Toni Dove’s extraordinary Artificial Changelings offers the spectator an interactive engagement connecting body movement, perceptual motion and screen imagery. It reconfigures the convention of a spectator’s embodied liveness by linking his or her sensory motion to observed images using movement. Artificial Changelings stalls without a participating spectator’s moving body. It highlights and overcomes the spatial separations of bodies and technologies. Dove’s art, as a spectator ‘sport’, belongs in the twentieth-first century. Her three-dimensional computer-run installation for galleries is a kinetic mobile for a digital age. The spectator (at most two) dances into the images on the screen. I consider that an analysis of the reception of Artificial Changelingsnecessitates more than a conventional critique. This article therefore explores the phenomenology of engagement with the visual text both analytically and as performative writing, following precedents set by Peggy Phelan’s Mourning Sex.
Motion and Movement
The spectator must move her or his arms to activate the sound sensors (hearing) and his or her feet on a segmented rubber pad to activate motion sensors controlling the visual imagery (seeing). The image and sound is contingent on how and where the spectator moves, and if she or he stops moving the screen image slows and freezes. As auteur, writer-director Dove terms her installation an “interactive movie” (Dove, 2000:13). Dove’s installation does not require the spectator to don apparatus or to be wired up to sensors; it reveals the limits of the dominant tactility of interactive technology that reduces a body’s movement to hand action and finger clicking. Although other spectators can watch the interaction of one spectator with the screen as a performance, this is a relatively intimate arena oriented around a screen at one end and bounded by blackout. The cycle of the film is thirty minutes but spectators can determine the length of their engagement by walking in and out of the installation. The spaces of “motility as basic intentionality” (Merleau-Ponty, 1996:137) in Artificial Changelings are contingent on a viewer’s body movement, which negates the premise of inactivity that hides bodily responses to movie action.
I step carefully on to the black rubber, unsure, awkward. My first time. How fast should I move my arms, my hands? Am I waving farewell or flailing to be rescued? What if my body fails me and I can’t find her? Can she find me? I am in her space. My heart accelerates in anticipation. I have been forewarned about the woman on the screen. She appears. It is like that first glimpse of someone dear, there, in shadow moving forward. She moves into my light and my breath brakes hard …
The filmed screen images depict an elegant, beautiful woman. She moves between domestic and dream-like spaces. Spectators are informed beforehand that Dove’s installation features a kleptomaniac in nineteenth-century Paris, and/or a futuristic female cyber hacker. The kleptomaniac is called Arathusa in the opening (non-interactive) credits and the hacker is Zilith. The images reveal the same red-haired performer, Wendy Virow, costumed differently as Zilith and Arathusa. Meanwhile Zilith’s voice belongs to Judy Nylon, Arathusa’s to Colette Berge and the narrator is Jessica Higgins. This installation is created with a video motion sensing system (VNS) developed for the project by David Rokeby; the soundtrack is by Peter Scherer and the programmer is Alex Noyes.
This is interactive virtual reality for romantic sensibilities. It stands in opposition to cyberpunk ‘agro’ widely used in animated game imagery. Dove’s interactivity offers a completely different emotional aesthetic to even the computer-generated aesthetics of architectural design or the surreality emerging from digitised installations like the very innovative work of German-based Jeffrey Shaw (NOTE 1). Dove’s form is sensuous fantasy that circulates in slow time like meandering subjective wanderings, albeit culturally induced ones.
I caress her with the hard metal of unseen machinery, its plastic, silicon and electronic pulses as light. She appears; fleshed grey, turning, spinning around, her white dress ballooning; she is in a sitting room with its old-fashioned furniture. I know this interior space from previous encounters over the years with enticing images of similarly dressed celluloid women. These float to the surface of my imaginative memory massed together, but this time it is special. This time it’s ‘truer’, because I must make the first move in this encounter and keep moving. She appears to me as I might dream her floating phantom, as her dream woman of the future appears when I step backwards. I am dancing unable to take my eyes away from her face. This is not aerobic activity but my body idling softly in the mood.
