Since our first three shows in late 2016 we’ve been busy preparing for the online launch of Movement Alphabet with a documentation film and online gallery of portraits. Watch this space – or join the mailing list and we’ll email you when it’s ready.
We’re then showing around London the following two weekends. Here’s our full lineup:
Although there is plenty to see at the exhibition, bear in mind that participation is limited as it’s a one-on-one immersive experience. Sign-ups will be first come first serve, so consider coming to one of the quieter shows (the Friday at G.A.S. or earlier in the day at Watermans) if you’re super-keen to have your Movement Portrait taken.
Tim Murray-Browne, 11 October 2016.
The past four weeks we’ve been developing Movement Alphabet during a residency at GAS Station in East London, a light-filled hall in a former Victorian school. In this next stage of the projects, we’ve been working with the voice to connect abstract portraits of movement with personal stories of their subjects.
Residencies carry opportunity with limited time and this creates pressure, which is usually a productive force but can make open exploration difficult. After a few days of sticking paper themes to the walls, post-it note ideas to the paper, chalk task breakdowns to the blackboard, we settled on what would be our main intention for our time here: finding a way to share the one-to-one participatory performance beyond the interaction pod without disrupting the personal intimacy of the interactive experience that we’d crafted.
The logistical challenges of creating a performance that can only be experienced by four to six participants an hour had not escaped us. In July, we exhibited a prototype of the work in the Raphael Gallery of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s a large echoey chamber with a steady throughput of visitors primarily interested in the Raphael Cartoons hanging imposingly on the walls. We knew few of our audience would feel comfortable sharing personal memories through movement of their body unless we could create a private, safe and snug space. But then what of the experience of those who don’t get to participate or are just passing by?
It was my friend, the architect Ciarán Grogan, who proposed the need for a translucent barrier, inspired by the hazy figures that shine out through the windows of the cafe at the Tate Modern.
Through many brainstorms, we arrived with our interaction pod formed of translucent corrugated roofing plastic.
Jan and I tested a small prototype at the V&A to good effect. Outside, a TV screen showed the portrait as it was created in real-time. Alongside some portraits were exhibited as framed prints.
But it wasn’t enough. Many people, on finding there were no more participation slots, left disappointed, as if they had missed the whole work. They didn’t seem to connect with the images on display, or the gradually emergent portrait on the screen. We needed to give them more – something that connected these abstract images with the living person inside the pod.
To do this, we’ve returned to our earlier lengthy studio process. As before, Jan leads our subject through memories, habits and how they move. But this time, we’re recording the sound alongside their movements. Our intention with these Story Sessions is to create animations showing the portraits as they are drawn, so you can hear the participants speak as they move and give some context the imagery it creates.
During this process, I’m sat at the control desk. I have a grid of buttons on a phone to press to record the current moment into a corresponding grid of the image. But now I’m listening more closely. My notes are more detailed, and I know exactly the words that were being said as each of the nine scrawling moments in the portrait were captured. Afterwards, the three of us go through the images, with me sharing a short quote of what they said for each one. This juxtaposition of words and lines is a significant change in itself. It shifts how you look at the image, giving you a frame in which you can start imposing your own interpretations of what you seen in the lines.
Tim Murray-Browne, 6 September 2016.
One of the ideas that led us to create Movement Alphabet is the individuality carried in our handwriting. Handwritten text communicates character and mood. As the residue left by a moving body, we feel it in an embodied way as a kind of dance. Like prehistoric cave paintings and abstract expressionist painting, we can interpret without instruction because we can’t help but internally reconstruct the movement of the body that created these marks.
In our previous dance work This Floating World, Jan painting ‘hieroglyphs’ on the walls with her whole body using tightly choreographed dance motifs and an interactive setup that mapped her limbs into digital paintstrokes. The resulting shapes were unexpectedly calligraphic, like looking at the letters of an unknown language. They evoked a sense of communicative intention. As in music and dance, we don’t see specifics or literal meaning but we feel the human behind the lines, the possibility of a deeper connection with greater understanding.
Last year on my birthday, Jan gave me a copy of Codex by Luigi Serafini, a hand drawn encyclopaedia from an imaginary universe published in 1981. Legs grow from chicken heads, lovers morph into reptiles and rainbows weave knots. Any explanations are shrouded in a dense handwritten script, swirly letters reminiscent, to my eyes, of handwritten Greek, and organised logically into words that feel so plausible that many have attempted to decipher it. To date, none have succeeded.
One of Serafini’s intentions was to recreate the experience of a child browsing an encyclopaedia before they can read. It parallels a theme Jan and I heard Golan Levin talk about at KIKK festival in 2015. Coming from a Jewish family that weren’t particularly religious, he described the first time he saw the Torah. His dad pointed at the Hebrew text: ‘See that? That’s God’s handwriting.’ We feel the weight of meaning held in text, sometimes even more when we can’t read it.
So it is that our project is called Movement Alphabet. We are creating portraits of movement, tracing the whole body through space and time much like ink on paper holds the movement of a pen. Right now, our portraits are grids of images, each capturing a short period of time. Stacked together they’re suggestive to me of elaborate Chinese calligraphy (as someone who can’t read Chinese) in a way similar to how Serafini’s writing feels to me a distant cousin of Greek.
