Dancing with drones

As I near the end – at last! – of my essay on drone strikes in Pakistan, “Dirty Dancing“, I’ve stumbled – the mot juste, given how long it’s taken me to finish the thing – on two very different performance works, both called ‘Dancing with Drones‘.

Dancing with drones 1

First, a dance-technology collaboration from Australia between dancer Alison Plevey and artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski.  This is from a thoughtful commentary by Ann Finnegan:

Of drone warfare, Grégoire Chamayou has written the world is a ‘hunting ground.’ ‘The target is unable to retaliate, no quarter can be given in last-minute surrender, and only one side risks being killed’. Chamayou is writing of the extreme circumstance of war, but in many respects, Plevey in her dance-off with the drone, is hunted, a contemporary Acteon, who in Greek myth was hunted by a pack of dogs intent on tearing him to pieces. Plevey comes across as the innocent, occupying a subject position that could be occupied by anyone. While there is a charm to the mimetic sequences and to the innocence of the initial scenes of ‘playing chasey’ with the drone, the dance-game is also akin to those more vicious games of children that quickly turn.

Filmed in big nature, down by a river in the wilds of Bundanon estate [in New South Wales], the dancer-drone partnership is intriguing, somewhat bizarre, an unlikely dance duo, initially suggesting disturbed bucolic innocence. Two regimes of movement seemingly accommodate each other: the curious drone, the responsive human. There’s a mixture of charm and mild annoyance; the drone hobby toy friendly in size, rising and falling in sequences akin to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, no more a menace than the buzzing of a gnat or a bee.

As the dance progresses [and the video projection moves back to Carriageworks in Sydney] the emotional register shifts: pleasure, annoyance, charm, resistance, and eventually submissive acceptance. The disturbing note is that the drone is an invasive species, a technologized interface with nature, intruding into the peaceful ecology with a movement regime that progressively subjugates the human. Given its range of movement, from hovering physical intimacy to the dramatic shifts of its vertical climbs, the drone is an unequal dance partner, an undefeatable adversary. What the dance sequence makes clear is that no matter how brilliant her dance, no matter how fluid, graceful and subtle her human body movements, she will be no match for the superior movements of a drone piloted at a distance by an unseen program or programmer…

Chamayou doesn’t shirk from calling out the ‘inhuman operation [of] a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe’, of the potential for drones to target anyone, anywhere, from any satellite mapped point of the world. Furthermore, drones have a capacity for actions at a distance, the like of which the world hasn’t seen before: the ability to group, hover, pursue. If computer were touted in the 1990s as multipurpose machines incorporating calculators, typewriters, cameras, CD players, graphic interfaces, radio, and so on, drones combine a camera with several movement modes: the up and down of helicopters, with the horizontal lines of flight of arrows, missiles and aeroplanes.

The darker notes of Plevey and Cmielewski-Starrs’ collaboration drive these points home, especially when the performance arena is invaded by the live presence of a drone. Plevey is no longer alone on stage dancing with and against the cinematic image of herself and the drone. Her drone combatant has now physically entered the space. This radically recalibrates the experience of the audience, who no doubt subliminally reason that relative safety precautions have been taken. After all, viewing big, dangerous nature from a point of safety has always been key to enjoyment of the sublime. Though the appearance of the drone will most likely trigger a rapidly suppressed involuntary adrenalin reaction—the fight or flight response—this suppression, as in the experience of the sublime, is part of the work’s physical thrill. Whilst certainly the onstage drone is not of war machine scale, not loaded with weaponry, nor combat ready, any audience member would still be very much aware of its capacity to harry, and select quarry other than the dancer onstage.

The gendered aspect of the performance, with an unarmed female quarry, draws further allusions to inadvertent attacks on civilians in combat zones.

The second work comes from a team in Hungary.  Initially a team led by Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at Eötvös University in Budapest created what they called ‘flying robots that communicate with each other directly and solve tasks collectively in a self-organized manner, without human intervention.’  Then, in collaboration with Nina Kov, an artist and choreographer based in the UK, the team developed ‘tools facilitating the interactivity between drones and humans’ and – in stark contrast to the first performance work – staged a ‘cooperation between [a] group of drones and humans through movement, which is instinctive and enjoyable…’  The result is a multi-media entertainment that is intended to show ‘the peaceful, civil and creative applications of drones, made possible by the collaboration between high level scientists and artists.’

You can see some of the preparations for the production in this video from YouTube:

And the stage performance at the Sziget Festival in 2015 in this one:

But you really ought to watch the video here, which opens with the disarming statement that

‘No computer-generated images were used.  No pilots, no pre-programmed routes, only dance and interactions.’

You won’t be surprised to learn that ‘Dirty Dancing” is closer in spirit to the first performance.  But both projects provide considerable food for thought about the incorporation of performance as a vital moment in analytical research, no?  (For my own, beginning attempts at a performance-work see here; this is drama, but I’ll be working with Wall Scholar Peter Klein on a musical collaboration around parallel themes, and now I’m starting to think about video and dance too…  But not until ‘Dirty Dancing’ is done!).

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