Talking to Troika Ranch

Very few artists have been working at the intersection of performance and technology as inquisitively, innovatively and rigorously for as long as choreographer/media-artist Dawn Stoppiello and composer/media-artist Mark Coniglio, known together as Troika Ranch.

The widely used, real-time media manipulation software Isadora, written by Coniglio, was conceptualized and created from the choreographic investigations at the core of their collaboration.

Stoppiello and Coniglio are among the first artists whose creative practices developed alongside the digital technology that is now so pervasive, and the story of their ongoing creative partnership is also the story of the past twenty years of performance and digital technology.

They met in 1987 at CalArts when Dawn, who was studying dance, and Mark, who was studying music composition and writing software with Mort Subotnick, were randomly paired as collaborators in a class taught by Cristyne Lawson.

That classroom encounter at CalArts initiated an ongoing examination of the moving body and its relationship to technology that led them from Los Angeles to New York in 1994, where they formed Troika Ranch and developed their creative methodology which “involves a hybrid of three artistic disciplines, dance/theater/media (the Troika), in cooperative artistic interaction (the Ranch).”

“I was 19 when I started at CalArts,” Stoppiello told me during a recent phone conversation. “So I didn’t have a solid choreographic process before I started doing this. Working with sensory systems and responsive media was embedded into my creative process from the beginning.”

Coniglio added, “It’s kind of like me with computers. I started programming computers in 7th grade; I was working as a professional and designing an accounting system when I was 16. It is just part of who I am. You can’t divorce me from computers, you can’t.”

“So we really do have very integrated creative practices,” Dawn said, “the ideas for software come out of the rehearsal process.”

Out of their collaboration Coniglio created MIDI Dancer, a wireless system that allowed a dancer to control music, in 1989. Shortly thereafter he collaborated with Mort Subotnick to create Interactor, a programming tool for real-time manipulation of MIDI audio and other digital media.

“We were working with Interactor and MIDI Dancer, making our work, but the really key moment was in 1996 when we had a residency at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam,” Coniglio said. “That was where we were introduced to a program called Imag/ine created by Tom Demeyer and Steina Vasulka. I think it was the first software for a personal computer that allowed you to do real time manipulation of video.”

“Steina was running STEIM at that time – and it was a music place – they didn’t do video software – but she instigated this idea of pushing for real time video control,” he continued. “We saw that and it was amazing. To see this happening on a personal computer – some of the effects Tom made were really beautiful and it was just astounding to see that it could even happen. I coveted that a little in my heart, that beautiful video thing, and I stayed interested in it.”

It wasn’t until 1999 that the idea for Isadora started to become clear.

Stoppiello explains, “We were teaching a workshop in Context Studios to try and introduce dancers and choreographers to what had been happening in music. The software that was available at the time was so complex, and dancers had so little experience with computers, that we ended up spending more time introducing people to working with computers – and with computers crashing! – than we spent doing creative work”

“Right,” added Coniglio, “we were trying to use my old software, Interactor, which only really did MIDI, in tandem with Imag/ine, and it was just fraught with peril the whole time.”

“It was right after that workshop when we started having a discussion about what we needed for our own work,” Dawn said. “Because now that you could play video on a personal computer and you could also manipulate it with an external system, we wanted to start exploring that.”

Part of the challenge of creating Isadora was the instability of computers and computer programs at that time.

“At one point I was onstage with Troika Ranch as an actor (kind of) in a couple of pieces,” Mark explains, “and this time it was me, finally, standing onstage in front of 300 people when the computer crashed – and that had never happened to me before…”

“Yeah, it was always me having to cope with that moment!” interjected Dawn, laughing.

“Right!” Mark continued, “So that was a really pivotal experience because it just felt like shit to be onstage and have the blue screen behind you and hear the Mac restart sound coming through the speakers!”