They are intended as writing from the body, carrying the same individuality as handwriting. Much like how we write, the habitual patterns of movement from our body are ingrained from a mesh of influences. The natural mechanics of our physical selves mix with influence from others – parental instructions to sit up straight, teenage attempts to walk in a sexy way, unconscious mirroring of those around us and the assimilation of gestures much like we learn language. Likewise, numerous teachers have made tedious attempts to neaten my writing, with moderate success (if you could see it before…) yet it has ended up unique and personal. Letter variations are adopted from others and I spent many a maths lecture at university exploring how to make my notes look more like a Hollywood blackboard. I receive few handwritten envelopes in the post. I instantly recognise writing on the front for nearly all of them. Again, likewise with the moving body. Many times I’ve spotted someone in the distance who became recognisable by their gait once they began walking.
Tim Murray-Browne, 12 September 2016.
The V&A was the second place that we shared our prototype version of Movement Alphabet, an installation and live participatory experience for audience to make their marks and get their own algorithmically generated ‘movement portrait’ taken. It was a surreal and exciting context to work, in amongst Renaissance paintings originally painted for the Pope in the 1500s… We landed like nomads, pitching up our ‘pod’, making the Raphael Gallery our home for the next 3 hours and building a comfy and inviting space for passersby to join us.
Neus Gil Cortes, our dramaturg, joined myself and Tim Murray-Browne in creating this intimate space, setting around us neon lights, tatami mats, a curtain, translucent screens and homely decorations around the stone floor. We laid out portraits of past participants.
In the last month I was working with test participants, researching with them in the studio alongside the kinect camera, helping them unravel stories and dreams coming out of play and imagination through movement and conversation. Now, with the support of my collaborator Tim Murray-Browne, our dramaturg Neus and mentors Jade and Jorge from ZU-UK Theatre, I have been able to work on this challenge of designing and facilitating a streamlined version of the experience: a swift 10 minutes of guided one-to-one participation, allowing more visitors to experience the immersive participatory element of the piece.
It’s been a big learning curve but one that has opened my eyes (and body and mind!) to the subtleties of connection and honed my improvisation skills: shown ways to bring me closer to a deeper connection with the audience member, how to craft my words and physical energy to create space for them to let go and open up, feel at ease to say, move and share what is meaningful for them in those moments.
‘I was led on a journey through time, space and memory. Initially blindfolded, I became acutely aware of the cool floor tiles beneath my toes and the gentle sounds of the accompanying ambient music.’ – Melanie Lenz, participant / museum curator
It was apt that the V&A was immersed in stone; the floor, the walls, surrounded by sculptured figures. I told each participant a story evoking cave walls, the rocky curved surfaces that might look like a face under the flickering lights of a communal fire, years and years ago in history. Each time I met an audience member, I felt some magic to be able to hold that space for them, tapping into a long stretch of time into the past, connecting us contemporary humans to those who made the marks of the first cave paintings.
See the full blogpost of Melanie Lenz (curator of Digital Drop-in @ Victoria & Albert Museum) on her experience in Movement Alphabet.
Jan Lee, 6 September 2016.
Tomorrow we’ll be sharing our first prototype of Movement Alphabet, at Curious Lab, a day of experimental artworks that invite the audience to interact and be a part of the work. Part of a festival curated by the Barbican, it will be held at the Rose Lipman Building where the Open School East resides, a new art school and community space emphasising co-operation and experimentation.
Last week we have been testing the live experience on people we’ve bumped into during our residency at G.A.S. station, a venue that also has a community and experimental vibe, that holds classes, workshops and labs for a diverse range of learners and facilitators including ZU-UK Theatre, Rosetta Arts Centre, and Newham Adult Learning Service.
It’s coming together when I start getting to grips with the new buttons Tim (the coder) has created for me on my Samsung phone. It will be linked via wifi to the 3D camera and Tim’s software to take people’s portraits with.
It is an exciting challenge in learning how to get the right moments to press record – knowing when the participant is going to leap into the air or make that important move – or for how long they will stay in that intense still position so I can record its growth as lines on the portrait. Every second counts, and it’s inspiring to be working so closely with so many different individuals, all so unique in their stories and responses.
When I walked out to go to the shops today, in a break, I noticed that everything and everyone had so much character… it was beautiful to witness, each person had their expression, full of body and movement…
Jan Lee, 6 July 2016.
Movement portrait of Rosie Ashworth stretching, cycling, running, swimming, 21 May 2016 at Queen Mary University of London.
Last week we finished our first iteration of audience tests of our new project, currently going under the working title of Movement Alphabet.
This project is a new cross-discipline collaboration between the digital and physical worlds, where we invite people to explore how they relate to their own physicality and map their movements into a digital portrait.
For these tests we were looking to understand how it feels for people who are not from a dance or movement background to be led in a one-on-one session by Jan through different physical tasks and discussions. Whether people are able to relax and move in a way that is authentic to the ordinary character they express with their body.
To me, sat watching over the laptop during each session, the interaction between Jan and participant seemed to morph into a dialogue of body and gesture. During discussions of their earliest memories of moving, or how they imagine their physicality in the future, Jan responds through movement, leading the participant to do the same. It becomes a physical conversation of gestures, demonstrations and walking about.
Many of our tests were in the surprisingly cozy Performance Lab at Queen Mary University of London. This space has black walls, black ceiling and a black floor. It is mostly soundproofed except for the occasional rumble of the District Line beneath. Dotted around the space – speakers, a mixing console, a grand piano with electrics sprawling out from beneath the lid. Somehow, this array of odd, lumpy pieces of kit seemed to construct an atmosphere of experimentation and play that invited some to open up and share some personal details of their lives.
For this round of testing, the images are created using an adaptation of the code behind the middle stroke-marking chapter from This Floating World. At the press of a button, seven seconds of movement are drawn, as if each of the subject’s limbs were holding a brush of luminescent paint.
Tim Murray-Browne, 6 June 2016.