This week Nora Gibson, Adrienne, and I convened in Brad Litwin’s back office, amidst spare gears, cranks, drill presses, all finely blanketed with sawdust. Huddled around Brad’s desktop computer, they started throwing out phrases “strange attractors,” “chaos theory” and “quantum mechanics” as possible starting points for their week together. This unorthodox pairing between Nora, a choreographer, Brad, a kinetic sculptor, and Adrienne promised an interesting mix of contemporary ballet, science, song, theater, and kinetic sculpture.
The group opted to have minimal communication before their residency week started, so their initial conversation centered around the similarities between what Brad does with his sculptures and Nora does with dancers. For example, when Nora describes her work, she talks about using bodies as angles and curves in space. Brad’s work as a kind of choreography in Nora’s mind; Brad’s medium happens to be gears, levers, springs, and cranks, while Nora’s is bodies. Both make complex machines, arrangements of moving parts that produce an aesthetic experience.
Solo Phase by Nora Gibson Performance Project from Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet on Vimeo.
“Solo Phase,” one of Nora’s dances, demonstrates this idea nicely; it’s easy to how the intricacies of this solo dancer, overlaid with herself, come together to form something much like a machine. To Nora, bodies are moving objects in space, not dissimilar to the pieces and parts of one of Brad’s kinetic sculptures. The main difference, an added plus, is that Nora’s pieces and parts have a human-ness that only adds to their functionality.
People often anthropomorphize Brad’s sculptures even if they start from a purely conceptual place. A sculpture like the “Quadrotopult” demonstrates the miraculous adherence of the physical world to the laws of physics and gravity. [The fact that the catapulted balls always make it through the small holes in the rotating plexiglass never ceases to amaze.] Another one of Brad’s sculptures, entitled “The Sway of Public Opinion,” looks like a series of cycling figures on a never-ending track. These pieces epitomize Brad’s self-proclaimed fascination with “how easily mechanical systems can serve as both visual and literary metaphors for human social interaction and structure.” Brad’s work is not just about gears and motors, it’s about the interaction they have with metaphor.
Adrienne works in a really different way. She works with narratives, not arcs and lines or springs and gears. Adrienne usually explores an idea with the intention of creating a narrative. She presents a group of people with various source materials, and the resulting aesthetic product is the result of the group’s ability to tell stories through their unique perspectives.
Despite their differences, the three quickly started to think of ways they create rules or some kind of system that would be interesting to make a piece of art in. The conversation switched from mathematical concepts to video games and other kinds of procedurally generated art experiences.
Adrienne introduced us to Different, a heartbreaking game that communicates the difficulties and realities of being an immigrant or a minority. This minimalistic game has a strong narrative arc, but player interaction is entirely proscribed by an algorithm. From here, we took a look at “Taroko Gorge,” a procedural poem by Nick Montfort. This poem offers a never-ending series of koan-like phrases about a national park in Japan. Both Different and “Taroko Gorge” are compelling examples machines creating aesthetic experiences.
We started to move away from purely digital art and began to ask how we could create a live, sculptural machine. We started thinking about creating a logic game that, when played, might yield an interesting dance machine. Nora dreamed up a game that would teach audience members composition through the use of dancers. On Adrienne’s suggestion, we discussed the possibility of abstracting writing, like an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, into a dance score through a program that would sort words into data points.
And then Brad asked, “Is my work in this? I don’t feel like I’m doing anything here.”
Brad focuses his artistry in his ability to use gears, levers, cranks, and everything else in between to make his sculptures. As I understood the situation, while the ideas in the room up to this point may have included a conceptual understanding of kinetic sculpture, his work is actually about the assembly of a machine that produces an aesthetically and conceptually pleasing experience. He wanted to find a way to use that skill in a more tangible way during the residency; perhaps making sculptures dancers would wear while dancing.
After this discussion, we took a step back and looked at our understanding of dance and Brad’s sculptures. We watched Interior Drama, by Lucinda Childs, and something clicked. The lyricism of the dancers’ movements, paired with the mathematically precise, iterative choreography hit a collective “sweet spot.”
We’d found a piece of art that spoke to everyone in some way. Circling back to Brad’s question, we realized that we could use one of Brad’s MechaniCards and find a way to make a dance and musical accompaniment to bring one of Brad’s sculptures alive.
We took a field trip to Brad’s workshop, just outside of his office. Amidst the many drill presses and table saws were MechaniCards in all states of production. After watching and listening to several beautiful cards, we found the one that spoke to everyone: “Counter-Productivity.”
