Pathfinder, a visual language to generate choreography.
Generative solutions within the fields of art have a long history. Especially within the fields of music and visual arts, the usage of computational solutions enabled new perspectives and raised new questions towards artistic productions, ownership and expression. Compared to this ongoing development, the domains of dance and physical performance are still in its modest beginnings and are dominated by algorithmic approaches to capture and visualize moving bodies. Groundbreaking performances has been done by the use of this principle, offering new ways to perceive and access dance. However, narrowing down the possibilities of modern algorithms to measurement and translation does not reflect the contemporary role of algorithms within the field of artistic research and generative design.
The experimental project “Pathfinder” addresses this limitation as it aims to contribute to the creative processes of choreographic development, instead of serving as data management and abstraction. In order to do so, our algorithms generate graphical patterns to stimulate the dancers creativity and open new perspectives. Hence Pathfinder is an experimental tool which aims to create visual inspirations instead of recreations, and therefore becomes its own creative building block, questioning the classical master slave paradigm.
Pathfinder is a tool which can be utilized in different scenarios. In order to define a desired type of animation, the choreograph is able to adjust certain parameters of the algorithm, such as speed, complexity, or geometric objects. However, he is not able to define the precise visual output. We implemented this limitation to ensure the algorithms own contribution to the process. Based upon this adjustments, Pathfinder generates different shapes morphing into each other in a logically and sequential manner. The dancer is able to see this output and react in a preferably spontaneous way in order to provoke uncertain results and surprises. Based upon his observations, the choreographer is able to adjust the parameters of Pathfinder to approximate the desired results. Constituted by this process Pathfinder becomes a medium, replacing common communication processes such as speaking or showing. Of course this system can also be applied to just one dancer continuously researching body movements, while reflecting his progress and making adjustments on his own.
One of the key questions to develope Pathfinder was to determine a visual language which is appropriate to communicate motion and stimulate the dancers mind. If the graphical language is to concrete, dancers often tended to simply follow the shapes, instead of interpreting creatively. On the other hand, to abstract graphics led to a disconnection between the dancers movements and the visual content. Hence our main target was to find a visual balance between abstraction and ascertainment.
Thinking of dance as a process of human shapes continuously transforming from one state to another, we were able to narrow down our design decisions to two core design questions:
- Which shapes could be used as virtual objects?
- Which kind of transformations can those objects perform?
In order to create the shapes that make up our visual language we were inspired by Kandinsky’s “Point and Line to Plane”. In this book Kandinsky analyzes geometric primitives and their effect on the observer. We decided to make use of his theories and restricted our shapes to geometric primitives such as point, line, plane.
The dancers actions to transform his body from one shape to another is called transition. For Pathfinder we investigated how this process can be applied to graphical programming. Hence we developed an algorithm which is able to generate logical transitions between all kind of different geometric shapes. As a consequence the Pathfinder algorithm is able to morph a point to a line to a plane and even to more complex objects such as a torus or a 3d model of a car. We did so by breaking down each object to its polygons. The algorithm then calculates the most logical sequence of transformations from one object to another, including the transformations of all of its individual polygons.
Because of this process the complexity of Pathfinder isn’t reasoned in its elementary shapes but in the countless possibilities of transitions among them.
The project pathfinder enabled us to explore new possibilities as well as mechanisms to use generated graphical content as a creative impulse. Most of the dancers working with the system and the corresponding setup, answered broad-minded and interested. One artist refused to participate after trying for a couple of minutes, arguing he felt forced instead of inspired and controlled instead of enriched. The biggest contribution of pathfinder, was to see how dancers were able to break with artistic habits. While improvising movements, many dancers have the tendency to get caught up in repeating loops, trained concepts, or simply habits. This comfort zone often lead to redundancy, limited creativity and artistic frustration. Trying to improvise by the use of Pathfinder, dancers were often inspired to make simple adjustments to their trained loops, enabling them to connect new path and permutations of their physical language.
Our investigation also revealed the necessity of very individual strategies of how dancers should approach such a system. Some very physical dancers felt challenged by the system to hunt visual elements with their body. Other dancers who have a more sensibleness approach to body movements seemed intimidated and constrained by the flood of information. Asking the dancers to pick out less impressions and improvise more by themselves, often led to a more relaxed atmosphere and satisfying results.
A drawback of our projector setup was, that the dancers need to see the projected image. Hence the heads direction was bound to see the projected area. This constrain does not only affect the dancers head but also the movements of the spline, spacing and overall creative range. We addressed this issue trying different experiments including the occulous rift (virtual reality goggles mounted to the head), smoke for holographic visual sensations and even sound to replace the visual content with acoustic stimulation. However none of the mentioned concepts solved our issues and even raised new drawbacks. For future work we do believe that it could be very interesting to investigate new methods to communicate visual content without bounding the head to certain limitations.
For choreographic consultancy and scientific insight into the field of contemporary dance, we had the chance to collaborate with Raphael Hillebrand once again. His work combines urban dance and contemporary dance and has contributed in multiple ways.
The “Pathfinder” Project was finalized and presented at choreographic coding. Choreographic Coding is a laboratory invented in 2013, as part of the Motionbank research project of the Forsythe Company. Together with partners like the NODE Forum for Digital Arts, it offers unique opportunities of exchange and collaboration – for digital artists who apply choreographic thinking to their own practice.