Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: Mortal Engine

By Chunky Move
Choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek
The Malthouse as a part of Dance Massive

I didn't receive Mortal Engine as a piece of dance theatre, or even as choreography. It therefore felt a little strange to be applauding the dancers at the conclusion of the piece. I would never deny a performer their applause, I think I wanted to applaud Frieder Weiss, the program author whose genius generated the stunning real-time projections.
Mortal Engine seemed to me to put humans in the roles usually served by machines. The dancers were input devices, the choreography not the end result but one of many contributing brushstrokes creating this masterwork.
I have an interest in this kind of technology, often discussing with a friend the various possibilities of real-time digital projection and generation and often swapping links to projects that realise one permutation or another to varying degrees of success.

Shadow Monsters by Philip Worthington, an interactive installation created by reading visual locational data (the shadow of one's hand in front of a screen) running it through a program which adds sounds and digital visual manipulation of the image and projecting it back, onto another screen.

Or LASER tag, developed by the Graffiti Research Lab. I'm not at all sure how this works, but its a similar result. That is: real time projection of a manipulated image.

Mortal Engine achieved this with stunning virtuosity. I wish now I had seen Glow, yet it sounds as if I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as ME. I left the theatre extremely excited.

I do, however, have some (what I think may be) interesting notes, notes which may lead me down the digital garden path into a deep dark binary forest, where I will get lost, eaten, spewed up and then will commit (justified) murder.

The production didn't solely use projection. It also used good ole incandescent lighting. This added an interesting tension that I don't feel was fully explored. The tension being, the difference between projecting an image which is being refreshed 25 or 50 times a second (depending upon how you look at it, or indeed if I am even right) onto a body moving fluidly and continuously, and lighting aforementioned body with continuous light. There is a perceptible difference and I think more could have been made of that. When watching someone lit by incandescent light there is an inevitable warmth and fluidity. We see it and we think 'human', 'natural'. When lit by a digital projector we think 'cold', 'digital' 'unnatural'.

As virtuosic as Frieder Weiss' projections were, the use of them fell into a trap common for new media use in performance, that is to say, they were used in one way only. As mentioned by Alison Croggon, your mind does play tricks on you in such an experience. The negative image left in your field of vision after looking at a bright, still image is one these optical illusions. These things were occurring but not used at all. The aesthetic of the projections sometimes mimicked the organic visual world of shadows, negative images, interplay between light and dark, I think the digital illusions needn't have been all that was going on. For instance, there is this:
Stare at the black dot. The grey haze will eventually seem to disappear.

It was a part of the exercise that all of the projection be real-time. I understand that as an exercise. As an viewer, however, once I come to understand the rules I want them broken. I think it would have added to the pieces complexity if some of the sections were not being driven by the dancer's bodies, but rather they were following prerecorded projections. This kind of subtle shape-shifting within a format is thrilling as a viewer. Is that a physical image, or is it my eyes? It would have been wonderful.

Early on the projections mimicked an oscilloscope in what I believe to be an attempt at integrating Robin Foxes LASERs later in the piece. It didn't work. As much as I admire Robin Fox and his LASER shows, and acknowledge the desired effect, it just felt like too much of a gear change.

I'll finish with what I think is a fantastic example of technology integration and playfulness. I'm a little sheepish about it being a Kanye West clip. Its awesome.

KANYE WEST "Welcome To Heartbreak" Directed by Nabil from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

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