How Can Creative Technologies Develop as a 'Contemporary' Artform? Four Lessons From Dance

01/07/2016 14:12 | Updated 01 July 2016

During my recent residency at (leading UK contemporary dance company) Rambert, I was struck by the dance system's efficiency at turning out quality. I was in residence as their first technology artist for four months, and while I'm definitely on the art side of things, I have worked in the digital world, among digital professionals, for years. I have been immersed with digital culture.

But 'art' means something quite different to digital culture than to the established performance arts. In digital, everything is still very new and being worked out. Claims to artistry in digital work on the whole go unchallenged - we are desperate to embrace anything, so long as it has sufficient fans, and this desperation and speedy ranking in the social stakes impacts terribly on quality and thoughtfulness.

Additionally, the relationship between dance and tech is lacking. I concluded that one of the reasons for the rift is that dance and digital are trying to do some of the same things. Both involve movement, switching, surprise; both are detail-orientated and procedural - and much more. Some of the issues they have in communicating with each other arise because their roles overlap. The problem is not that dance and tech are distant strangers, but that they are painfully close cousins. So there must, at the very least, be a way for digital to learn from contemporary dance.

The problem is not that dance and tech are distant strangers, but that they are painfully close cousins

How can creative technology develop as a 'contemporary' artform?

1) Look to history to find the rules

Contemporary dance is far less 'cultural' than digital, and all the better for it. With its culture in place, dance can focus on achieving technical excellence by following the rules and putting the hours into the practical work. Meanwhile, only a tiny proportion of 'technology' has anything to do with tech at all - it's overwhelmingly media hype, shininess, grasping at concepts like the 'future', and politics (see my comments on shininess in this recent interview). Digital is new so could be forgiven for trying to artificially synthesise a culture, but technology has of course been around forever. It is from this ancient convention that we must draw our rules for best practice - not the muddled modern self-written history, nor digital's anxiety about losing its crown and returning to meagre service roles.

2) Allow outsiders to describe it
Dance is in many ways transparent, compared to digital. There is nowhere to hide. As artforms go, it is one of the few where accomplishment is immediately apparent and uncontroversial. Digital often encourages the opposite. If visual art is guilty of opaque language and elitism, digital art magnifies that through its youth and neediness. Digital must gain the confidence to throw open its doors to external criticism and cultural positioning. It is not possible to be the author of own story - to describe one's own significance - without losing all credibility. Digital is acting like a spoiled Prince using his money and power to have a go at art. No one will take it seriously, but no one has the power to say what they really think, and it can pay its way into the highest echelons.

Digital is a spoiled Prince having a go at art. No one will take it seriously, but no one has the power to say what they really think, and it can pay its way into the highest echelons.

3) Look for, and destroy, tech's self-written narratives
Contemporary suggests non-narrative. In contemporary dance, things look like exactly what they are. There are other artforms that deal with stories, including other forms of dance. Contemporary dance revels in the honesty of what it is.

But digital doesn't like things "looking like what they are". It likes a story, a dream, something to make the string and guts of a thing palatable or aspirational. You might say digital is always selling and never paying off, while dance is what you get once you've bought in.

Digital likes a story, because it seems to need a culture for itself, urgently, and because it is always trying to hook you in on a promise that it can make your dreams come true. But in the non-narrative aspect of digital we find a very beautiful truth: circuits; switches; code; the sound of keys. This is the stuff that really does have common ground with dance.

4) Look for teachers everywhere
Digital's teachers are limited, because its reference points are our broader culture - a culture hostile to women, to the elderly, to those without money and to those who seem alien in any given community. Because dance operates on a different level to cultural influence, it is much more open to finding teachers and influences in a huge range of places. Its quality benefits from this culture-blindness. When tech creeps in, however, dance becomes infected and suffers - (white, male) hero choreographers who work with tech, give TED talks etc, start sprouting up. There are already unspoken "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ways to bring tech into dance; digital is already trumping dance in this collaboration. We must nip this in the bud!