In the nineteenth century, Arathusa moves through domestic settings spliced with images of small objects that she might have stolen – she is labeled a kleptomaniac. These objects suggest fetishised acquisitions and literary references. Objects: a drawstring cloth bag with sweets not unlike Nora’s macaroons in A Doll’s House, a perfume bottle, jewellery. These imply that the pleasure is more than the thrill of taking it: it is the knowledge of its secret possession.
In the twenty-first century Zilith, dressed in layered combinations of metallic mesh, moves through unnaturally coloured landscapes that recede from her as she speeds across the foreground. She is whisked down time tunnels of light in fast motion to appear in front of a computer screen. Suddenly, again, she appears in a foreign green-brown swamp-like landscape, possibly one she made on her screen. This rate of movement separates the worlds of the two women as if time itself were speeding up.
The spectator’s pad is divided and labeled: close-up, direct-address, trance-dream, and time-tunnel. A group of spectators can be in a fifth space off the pad located directly behind or to the sides. Each century on screen has seven memory sections, seven speech sections and four body sections. Each section has three zones. The managing computer program alternates them and selects randomly. It should balance first person speech with images of the body and spoken acts of remembering.
This raises an interesting possibility that a moving spectator might prefer one section and might be more responsive to the sound of the voice than to images of the body. Although the premise is that the selection is random, the spectator might opt to stand and wave in ways that allow more spoken words and less imagery or vice versa. The spectator’s predilection, consciously or otherwise, ‘motates’ the sequencing of images and sound.
Other people seem to be absent from each woman’s world on the screen. However, in the nineteenth century Arathusa poses momentarily in a drawing room; perhaps she is performing for an off-screen presence as she turns. Is Arathusa playing to the male gaze? The answer might depend on who is viewing and therefore shaping Arathusa’s on-screen actions. The imagery depends on how the spectator moves the screen images with his or her body. The spectator might opt to prolong Arathusa’s drawing room performance, moving forward to find close-up imagery. Because Dove’s installation demonstrates the effects of looking linked to a cultural marked spectator’s body, the work implicates the observing body’s movement habits in the act of looking. The viewing body’s phenomenological responses of sensory motion are interconnected to the selection of movements that shape the screen images.
I step forward on the pad. I lean further forward and she swirls toward me in white, swishing turning, for me. I get closer and her face expands to fill the screen. I am overwhelmed. I only get this close to a lover’s face. The closer I come, the less I see her; her body disappears. Closeness brings her eyes, but it blurs my vision like reflections on steamed-up glass. I see skin but lose the way ahead. Is she mine or am I hers?
I panic. I step backwards three times. Another space descends. I am no longer sure if I am in the immediate screen in front of me or in the space of the computer screen on the screen. A labyrinthine future unfolds. I close my eyes for a moment. The sound continues. I turn and step sideways then open my eyes quickly.
The encounter between a spectator and images on a screen in Artificial Changelingsexposes the way that an engagement with a screen is always embodied and contingent on the sense of motion coursing across watchful and listening bodies. However, such encounters do not usually require action and consequently do not reveal the impact of the spectator’s habits of movement on sensory engagement during viewing. Artificial Changelings evokes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s fleshed visible with an observing body moving in relation to sensory spaces (1995:140). The observing subject’s phenomenal field is not bounded by the flat edges of the screen but extends out around him or her three hundred and sixty degrees (at least to the edge of the rubber mat). The underlying premise of Dove’s interactive installation is that watching bodies will move more body parts than their eyes. A spectator’s habitual corporeal schema (Merleau-Ponty, 1996:142) is evoked and even made visible, its motility aligned with the imperatives of the screen. The kinetic stimulus for this engagement might be determined by hidden machinery, but it is experienced kinaesthetically, by and as a moving feeling body responding to the filmed image of a body in action and/or listening to a woman’s voice and/or sound. If bodily feeling is always motion, when does this motion become movement? Here, the observing body’s phenomenology is culturally marked with its movement.
Liveness and the Senses
I am shy about touching the woman in white with my arms, my feet. Yet she is graciously responsive. She moves to my touch, my hesitation, even my clumsiness. The intimacy of this momentum goes far beyond previous exchanges of this kind with strangers who ignore me and behave as if I am not there, while showing me the hidden details of their bodies. I lunge forward. She appears live to my action.
