The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

May 7, 2009

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 7 May 2009 17:50:56 -0400 (EDT)
From: Alan Sondheim <>
Subject: [-empyre-] abstract gestures / digital virtuality

Hi -

I've been following this discussion and thought the best way I might 
participate is to describe the work that I've done with Foofwa d'Imobilite and 
others over the past decade or so. We went from using video and audio tracks 
accompanying choreography, to work in Blender and Poser. The Poser work was 
created from bvh (Bio-Vision Hierarchy) files produced with motion capture 
(mocap) equipment that used 21 sensors electromagnetically interacting with an 
antenna. The antenna fed sensor signals into a hard- wired 486 microprocessor 
that output coordinates; these were fed into a second computer that created the 
bvh files themselves. we modified the sensors in a number of ways - some 
through the software interface, and some with limb assignment and position. We 
did a piece called heap for example - the sensors were dropped in a heap and 
the bvh file fed into Poser. We did a star piece, arranging the sensors in a 
star formation on the floor and inverting it by exchanging +r from a sensor 
position to -r. We also reassigned sensors in several ways - dividing them 
between two bodies, remapping inversely onto a single body, and so forth. All 
of this produced bvh/Poser mannequins that were used as projections in live 
per- formance, or chroma-keyed over dance/performance video.

All of this work was at West Virginia University's Virtual Environments Lab, 
headed by Frances van Scoy. I received an NSF consultancy through Sandy Baldwin 
and NYSCA grant; through the former, I had a grad assistant from software 
engineering, Gary Manes, to assist me. We went into the mocap software itself 
and Gary rewrote it, creating a dynamic/behavioral filter interface, which 
would produce transforms from the sensor output - before the 3-d assignment to 
bvh was made. This was modeled on graphic software filtering, but the 
assignments were different - we applied a function f(x) to the coordinates 
and/or modified the coordinate mechanism or input streams themselves. The bvh 
files that were produced were sent into Poser for editing; in some cases, Poser 
mannequin video was output. But more and more, we edited in Poser to format the 
bvh for upload to Second Life; this way we had live 3-d performance based on 
the transforms. This performance could interact within Second Life itself - 
with other online performers and audience - or through projection, without 
Second Life, in real-space where performers might interact with the avatars.

The bvh files are complex and avatars perform, most often at high-speed, with 
sudden jumps and motions that involve them intersecting with them- selves. The 
motions appeared convulsive and sometimes sexualized. Foofwa d'Imobilite used 
projects direct from Poser - about 100 files - as part of Incidences, a piece 
produced in Geneva and widely shown. Foofwa, along with Maud Liardon and my 
partner, Azure Carter, also imitated avatar move- ment - and this fed back, 
from dance/performance into programming and pro- cessing; at times it has been 
impossible to tell whether a particular motion stream originated on- or 

I've always been interested in the psychoanalytics of dance/performance, 
beginning with Acconci's and Anderson's early work years ago. With Sl/ live 
performance, we've been able to explore these things - particularly issues of 
abjection and discomfort, sexuality/body/language - directly. Two other modes 
of representation have been of great use - modified 3-d scanner modeling 
programs (also from the WVU VEL), and Blender assign- ment, for example, of 
metaballs to nodes; using both of these, we've been able to create avatars that 
have no relation to the body whatsoever, but whose movement is impelled by 
mocap files. These appear almost like dream objects undergoing continuous 

In SL, everything is pure, digital, protocol, numeric; by 'smearing' the 
animation input, avatar appearance, and location, we create in-world and 
out-world experiences that stray from body and tend towards choratic and 
pre-linguistic drives. We've performed a lot at various limits of SL - on sim 
edges for example, or at 4k 'up', where the physics changes. The output is the 
usual - audience in-world or out-world, as well as video and stills. I've had 
great help in SL programming, and Sugar Seville gave me a very large 
gallery/museum space to experiment with these things - this was from June 08 
until March 09. I created complex performance spaces that were literally 
impossible to navigate; for both audience and performer, everything was 
negotiation. The results of this work can be best seen in my files at or at or through 
Foofwa's site .

Foofwa, Maud, Azure, and myself all traveled to the Alps where avatar work was 
re-enacted live; the performances were on the edge of the Aletsch glacier. 
(This was sponsored by a Swiss grant.) What was interesting most to me here was 
the development and performance of a field - Foofwa dancing with a VLF (very 
low frequency) radio antenna, for example - his body coupled and modified the 
electromagnetic capacitance surrounding the wire. We had done this indoors with 
Foofwa and Azure; outdoors, against the glacier, spherics formed a deep part of 
the content. This also paralleled work we did with the mocap sensors at WVU - 
using high-strength magnetics, we modified the local fieldlines, almost as if 
we were modeling general relativity's 4-space gravity/mass interaction - the 
results were similar. I'm fascinated by these 'cosmologies in the small'; at 
the same time, want to avoid any easy and false metaphoric equivalence with 
scientific theory. As for the theory of the work we're doing, at least from a 
phenomenologi- cal viewpoint, I've put up which has also been published as a 

At the moment I'm working with sim overload and self-reflexivity: on a simple 
and neat level, what if a performing avatar connects to an object ('prim' 
complex) designed to move away from hir? The result is a total [avatar/complex] 
that flees indefinitely - at least until the complex goes out of world.

Hope this is of interest here and sorry for going on so long. - Alan

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