Jester in the Router: Multi-site Performance Using The Internet

By Edward C. Warburton

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Imagine artistic and cultural exchange on a worldwide scale. One where live, truly collaborative performing arts events occur on a regular basis at multiple locations simultaneously, not simply connecting a few sites or broadcasting shows to ballparks, but linking theatres and performance studios with classrooms and public spaces in rich telepresence, interactive experiences in virtual venues all over the world. The next generation of telematic performance will rely on advanced cyber infrastructure platforms that will enable distributed digital media arts practices using high definition audio and video, distributed computation, high performance optical networks, and interactive media environments. This is the future, not fantasy. A brave new performance practice that will bring new meaning to Shakespeare’s famous line, “all the world’s a stage,” with actors, computer scientists, dancers, designers, engineers, musicians, visual artists, technologists of all stripes and colors playing creative roles in live, online, simultaneous, distributed performances.

I’ve glimpsed this future. Over the past several years, I have conceived and directed telematic dance performance events connecting UC Santa Cruz to points north and south. On one remarkable occasion, in particular, I held my breath in a theatre filled with excited energy and anticipation, and I witnessed such artistic and cultural exchange. It was a lubricious transfer, a bi-coastal dance performance event, technologically radical, and my knuckles were white the entire time.

Five minutes to curtain. The stage manager’s control booth looks like a scene out of Apollo 13. Research assistants, board operators, and network technicians stare intensely at cameras, computers, and television monitors. I check the status of our network connection. It has been unusually slow all week, busy with heavy traffic. But this is not an everyday event, not a normal network, and certainly not the time for a stalled connection. Tonight, performers in New York and California are preparing for Lubricious Transfer, a collaborative work specifically developed for simultaneous live performance at two sites connected by the Internet. Technically, it requires continuous two-way streaming of 6 channels of video and 12 channels of audio. For our performance to work, we need guaranteed, uninterrupted connectivity of approximately 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Consumer grade DSL connection is about 10 Mbps. For now, the live feeds show clear signals. We see the stages and hear the audiences.

Ever since Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway received funding from NASA to bring remote participants together to dance in the Satellite Arts Project (1977), artists and performers have converged across time and space to produce what has been called “telematic” art. Today, “net” artists interact via computers, digital media and telecommunications systems in an aesthetic context that harkens back to the work of French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and the Dada arts movement, which championed the random as a means of expression. Inspired by Dadaism, choreographer Merce Cunningham worked with musician John Cage to develop a method known as “Chance Operations,” creating dance and musical phrases using dice, cards, or coins to determine order, number of repetitions, direction and spatial relation. The net analogue of such instructions is ‘code’: the algorithms or set of steps for solving problems that form the basis of all software and computer operations. Net artists embrace the bugs and viruses that these codes carry – jesters in the routers, so to speak – accepting mistakes, artifacts and ruptures as emergent properties of a technologically mediated environment.

Curtain time. I look at the clock, glance at the monitor. I feel the stage manager’s eyes on me. I take a deep breath and nod. She smiles tensely. I watch house lights darken in New York and then in California like a rapid eclipse of the sun. I hear the technical director speaking into his headset. Fifty cast and crew coast-to-coast are all ears. Places. Lights, cameras and computers set. Cue 1: GO. The stages glow as that familiar “Connecting…” symbol projects onto 16’ tall screens encirclingthe stages, illuminating the performers. A geeky, squawking ‘handshake’ sound-file plays the forgotten noise of interacting telephone modems from yesteryear. The ellipses flash in sequence. It’s an insider’s joke that everyone knows. I hear the ripple of laughter cascade from California to New York and back again. It’s a quintessential moment of shared experience, all pretension dropped. Three, two, one.

The modern day Internet is a publicly accessible, worldwide system of interconnected computer networks that transmit data. Despite the tendency to think of networks as connecting computers, they actually connect people using computers to mediate the exchange. The last obstacle to communication is bandwidth, not content. Because interactive multimedia requires multiple stages of processing, transmission takes time. Congested networks mean greater delays. The longer the delay, the more you wait for something, anything to come across the blank screen. In radio, unexpected silence is called dead time. In the world of net artists, it’s called…

Nothing. I search the monitors. Blank. I look on-stage where the “Connecting” ellipses flash mockingly … where’s New York? In California, a quick-witted stagehand strolls on stage with a dry mop, sweeping around the dancers, whispering hold. The audience roars its approval. They think it’s staged. I can’t breathe. A split second later we hear the roar from California to New York and back again. A portal opens.

The images of dancers in New York pop onto the screens in California (and visa versa). The audiences gasp, stunned into silence. The control booth thumps with the muted sound of fists pumping. The technical director barks out orders, coordinating the tangle of crew and cables that connect computers, digital artists, networks, videographers and sound operators to the performers on-stage. The stage manager smiles tensely. We may be surfing on our feet, but the wave is in control and the ride has just begun.