Artificial Changelings makes transparent the way performance can be completely dependent on the spectator’s sensory responses. The spectator’s live body is a central feature that is made explicit in its movement. Philip Auslander argues that the televisual image has come to dominate liveness, most evident with large-scale events over distance for a mass audience (24-5). However, in this paradigm liveness as a fleshed condition is denied to itself. Liveness becomes reduced to the pulse of light – electronic frequencies of projected light in the larger-than-life screen images attracting the eyes. InArtificial Changelings the images of the two women on the screen are close enough at six feet to be, importantly, in proportion to the viewing spectator’s body. Peggy Phelan’s claim that the ontology of performance cannot be repeated (1993:146), can be extended to considering phenomenological sensory responses to predetermined screen images. Sensory responses are immediate in the present.
Matthew Causey writes that “the inclusion of the televisual screen in performance, and the practice of performance in the screened world of virtual environments, constitutes the staging of the privileged object of the split subject, that which assists in the subject’s division, capturing the gaze, enacting the subject’s annihilation, its nothingness, while presenting the unpresentable approach to the real through the televisual screens” (1999:385). He writes about the reception of such performance as uncanny and also about how the split subjectivity of the actor finds a mediatised representation of a body-self. This encounter takes place in “the nowhere of the psyche and the lived space of the body: the screens” (1999:385). However, body sensations and visible movement seems to disappear into nothingness when the live body and liveness are presumed to be in the psyche’s uncanny.
Dove’s installation locates a live viewing body in a sensory realm engineered by digital technology. In the physical activity of this engagement, a spectator enters a partnership with the screen images that function as imaginative signifiers – a split subject and the uncanny are already represented on film, on the screen – demanding to be rearranged and made visible to others. While liveness is subjectively experienced as sensory motion throughout the body, in Artificial Changelings the liveness of that spectator is also externally visible through movement.
Why do I feel like I’m being seduced? She flirts with her eyes and body language but it is the sensory effect that is seductive. This is not a spurt of desire for a celluloid body in an enticing sex act. There are no kisses here. It is the sensuous brush of her white dress against my skin as I move my arm. My touch extends beyond my body’s skin to recesses in its visible imagining.
This is the seduction of sensory fusion and confusion. My sight feels like touch. Fused together they make me remember smells. She is like vibrant fragile tree blossoms that appear to fall on my skin but leave no sensation. She flows across my sense memory as much as in the sensations of my sight.
I am silent but she speaks, words, sometimes sentences, as if she is trying to tell me what she feels. She confesses when I am close to her face that she is anxious, full of self-doubt. Should I believe her? She seems self-assured in other moments, duelling with me. Do I know her? Have I become too close too fast?
She speaks to put me in that irresistible mood. I recognise its longing as love’s yearning. I’ve heard its musical tone many times before, those cadences of wistfulness. It’s the poet’s voice, the one that speaks longingly of lost moments, absent lovers made perfect in memory, dark pools of wondering. I interpret the mood as sad, existing in the nostalgic spaces of cultural memory. I know this repertoire; there is no anger or frustration here, but bemusement or knowing ironic amusement and possibly subdued grief.
Mood, Emotion and Errant Feeling
If the mood seems to coincide with familiar impressions of nineteenth-century Paris, it is one disseminated in poetic descriptions of the melancholy of failed romances and depictions of artistic suffering. This is cultural nostalgia induced by fictional recreations of European cultural history in literature and in film. If mood is a frame of mind that can be known (Ryle, 1978:81), it can be recreated in art as an aesthetic sensibility because it is known. Dove’s installation presents a mood of melancholic longing. As an Australian spectator, I understand instantly this yearning for a faraway place that is culture’s heart, a Europe that confirms how geographies of distance are also always emotional spaces.Artificial Changelings alludes to common emotional geographies of European identity. If nostalgic melancholy implies looking back to the past selectively, the unfolding action of subjective experience in the present is one of rearranging time, of narrating the past in contrast to narrating the future.
