Jan 24-27 Performance Works
(Image by Gregory Lorenzutti)
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
Are the humans still human?
Meeting is a performance about modern industrial clock time — how we inhabit it and how it inhabits us. It’s about the strange symbiosis of human and metronome in our current time-driven world.
At the outset, two dancers — choreographer Antony Hamilton and composer-machine-maker Alisdair Macindoe — stand in a circle of wooden blocks. Each block is about three inches high and has a thin red pencil attached to it that points to the center of the circle. I quickly count about sixty, which gives the impression that each pencil occupies one of the sixty hash-marks on a conventional clock face. The pencils click or buzz and tap out various rhythms on the floor. Each block is a small programmed robot wirelessly receiving Macindoe’s programmed composition. At first the rhythms have predictable regularity, but as the show progresses these give over to greater poly-rhythmic complexity.
For much of the show the two men sharply accent the beginning and end of their physical actions in precise coordination with the clicks and taps. The duration of each action seems utterly dictated by the relentless regularity of the tapping. The dancers actions can be likened to the movement of clock hands, or to gears and cogs in a machine, or simply to two figures trapped in an algorhythm limited by a small set of prescribed rules. In other words, human action in this work is more an expression of mechanical contrivance than biology.
The early 20th century French philosopher, Henri Bergson, in his essay on laughter, argues that people become comic when their behaviour seems automatic — when, due to ingrained habit, they are unable to adjust to new information. In slapstick comedy this might mean a character absendtmindedly slamming her finger in a desk drawer again and again. Her mind is elsewhere while her body is unable to break an unconscious pattern. I laughed when Hamilton and Macindoe repeatedly smacked themselves, and one another, in just such a manner. How absurd that they had internalized clock rhythm to the point where they couldn’t stop hitting each other.
But most of the time the two facially unexpressive figures execute the choreography with Taylorist, assembly-line efficiency. I would describe it as ‘foreboding’ if this reality were only a dystopian image of the future. But it is very close to the loop each of us finds ourselves in on a daily basis. Choreographer Hamilton has expressed his interest in the machine- and digital-based systems-within-systems we are always a part of in contemporary life, whether these are as banal as obeying the signals of red, yellow, and green lights at an intersection, or the way mathematical patterns govern our interactions through the internet. He has desribed both his fascination and worry with the way these systems inform our behaviours — the way we measure ourselves against machines in order to perform “better” and more efficiently.
The first part of the show is very much about this. But it’s not so much that the dancers represent time. Rather they become time, their bodies are inseparable from contemporary urban time signatures — an embodiment of linear, clock time as opposed to cyclical, seasonal time.
Will the machines get tired?
About two-thirds into the show the dancers leave the stage and we are left with the poly-rhythms of the blocks and pencils, now arranged so that each one points upstage right, the direction the dancers exited. It’s as if the pointing was a command to the dancers to get off the stage. I find myself relaxing. I had so identified with the virtuosic physical and mental effort of the human performers, that being left to programmed robots is a relief.
That is, until I start worrying about the robots. What if the robots fail? What if they get out of sync? What if they get tired? I realize this is an irrational thought, but everywhere in our culture there are stories of a coming consciousness of the technological, whether this consciousness becomes manifest in human-like robots, the ever complexifying algorhythms of the google search engine, or in mechanical objects. In the book Sapiens, historian Yuval Harari predicts the end of our species and the beginnings of a new type of human, a hybrid between organic flesh, augmented biology, manufactured parts, and implanted software (well, of course, this is already happening, so Harari is wisely just exptrapolating from the current trend).
Then there are the theories of object ontology (what kinds of beings are non-human things?) and new materialism (what level of agency do non-human things have?). These are areas I’ve been steeped in for some time as a performance-maker collaborating with the other-than-human. In this kind of thinking we try to re-calibrate our relationship to our surroundings, rejecting the notion of human beings as masters of our environments. And, of course, there is the long standing animistic approach to the other-than-human, prevalent among pre-industrial European societies and among indigenous peoples throughout the world. In this view, trees, mountains, sacred spaces, and yes, modern manufactured objects, have spirits or energetic force.
So a community of small wooden blocks with pencils pointing insistently in one direction, while tapping out complex polyrhythms, became, for me, a fragile assemblage. Each block was so small. The wireless signal might fail. The computer running the software might fail. The human running the computer might fail. The mechanical parts inside the blocks could break. Any one of these things could disrupt the seemingly conductorless orchestration.
We have been left alone with these creatures. The performers are gone and might not be coming back. Where we had watched a “meeting” between between human dancer and robot, between biological “software” and algorhythmic software, we are now left to negotiate our own meeting with the robots, unmediated by the human dancers. I, for one, feel anxious. When Hamilton and Macindoe return at curtain call, with smiles on their faces and bodies moving more ‘organically,’ I feel a sense of relief.