Founded by Marenka Krasomil in 2016, the online residency x-temporary.org is a platform to work with artists in a digital space, to present ideas, and develop artistic concepts. The current resident is Rotterdam-based artist Joana Chicau, who investigates the possible connections between – and coexistence of – choreography and media design, aiming to open the possibilities for new aesthetic, energetic and social dimensions in design production processes. In June, she performed the live coding performance (un)System of Reference by simultaneously combining the theoretical body of the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation and programming tools. In the interview with Carolin Schulz, Joana Chicau explains the ideas behind her concept of choreographing design/ designing choreographies and talks about the awareness of nowadays people concerning digital and virtual habitudes.
Carolin Schulz: In your current project for x-temporary.org you take the theoretical body of the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation (EWMN) as a point of reference to investigate choreographical strategies with the means of programming tools. Your background is in dance and graphic design. Do you generally start your investigations with different types of dance styles?
Joana Chicau: Yes, I started by investigating postmodern dance. I was collecting scores from different choreographers and analysing their way of ‘writing dance’. The second genre I dove into was Tango, which I investigated during a residency in a coproduction of Untref/Espacio Nixso and V2_ Lab for the Unstable Media. Then EWMN which can be said to be part of the postmodern turn in dance as it shares many of the choreographic and thematic concerns as well as the experimental approach of that time period. Soon I will be doing a research program in Tokyo, where I will collaborate with Butoh dancers and choreographers to construct a new ‚choreographic-code’ piece.
CS: Are the body and the movement rather a tool or a method for your practice?
JC: My departure point is a choreographic thought or system. I mainly analyse what ideas are guiding the movement of the bodies. In other words, I ask: What makes one’s body move? I am usually connected to a dance context and there are many voices even within a specific dance genre. Every choreographer has its own independent ideas and methods. For me it is important to understand both the ‘generic rules’ from a choreographic genre as well as the deviations, exceptions or focus points from individual choreographers.
My practice is mainly about writing — writing code. Therefore I focus on language. Even in the choreographic sphere I look for the verbalization of dance, how do choreographers and practitioners ‘talk dance’. My investigations always combine movement and dance practice with interviews and conversations. From the two sources I build a new syntax, which I call ‚choreographic-graphic-code’. The choreographic thinking becomes the input for questioning conventional methods in media design production. It both transforms and is embedded in my methodology which leads to the making of my own (writing) tools.
CS: Concerning the coding of languages you use for the performances: Choreographic coding, like EWMN, has special rules and an apparent limited system of expression in comparison to our language where verbal and nonverbal expressions are quite free for interpretation. Do you sometimes feel limited when it comes to these “in betweens” a certain person is using? Or did you find a way to transfer these components into your programming language?
JC: I will start answering by quoting Cox and McLean from their book Speaking Code, which became a great influence in my work: “In every sphere of human action, grammar is the establishment of limits defining a space of communication.” (Cox and McLean, 2012) and I add: For every limit created there is the possibility to traverse it. Every language is a construction and requires a shared understanding of it. ‘Natural languages’ are shared amongst a great group of individuals, whereas technical languages are often restricted to niches of society and require a strong interest in its field of application. For me what is interesting to reflect upon is the fact that even technical languages such as computer code and choreography, which are in principle used to define elements with precision, are also ambiguous to a certain extent. The lexicon and syntactic ambiguity are for me the ‚in betweens’ that I am interested in exploring and in bringing to the surface of the screen. For example, in computer programming, there are many standard ways of calling functions and defining instructions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do otherwise. In my performance pieces, I name certain functions after choreographic concepts which reflect different view points from choreographers and choreographic genres. And while ‘moving words’ from different contexts, I feel like I am exploring both the meaning and limits of both coding and choreographing. I find it important to counteract the singularity of formal languages and conventions in both fields and ‘move’ towards “a babelization of idiosyncratic instructions” (Van Imschoot, 2005) — to open up discourse. This process gets more interesting to me when performing live and writing coding functions is the instance of time between writing and seeing the actual result or manifestation. This “in between” that we can now refer to as the “time in between”, is also what allows the audience to speculate, to imagine and come up with their own interpretations.