We billed Lubricious Transfer as a dance experiment in transcontinental collaboration using the Internet to broadcast to local and remote audiences in Santa Cruz and New York City. We were inspired by the ways electricity transmits the expressive and sensual nature of the human form–neuro-muscularly between mind and body, visually between embodied form and a viewer’s eyes, and technologically in data streams between East and West coasts. In this last way, we envisioned remote performers united in an aesthetic interplay.

30 seconds on. The middle screen is flashing on, off, on, off. It creates a surreal, slightly irritating vision, as though someone is flipping a light switch. Is it the network, the computer processor, the video camera streaming from New York, the projector displaying the image in California, or just a ghost in the machine? Later, I am told that the audience thought it was an innovative turn, making the experience hyper-mediated by simulating the flickering image of a congested network. I am not that clever and, at the moment, I am not amused. I turn to the technical director and give him a pleading look. Please. Make. It. Stop. As though on cue, he reaches down and pushes in a cable the last -nth of an inch. Like magic, we return to a clear, crisp, non-flickering image of New Yorkers dancing across a California stage.

Under normal circumstances, delay, or latency, is expected, even anticipated in distributed performance: the contemporary equivalent to random variation in Dadaism. With advanced networking, the latency of signals sent from one stage to the other was roughly 100 milliseconds, or about the speed of a blink of an eye. A more important metric, however, is round-trip latency. Consider a dancer performing in California. The image arrives in New York in a blink of an eye. Another performer in New York sees that and moves in response. The audience in New York sees both together, but the audience (and performers) in California sees the New York contribution 200 milliseconds after the first movement was performed in California. Absolute timing is impossible. One of our artistic challenges, therefore, was to make clear that two groups of dancers on opposite ends of the country were performin together, interacting live. As my New York-based creative collaborator, Ben Munisteri, put it: “Here is a litmus question we must ask ourselves during the creation of this piece: How is this different than if live dancers merely performed with recorded images on stage?”

Mid-point. The dancers transform into streaks of color on screen. We’ve raised the stakes by adding another element into the data processing. We’re manipulating the video feed from New York on the fly, using the graphical programming environment Jitter from Cycling ’74. It adds color and special effects to the projected images. We see dancers’ bodies outlined in white, turned electric blue and then saturated in a sea of saffron orange. Movements are shifted in time, repeated and reversed. The images are enlarged to giant size then disappear in a burst of stars. Each effect brings a new surprise, eliciting audience exclamations. All eyes are riveted to the scene as present and projected dancers converge, merge, and separate.

Net art and distributed performance are motivated by all the same things as other art forms: desire, ideology, technology, and the urge to communicate a memory, experience, or ordeal. But it is also propelled along by a peculiar passion for experimentation. A common criticism is that any work that begins with or exists within the Internet environment could never rise above that limit to achieve the status of art. I disagree. In our work, we tested the limits of immediacy, navigating past the commercial format normally associated with browsers and pop-up windows, to amplify the themes of presence/absence, transmission, information and networks formerly investigated by minimalism and post conceptual art. We turned the idea of randomness on its head. We wanted controlled overload, planned deconstruction of space and time, less spectacle for the sake of spectacle. We envisioned images that would unite, rather than colonize, bodies in the electronic fetching of information and attention.

Finale. Dancers on both coasts move into formations that create the illusion of a never-ending line disappearing into the horizon through a trick of space and time. In reality it is a circle, bending from California to New York and back again. The piece concludes with slow falls, fading lights, and a last leap through the liquid (silver spandex) screens to the other side. Connection … complete.

The irony of course is that what we achieved was in spite of overwrought theorizing. The most satisfying moments were unplanned, ruptures in the script. Our attempt to harness the power of the Internet – much in the way dancers harness the kinetic energy of their bodies – broke down in the face of unexpected variations in latency and design. Our clean, streamlined choreography became enmeshed at times in a miasma of images and bodies. In the end, perhaps the most compelling aspects were not artistic or technical, but the sense of creative kinship and cultural exchange generated by such projects. The technical challenges require individuals to collaborate across disciplines and traditional roles, choreographing on one side of the room and then stepping over (literally and figuratively) to the other side to work with programmers and designers. Indeed, to create a multi-site, shared experience using an interactive media environment and high-bandwidth networking technology is to create a new kind of community, a new kind of world. One where the resources of the World Wide Web are not merely repurposed for creative ends but are also electronically enlivened and enriched through the intersection of embodied, humanizing chaos on our ordered, technological societies.

Edward C. (Ted) Warburton is Associate Professor of Dance and graduate faculty in the Digital Arts / New Media program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This work was made possible by research grants from New York University and the University of California. Visit to read more about the future of telepresence and interactive performance.