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Towards a 'Contemporary Creative Technology': How Dance and Tech Can Learn to Talk to Each Other

I was very impressed with Rambert, and my response relates to my experiences of technology over the years - its 'experts', its attitude to women, its assumptions and working practices.

From October 2015 to February 2016, I was the first digital artist-in-residence at leading contemporary dance company, Rambert. I worked with thermal imagery, Processing, Kinect, 3D printing, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and LED panels. I documented my experience with photos, videos, and a book called Hacking Rambert, which is available to download here. What follows is extracted from that book.

Arriving at Rambert

I was very impressed with Rambert, and my response relates to my experiences of technology over the years - its 'experts', its attitude to women, its assumptions and working practices.

No one is more interested in going on about the benefits of digital than digital. Technology is what it says it is, full stop, and there are plenty of people being well-paid to promote it. Contemporary dance, on the other hand, has few hiding places, few podiums from which to make hollow claims. There is even a sense in which it is what everyone else says it is. However difficult its internal language, there is always an audience in the end, and anyone with money for a ticket can decide its fate and direction.

Dance is accountable and open in a way that creative technology isn't, yet. I started to see digital is a door-to-door salesperson, and dance as a home that opens its doors to anyone who knocks.

The Value of Difficulty

My work certainly always has a strong emphasis on fun. Humour and play are key triggers for inspiration. But this residency has reminded me that this isn't the only way - or even the best. There is value in the long haul - in taking things seriously for a very long length of time - in committing.

The main thing I've taken from this top dance institution is the expectation and embracing of difficulty.

At Rambert, challenge is piled upon challenge, as the norm. Everything is training, everything is personal, and there is no conclusion. Nothing is ever finished, closed off or won. And yet at the same time, there is an extraordinary efficiency. Nothing in dance disappears into an anonymous black hole of 'work'; it is expected that everything that is done and experienced will be used in some way, eventually. It's a kind of glorious optimism of labour that's lost to our efficient industrial mindsets.

Digital culture, on the other hand, is committed to making things easier, getting the hard stuff out of the way in an effort to recover 'free time'. And as long as technology's legacy habits blur into its art culture, we will find these curious attitudes to work and play, to deserving prioritised above committing, entitlement and earning before audience value.

The pursuit of an easy life is everywhere in tech, from its roots in the service industry to its current embracing of an amateur technology achievement. The mantra at the moment is that 'anyone can learn to code', for example, with the nagging subtext that because anyone can, everyone should. Which says something about how tech sees its value in the world: it thinks it is the sort of thing that everyone should do, for everyone's good.

Why would it make such a presumptuous claim? Because it knows it is right. This is capitalism, and technology is in bed with commerce. If it's money you want, the amounts of money involved prove technology's value over and over again.

Making technology cultural

There needs to be a critical discrimination - an admission that not everything is about money and not everything is for everyone. Digital creativity must cease the desperate demonstrations of sophistication or pointless futuristicness, must ungrip itself from the talons of 'geekiness' and learn to simply be, in a broad way that genuinely acknowledges everyone by confronting common truths.

Not anyone can learn to dance like they've been dancing every day since they were five. Dancers don't try to convince the world to learn to dance. You don't get technology companies hiring dancers-in-residence. Perhaps you can see how this elite artform may present something far more honest and accountable than the sham democracy of creative technology, an advocate of easiness in the pocket of capitalism.

Meanwhile, tech's insistence that everything should be comprehensible and achievable to everyone is a smokescreen. It's protecting the contrary agenda promoted by commerce, and it conceals the marked lack of expertise in technology (seen to in its "figurehead" culture - arbitrary elevation of guys who get up on podiums and 'passionately' share their reckons about 'the future').

There is a great blind spot in technology culture: that there are others in the world doing difficult technical and creative things that take a lifetime to learn, not everyone can do anything, and there is value in the nuanced world of individual lifetimes and personal, emotional, motivation - the results of which don't resolve into a formula.

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