Simon Senn with laptop, microphone and audiovisual equipment at desk. Face of woman, digitally superimposed, on large screen behind him, in the performance Be Arielle F


Present futures

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Simon Senn, Be Arielle F. Photo © Elisa Larvego
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Going digital in 2020 has been a natural step for a festival founded to hybridise physical and virtual realms

As we set up for our fourth Zoom meeting of the day, our heavy skulls weighing down a neck which evolved to look up and out, we might be catching a glimpse of our future. The Covid-19 pandemic has spotlit humankind’s ever-increasing integration with technology and forced most live events to suddenly adapt to digital spaces.

But some programmers have been in this territory for a while: the Present Futures festival, for example, founded and curated by Glasgow and Berlin based artist Colette Sadler and produced by Scottish production company Feral Arts. Initiated in 2016 (then known as Fictional Matters), it grew from a desire to connect multi-disciplinary artists around themes of posthumanism, science fiction, the coming together of digital and physical realms, and the hybridising of bodies and technologies. Sadler’s influences run the gamut from Franz Kafka to Buckminster Fuller, but her interests are fused always with insights into the body, dance and movement.

Dance, for Sadler, is not necessarily threatened by technology (despite the sometimes-holy aura placed around it): current robotics she’s seen pale in comparison to the sophistication of the dancer’s trained, technical body. Furthermore, she asks, where does our identity begin and end now? Does it extend to the pen in my hand, to the phone I carry? Early editions of the festival had works that were more connected to physical bodies and technologies within a real setting but now, she explains, in its second year as Present Futures, going digital is in some ways an obvious ‘next level’.

Events in this year’s festival included artist discussions, CGI films, audio works and recordings of live performances that I jumped in and out of over the weekend. Sadler herself leads a movement session titled (Re)searching BODY A for which she worked with a hypnotist. In this audio-only work, with music from Mikko Gaestel and Heiko Tubbesing, an electronically distorted voice draws participants’ attention to their physical body. This body, it narrates, is new – ‘you’ have been transplanted into it and are to test it out in new terrains. I move through my study with eyes closed, sometimes nudging against the detritus of everyday life: the story allows me to embrace the imaginative possibility of this new body, finding a certain freedom from my muscles, bones and fleshy weight.

It’s not all utopian possibility: CGI films Feel My Metaverse by Keiken & George Jasper Stone, and AIDOL by Lawrence Lek, look to alternate futures with a questioning eye. In Feel My Metaverse, characters move through verdant and psychedelic virtual worlds in different bodies, but there is an undercurrent of loss and strain. In AIDOL, humans (‘Bios’) clash with machines (‘Synths’) in a narrative resonant with contemporary identity politics (‘don’t be such a bio-supremacist’), while notions of authenticity, and what it means to be human, are explored in the relationship between a fading superstar and an AI songwriter. Dance or performance intermittently appears in both as an almost heightened attempt at expression, human or otherwise.

Screen capture from Sonified Body, created by Tim Murray-Browne and Pangiotis Tigas, showing split screen: on left, a man stands with wide stance and wide arms in his living room. On the right, a virtual stick figure echoes it in a geometric grid
Sonified Body, created by Tim Murray-Browne and Pangiotis Tigas

Artists who would perhaps otherwise have had a live performance practice are integrated into well-paced Q&As with film screenings. I manage to catch Soojin Chang and Hamshya Rajkumar’s illuminating exploration of new interspecies relations and connections with nature, both artists using their own (moving) bodies to explore these relationships. Particularly fascinating is Tim Murray-Browne and Panagiotis Tigas’ research project Sonified Body, in which an AI model is trained to analyse human motion by watching a person move. Artist, coder and researcher Murray-Browne was interested in creating an AI model that is in ‘total sympathy with how the body is existing’. Tigas, an AI researcher, discusses the term ‘Theory of Mind’, which stipulates that when two independent agents interact, they share an assumption about the others’ behaviour. How does that apply to AI, he wondered?

During their presentation, Murray-Browne and Tigas present three initial sessions conducted with dancers from different styles, whose improvisations are analysed by the AI model: the representation held by the model is then mapped into sound. The resulting audio-visual ‘duets’ – while not ‘true’ conversations in that the AI model is not learning during the improvisation – exist on an eerie plane of squiggled, beeping, almost living language, pulsing in reverberation to the dancers’ movements.

Blue Quote Mark

We’re going to realise we’re still animals, we’re still bodies…

Blue Quote Mark

Watching these dancers – even on screen – prompts a dormant longing that, though there for a year, hasn’t gone away: to move in a physical space. Sadler believes that when people return to dance in studios ‘we’re going to realise we’re still animals, we’re still bodies… everyone now feels what it’s like to be non-physical, to shuffle around the house and spend hours on the laptop. The experience of dancing together with people in a group is going to be very popular.’

As will, I think, watching dance with other people. The festival is carefully spread out over the weekend – yet I’m sure we all feel a certain energy drain, perhaps because there’s no buoying feedback from physically meeting people. Even writing about the festival from my flat feels strange. I am in some ways less self-conscious or constrained by a dark, crowded theatre space, and so I can take notes more easily – but does this distract from the experience?

Internet quality can distract too. Take the audio performance Death Drill from Samir Kennedy, which asks the audience to sit in a dark room with headphones. I appreciate this curation of my experience, the extension of the performance beyond its own frame and into the world it exists in. Death Drill is an ‘intermediate military training procedure’ inviting us to imagine different ways of dying. The contrast between the blunt scenarios (beheading, drowning, burning) and the hallucinatory, musical soundscapes that follow is interestingly disorientating but a juddery internet lag on my end knocks me off kilter. You could argue it would be easy to simply ‘give’ people the performance – to transfer a file – but the liveness and presence of an event, compounded by the need to make money from that work, negates that possibility.

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Simon Senn in Be Arielle F, wearing a red croptop vest and holding a cellphone which shows the face of a woman, whose face also appears large on the screen behind him
Simon Senn in Be Arielle F. Photo © Mathilda Olmi

Fittingly ending this festival of uncertainties is the thoroughly enjoyable and disconcerting Be Arielle F from Geneva-based Simon Senn. I sit down with a cocky air: I know how Zoom works, I think, confident that I can tell if something is ‘live’ or not. Senn narrates his journey of acquiring a digital replica of Arielle F’s female body, a body he can ‘virtually’ inhabit (which he demonstrates by seemingly pulling on the discrete, digital body parts). Delivered with awkwardness in a sort of demonstrative, lecturing style, there’s nonetheless an uncanny value in what he delivers – is this lecture really live? He recalls travelling to the UK to meet the physical Arielle and video clips of the narrated journey and interactions appear. He diffidently asks her how she feels about others ‘wearing’ her digital body – the question probes uncomfortable edges but after a slight hesitation, Arielle agrees to the proposition. Truth and wishful fabrication sit side by side.

This is all enhanced rather than deflated by the Zoom format, where Senn’s offbeat delivery is framed by shifting formatting and mutating interactions with the audience. By the end, the audience is entangled in complicity, the digital world neither a fully remote space nor a stable one with shared codes or etiquettes. The question of our uncertain future becomes less distant: we are already there. 

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