“We had made several solos for the MIDI Dancer, then we decided to make a quartet and wanted all the dancers controlling their own sound and – as much as possible – their own videos,” Mark explained. “That piece was called Reine Rien and that was the project that required all the things we were making in Isadora.”

So it was this convergence of creative choreographic investigation, computer instability, the complexity of existing interfaces, the absence of an integrated tool for real-time media manipulation and a soupcon of personal embarrassment that led to the first iteration of Isadora.

“I think our collaboration was integral to making a user interface that was understandable to a more novice computer user, because software like MAX had been in the music world for a decade already, or even more, perhaps.” Dawn added.

“I’m generalizing a bit, but musicians – especially electronic musicians – have a certain mathematical mind that can accept a program like MAX and figure out how to work with it. I think dancers and choreographers – and I’m generalizing once again – are more visual. The feedback generated by our collaboration influenced a more graphical interface – with icons, etc. – that was more related to the physical world and space, rather than just numbers. And I think that has helped Isadora become a tool that is used by more artists with embodied practices – dancers and choreographers.”

Mark elaborated on the notion of usability, “I really owe Tom [Demeyer] a huge debt because I really took Imag/ine as an inspiration,” he said. “But I wanted something with a user interface that felt good under my fingers. I wanted us to have our own tool that I’m in control of; that I can make sure is absolutely reliable and that will do what I need it to do, when I need it to do it. We demonstrated an early version of Isadora in December of 2000 at the Monaco Dance Forum and that was the first time the public got to see it.”

While the development and dissemination of Isadora over the past 15 years has transformed the field of performance and technology, Troika Ranch’s pioneering investigations have not been limited to software alone. When we look at the creative arc of their performance projects, we see an ever-evolving interrogation into the complex relations between dancer, technology and audience that moves beyond mere tech wizardry.

“At one conference we attended we were quite surprised when a colleague, who wrote a paper about us, said that we were ‘content-driven’ whereas other artists are ‘materials-driven’,” Mark offered.

“Right,” Dawn said, “It seems obvious, but it felt necessary for some reason to say that we’re content-driven in the sense that everything that shows up in the work is to serve our idea. It’s not ‘Look I have this great MIDI Dancer suit, let me show all the things I can do with it!’ If there’s video, if there’s a sensory costume, it’s there to support the idea.”

“One of the examples I often give is the invention of the piano,” Mark continued. “So we have the harpsichord, right? And then this new invention comes, the pianoforte, and suddenly, every piece of music is being written to show off what the piano can do: really, really soft! REALLY, REALLY LOUD! Really, really soft! It’s like that.”

“Or, in the history of cinema the Lumière Brothers have a train coming towards the audience and everyone runs screaming from the theater because they don’t actually know that it’s not a real train. The Lumière Brothers are playing games with this new technology. It’s normal that when delving into new technology the first step is ‘What spectacular thing can I do with this?’ because it’s interesting to see what’s spectacular about it. And then it starts to develop into something real.”

Troika Ranch’s first investigations with Isadora were into how the technology could serve the dancer and its potential to liberate and empower the dancer as an independent, generative artist.

“Part of the idea for Isadora was that it was going to be a software where a dancer could wear a microphone and talk to it as they moved around the room,” Dawn said.

“When we presented Isadora for the first time in Monaco, the idea was that the dancer wasn’t seated at a computer typing, but rather moving around the space, creating the dance and creating the media responses simultaneously. Kind of like choreographing the software by walking around, dancing around, asking the computer questions, “Isadora, do you see this shape?” “Yes, I do”, “Isadora can you please hook up the movie player to the projector” and so on.”

“At that time – in the early 2000s – we were thinking about this idea of the ‘Uber Artist’ who could make everything themselves, but we walked away from that a bit, because for us the collaborative process is so much more robust.”

From Reine Rien in 2001 through 16 [R]evolutions in 2006, Troika Ranch continued investigating their creative questions along those lines – dancer-driven technology – until fatigue set in.