CS: After the theoretical body and choreographic thought as the departure point; how essential is the process, the moment for you whilst the performance? How can I imagine, if this is this improvised or planned? And would you describe a performance as a final result?
JC: I think there is no static outcome, rather an open format that may evolve in future iterations. I think this comes very much from the choreographic influence and the idea of something constantly being done; never finished and never truly repeating itself.
For me, the performance becomes essential as a creative methodology; each performance or act is an opportunity for generating and discovering new and other possibilities. Even though I base my performances in a script that I have written a priori. Those are guidelines and there is always room for improvising. This is the difference between writing scripts and performing scripts. The performative aspect of the act of coding is a way to make visible the interactions between scripts and its interrelation with choreographic thought. Thus revealing the processes behind the screen, and making the procedural, conceptual and technological layers presented more transparent. From the media perspective, it is important for me to allow the audience to follow the steps at a technical level. The way the piece unfolds also reflects the technical conditions of the performance: from the internet infrastructure to the often indeterminate interactions between scripts and the computer. All these nuances create rhythmic patterns and flow which is part of the transient character of coding. These contingencies are what makes each performance unique. Overall I must say there is a great sense of ‚extemporization’. The screen becomes an open stage, providing the audience the access both to the methodology and the tools used during the performance.
CS: The movement of the web page, and you, moving inside of it: are you two performers connected via the metronome as are the two or more performers in the Noah Eshkol videos? Of kind is your relation between you and the webpage?
JC: In my performances I am the dancer or mover, as much as the choreographer or coder. In the piece I start by writing the choreographic script which defines a random motion and ‚scrolling‘ in the webpage. I then respond to this movement with movements from Eshkol-Wachman dance group and by following the spherical system of coordinates from EWMN. Then a series of synchronous actions follow. That happens between me and the machine. A continuous reading — responding, perhaps a dialogue made out of movement.
CS: When you code, the programming itself and web pages are becoming more physical and audible. In our times, the nature of facts or algorithm structures of web pages and searching machine are not visible and stay anonymous. How important is the disclosure of processes in general for you and making the people more aware about it?
JC: My question is when ‘artificial language’ as computer code takes over most of our communication and the interactions between ourselves and other beings, shouldn’t we all be more conscious about it? In the very beginning of my research project I started by making short exercises for experiencing code (performing, re-enacting, sensing). Making more physical as in more tangible. I find it extremely important to insist on the performative side of code, software is not a ready-made thing. I believe this collective gathering is of great importance to create and empower shared awareness. In my performance I aim at creating this collective momentum for experiencing new ways of seeing programming tools and environments. A way to take language and vocabulary as counter or re-conceptualisation: presenting new words to express and grasp the complexity behind the computer screen. I will finish also with very interesting words from the text Dividing and sharing by Femke Snelting, a member of Constant: “If you think about webdesign as the work of articulation, of making temporary alliances which somehow have the potential to bring perspective to the data presented. Then design has to go deeper than skin. It means to engage in the untidy interdisciplinary practice of rendering visible relations between database architecture, filtering and structure of data itself. Each time data appears in a new context is a rewriting, restaging and reinterpretation. For that to happen in meaningful ways, code, content, behaviour and presentation need to mix and mingle.” (Snelting, 2006).
Joana Chicau is resident on x-temporary.org for the months of May and June.
Carolin Schulz is a curator and art historian, based in Berlin, Germany. She studied German language and literature and art history in Halle/Saale and Paris. Currently she is finishing her MA in curatorial studies at the Goethe-Universität and Städelschule Frankfurt am Main. She has worked for Ludlow 38 at the Goethe-Institut New York, at the dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel. Her theoretical research comprises the interaction between art and society and curating as communicating.
Featured image: (un)System of Reference (2017), Joana Chicau