movement and its quantification and capture in technology. While digital tools have proposed solutions, on the one hand, to longstanding challenges in dance, most notably the preservation of dance movement and a new form of dance notation, for many theorists and practitioners this gain comes at a cost that is hard to bear. Digital dance is haunted by the problem of ghosts in the machine, and the constant concern for this cliché of digital disembodiment has dominated the debate over what digital technologies can do with dance. More widely, it is a commonplace of the digital era to speak of the various ways we have become disembodied through our increasing involvement in virtual worlds.

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In Moving Without a Body, Portanova draws on another tradition of thinking virtuality, from theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, Alfred Whitehead and Brian Massumi, to articulate a virtual not as that which is opposed to the real, but as what is fully real in itself. The virtual is synonymous with an incorporeal potential for variation, one that is the case of digital, stems from the gap of each numerical bit itself. This gives her an original starting point from which to approach the question of what happens to dance movement in the face of its numerical abstraction, what she terms “the possibility to capture, store, and manipulate movement, abstracting it from the body and transforming it into numerical information”. What happens, she asks, “when an actual, physical body has been replaced by a string of running data? What happens to the thought of movement, when movement is processed by a digital system?”

Portanova takes a pragmatic approach, rooted in Alfred Whitehead’s philosophy of radical empiricism, to questions around digital disembodiment: she brackets what is the usual starting point—the body—to better think the digital in terms of the ideas that it makes possible. Whitehead’s philosophy provides a framework for Portanova’s concept of abstraction, or how it is that we can experience the abstract itself. She writes: “It is to this reconciliation of the abstract and the concrete that most twentieth-century materialist philosophies and arts owe most of their innovations and potential. We do not call bodies only real, but also thoughts and ideas. And these are very different things”. Portanova maps out the question of the thought of dance, the work of ideas and imagination, to explain the potential of thought’s abstractive cuts in the continuity of the world.

In exploring contemporary digital dancing, she doesn’t deny the difference that the digital makes, in opposition to the organic experience of dance; the problem for her is not this difference itself. Rather, at issue with the digital is a tendency to hide its differential: its ability to make difference. The differential gets overlooked, for instance, when the difference that codification makes is reduced to convertibility: how does one thing retain its significance across different media? Portanova’s key insight is that a digital logic is fundamentally one of the cut: not as a means to an end, but as a “mathematical or numerical idea, in itself”.

This disjunctive potential, often considered a problem or a loss when it comes to the preservative or creative work of digi-dance, is here re-imagined for the positive creativity that a cut into the continuity that characterizes organic experience can allow. This is the work of imagination. While it may seem counterintuitive to revalorize ideas such as disembodiment and desubjectification, given how these are bound to the fear of digital technology, Portanova claims we need to ask new questions about the “status of the captured objects”, such as the data from Motion capture technologies, and on the relation between technological preservation and transcendental memory, or “pure memory” as a source not of preservation, but of change and creation. These are ethico-aesthetical questions. They are questions fundamentally about relation itself, seeing technology not simply as a tool or interface for relations between bodies and subjects, but as already participating in a relational ecology.

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At the heart of her inquiry is the notion of the abstract: “A way to distinguish the concrete experiences of the physical body from the abstract reality of mental experiences, without erasing their important relation”. All too often, the abstract carries a negative charge of theft or a reduction of experience; Portanova’s gamble is that abstraction can be a generative event, the creation of data flows that “can be used to activate further physical or mental, technical or creative processes”.

Reading across philosophical and theoretical texts—those which exemplify her claim that philosophy is a technique of extreme abstraction—in particular her own elaboration of the relations between Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze, Portanova makes a compelling argument that clears the conventional starting points for understanding digitized dance. In the encounter of technology, bodies, movement, and in a parallelism and exchange between the mental and physical poles, Portanova argues for an attentiveness to what is genuinely new, born of these collisions and discomforts, and to the knowledge and experience we gain from our digital encounters—what kinds of potential are being incorporated into our perceptions and thoughts in ways other than physical experience.