Dawn explained, “We had explored this notion of sensory costumes, technology and media – I don’t even know what to call it, I mean pointe shoes and pencils are also technology – in this particular way for almost fifteen years. And I had gotten a little bored with my process of working that way.”

“After all this time Mark and I started having conversations about how my process of movement invention was being influenced and changing based on my relationship to this technology. I instinctively felt that my movement invention process itself was developing in surprising and exciting ways, and this influence needed to be explored. All of these ideas came together in 2007 when we started conceiving of loopdiver, starting purely from the question, ‘What if we videotaped some choreography, brought it into Isadora, looped it in composed ways, turned the monitor around and asked the dancer to learn this material?’”

Loopdiver was a pretty major shift for us,” Mark said. “We basically reversed the proposition from before, where now the system was imposed upon the performer and they’re locked into something.”

Dawn continued, “We wanted to know ‘Could it work? What would it look like? What would it feel like?’ We had no idea. So we started the process and it took two years to answer those questions for ourselves. But at the end of it I could say, ‘Yes. Now I’m moving in a completely different way and making decisions in completely different ways than I had previously done. That was the moment when I felt that media and technology really was integral to what I was doing physically.”

After nearly fifteen years in New York, numerous acclaimed, cutting edge performances, a “Bessie” Award, an “Eddy” Award and an honorary mention at Prix Ars Electronica Cyberarts Competition, the company changed its way of working when Stoppiello went to graduate school and Coniglio moved to Berlin.

They also embarked upon a new area of investigation, one that they are pursuing with their current project in development, Swarm.

If the first phase of Troika Ranch’s ongoing investigation into performance was about technology serving humans, and the second phase was about humans adapting to the demands of technology, then this latest phase may be about the complexities of being an individual human in a technologically mediated community.

“After years of working with interactive systems and the concept of liveness we had learned a lot about our creative process and our interests in that realm,” said Dawn. “And then we reversed that approach with loopdiver, where the media really infiltrated the body and we had to cope with looping time structures and time frames that are less than we can even imagine in our bodies. Now we’re making a piece that is a kind of marriage of the two ways of thinking about interactivity and media systems.”

Mark continued, “In loopdiver we challenged the performers to deal with impossible situations imposed by a computer system that didn’t understand it was demanding the impossible. So we had to be creative and come up with new solutions. That opened us up to a surprising, new way of working and opened up new possibilities.”

Swarm, as it is currently imagined, is an interactive performance/installation. Coniglio and Stoppiello describe a scenario to me where the audience is being “sensed” by a computer and their behavior generates instructions that direct the performers on the stage. So where in loopdiver the computer system imposed impossible situations on the performers, unaware that it was demanding the impossible, here it is the audience that is imposing its collective will on the performers.

“The performers will be in a situation where a system is imposing instructions upon them that they have to react to and deal with in the moment: instructions to do things that probably can’t even be done,” Mark tells me. “The killer question – to me – is can the audience understand the linkage between their behavior and the demands on the performers? Will they react and change their behavior, thus changing what’s happening to the performers? Will that feedback loop between audience action, performer reaction and audience action again really come into being?”

He continues, “The ideal situation is that we would run it for a month and if an audience member buys a ticket they can come back as often as they want, becoming a kind of virtuoso or expert through repeated experience in the system.”

I’m really curious to see if we can create a situation where learning how to “author” this world – play this game – will be valuable enough that audiences will take the time to learn it. What I’m not interested in are typical interactive installations where you go in and you wave a hand or dance around a little bit and the installation responds in the most rudimentary way.  That’s like poking a pin in an amoeba under a microscope, and I’m looking for something way more sophisticated than that.”

At a moment where technology creates the possibility for unexpected juxtapositions and has so rapidly transformed our experience of the everyday world and our relationships with each other, it is not surprising that Troika Ranch’s current investigation would touch on these issues, yielding multiple interpretations.

Troika Ranch has been working on Swarm since 2013 despite living in separate time zones. