Dance as Algorithm: What Happens When an Animated GIF Springs to Life

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An stunning dance and experimental theater show pulled pieces of the Internet into the physical world with wild and beautiful results.

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Sara Yassky opens She Was a Computer with the Lana Del Rey spin (Loren R. Robertson Productions).

To learn about the Internet, we tend to turn to ... the Internet. Blogs comment on blogs commenting on blogs. Tweets build on Tweets. It can be one hell of a beautiful snow globe.

Yet the most vital investigation I've seen in years of our complex, befuddling, empowering, discouraging relationship with technology came courtesy of Cara DeFabio's dance/performance show, She Was a Computer. Now, DeFabio's a friend, and I heard about the genesis of the production from her, so I am far from a disinterested observer. Nonetheless, I was shocked at how effective the medium of dance-heavy experimental theater was at lending depth to the everyday questions we have about technology.

Dance with its embodied rhythmic repetitions -- human algorithms -- strikes me as an art form that suddenly works on a whole new level now that we live Internet-mediated lives. Dance, unlike art made for paper or screen, cannot be turned into bits and sent hurtling along fiber optic cables. Dance is atoms moving.

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There is something about incarnating these ideas and debates. Adding bodies made some things ludicrous and other things suddenly made sense. We live in a time of loops, The Animated GIF Era, and tightly coupled systems, where weather data causes cascading effects inside algorithmic trading computers, which send corn prices spiraling up, driving changes in farmers' GPS-guided tractors.

These feedbacks were originally studied through that strange mid-century field of cybernetics, which initially concerned itself with biological-technological hybrids. This is where we got the word cyborg, after all. People spent time thinking about these things because they realized how stable our bodies are under most conditions, and they realized that doing certain things (say, blasting people into space) might disrupt how we operate. Larger systems, whole ecologies were stable with some human influence, but might be sensitive to big perturbations.

Along with these fears, though, some of the earliest cyberneticians thought that perhaps by extending ourselves through technology, we might find a new freedom. Think of Donna Haraway's promotion of a cyborg feminism with the motto, "I'd rather by a cyborg than a goddess," at its core. Or check out Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in the paper that coined the term cyborg: "The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel."

Dance aims to do the exact opposite of this version of the cyborg. It takes the things we all do robotically -- walk, run, *move* -- and makes them a focus of exploration, creation, thinking, and feeling. Maybe the only way to study our increasingly cyborg selves is to go to the absolute opposite end of the mediation spectrum, forcing the inspection of our experience through human bodies alone. lana_del_rey_-_spin.gif

The show opened with what I would call an animated GIF come to life. A woman in a dress (dancer Sara Yassky) spins in a circle at the front of the stage to the sound of Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," which is playing on a phonograph on the stage. At first, she's moving like Del Rey on her hipster-infamous Saturday Night Live performance. This move, starting from the template you see to the right, has been memed into oblivion. Any place there is a clear foreground or background, you can find Lana Del Rey spinning: on famous men's shoulders, in bird's nests, at the Arc de Triomphe, in toilets, in old music videos, inside videogames, at the scene of a bloody killing.

While the meme remixed from her show was wildly popular, her actual performance was panned. Musician Juliette Lewis tweeted, "Wow, watching this 'singer' on SNL is like watching a 12-year-old in their bedroom when they're pretending to sing and perform." But, I would tell Lewis: Exactly! People loved her spin because it was girlish and scared and oddly unsavvy. What was she doing on national television?!

Back in the real life of DeFabio's show, the dancer is still spinning. It's been a minute, at least. The woman is caught in a loop, a live animated GIF. It's as if she was wandering along in her life and suddenly, these few frames snatched from the flow of time became what she was. Remember the title of the show: She Was a Computer. That was drawn from DeFabio's grandmother's experience working a calculating machine back before microchips when "a computer" was a person, generally a woman, who performed repetitive calculations over and over and over. Almost as if caught in a strange loop, or trapped inside an animated gif.