Memory is one such source of potential. Digital dance has frequently been seen as archival in nature, answering the question of how to preserve and extend dance works. Again, Portanova sets these functions aside, exploring digital work that foregrounds the difference in repetition, bringing out the potential of what Henri Bergson called “pure memory”. Motion capture technologies are examined not for what they fail to capture, but for how they cut the organic flow of movement, and in the resulting storage reopen it to recombinatory potential. This is a kind of memory that transforms the cut into an abstract object, or what she terms mov-objects.

Here, Portanova considers Hand-Drawn Spaces (1998–2009), a performance realized by choreographer Merce Cunningham in collaboration with Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser of Openended group, pioneers in digital choreographies, and Forsythe’s Synchronous Objects database, a “generative tool” relating form and content beyond an archival impulse. Mov-objects are “virtual movement objects different from physical perceptions”. This difference has often been theorized in terms of negative affect, through ideas such as Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley”, feelings of fear, disgust and rejection in the face of representations that just miss being an exact replica, such as photorealistic digitally generated actors or motions. Beyond the moment of capture as a form of preservation, Portanova pursues the “what next” of these technologies, asking what happens when a captured movement acquires the potential to be “differently actualized in the memory of innumerable repetitions”. 

The result is a performance of the “singularity of ideas”, an idea which is repeated across all actualizations. A key example here is the innovative work of choreographer William Forsythe and his “non-absolutist choreographic scores”, works which are invitations to novelty. Forsythe’s work, as with his database project Motion Bank , composed of 135 recomposable movement “chunks”, starts from a non-phenomenological inquiry: “What if a movement does not emanate from the center? What if there are more than one centers? What if movement emanated from a line or a plane and not simply a point?” Through this work, Forsythe and his collaborators build choreographic digital ecologies of “all the possible micro-articulations that a body can activate”. The novelty of each new act of choreographic thinking thus relies on the radical break of abstraction, not despite of it. At the heart of this is the paradoxical experience of abstraction, such as the idea of the “infinite” which we cannot directly perceive, through the finity of the Motion Bank’s holdings.

Rather than worrying over the negative emotions of something like the uncanny valley, Portanova asks after the work that digital ideas do. In the hands of the best artists, such as Forsythe, the digital can be a way to experience, in repetition, the limits of our own perception, what she calls digi-strain: “Thinking the limit point between wholeness and decomposition, feeling the bending of infinity by the finitude of a countable number”. In her pragmatics of digital media, Portanova is more interested in the potential of limits than utopian claims to digital perfection. Digi-strain occurs when our inability to “perceive and imag(in)e infinity is like an infinitely repeatable thought that can only be experienced in its limited actualizations”. Digital choreographies become “doorways to infinity”, offering us sights “beyond the range of everyday consciousness” even as our habitual perception falters and fails.

Portanova’s insistence on the creative potential of the abstraction of digital technologies is a rigorous alternative to the weak relationality that characterizes our habitual modes of digital detachment: staring at screens instead of other people but still bound by a human logic of communication and connection. The work of art is a singular reminder that the creative break with the continuity—especially of subjective identity—allows for connection to something else. Her chapter “Thinking the Dance”, takes up Merce Cunningham’s question: “How can counting become an aid to freedom?” She reads the numerical choreographic thought of Merce Cunningham from his mathematical experiment with coin tossing and the I Ching as compositional techniques through to their digital counterparts in his software ballets and experiments with Lifeforms and Danceforms software, as numerical “compu-sitions”, invitations to chance effectuated by the cut of the digital breaking with habitual combinations. Thus his work opens onto combinatory logic of the “and”, and an evaluative logic of “this and not that”.

The “discrete rationalizations” of these extensive abstractions breaks from a logic of continuous affects and intensities that she argues are the stuff of everyday capitalism.  She terms this “imagination” as a creative capacity for cutting, where cutting becomes a way of articulating an evaluative, binary logic of the digital, along the lines of Cunningham’s basic choreographic principle: “Each movement is only one single movement at a time, only this and not that movement (the each-thingness of each movement)”. Portanova highlights this evaluative mode of existence, borrowed from the work of Whitehead, as characteristic of thought itself. What might seem like the limitative aspect of the binary logic of the digital becomes a way to access the singularity of all ideas. “The clarity of each actual occasion of experience is precisely due to the fact that each movement, each perception, each thought, determines itself as only that movement, that perception, or that thought, often coexisting, but never confusing itself, with other occasions.”

