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Johannes Birringer 

dancetheater, movement, new media, video, writing / reviews, U.S.A. / U.K.

Johannes Birringer, 2000.

The focus of my recent work has shifted from dance to interactive environments. This is part of a general tendency, among many contemporary media and performance artists, to think more concretely about the role of our audiences as participants in the work. I see this shift as a natural conclusion to years of experimentation with the new media and interactive interfaces we have used in dance and performance. But these interfaces were not "open" to the audience as an active participant. They were only open to perceptions.

Art history derives its understanding of interactive media arts from the participatory events of the 1960s (Happenings, Fluxus, process art, etc) and the progressive "dematerialization of the art object" which implied the active, physical participation of the audience in the event.

Since the 1970s, interactivity in art has generally referred to multimedia installations and environments that involve electronic or computer-assisted interfaces. As early as 1970, Nicholas Negroponte suggested that such interfaces are characterized not only by the points of contact and interaction between a machine and the physical or information environment, but by the artistic strategies used to engage audiences in a dialogue (The Architecture Machine: Toward a More Human Environment). Today audiences are referred to as "users," and many interactive installations try to create playful scenarios for users, especially a new, media-savvy, generation reared with video games, remote controls, mobile phones and online communications. But the engagement of the audience differs from case to case, depending on how the interactive art builds on the conventions of participatory art forms.

I became interested in these questions when I was invited last year to participate in a workshop on audio-visual spaces, organized by the Trans-Media-Akademie in Dresden (Germany). I began to work with composer/programmer Orm Finnendahl (Berlin) and media artist Sher Doruff (Amsterdam). After a long conceptual process conducted almost entirely over the internet because we live in different continents, we created the first version of an interactive installation, which was exhibited in Dresden in the summer of 2002 (

An expanded version of this work, East by West, was exhibited during the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival in Rotterdam. []

The work is evolving in response to the input it receives from the visitors. We plan to create a new version during an interactive media-technology workshop at the Coalmine Göttelborn, Saarland, in July 2003. []

East by West consists of two interactive environments (rooms) constructed at opposite ends of a building - or at remote sites - and connected via live video-audio streaming. Both environments explore the emergence and temporal synthesis of musical, visual and kinaesthetic perceptions in two similar yet different "geographic" architectures. The two landscapes can be experienced as two different "states":
The East ("Orange County") is warm and brightly lit, and its organic texture invites intuitive interaction with the suspended oranges. The slightly swaying oranges convey a meditative feeling of a world in continuous slow motion. One of the oranges is painted fluorescent. A live video stream connects both environments, and a mixed image of both spaces is projected onto the walls of the environments. Loudspeakers play the streamed sound of both rooms which is affected by the playful behavior of the visitors.

The West ("The Dead Sea") environment with the black sand is darker, eerier, and more ghostlike; boccia balls are on the sand, inviting a game. One ball is fluorescent, like a brighter star in a dark galaxy. A projection of geometric shapes washes over the sand, the same image stream is also layered into the telepresence images on the walls. The shapes represent sounds which can be "played" using the fluorescent ball which is tracked by motion-tracking cameras. The environments are cross-linked in such a way that using the ball not only plays the "instrument" in the local environment, but also changes the geometry of the images in the remote environment. The telepresence images on the walls show the mix of the sounds and the players' actual behavior or performance interaction.

East by West, an interactive environment in two locations, at "Data Knitting", the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

East by West, an interactive environment in two locations, at the Trans-Media-Akademie, Dresden, Germany.

Both landscapes invite the visitor to explore and play with the objects in the environments, and to communicate across distance. The synthesis underscores the experience of the visitors and their deliberate or intuitive interaction with the performance environments. The interface in East by West is designed as a physical navigation: the visitor can experiment with the transformation of spatial imagination (real space as virtual space), entering the landscapes and the experience of time and synchronicity.

The experience is generated through the sounds and actions of the visitors in environments of hyperplasticity. The term "hyperplasticity" refers to the emergent relationships between visitors in both sites as they engage with the spaces, their textures, and the "transobjects" they find in the landscapes. The fluctuating conditions in both environments depend on the behavior of the visitors, but they also have a life of their own (the light will change, the videostreams with the superimposed images from both spaces oscillate and, at regular intervals, make the visitors from either side appear and disappear.