From then on, the residency became a series of interconnected solo-projects. The next day, the team decided to make a video that would take an animation of the blueprint for “Counter-Productivity” and overlay it with videos of dancers dancing and a recording of Adrienne’s vocal improvisation.
Adrienne, Brad, and Nora spent time working separately. Adrienne started to record music, Brad started animating the CAD drawings, and Nora set to work translating Brad’s machine into a dance score.
So, after two days of brainstorming and laying the groundwork for the video, the team split up. Nora needed studio time with dancers, Adrienne wanted to bring in vocalists to do an improvisation with her, while Brad needed time to work on animating the blueprint for his Mechani-Card. As I was unable to witness these solo endeavors, I interviewed Brad, Adrienne, and Nora on the last day of the residency to hear more about their processes.
Brad Litwin: The video is based on […] these actual mechanical drawings that I made in preparation to produce the sculpture called “Counter Productivity.”
Actually I didn’t have a name for the card when I first made it, it was called “MechaniCard #7” and I held a contest – who ever came up with a name, if I picked it, I would send them an early edition. As soon as I heard “Counter Productivity” I was like, “Duh.” Haha, it was so perfect. It was this fellow in Grenada, Spain. He was my winner.
So, the piece incorporates several mechanisms to provide a little bit of arithmetic/puzzle/illusion where numbers are counted up and down… Actually, they are counted down, and not just counted down, they are counted down and every other time they are decremented twice. In other words, it would go 10, 9, 7, 6, 4, 3, 1. It’s a little trick, and the way that is achieved is through a mechanism that has two cycles of operation: one that takes one cycle and one that takes two cycles. The operation that takes two cycles is offset in time from the first.
Arianna Gass: Those are the purple guys on the side?
BL: Yeah, so the purple guys advance the wheels one digit every time, but if you look carefully on the outskirts of the larger wheels – see if we can see it, right there – these wheels go around only half a time for every one time the purple ones do. Every other time that the purple ones advance the wheel, the large wheels here advance the counters an extra time.
AG: Oh! Because of the little peg. Gotcha.
BL: That’s how the little trick is performed.
BL: And you can’t really see much of this mechanism because in the real model it’s covered with this plate with windows that reveal part of what’s going on. It’s kind of a shame because it’s a fascinating mechanism to look at. When they picked this as a source of dancing inspiration, that was a lot of fun because it opened up the opportunity to look at the mechanism carefully.
Basically, there are pieces that move in circular motion, there are pieces that move in straight, linear motion, there are pieces that work intermittently, and they’re all choreographed in time to produce this funny little mind trick.
So, to make it into a… I had originally made the computer model, had made all the parts in the computer in order to check what was called “clearance” – that is making sure that things don’t bump into each other when they are moving. I didn’t need to animate that to do the checking. Animating the parts was a whole different process which these guys were privy to. That was neat, doing that extra step to actually animate the parts. I used 3D Studio Max which is a professional animation tool.
And uh, what else to say about it? Well, this is a 1400 frame animation. That is, the entire cycle of the longest movement takes 1400 frames. This is based on the amount of time Nora said she wanted to see things moving. We had watched the yellow shuttle piece cross and then return in 700 frames, so in 1400 frames it does it twice.
So what I did was I rendered those 1400 frames a number of different times. About 11 different times. With different parts of the mechanism visible and the rest hidden.
BL: And then I imported each of those frame segments into Premiere, which is a video-editing software, and played with which segment would appear when partly to satisfy the exploration of what the mechanism does and how it works, and also partly for the grace of the particular motions in juxtaposition with one another. Also, it was nice to be able to show things moving without necessarily showing the effectors which control them. There was a certain whimsy about that. At a certain point you are going along you see something moving, then you see the thing revealed which moves it, and you see the thing that moves that, and then you can see how all of those parts are inter-related. In fact, by the end it’s… you get this blast where you see everything moving, then bit by bit it’s all taken away. Then you think it’s gone, but by the end the little crank thingy comes in to say, “Hi there!”
AG: It’s interesting because when you’re interacting with your sculptures the input is just this little crank guy, you and that, in the beginning when I approached you pieces I just wanted to spin the
that was the “hot” part for me. I just want to turn this little guy!
Oh it’s so funny, sometimes little kids will come up to the table where I’m showing my stuff and they’ll turn the crank and be looking all around, turning the crank itself is the satisfying thing to do.
Nora Gibson: Huh… Yeah.
AG: that’s what I wanted, I wanted to turn the thing
BL: I should just make a “Turn the Crank MechaniCard,” or a MechaniCard with seven different cranks.