Arathusa in Artificial Changelings seems feminine in sensibility because she delivers the effect of a melancholic mood. The evocation of melancholy has been related to the absence of desire in the feminine self. As Judith Butler argues, “gender identity is a melancholic structure” (1990:69). The Freudian structures of melancholia and femininity are similar in that they deny the existence of female desire. Therefore the mood of melancholy seems feminine and embodied accordingly. Arathusa’s displacement of desire onto inanimate objects in Artificial Changeling confirms the distortion of female desire that has stalled in a melancholic narrative of the past. This mood is not only evocative of the repetitions of cultural memory but their inducement to subjectively remember what is already passed because it can make even sadness pleasurable.
However, melancholia is artificially constructed in Artificial Changelings. It exists at the nexus of embodied languages of gender identity and emotion, rhythm and pacing, music and words, light and imagery. It is represented in the heightened but short-lived emotional intensity of this installation across both the past and the future. Mood is fabricated. It arises in conjunction with the computerised formatting of images.
Zilith might travel with speed but she cannot overcome the mood from the past. In her alluring bravado and incredible dexterity, she is the siren, a hi-tech goddess. She exists in a phantasmatic realm of an elusive ideal, also inducing melancholia.
Does a spectator’s connection to and recognition of melancholic longing come from viewing an unattainable screen body that vitalises, shapes and reshapes his or her imaginings? Perhaps then, this is melancholic nostalgia for the other as a live body that has disappeared in this digital maze.
I’ve heard Arathusa’s voice pattern before. Why is she sad? Who is she grieving for? Is there an absent lover, a lost love? I listen sympathetically to be good company. I wonder if she wants me to distract her from her mood? I don’t like being responsible for anyone else’s sadness.
I am guessing that she is sad. It is like tentative observations at other times before someone confesses to being broken hearted. I know that Arathusa’s speech describes feeling. Can I trust what she says? She is coloured light. It’s my flesh that unites sight and sound together in that shifting, uncertain space of bodily feeling. I translate these into emotions, costume them with words and images. I make up her emotions.
I see the performer on the screen with my doubt. I know that a performer is supposed to tell spectators what he or she feels in the role. What the performer’s body feels remains hidden as it performs emotions prescribed by the setting, the music, the story, someone else. Performers always encourage us to believe that we can know another’s feelings. They give us that false sense of belonging with others. Do I belong here?
I do not feel sad. I feel wonder and amazement, joy and excitement. I think about the performer on the screen. Does she feel what I feel while her performance is trying to manipulate me to feel sad? I recognise sadness but I do not feel it. I see her and hear her mood, as sad melancholy within a theatrical imaginary. All the while the action of making her appear to me leaves me elated and puts my body in the opposite cluster of emotional feeling responses. I try to be sensitive to the disclosure of emotional mood. Whose mood is this? Where does this sensibility come from? But then I am often resistant to what celluloid bodies want me to feel. I am distrustful of their expression even when I enjoy viewing them. I go along with the mood and emotions. Often, I look away as I respond viscerally. I do not turn away here.
Emotions are stabilised as meaningful in language with other cultural signs while bodily feelings are unstable, unpredictable, unknowable to others (NOTE 2). Emotions are not culturally neutral; as Catherine Lutz (1988) shows, they are not natural and as June Crawford et al. (1992) argue, they are gendered in memory. The etymological origins of emotions link ‘to move’ in theatre with eliciting an emotional response from a spectator(NOTE 3). Conventionally, in theatre the performer’s body moves and emotes, and the spectator is moved only in sensory motion, in his or her phenomenologies. Performance seeks empatheia or moving into feeling. In Dove’s installation where a spectator’s body moves, such distinctions are collapsed. As the spectator moves into feeling, there are feelings that arise from bodily moving. However, a spectator’s moves are like his or her feelings and cannot be relied on or predicted. Some spectators’ e/motion might refuse engagement. In other contexts, where emotion denotes the operation of the expressed aspects of feelings that can be observed, interpreted and believed by others, they establish social relationships, although the context for the expression of an emotion is crucial to interpreting it (Bedford, 1962:116). Previous social experiences facilitate an understanding of each new context. Theatrical emotions, however, must be reproduced in conjunction with belief in their circumstances. As Constantin Stanislavski explains, an imaginative image is needed to access emotions for enactment with physical action and their convincing delivery (1955:64). Emotional reactions to acting can be stimulated by recognisable circumstances even when there is no belief in the context. Does belief in the circumstances require a spectator’s body to respond in ways that are socially compatible with the performer’s embodied delivery of emotions?
