I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform in LA last month. After the matinee, Cunningham participated in a Q and A that gave this living legend a chance to share anecdotes from his remarkable life. His reflections ranged from Black Mountain College to computers as a choreographic tool. This session with the audience added another layer to the performances we had just seen, “Fabrications” (1987) and “Split Sides” (2003).
I liked the way Cunningham incorporated chance techniques into “Split Sides,” which included original music by Radiohead and Sigur Ros. Each element of the dance -- choreography, music, costumes, set design, and lighting -- was created in two parts. Tosses of a die at the beginning of the performance determined which part of each element would be used first so that many combinations were possible. The notion of separating each element of the performance and recombining those elements, although not a new strategy, was thought provoking nevertheless and suggested implications for other media, including digital texts.
I thought about this performance yesterday while watching an interview with new media artist and scholar Lev Manovich that was included on the recently released “Soft Cinema” DVD, along with three short movies he and his collaborators produced to test his influential theory of database aesthetics. As Manovich explained, software programs select which elements of large multimedia databases will be shown with each screening of a movie, so that the movies differ from one screening to the next. In this way, the movies presented on the “Soft Cinema” DVD -- Texas, Mission to Earth, and Absences -- share with Cunningham’s “Split Sides” a reliance on chance procedures to determine how the various parts of a composition will be combined from performance to performance, or from screening to screening. Although the methodology for making these choices is central to Manovich’s approach, and worthy of analysis, while watching the movies I found myself thinking more about the databases themselves than about how the software was manipulating them. And then I realized that for me a crucial part of the creative process involves construction of the databases -- the photographs, videos, music, voices, sounds, narratives, texts, scenes, and other elements of the “stories” that the software has to work with, including both archival materials and original compositions.
Cunningham has developed his own aesthetic sense of choreography and of what works for him; without that expertise it’s unlikely any chance procedures would make his pieces interesting or memorable. With regard to “soft cinema” productions, I’d like to see more attention paid to how the databases are constructed and to the types of personal and public archives that are tapped into, as well as ignored. It seems to me that considerations of the archive and of creating from archives are related to what Manovich is trying to do.