The social and aesthetic dimension of the work therefore depends on a careful examination of interactivity -- understood here as a process through which meanings are constantly evolving, adaptable and redefinable. The concept of networked, translocal spaces allows investigation of the nature of real-time sound synthesis and how extended physical space can be shared by people when they play with fictional geographies, strange or familiar objects, and their mediated presences. Telepresence restructures and enlarges the environment with its projection (window) of mediated and combined presences in action.

Linking a "local" site with a "remote" site raises particular challenges for our understanding of new artistic paradigms in telepresence, distributed and "navigational" art. The orientation toward sensual environments and "hyperplasticity" is not directed at euphoric assumptions about virtual reality but at concrete, synaesthetic processes of cognition and intuition. East by West stimulates visitors' playful fantasy and tactile exploration of the environment. The interface becomes useful if such play recognizes how parallel reality-systems can converge or affect each other, how we integrate other realities into our social experience.

The conceptual, design, and programming development of the interactive installation took place almost entirely over the net without the collaborators first knowing each other at all. Our knowledge of each other evolved, like the work. Each collaborator contributed a distinct quality to the design process which is related to her/his artistic background and transmedia experience. It has been an open process, and the installation environments are still in evolution.

As an interactive digital environment, the work involves the audience-participant and incorporates audience behaviors which can be observed and analyzed. As an interactive, real-time processing environment, East by West claims, as one of its main applications, the exploration of cross-interfaces (motion tracking, real-time sound synthesis, telematic communication and play via live video streams) which can involve multiple "users" and players at the same time in distant rooms and remote locations.

The work, therefore, is not interested in creating an immersive "out of body" experience in a virtual environment, nor in the construction of synthetic, computer-generated landscapes. It is committed to involving the audience players in a very physical and experiential manner, testing the intersections of public spaces with the virtual, and with the unpredictable relationships that occur when people communicate across a distance.

Detail of one of the "Here I come again / Flying Birdman" locations, 2002.
A polysite telepresence performance on the internet.

"Here I come again" is a telematic "earthwork" linking five remote sites in the United States with two locations in Brazil. It is based on narratives/dreams and structured spirally as a "Renga" (linked poem) composed of live dance; real-time audio and sound processing, precorded filmic images; still images,and both spoken voice and graphic textcommunication exchanged by participants during the live performance.

The linked sites are Columbus (Ohio), Tempe (Arizona), Salt Lake City (Utah), Madison (Wisconsin), Detroit (Michigan), Brasilia and Sao Paulo (Brazil).

The performances delve into "left overs," debris, decomposing sites, dumps, and the idea of re-cycling; what is returned needs to be transported from one site to another.

The anchoring voice of the Flying Birdman runs through the entire 60-minute telematic performance ("Here I come again"), but this voice of the Birdman is also under-scored with subtle audio mixes and other traveling and whispering voices that function like echos or reverberations.

Words are chosen by the participating performers, picked up and digitally transformed by the other collaborating site partners. The run-on voice of the Birdman is performed by all five sites while the other streams are created (video, movement, still images, writing). The Birdman's voice changes and transforms (from one language to an other).

Each local site experiments with panoramic screen (with many windows open at the same time) allowing for the performers/participants to see all sites dialogue with each other in a spiral rather than having all streams mixed down to one multicast. This also allows local live audiences to see all sites in parallel realtime operation (in the renga-like spiral of scenes). Online audiences can follow the scenes (via URLs) as we have outlined them on our Birdman website.

The dramaturgy for this telematic "earthwork" envisions a spiralling dialogue /communication - between sites and "non-sites" - with at least 2 sites dialoguing with each other (video, audio) at any given time during the 10 scenes. The dialogue is passed on and moves around, as in the Renga form of a linked poem.

This event marks the going-public season ("Monday Night Live") of our telematic research collaboration.