But the thing is: a computer can run a loop perfectly, indefinitely. That very attribute is what makes algorithms work. Computers can run the same set of instructions a million times in a row exactly the same way. A human, even a human computer, cannot. As we watch the dancer spin, we realize: a meme incarnated is a dangerous thing, a live animated gif cannot be as predictable as its digital avatar. Slowly, on what must be her 50th or 60th turn, we see her face start to change. What had been a dull look, almost as if she couldn't see us, morphs into a kind of knowing grin. It's not nice though. It's nasty. She smiles. She snarls. She's superior.

sarahead2.gifBut then the tables turn. (By now, this slow spinning has been going on for two minutes.) She starts to look worried. Her eyes move quickly as she turns. We may be paying to watch her, but she's the one stuck performing the same motion over and over and over. ("Play Freebird!") After another minute, she breaks into full mammalian panic without  being able to break out of her spin. She claws at the fabric clinging to her thighs. But she can't grab on to anything that would pull her from her loop. The sheer need to repeat and repeat ensures that her rage remains unfulfilled. The turning must go on and no one, least of all her, knows why. Her mouth screams but no words come out. The actions that used to work no longer do. The only reason she exists is to turn, and her emotions about that turning are unfortunate side effects taking on the airs of consciousness. Her feelings are just pretending to throne of meaning. Because no matter what, she has to keep turning. That's the logic of the system.

All of which to say: to make a GIF human, to pull this fundamental Internet thing outside of its box is an ingenious piece of stagecraft. For every GIF meme, there is a person in there somewhere. Susan Sontag identified photography with death. She put it like this in On Photography:

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.

The memento mori says, "Remember you must die." The animated GIF says, "Remember you will live on in media." That is to say, if photography is a reaper, the animated GIF is its zombie cousin.

In the recent spate of high-end zombie books and movies, there is often an intimation that at some point in the process, the zombies could have a moment of self-awareness before or after they eat your brains. Certainly, there could be no greater despair than knowing you could live forever but only in this horrific, extruded, rotting form. Perhaps despair itself could be described by the score that DeFabio gave her dancer Yassky: APATHY, DISDAIN, MASKED FEAR, PANIC, APATHY. Each emotion got roughly a minute of the allotted four minutes and 42 seconds of the track.

From that stunning beginning, DeFabio went on to consider many other aspects of our relationship with technology. During one particularly memorable sequence, a woman (played brilliantly by Stacey Swan) is seated in the center of the stage with only a telephone by her side. She lip syncs a Dorothy Parker short story about waiting for a man to call, which had been read for radio as a monologue by Tallulah Bankhead. Hope and malice mingle and combine in the very object of the phone. It is as if it is the phone that is controlling whether or not the man calls, a rather improbable but somewhat comforting proposition.

The longest sequence of She Was a Computer was a high-concept skit, almost vintage Monty Python. A female doctor (portrayed by Niki Selken) receives a stream of patients who are suffering from physical ailments. She diagnoses their diseases as stemming from the digital side of their hybrid reality, and her prescriptions for her patients cramps and headaches are gadget-related.

The gag, essentially, is that our devices can make us hurt and sick. And therefore, perhaps our technologies can heal us, too. Lymph node swollen? Try resetting your browser cache. Sprained knee? You need a new hard drive. Can't sleep? You may have Restless Touchpad Syndrome.

This is absurd, no! Yes, of course it is. But it's just a reversal of one of the most common complaints of the chattering classes. Our machines are making us stupid and crazy, ruining our health and fitness. If the technological fears of the 1960s were about what technology would do to the world, nowadays, we're more worried about what they're doing to us, our insides, our biology, our brains. When we first touched the screen, we did not agree to become cyborgs, and yet, here we are!

Towards the end of the show, a hair dryer takes on a life of its own in a pas de deux with a third dancer (the ridiculously athletic Pearl Marill) as she prepares for an Instagram photoshoot. Marill may be pushing the button to start the dryer, but it, in turn, drives the movement of her body; she dances when it's on, stops when it's off. It moves her around the stage even as she seems to direct it. The complex interplay between the control she exerts -- and in so doing, paradoxically gives away -- is one of the most mesmerizing, funny, and heavy commentaries on technological determinism that you're likely to see anywhere. And here it was on the small Counterpulse stage in a kind of rough part of San Francisco.

Is she enhanced? Is she controlled? A body can give answers words cannot.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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