I try to observe my feelings. Those fleeting momentary fluctuations that pass through me, sometimes a feather’s tickle, a tingling arc; others small electric shocks, a burning flood. When I think about the performer rather than my feelings, I see her performing emotions to engage me, to trick me into feeling in response to her performance. I like the world of her character but do not want to be immersed in her emotions. My body is moving. It is in the feelings of moving bodily that I find excitement, delight, elation.
The mood and emotional spaces of Artificial Changelings arise out of the physical spaces of sensors and digital images. They exist as a readable language. If the spectator is the operator, in theatrical terms, the installation suggests that the spectator becomes a director, someone in control within the constraints of assembling the text. A director might dissect the text into sections and construct the unifying mood.
On screen Arathusa is a historical figure, who possibly dreams of a future where she is in control. She can be sped unnaturally fast through imaginary realms along light flashes. If a hacker like Zilith can manipulate the effect of the screen image, the idea of a hacker implies that Zilith is not in control but must enter the screen illegally. Perhaps she is hacking into the past, into Arathusa’s realm, rather than Arathusa dreaming her.
If I move too fast, will she speed away from me? I feel anxious. I am aware that I am watched as I move. I am part of the performance. I look around the space checking to see that no one else is coming forward to meet her. I am reassured that our encounter is special. Another body would move differently and it would not be the same sensory engagement. Our togetherness belongs to my body and its rhythm, its movement. I am in control. Or am I? There is a moment of doubt. I am making this up as I move but only to a point. I observe that there is some other force in control, hidden in the darkness.
Artificial Changelings sets up images of women to be seen but deliberately makes a spectator visible in the frame and self-aware of complicitness in shaping the viewed performance. This seeing moving body is visible to others who watch from the sidelines. This suggests that a body’s ability to move and its sense of control over bodily movement is implicated in this social act of viewing. This might be due to training or prescriptive social practices around watching certain types of bodies or assumptions of a right to move freely.
A spectator functions bodily in a field of sensible motion that is also always its accumulated tracings of seen motilities. Sensory motion originates in the movement of a culturally specific body. Nick Crossley writes about how embodied phenomenology can be framed within embodied acts that expose social power. In bringing together Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological subjectivity and Foucault’s disciplining regimes, he suggests that it is possible to expand thinking of Merleau-Ponty’s lived body-subject in its phenomenal field as encompassing Foucault’s discursive power structures. This has particular implications for feminist understandings of how bodies exist in structuring loops of powerful surveillance, which select some bodies for viewing and reject others. To what extent is movement also implicated in social identity? Although, as Peggy Phelan states, visibility is not an indication of social power (1993:6), does the movement of a muscular body attract the sensory responses that makes it socially visible? Does movement mark bodies to be seen? If in conventional theory it is invisibility that makes the dominant body-subject powerful, what is the significance of a visible body-subject as the proxy controller in Artificial Changelings? The social machinery that shapes bodily movement is hidden in the darkness but it has a visible effect. The installation exposes how bodily feelings impact on social relationships.
I perform for her, for myself, for others who are silently watching and for the electronic machinery. This is interactive performance that requires more from my body than my mind. My body is directly linked to this imagining as if my thinking becomes an intrusion in these intimate moments. My feeling connects directly with seeing.
Sometimes she is jerky, displeased with me, her speech slowed, her words stuck and nonsensical. An unpredictable swing of arms might not connect to my feet. I want to be graceful, but I’ve no discipline. With practice, I am improving. If I rehearse I could make her speak and move smoothly. I feel the possibility of my power here. She likes my body. She responds with longer glimpses of her life, not just fleeting fragments. I follow her world for longer each time before we are interrupted by the gulf between us. I am curious, intrigued. She dissipates into light.
The activity across and with a spectator’s whole body is obvious rather than camouflaged. What is fascinating about Dove’s installation is how a spectator might recognise feeling responses in direct relation to movement and action in the phenomenal field. This is feeling, however, linked into a chain of unseen electronic machinery and seen light of sensory motion. If the digital screen body floats weightless, spanning gravity and time, the visceral gravity-bound spectator’s moving body can imagine joining the space that promises gravity-defying timelessness.
I know this is a performance of elusive presence and imagined images. Yet I am captivated as if it were part of my own imaginings. I want to know the story here. Arathusa wants to tell me but cannot express it. It becomes like a conversation unfolding over time. As I spend more time with her, her story unfolds as the pieces of a puzzle that I must fit together. I worry that she will not like the story I am making.
Behind Dove’s interactive installation is the premise that a spectator can perform narratives. Images stimulate but also inhibit multiple narrative strands. These fragments originate with a remote author whose imagining is enlarged by a digital skin, and are put together with a spectator whose body extends as far as it can move. If a spectator resists the imperative to seek a coherent narrative out of the sensibility of motion, incoherence is constrained by the screen’s cultural language.
I like the dining room but I do not find us eating together. She moves through it. Does she have dinner elsewhere, with someone else? I enter her bedroom. She is putting her corset on. The objects she steals belong here, not in the dining room, here with us in the bedroom. I want to find what happened before the corset went on. Who left before I came in?
I ask why I keep returning to Arathusa’s world. What is in my body that gravitates to the world of the past more than the future and the hacker? Am I being manipulated? I keep stepping forward to get closer but this takes me away from the future. Is it because the memory of other emotional encounters stored in my cells and evoked in my movement is stronger than the effort to make new ones? Why am I compelled to go forward, which takes me back?
For a spectator who narrativises the experience through the prism of the pre-existing patterns of movement, Artificial Changelings coheres into an unfinished narrative.Perhaps narratives of meaning are always about the movement history of bodies and the ongoing effects of their habitual patterns. The actions of a social body are revealed in this particular encounter as a moving one that thinks (feminist), or a thinking one that moves (ex-performer), which is always inescapably a body feeling e/motion.
I am enjoying this encounter; I do not want it to end.
NOTE 1 Also see Birringer for descriptions of the work of a number of electronic artists.
NOTE 2 Emotional theory discerns how emotions result from an external stimulus or object; it distinguishes feelings from emotions because feelings include physical sensations such as pain, which is not considered to be an emotion (Solomon, 1977:171). Emotions, however, are assumed generally to encompass emotional feelings in conjunction with modes of expression.
NOTE 3 The origins of the word ‘emotion’ are found in the Latin movere, which means ‘to move’’. William Lyons explains that while this indicates a long-standing awareness of how emotions manifest through the physical body, the dictionary defines emotion as a mental state (1980:60).
Auslander, Philip (1999) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge)
Birringer, Johannes (1999) “Contemporary Performance/Technology” in Theatre Journal51 (No.4. 1999), pp.361-381
Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge)
Bedford, Errol (1962) “Emotions” in The Philosophy of the Mind, ed. by V.C. Chappell (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall)
Causey, Matthew (1999) “Screen Test of the Double: The Uncanny Performer in the Space of the Technology” in Theatre Journal 51 (No.4. 1999), pp.383-394
Crawford, June, Kippax Susan, Onyx, Jenny, Gault, Una, & Benton, Pam (1992)Emotion and Gender (London: Sage)
Crossley, Nick (1996) “Body-Subject/Body-Power; Agency, Inscription and Control in Foucault and Merleau-Ponty” in Body and Society Vol. 2 (No. 2. June 1996), pp. 99-116
Dove, Toni (2000) “The Virtual Double” in Movement Research (No. 20. 2000), p.13
Jaggar, Alison (1989) “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” inGender/Body/Knowledge, ed. Alison Jaggar & Susan Bordo (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
Lutz, Catherine (1988) Unnatural Emotions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Lyons, William (1980) Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Phelan, Peggy (1993) Unmarked (London: Routledge)
Phelan, Peggy (1997) Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories (London: Routledge)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1995) The Visible and The Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1996) Phenomenology of Perception, tr. by Colin Smith (London: Routledge)
Ryle, Gilbert (1978) The Concept of Mind (London: Penguin Books, reprint)
Solomon, Robert (1977) The Passions (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday)
Stanislavski, Constantin (1955) An Actor Prepares, Tr. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. (London: Geoffrey Bles, first published 1937, reprinted 1955)