High-Tech Dance Project Turns Performers' Bodies Into An Augmented Nervous System

Using myoelectric sensors, French art collective bypass human-body logics to create <i>PU_P3TS</i>, an experimental art performance.

Controlling the human nervous system: just a dream from scientific eras gone by? Not quite. Japanese artist Daito Manabe has already shown the world his talent as a “human body hacker.” By applying electrical stimuli to the muscles of his face, or by using a pair of motion-reading “slave fingers”, Manabe is able to link the human nervous system to sound-generating apparatus, creating music. 

Today, this experimental practice has become a favourite of artists seeking to change, or at least question, our perception of how technology affects our spirit, our actions and our interactions, by using the human body as an artistic medium. 

That’s the experimental nut that French interdisciplinary art collective Le Clair Obscur has been trying to crack since 2011 with @, a multimedia research lab comprising several projects.

PU_P3TS, the third and most recent element of the @ project, is a computer-assisted performance piece that stands at the crossroads of dance, theatre, and the incorporation of new technology into performance art. By encouraging a candid dialogue between humans and technology, PU_P3TS explores the phenomenon of synaesthesia, the functions of the human spirit, and the terrain of the human consciousness. 

The key to the experiment is the use of myoelectric sensors on the performers. Thanks to the unique technology employed, the neurological signals which activate muscle action are allowed to bypass the brain, acting directly on the muscles themselves.

In an almost sci-fi setting, the PU_P3TS “guinea pigs” evolve, their bodies nourished and moved by an influx of data and signals, essentially transformed into a super nervous system.

To better understand the practices and subtleties of Le Clair Obscur’s latest project, we spoke to Frédéric Deslias, the company’s founder.

Since its creation in 2001, Le Clair Obscur has brought artists from completely different practices together, including those from digital arts. That concept is elaborated upon the most in @, because all the disciplines seem to converge on one project. Can you tell us more about the path Le Clair Obscur followed in developing @? 
Le Clair Obscur was born of the encounter between a musician and a visual artist at the University of Performing Arts (in 2001), and we’ve grown into a core group that has several satellites, especially when it comes to the @ project. Nohista developed the visual identity and video elements of the @ project. There’s Gael L., my closest collaborator, who is a multicard hacker. Olivier Guillerminet develops most of the software and generative interfaces. Finally, PU_P3TS is the result of a special collaboration with Fabrice Planquette.

Although our work is focused on sonic and visual elements, on discovery, research and development, the technology we use becomes the central focus of the project, and takes over the leading role. 

How does the multidisciplinary aspect of @ help to open up the discussion on the relationship between humans and new, emerging technologies?
These days, I speak more of synaesthesia than of multidisciplinary work, because our senses have become intrinsically linked and inseparable. We live in an era of technological development that seeks to break down the barriers between humans and machines. Microsoft, Apple, and Google try to monopolize that market, mostly through imaginative marketing.

Our interfaces are increasingly more immersive and instinct-driven, and they’re becoming more fun. They also create new cognitive connections which affect how we see the world. We live in a global practice of scanning the world. This is Big Data.

We used to dream of cyborgs, and that’s happening now. Differently, of course, through the Internet, which is an amazing medium. A medium that infiltrates our minds. It’s mutating us. Our challenge isn’t to merely produce or publicize these interfaces, but to push their critical limits. We also push humanity to question itself sensitively, to consider the shift in the vital functions of our bodies, and on the merits of this race to “progress".

Now onto PU_P3TS. Can you give us details on the set up and technical/technological elements of the performance?
It begins with two dancers, who lie in the core of our machine, and who then move over a video interface on the ground. Above them, at 45 degrees, we suspend a giant 16:9 mirror.

Two computers control the audio, light, video, and laser effects. The dancers are connected to the computers via Arduino, through 20 muscle stimulators. We track their movement, shapes, and positions through two Kinect systems, and soon, we’ll track their muscle activity. The software we use are Max/MSP and openFrameworks programs, Ableton Live, Resolume.

The myoelectric sensors is one of the key elements of the performance, allowing for technology to control humans, and almost make them into slaves. However, it can also be seen as a circular relationship in which the dancers and stimulators influence one another through their continuous actions and reactions. How would you define the role of the body in this work?
The Sport-elec machines are a new attempt to control the human body through machines. They’re most effectively used for functional rehabilitation or physiotherapy, and have even allowed for individuals to re-learn to walk after a stroke.

We’ve hacked that capacity and applied it to dance. The initial idea was to create artificial patterns of movement, for example, to create rhythmic or synched-up movement in a group of dancers—a body/media synaesthesia. However, our experiences have led us beyond that.  

With only 20 stimulators, we can only control the dancer’s external muscular shell, which doesn’t produce a complex movement. But because the stimulators contract the muscle, they still demand a sense of abandon from the dancer, who surrenders his body to the computer. It controls the muscles without passing its demands through the brain. It’s very weird to experience and observe. It creates a kind of synthetic trance.

The accumulation of the machine’s quickening pulses eventually overwhelms the bodies of our dancers. The machine’s movements and timing are accurate and meticulous than the body’s natural rhythm. As we played with that, we arrived at a choreography, something hybrid and mutant.

Besides the aesthetic element of the performance, you also have a pedagogical objective: to change our perception of how new technologies affect us. What are your scientific objectives, if any?
Our ideas and our workshop are still very open. We’re willing to go further, to study the control of movement and muscle capture more closely, but that goes beyond the type of hacking we’re doing now, and we would need a laboratory to go further. We don’t aim for a total body-control by machines—that would be a bad omen for humanity. It would make us consider our own bodies as our biggest handicap.

Another module of the @ project which we’re working on with neuroscience researcher Corinne Jola will try to capture neurological data and interpretation of emotions. It’s an exciting project which has already given way to a performance piece called @.2:SleepingBeauty

Finally, since PU_P3TS is still in development, the performance will probably continue evolving. Can you give us any details about the current tasks?
PU_P3TS still has some challenges ahead. The main one is to establish a back-and-forth between the muscles and the machine recording and playing sounds. The first phase of the project is based on achieving the control to synchronize and move the body. 

Once we get standing, we try walking, and then dancing. But it isn’t easy. We’re always looking into how the body and machine can harmonize and work together to make fine, specific movements, a balance between the machine and neurofeedback. Choreographic patterns could be a good support in achieving this. And working with two dancers always opens new levels of interconnectivity.