The last couple weeks have been lots of fun! With support from the Leverhulme Trust, the Royal Society, Arts Council England, and the EPSRC CHAMPS programme, I’ve been working on a project called “Figuring” at the Wickham theatre in the University of Bristol’s Department of Drama, with a talented team drawn across artistic, scientific, and technological practices. On 21 Sept, we premiered Figuring to an audience of artists, producers, and technologists. This follows on from a previous prototype showing of Figuring at the Knowle West Media Centre, as part of their Commons Sense programme.
The aim of Figuring is to investigate what can be created when moving, sensing bodies are embedded in simulated virtual worlds, and what arises when dance and movement based practices are combined with Narupa, a state-of-the-art multi-person VR framework which has been developed within the Intangible Realities Laboratory over the last several years.
Figuring takes its name from its intention to explore ‘string figures’, in both the real world and also in the virtual world. String figures are created through simple movements of folding, looping, twisting, and knotting strings between the hands, fingers and thumbs of one or more people. They have evolved as a generational mechanism for the transmission of stories, knowledge and value systems. String figures offer a mechanism for connecting bodies like nodes within a network, enabling bodies to feel the dynamics of other bodies through space.
During our time at the Wickham theatre, we worked with a group of dancers to carry out experiments with both physical and virtual strings, enabling us to better understand the dynamics that operate between bodies embedded in both real and virtual environments. For the ‘raw material’ of our virtual strings, we relied on real-time simulations of proteins: the molecular strings from which life is woven. Narupa enables audiences to reach out and touch simulated proteins: folding, looping, twisting, and knotting them.
Despite their virtuality, some Figuring participants reported ‘felt’ sensations whilst manipulating virtual molecular strings. Moving forward, we hope to better understand the origins of such sensations, how they map onto their physical and tangible analogues, and how different sensory and somatic practices might enable us to understand perception across real, virtual and imagined environments.
Figuring represents a collaboration between a diverse team with broad interests, led by myself and dance/movement artist Lisa May Thomas. Alex Jones, Dr. Tom Mitchell, and Prof. Joseph Hyde helped to devise algorithms for generating sound from the virtual string dynamics. Computer Scientist Mike O’Connor and Mark Wannacott played a key role in developing the Narupa’s capabilities, and Helen Deeks provided key advice on human-computer interaction strategies. Dance and movement practitioners included Laila Diallo, Ben McEwan, Bryn Thomas, Ania Varez, Will Dickie, Fernanda Munoz-Newsome and Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot. Production is by Emma Hughes, dramaturgy by Tanuja Amarasuriya, and set design by Phillipa Thomas. Photos are by Paul Blakemore and Silvia Cardarelli-Gronau, and dance film documentation by Adam Laity.