AG: Woah, that’s like candy.
Adrienne Mackey: Or something you stand on and turn the crank and something happens to you!
NG: That’s called a sit and spin.
AG: It’s so funny because the crank was my tactile focus, but now that I’m looking at this, it’s that peg [on the gear]. After seeing the inside workings of the sculpture, I’m focusing on that little peg.
BL: It’s also interesting because turning the crank has a different tactile experience depending on which MechaniCard you’re using.
NG: Yeah, totally.
AG: They all feel different.
NG: There are certain ones where it will feel smooth, and then there will be a little bit of tension, smooth and tension. Others are more even.
I have to say. I feel like learned so much more about it after seeing this deconstruction. Everything’s in concert when you’re doing it, and you try to pick apart it and you’re like “Wait, what’s moving that? I don’t… But this isn’t moving now…”
BL: Yeah, it’s a little mechanical orchestra.
NG: Yeah, and it was interesting, especially when you had something moving and then a part that was static next to it. It’s like “Okay, I’ve mentally ruled that one out. That one does not have anything to do with that particular piece,” but then later you see the one that does and you’re like, “Ahh, I get it, this is connected to A, B is connected to this!”
BL: Yeah, and one of the highlights for me of this particular design is something called hypocycloidal motion which you’re seeing right there.
AG: That’s the gear there?
BL: That is the round… Yes that’s the gear with the little anchor on it and that’s showing that a circle that rotates within a second circle of twice the diameter. All points on the smaller circle’s circumference will move in a straight line. That is, if I put the circle over here and put the motion point on the periphery anywhere, it’s going to follow a straight line as the circle rotates.
BL: In this particular case, I put it at a point on the smaller circle so that it moves in a horizontal line relative to the entire card, but that’s completely arbitrary.
NG: I do have a three part step that goes in that pattern. I wanted to reflect that pattern against the circles.
AG: Nora, did you address the crank [in your dance]?
NG: That’s the only part of the card I didn’t address. I stopped at 14 people…
AM: Arianna could be the crank!
AG: No, that’s okay.
AM: Or Brad!
BL: I’d be the crank…
Nora Gibson: We started from this mechanical drawing of one of Brad’s MechaniCards, which are hand operated… What would you call them?
Brad Litwin: Kinetic sculptures.
NG: Right, kinetic sculptures. So I went and I labeled all of the parts [of Brad’s sculpture] for reference. I have a pretty visual approach to making dances anyway, so, to me, this looked like a score. Brad’s rendering is basically things in two dimensions… It’s a depiction or representation of parts moving in space. They have their own directions, spatial relationships with other parts. This [rendering] was a perfectly good representation of people in space, moving.
So, as soon as I labeled this drawing I was like, “Oh wow, this is a dance score.”
What I did was, I took this rendering and I turned it into a score in two stages.
The first thing I made was this graph, which is just a way of looking at time. It’s a way of organizing the information from Brad’s rendering. In the rendering you see all of the parts and you see their relative spatial relationship to each other. Unless we wanted everyone dancing all together, we would have diverge, use artistic license, and step away from the drawing itself. So we were left with this question of, over time, how many of these parts did we want to show? Which parts in conjunction with others? How did we want that experience to elapse over time?
This first graph is a way of organizing that information.
AG: Did you guys collaborate on this?
NG: No I just made these decisions. The column on the left labels all of the moving parts.
AG: The parts that were chosen…
NG: Yeah. [Brad’s machine] is very symmetrical, so [my score] winds up sometimes acknowledging that symmetry and sometimes disregarding it.
AG: That makes sense because in Brad’s video animation, parts are added and subtracted to the animation over time.
NG: Exactly, yeah. In that sense, the video and the score mirror each other, but they don’t literally mirror each other. We made different choices.
NG: So In my mind… This [graph] was before I invented any movement to go along with it: it was just conceptual. I just imagined these parts… I sort of thought of these parts as just dancing beings in and of themselves. I actually kind of was imagining what Brad wound up making. Which was just which parts dancing with other parts did I want to see grouped and re-grouped over time.
So this is just a dance in my mind of these parts. The X’s are when the part itself operates
and the circles are where I wanted to see the part on stage, just not moving.
AG: so I see the score is 27…
NG: Units long. So we were all playing with timing but originally we working with timing of an actual minute, so there were 30 second blocks, but now they are 30 count blocks. So it’s just 27 units of 30 counts each.
So that was the first step.
Then I did this second score, because this score allowed me to visualize [the dance] more in the space much more like what the animation turned out to look like. So spatially I could see where everyone would be.
