A heterogeneous cipher: constructing digital identities in performance

Notes to Wendy Houstoun's workshop, 'the Body (in) Question', ImPulsTanz Vienna 2002

Sarma 1 Jul 2002English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned in summer 2002 by ImPulsTanz Vienna and is part of the research archive of Danceweb. It was published for the first time on Sarma.

Besides performances, every year ImPulsTanz presents a serious amount of dance workshops during five weeks and is well known for this pedagogical unit. The program includes different technique classes, intensive coaching projects and durational research-based workshops, called Pro series. One of them was the Body (in) Question, led by the London based choreographer and performer Wendy Houstoun from 15 to 22 July 2002. This text is an observation of only one afternoon (21 July), near the end of seven days of work, so not representative for the project as a whole. While several people (fifteen participants in total) were finishing personal work, Houstoun developed an exercise with a small group, which I will trace and make some remarks and theoretical suggestions about.

The procedure used is common: take one idea, movement phrase, image, etc. as a starting point and investigate it through a series of tasks, defined during an ongoing evaluation of what’s occuring. The basic material here is an interview printed in a lifestyle magazine. The first task consists of reading the answers aloud, leaving out the questions. And a few variants: reading only the first line of an answer, or taking some lines at random, repeating others…. Isolating the answers allows one to inscribe them in a new context, to connect them to different identities: to what extent are you able to identify yourself with this text, to appropriate the answer to make it your own?

The tasks following move steadily from the initial interview, to focus more on the aspect of performing and playing around with an identity. This time the question and the answer are imaginary, with only the answer shared. Houstoun directs participants to verbally articulate certain feelings or ideas with a microphone lying in front to suggest that someone is actually listening: "Be indifferent to the interviewer", "speak about matters of life", "introduce questions concerning career or belief".

It is a complex role-playing game, for the meaning of what is being said is highly fragmented; its tone, attitude and quality are dynamic, while repetitions underscore its performative aspect. Questions pop up such as: To what extent can you construct an image of yourself? Do you fictionalise what you are proposing? Do you adopt a particular discourse ("sociologically speaking, I…")? One by one, different threads that compose an identity are separated, to give an insight into the very heterogeneity of the identity. How to bring these elements together again is explored in a second exercise.

A group task: "Explain what you know about electricity, how it functions." The subsequent discussion releases a confusing chaos of words, explanations, and nonsense, for nobody knows precisely what electricity is. The group talk is recorded using a minidisc. Now one person is listening to the recording through headphones and has to pronounce what he/she hears simultaneously. One group speaks with one voice, though extremely fragmentary, since it is pulled around by multiple voices in the headsets. The pronunciation itself is strange for some reasons: speaking and listening are logically consecutive, resulting in the phenomenon of a delay of speech. Words are dropped, the initial meaning evaporates. After a while, one looks for ways to avoid the delay, resulting in a strange contraction of words and a different rhythm of speech. Also the voice quality changes: by using the headsets the person speaking can’t hear him/herself, an impediment of speech sometimes provoking mere noise.

Variations: a lecture by Noam Chomsky is inserted in the CD-player, different recordings are mixed at random, some fragments repeated…. Or the recording of the first exercise (the imaginary self-interview) is used, to be re-pronounced by the same person. At this point we are touching a main interest of research: one realises that in traditional forms of theatre (and in daily life) identities are build in an ‘analogous’ way. That is with a direct connection between source and utterance, a bridge that is visible/readable/traceable, alteration exists only in actions such as lying, fictionalising and so on. In this case a complex process of recording and repetition is created between a person and his/her own speech, leading to a detachment one could call ‘digital’. It allows one to construct a new reality (identity…) cut apart from an initial source (image/speech/…).

Another exercise superimposes an extra element over the task of re-pronunciation: copy the movements of another participant – walking, gestures of arms, hands, head. And later on: copy movements of people in the space at random. The process of digitalisation (or simulation) is also accomplished in a merely mental way, without intervention of technology: a series of recordings are brought together arbitrarily in one image (one person moving) in a different context. "Can a person become a cipher for a whole group?" Apparently yes, through a complex process of detachment and (re-)inscription, evoking interesting questions about new approaches to reality and identity in our technological world.