A Dancer Joins a Flock of Birds in a Stunning Cybernetic Performance

Dancers fuse with the artificial life program Boids in artist and technologist Enrica Beccalli’s interactive project, ‘Complessità.’

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Jul 8 2016, 4:45pm

Images courtesy the artist

Take a look at a flock of birds weaving through the sky. Like the schoaling of fish, this behavior is an extraordinary example of emergence, where smaller entities assemble into larger, coordinated systems. Designer and digital artist Enrica Beccalli was particularly struck by this behavior one day while staring at a massive flock of starlings covering the skies over Rome in stunning complexity.

Beccalli, a Fulbright Scholar who studied design and technology, lost herself in the “murmuring flock” and the structural beauty of nature. Inspired, she began mentally sketching out the idea for a project she calls Complessità (Italian for “complexity”), an interactive performance piece that features an algorithm which, through a wearable device, controls a dancer’s movements, synchronizing it to the weaving of a flock of digital birds. In other words, the dancer becomes part of the emergent flock.  

“Through Complessità I wanted to represent how big the impact of ‘the whole’ on each one of us is in modifying our behavior,” Beccalli recalls to The Creators Project. “To do so I decided to make an experiment where the performer was choreographed by something that he couldn’t control—bigger than him or her: Nature. The performer becomes one of those birds as a metaphor of our role within life.”

Hacking the human body seemed to be the only meaningful way Beccalli could achieve her goal. After months of research Beccalli got the support of interaction designer Aisen Caro Chachin, who had found a YouTube tutorial on how to build a Galvanic Vestibular Stimulator (GVS), a device that sends electrical messages to a nerve in the ear that controls balance. The tutorial’s creator, Paolo di Prodi, soon became Beccalli’s mentor throughout the entire process of turning the GVS into an interactive wearable device.

In Complessità, the GVS allows the human figure and body movements to be explored from the virtual to the biological. When stimulation is applied to electrodes fixed to the back of each of the performer’s ears, it forces the dancer to sway either to the left or the right according to the flock’s movements.

Complessità transforms the algorithm into the choreographer and the performer into one of the birds,” Beccalli explains. The flocking birds algorithm is based on Boids, an artificial life program.

“The algorithm is a simulation of autonomous agent behaviors made in openFrameworks and based on code by Craig Reynolds and Daniel Shiffman,” Beccalli says. “Cohesion, separation, alignment, and multiple other forces are what generate the visual outcome.”

Beccalli hopes Complessità forces audiences to question concepts of autonomy and free will, as well as power and the collective. She also would like the project to make people think about the role of technology in modifying and altering the human body and behavior.

“The scope is a cultural shift from ego-centrism to eco-centrism,” she says. “Contrary to the presumptions of anthropocentrism, we are all at the mercy of complexity but its intangible characteristics makes it very hard for us to understand that we are part of a whole—without a center—to which we are fundamentally tied.”

Beccalli most recently staged Complessità in collaboration with artist Roula Golmieh as the closing act of the Tribeca Film Festival Interactive, with performer and choreographer Tony Bordonaro dancing. She also staged it at the closing event of the Creative Tech Week with the performer Lynn Neuman, artistic director of the Artichocke Dance company.

Complessità - A Human At The Mercy Of An Algorithm from Enrica Be on Vimeo.

Click here to see more of Enrica Beccalli’s work.

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