In here I started to think more about not the individual steps, but people and pathways. So I imagined people doing walking patterns and then just followed the initial chart and drew them in. So that allows me to see people in the space and compositionally what that may look like.
AG: And the shapes of the pathways were inspired by the shapes of the parts [in Brad’s sculpture]?
NG: Exactly. For instance, J is shaped kinda of like this curving arrow, but it doesn’t literally move in that way. That shape is not the way it moves, it actually moves more like a lever. So I’m having someone dance their pathway like that shape. They make a diagonal, then they actually come back more triangularly. The pathways work off of both the mechanical motion and the actual wooden part that forms the outside of the artwork that the moving lever or gear controls.
So those are the scores.
The last step was in the studio yesterday, thinking who’s where and then starting to apply some movements to each of their pathways with some similarities and some differences so there will be some counterpoint.
AG: So each letter or part has their own movement sequence?
NG: Most of them are actually paired. So, D and E are actually the same motion. J and K are the same in motion. But there’s only one A, one B, and one C. So, some of them are solos, but most of them are symmetrical.
AM: So what I did first was … I sat down and I basically tried to create a vocal part for each of the gears.
So, for example, if I take the effect off of this part – it’s just a really simple, a very literal equivalent
and then I’d add a second piece.
BL: Oh, this is the one in the shop! This is still my favorite.
AM: So I was singing it in thirds, you know, and then adding some other sound on top of that. And then I added… It felt very vocal a cappella to me, which I was not so crazy about, so I added a long pan and then an echo, so you get this bouncing back and forth thing.
AG: That’s a little scary.
BL: I still think that’s the best one, even with the background noise.
AM: And that’s all of that. The thing that bothered me about this one was the air conditioner in the background…
AM: So I went back and I re-recorded all the parts without the background noise, and I created a much longer version where I take out each of the pieces singularly. It’s interesting for something, but I don’t think it… it has a little bit of an Enya thing that happens to it.
NG: I love the similes you come up with.
AM: What I did like… eventually it’s like two different parts with really minor adjustments back and forth of these long notes. It actually feels more like the mandala [MechaniCard], than it does for this particular piece. Then I started adding those [bouncing notes] back in. Somehow they sound darker in this version than they did in the first version, I don’t know why…
AG: They sound like… not a human sound.
AM: So, blah blah. That goes on. [Stops music.] I’ve been trying to figure this out. The parts are literally the same thing I recorded in your studio. It’s literally the same things but it feels so much heavier in this version. It sounds more intentional, in a way.
NG: I like that it sounds… You have a round sound to your voice and that, to me, contrasts with the dissonance of the melodic play. It’s a contrast between the round and the sharp.
AM: It’s funny, I like [the first one] better too. I guess it’s just the microphone…
AG: Did you share these recordings with Michael Kiley and Liz Filios when you improvised with them?
AM: Yes, some of it.
AG: What else did you “seed” them with?
AM: I showed them [a video of] Brad playing with two “Counter-Productivities,” one on its own and one in a stand. And then I had a recording of the card at half-time.
AM: We kept watching the videos… We’d do a thing, and then we’d watch the video and we’d do another thing.
We really tried to mimic the different kinds of sounds, and then, I don’t know why, but we did an improv where we really played against the mechanical nature, so we just did a series of soundy-things.
I did one that was very Rockapella…
One of the things I realized, actually, was that I have a hard time collaborating with myself. I don’t tend to do a lot of things where it’s just me on a ton of tracks. I feel like I get bored. I need things to bounce against. And Mike and Liz are really different singers rhythmically and tonally, but we sing with each other a lot so we know how to blend. Mike comes from a folk music background and Liz comes from musical theater — we’ve all studied classically, but I think I’ve spent the most time living in it.
Oh, this is our contemporary music phase…
This is us doing total mechanical/classical music. It’s like Philip Glass does all the gears, interpreted through a classical voice.
AM: That goes and goes. And then we did the version that I ended up using.
I think by then I’d shown them Brad’s other website. I figured, well, Brad’s a musician, so I played one of your songs, and we did a bluesy improv.
The track I ended up with is the same track overlaid in a bunch of different places. I just chopped up an improv and reassembled it.
And then the last thing I did [with Mike and Liz] was do a 10-minute improvisation, you know, just to see if it was something. Turns out, no, it’s not. It was very fun to do, but it literally goes through every style possible.
The first piece was my interpretation of how the dance might look and how the machine works, but the final piece is actually most similar to the kind of music I like to listen to and sing.
Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.