Johannes Birringer
Association for Dance and Performance Telematics

"finally a place...", AlienNation Co. ( video environment, Trans-Site Studio, Houston, U.S.A., December 2002.

The audiovisual installation, "finally a place...", explores the human search for a safe space, an intimate sacred space. In this installation, the visitors are invited to follow the journey and discover their own perceptions of what such a "sanctuary of the heart" might be.

The interface design of this exhibition was created by Wendy Aldwyn, Johannes Birringer, and Serena Lin. The two films feature performances by Wendy Aldwyn, Dorothee Augustin and Angeles Romero, video an digital postproduction by Serena Lin Bush and Johannes Birringer, andinteractive digital sound by Anna Fay Williams. Production assistance by Chris Aranda. Located in Houston's Montrose Area, opposite the Rothko Chapel. "finally a place…" is the first in a series of site specific performances, music and film concerts, workshops and critical discussion forums intended to foster the creative exchange between artists of different cultural origins.

Since 1997, Transart sponsored the edition and publication of Artlies's 2001 Fall bilingual issue, and it has also sponsored several researchers in the area of anthropology and art, promoting editions and/or translations of manuscripts for future publication.

Letter: Thoughts on violence in art
...Perhaps artmaking or self-expression is an active defense, in the sense of people feeling entrapped and needing to let the anxiety or rage come out. Of course, not all art is connected to or originates in such emotions. I happen to have seen/experienced a lot more violent art than art that is calm, soft, sober and meditative. Perhaps that’s a pity. On the other hand, we live in violent and often unjust societies, and struggle to make sense of it all, and many experience the sense of powerlessness that art tends to compensate for. In art production over the past 100 years, I can see many examples of art that, by approximating or playing with the power of ideas and the power of art’s role in culture, tends to be involved in the politics of power that some think is the domain of the state or the law or the media or the institutions. We have splendid examples of art in institutions/markets (in opera, theatre, painting, film, and revolutionary art as in Russia after 1919, or in other large-scale social-changes/cultural revolutions, including the totalitarian ones of this century) that participated in political violence, and could thus be called violent because of its will to power (Nietzsche).

Much religious art was also in collusion with state power, and thus played the role of a handmaiden for ideological oppression (not so close to the idea of transcendence, but more intimate with the powers that be. There are rewards for such art. Today the rewards come from corporate sponsors more powerfully than the state). Even on the seemingly innocuous level of “monuments” or “memorials” I would venture to say that there are violent monuments (of hero worship or state glorification). In Germany, there is a heated controversy over the construction of a massive Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, and many think the archi-tectural plan for this massive thing is preposterous. Some of you may also have seen the Israeli-Palestinian theatre production and film of Balagan, which treats very critically the use or instrumentalization of memory in contemporary Israel, in a performance that is quite violent and aggressive but justifiably so because of the profoundly unsettling and incomprehensible subject matter of the Holocaust. Remembering can be violent, as we see in the occupied territories.

I don’t know whether it is alright to say that violence in art is sometimes necessary. There have been performances and body art works that were also self-destructive or self-lacerating, and the violence as a real action asked questions about the daily violence we know/consume or don’t recognise, as we sometimes become desensitized to it all...

Arts Dialogue, June 1997, Page 4.

Johannes is artistic director of AlienNation, a cross-cultural, integrated arts research which has evolved organically out of several collaborative performance projects.
For more info see:

Links to various projects:
Sueńo, a new play written and performed by Angeles Romero. Photos by Johannes Birringer.
2003 summer project in an abandoned coalmine in Germany.
"East by West", an interactive installation, premiered in Dresden in July 2002 and for DEAF in Rotterdam, in February 2003.

  • Article + 2 images: Just Let the Wind...
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, June 1997
  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, December 1996
  • Interview: with actor, Jorge Perugorria, Cuba, Arts Dialogue, March 1996
  • Letter: Doing Physical Theatre in Ljubljana, Arts Dialogue, March 1995
  • Review: The Connected Body: impressions, Arts Dialogue, March 1995
  • Review: Witnesses of existence - Report on a presentation of art out of Sarajevo in New York City Kunsthalle, December 1994

Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands