Video Dance Installation “Body Traces”

Featured as part of the 2010 festival’s dance photography/video dance exhibition, “Body Traces”, a video dance installation created by Lisa Parra & Sophie Kahn, will be on display at the Centre François Mitterrand in Le Breuil through the end of May. Festival co-director Marisa C. Hayes recently interviewed the two artists on their collaborative work with dance and technology funded by EMPAC’s ( The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) Dance Movies Commission.:

How did the concept of “Body Traces” develop? Was it an idea that had been inspired prior to the EMPAC commission you received to create it?

The concept for “Body/Traces” was developed prior to our EMPAC commission. Sophie and I met in 2007, about a year prior to the commission and residency. We had attended a photography workshop together in NYC and became interested in each others’ work. Sophie had already been using a process to scan her own body and her images inspired me. The idea of scanning a moving body intrigued me because it offered a new perspective, one that might alter the idea of physical presence and body image.

The concept of traces or what movement and the body leave behind is a very interesting topic, particularly in dance. Movement in live performance is ephemeral of course, but even in video dance, choreography often passes by quickly as movement is often captured on camera in a fleeting chain of events. The imagery in “Body/Traces” however, allows us to linger, to study an imprint of the body and its extended movement, or the after-effects. Can you tell us a little about your ideas related to traces?

The “traces” in Body/Traces are manifested in the dialogue that is created with movement, imagery and perception. The idea was to make a space where images become alive while, at the same time, showing what was alive as idle in a kind of interplay between presence and disappearance of the human form. The movement was captured in a stop-motion style, so in reality the choreography consists of halted movement, going against what might be regarded as a natural type of composition of motion. Interestingly enough, this process allows one to consider the traces left by the dancers, the aforementioned “after-effects” of the body through space and time.

Another question that comes to mind in relation to traces, and in particular the imagery used in your installation is that we often approach freezing a moment or slowing it down, for example in dance photography, as a way to illuminate some truth about the body or the movement, but in fact, in “Body/Traces” the dance is often fragmented or fractured. These traces are capable of altering reality, taken outside of their context of a progressive movement sequence and it changes the depiction of the dance and the dancer. Could you comment on how your installation alters perception of movement, imagery and sequential events?

From the start, fragmentation was inherent to the work. Since we were unable to scan the body in real-time, Sophie had to scan the movement sequences in stop-motion at a frame rate of 6 frames per second. This frame rate represents a dramatic reduction, and as a result, the qualities of the movement changed as the sequences progressed. The process became very difficult for the dancer and for Sophie because sustaining the positions and pausing constantly to scan and process the images proved to be very strenuous. Degradation of the movement was inevitable during the process of capturing it. From the point of view of choreography, I found this particular aspect both difficult and interesting. For example, as I was being scanned I found it extremely challenging to keep track of the movement sequence as it progressed. Having to pause and hold a position caused my train of thought to break: I would “lose my place” in the movement, which required me to have to be in a constant mode of “recuperation”. In the end, my movements were no longer what they originally were. In fact, the original movement sequence was broken up into more than 1000 images. The final video is a reconstruction, or an abstraction, of the original movement using these images. The act of breaking up movement obviously alters our perception of its original shape and space, of its patterns and flow, yet I think that it is sometimes necessary to fragment what is familiar to us in order to be more aware that our movement, no matter how habitually fluid we think it may be, is in reality something that is always changing its pattern. Body/Traces tries to underscore that an essential part of movement is disruption, and that this disruption is natural.

Our readers might be very interested to know about the techniques used to create this installation. Could you tell us about the programs you used and how you decided to use them? Had you worked with such programs in the past? If yes, was this your first time merging dance and this imaging process?

Our process utilized a do-it-yourself 3D laser scanner to capture images. These were then processed and rendered in 3D Studio Max software. The scanning apparatus was designed by Sophie and engineer David Barrett, using off the shelf and inexpensive materials such as a webcam and a red line laser. Body/Traces used a readily available system for 3D imaging called DAVID Laser scanner software, requiring only a sweeping laser light and the image from the webcam. As the laser scans the scene, the beam is bent into a line that traces the depth of the object being scanned. The camera monitors this distortion and the software builds a 3D model from the shape of the beam over time. Using this method, each 3D frame can take one to two minutes to capture. More than a thousand images were acquired in this way. Lisa then took rendered 2D images and reconstructed the choreography by animating the image sequences in Final Cut Pro to create the final video. I had used Final Cut previously, but only as an editing tool. This was the first time I used it for the animation of still images.

For the dancer (Lisa Parra), how were the movements created for this project? How did working in this context alter your sense of choreography and movement representation?

At the beginning of this project, I had to move to Madrid, Spain with my husband for work reasons, and so, Sophie and I created most of the work remotely. In the early stages of this project, my understanding of the scanning process was still abstract, so while in Madrid I worked alone attempting to understand this idea of 3D scanning all the while questioning– how do I relate to being scanned in 3D, how does this effect my body and movement? I began with documenting myself weekly in a studio. I would improvise implementing space, and space harmony concepts, actions/reactions, function/expression, out/inner, etc. The documentation was both with video and photographs. After several months of documenting I looked back at the movement and looked for patterns, sequences, fragments of movement that were interesting and began to piece together the movement composition. Then when Sophie was ready to scan I would send her video clips of the movement compositions. She would then have Tina Vasquez (my dancer in NY) look at the video to learn the movement compositions for scanning. Since the scanning process was so laborious for the dancer, Tina would choose excerpts of the movement compositions and it was at this point that the decomposition, and deconstruction of the movement began and would continue through out. The photographs were also an important part of the creative movement process. Taking photographs was another way for me to look at the body and movement. So, I had another dancer of mine, Roze van Berkel take a segment of the movement sequences and repeat it continuously in site specific locations– focusing on the lighting of each environment. As Roze did the sequences over and over I would photograph her taking pictures consecutively. The camera was a 35mm manual film camera. These photographs were fragments of the movement and body. I used these photographs to piece together the narrative of piece.

Prior to working with Sophie on this project, my ideas and experiences about choreography and movement representation were based on the concepts of concert dance works with theme and variation. However, I had also studied ritual dance and dance therapy, along with Laban movement analysis, so, dance for me as a whole has many layers, and in my choreography I have always used variations and combinations of these choreographic concepts and theories. As a whole the experience of creating this work has changed my process and my view of movement and body. Specifically, in the process of documenting my choreographic work—whether by annotation, sound recording, photography, video or 3D scanning—has become in some respects indistinguishable from the work itself. That is, what has been referred to as “left-overs” of my creative process have emerged onto the plane of primary focus. A common theme in my work has been the body and its representation. The images, the videos, the scans I have made while exploring this theme have become a narrative of the theme in their own right. In a sense, attention shifts from the result to the process as result.

For both Sophie and Lisa, what are you currently working on?

We have begun working on a new work called Shift. This work is a follow-up to Body/Traces in that we will be experimenting with real-time 3D scanning process that is currently being developed by new media artist Kyle McDonald. Kyle has been developing this process called “structured light scanning” through openFrameworks, an open source platform. This project will be a live dance performance installation. We have received a residency at Centro de Artes Performativas do Algarve in Faro, Portugal and it was also selected to participate at last years Helloworld! workshop for development at Medialab-Prado in Madrid, Spain (http://wiki.medialab-prado.es/index.php/Shift).

Body Traces installation-Lisa Parra & Sophie Barrett Kahn

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