Cunningham’s counting-as-distribution finds it interest in the discreteness of steps, reanimated through the use of chance methods to find the continuities and combinations of a dance. Cunningham sought to free dance from its subjective and material anchors in individual bodies and their habits. But the very desubjectifying effect, its eccentric opposition to the centering effects of the human body and its corresponding subjectivity, returns as a virtual support for his dancers; asked to perform steps that do not correspond to their own centered and habitual corporeality, the dancers instead find support in the ideas that subtend their rigorous improvisations. What they know is not the continuity of movement but the repetition of difference through the structures of chance. As Portanova points out, in a concept of distributed creativity dear to the promise of the digital, “this makes of the dancers composers, as well as executors of the movements”. 

Cunningham’s pioneering use of the choreographic software Lifeforms, for instance, does away with structural anchors so familiar as to seem invisible, such as gravity. Instead, algorithms generate relations between points, choreographing dances uncoupled from what we already know a human body can do. While Portanova acknowledges that this “social indifference” towards software’s effect can be ethically aberrant, in the light of the ethico-aesthetic questions she pursues, this indifference to the limits of possibility gains a “positive creative value”, “softwarizing” bodies to push into as yet unexplored movement territories. The effect is the “surprise and wonder” of an unexpected event.

This is a digital “choreologic”, found in video-choreographies where, for instance, the productive problem is how to “adopt a split visual focus rather than an immersed kinesthetic perception, in order to abstract the conceptual axes around which the examples seem to rotate”. These eccentric movements, or impossible embodiments abstract the body’s movement in dance through a transduction, and not simply of a conversion of one actual situation (what the dance looks like to an human observer) to the displaced and reimaged version on screen. The logic of the cut allows for a detour through the virtual, or imagination as a kind of hallucination, “where perception is contaminated by thought, and imag(in)es things”. How do digital technologies promote such hallucinatory experiences as a means to engaging our full capacity of thought—namely imagination itself?

Thought requires an infidelity to the continuity of organic experience, and an abandonment of a romantic attachment to the integrity of a body. “Instead of following and recognizing the movement, imagination is only preoccupied with dissecting and distorting its qualities and effects.” What comes of this is an intensification of potential, repeatedly addressed by Portanova as the thought of infinity itself. This idea comes out in a beautiful reading of Antonin De Bemel’s work, such as his “scrub solos” and his Trilogie Stroboscopique, a video-choreography triptych in which pulsed alternations of video sequences frame by frame constantly halt the movement in order to make felt the idea of the cut itself, repeating the interruption of flow.

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This is a mathematical logic of the “numerical division and structuration of the image” rather than a recomposed fluidity, following the organic line of the movement itself. The effect, she writes, is neither control nor disruption, but simply the endless repetition of the cut to seek the “infinite under the finite”. She terms this a “new hallucinatory way of looking, an intensification of the atomization of matter in order to (impossibly) see the world in a grain of sand. She compares this to the effect of the first microscope, which created visionary fields. “As a sort of contemporary microscope, digital technology is all about extremely minute temporalities and inconspicuous small-scale entities… The digitally cut bits reveal a peculiar potential, becoming the testimonies of a renewed propension, a tendency, the idea to reach the unreachable, the obscure depth of minute elements that fuzzily connect the whole world to each of our single perceptions.” The idea of the digital is like a pointing at infinity, a “a mathematically precise indeterminateness”, which gives “more to reality than it is given”.

Portanova returns to her title’s question at the end of the book, claiming that “in their abstraction, movement ideas can occur with and without the body. And if indeed their actualization implies a body, the latter should be intended as a nonhuman, nonliving, immaterial one: for example, a digital image, or a thought”. Her ethico-aesthetical approach, attentive to the differential of digital technologies, ultimately poses the question of what else bodies can be.

Moving Without a Body is an important and original perspective on dancing with digital technologies, and in thinking the potential of the relational ecologies of the digital.


The article is written by Alanna Thain for Digicult

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