At the end of last year, it was announced that choreographer Wayne McGregor had collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab to create Living Archive – “an artificially intelligent choreographic tool, trained on hundreds of hours of video from the choreographer’s extensive back catalogue as well as solo material created on each of the current company.” Last month, in Los Angeles, the tech was put to use in a live AI performance experiment accompanied by a video installation by Royal College of Art graduate Ben Cullen Williams.
Ben, who is based in London and New York, is an artist working with installations, sculptures, photographs and films, which all aim to create an “engagement with the phenomenological elements of the world around us – light, space, material and form.” He was contacted by Wayne, who asked if wanted to create a video installation as part of the project. “There wasn’t a brief as such,” Ben tells It’s Nice That, “more a task of interrogating the Living Archive tool and seeing how it could be pushed to reveal new concepts and ideas in relation to the project.” The result is a design which “manipulates abstract visualisations of the AI-generated choreography into a suspended video installation which explores ideas of dance as code and vice versa.”
The piece began as a conversation between Ben and Google, in which he asked the question: “If a computer was to dance, how would it dance?” Ben explains how this thinking led to the final visuals: “As humans, we have a body and a physical structure that allows us to move in a certain way. Within the video installation, the same code that generates movement can be visually outputted in different ways. For example, it can be outputted on-screen to visually emulate a human form, or it can be outputted as dots moving around a screen, or a line topography that changes with the movement. As humans, we can only express ourselves using the physical body we have.”
Ben’s piece is, therefore, an abstract visualisation of the code from Living Archive. Rather than simply mirroring the choreography happening on stage, the video installation is the code; a hijacked and repurposed version of it. For visitors to the performance, this manifested as the actual code streaming down the screen, as well as responsive numbers and letters, waveforms and dots, and images resembling human forms.
On what it was like to work with the code and AI in this manner, Ben says: “The process of working with the AI-generated movement code created a fascinating new dialogue. It was a new collaboration, however, instead of being between two people it was between man and machine. AI can create new patterns and new predictions from what it has already learnt so there are surprises. The movement generated by the Living Archive was at times incredibly sporadic, ugly and strange. As humans, we are socially conditioned to recognise a perceived understanding of beauty. As a result, we often create within this framework of beauty and as we are creating we naturally often omit things that aren’t within this framework. As a result, the video contained parts that visually I normally would have omitted, however, these were left it to create a deeper level of authenticity.”
While how Ben worked with the code helped to underpin the concept of the project, this was also expressed through the physicality of the piece on stage. For the installation, Ben chose a transparent, LED screen. The screen was suspended in the middle of the stage bringing a strong and unapologetic technological presence to the work. “The Living Archive project hopefully will make more people question the role of technology in society through performance,” he adds. “I believe it is only through interrogating new technology that we can truly find the right place and the right relationship we have with it in society.” Whereas artistic and performative work often tries to hide the technology at play, concealing wires and the likes, Ben’s installation instead confronts it and makes use of its visuality.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.