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.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. 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 website 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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