Ben Cullen Williams on investigating how a computer would dance

11 October 2019


The last to take to the stage at September’s Nicer Tuesdays was Ben Cullen Williams to discuss his recent collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor, titled The Living Archive.

An experiment in how AI could inform a tool for choreography by learning the movements of Wayne’s 25-year archive, the project is a direct representation of the niche work Ben’s artistic practice investigates. Explaining to the audience how his work “is rooted in the practice of sculpture,” but rather the concept of sculpture as an “interrogation of our physical world, rather than the need for a physical object,” The Living Archive presented an opportunity for Ben to apply this process to the medium of dance.

On first seeing the code generated from Wayne’s archive by the Google Arts and Culture team – which was mainly stick figures of abstract representations – a turning point in the project’s end product was Ben asking the team to think about: “If a computer was to dance, how would it dance?”

As a result, the collaborators began working towards creating a coded environment where the code would be visible to an audience, aiming to “create affecting experiences for the viewer”. The result was a number of movements which differed in aesthetics, with some being beautiful and others “quite ugly and strange,” explained Ben. However it was this ugliness which fascinated the artist in particular, pointing out how: “As humans, we’re socially conditioned to understand beauty in a certain way, but AI doesn’t have this bias and it felt integral not to edit this out.”

Each of these attributes was then filtered into a live performance, with Ben’s visual representation of the code sitting behind dancers shown on a large semi-transparent LED screen, “as if part of a computer had been ripped out and placed there,” the artist describes. The end result, and project as a whole, is one Ben feels “was the biggest learning curve of anything I’ve ever done,” he explained to the audience. “It’s changed the way I look at the world and I believe that it’s only through interrogating new technology that we can understand its place in our world.”

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