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Liveness Residency: Pushing the medium of livestream

Toronto, OntarioToronto (Ontario)

Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
People interviewed: Luke Garwood, computer programmer and contemporary dancer; Brodie Stevenson, Board Chair
Interviews held: July 15 and August 3, 2021

Dancemakers is a community-led dance organization that focuses on the research and development of dance creators and provides them with a range of resources that promote innovation in their practice and the development of new performance works.

In March 2021, with the organization in the midst of a major transition, Dancemakers invited dancer and computer programmer Luke Garwood to undertake a week-long artist residency to explore dance creation within livestream as a medium in and of itself. Luke and his three collaborators (artist and OCAD University Assistant Professor Immony Men, choreographer Heidi Strauss, and dancer Dedra McDermott) spent the residency testing performance techniques, new software tools for digital manipulation, and state-of-the-art equipment. The goal was to explore and use a variety of different tools to make livestreaming more worthwhile and engaging for both audiences and performers.

The Innovation: Leading-edge technology and a process-oriented approach

During the residency, the artists used many innovative techniques and leading-edge tools in their explorative process, such as motion capture, digital manipulation, projection, high-quality film cameras, and interactive visual programming languages for multimedia content. The artistic team was able to experiment with the very notion of “live” and effectively extend the definition of dance, making it “less about the form of the body and more about its movement”, as Luke explained.

An example of digital manipulation of data from a motion capture suit. Photo credit_ Heidi Strauss.

The team worked with the dancers’ performances in real time, applying digital effects, filters, and manipulations. Luke noted that, “as you are programming, you are doing that in real time, so your choices as a VJ of sorts are also a big part of the livestream”. When programmers projected a live broadcast feed in the studio, dancers were able to improvise responses to their own digitally captured movements. Through the interactions between the digital tools and the dancers, a conversation emerged between the digital and the analog manifestations of physical movement. Luke noted that, “as a performer, as a dancer, if I am watching myself transformed into these digital things, I am no longer necessarily tied only to my corporal body – I am extended into this digital manipulated space”.

For audience members who viewed the livestream, the programmers needed to find ways to effectively communicate what was and was not digitally manipulated. Luke noted that they often did so by working with picture-in-picture visual representation: “If it’s a screen, we can … have the dancer in the top right-hand corner, then the rest of [the screen] showing their effect on [the manipulated digital image], so people can understand that it’s coming from a body.”

Even though Luke and his collaborators used advanced tools that might seem futuristic and unfamiliar to many artists, one of the most innovative parts of the residency was its orientation toward process rather than product. For Luke, process-oriented work allows artists to “be more experimental without worrying about a finished piece”. By contrast, when innovation is product-oriented, Luke believes that it often becomes about “the lowest common denominator of [the equipment] the audiences have. A cap gets put on things as soon as you talk about audiences interacting with it.”

The Challenge: Organizational uncertainty

The residency was programmed during a challenging time for Dancemakers, which had been without artistic leadership for about a year. In November 2020, the board of directors announced plans to shutter the organization. Artistic Producer Natasha Powell joined the organization with a mandate to wind it down, while using its remaining resources for residencies and other activities, which allowed her to program the Liveness residency.

In response to community outcry and a petition with nearly 300 signatures, a new board was convened on February 1, 2021 with the goal of preserving the organization and “honouring Natasha’s programming if she wanted us to”, said its new Chair Brodie Stevenson.

The timing of this organizational change caused uncertainty and delays in the Liveness residency. As such, the residency was not designed to be repeated or have any long-term outcomes, and the artists could not count on future development beyond the week of residency that they spent together.

The Financials: Long-standing core funding and a key partnership

Thanks in part to its 46-year history of valuable work in the dance community, Dancemakers benefits from core funding from all levels of government. As such, the organization had funding for residency projects, which are a core component of its mandate. The participating artists were paid by Dancemakers, but revenue generation was not a key motivator, given the organizational transition that was underway.

The artistic team was able to access leading-edge equipment thanks to a partnership with the Public Visualization Lab at OCAD University. According to its website, the “Public Visualization Lab focuses on how visualization can operate as a critical design and media practice.” As co-director of the Lab, Immony Men was able to contribute equipment to the residency that would have been too expensive to purchase for a one-week residency. For example, motion capture suits cost up to $3,000 each.

Dancemakers received the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy during the time of the residency, but not directly for that work. Nevertheless, having that financial support in place provided enough administrative support to allow the organization to program the residency.

The Liveness residency may have a longer-term financial impact at Dancemakers. The new governance team is hoping to use the learnings from the residency (e.g., footage and other documentation) to strengthen its case for preserving its core funding.

The Takeaway: Innovation as a return to the source

Luke emerged from the week-long residency with a renewed sense of optimism about livestreaming, despite some initial skepticism: “I was seeing livestreaming being used in a lazy way – people thinking they can replace the audience with a camera and just project it out to a screen.” Since Luke had never personally done a livestream before, he thought, “I can’t criticize this without putting my money where my mouth is and trying.” Reflecting on the residency, he feels that “there is a lot to be mined from [livestreaming]. The goal was to use everything it can provide. My hope is that people see the potential to think about livestreaming in a different way.”

By exploring new processes, new dissemination models, and new definitions of dance in the digital realm, Dancemakers is forging a path for the next generation of dance artists. “There is a whole younger generation [of dancers] that doesn’t necessarily want to tour,” explained Brodie. This generational shift implies a major change in the dance world, one that could lead to greater separation between process (creative exploration for its own sake) and product (an audience-oriented, polished final piece). Brodie went so far as to state that he believes that a decoupling of process and product will be a key outcome of the pandemic.

The residency also uncovered new insights about audience behaviour as well as technical elements related to audiovisual quality and compression. Regarding audience behaviour, Luke noted that “people are much more likely to watch if we interrupt their Facebook feed, as opposed to sending out links to something”. On the technical side, the team identified ways to incorporate motion data that did not require expensive equipment like motion capture suits. “There are very interesting capabilities in machine learning to capture motion data to be captured from [simple] video”, said Luke, noting that anyone with a smartphone or digital camera can access and apply these machine learning capabilities to video content that captures movement.

Despite the knowledge gained from the residency, Luke remained “nervous about using the word innovative”. Often, he said, what we think of as innovative is actually a return to the source — to “see commonality between things that might otherwise seem like they are coming from different worlds. The innovation comes from this jigsawing together of different spaces.”

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Carving on the Edge Festival, pre-COVID-19. Photo by Sonja PetersonRock band Helium performs for the cameras during its residency at the Fredericton Playhouse. Photo credit: Lesandra Dodson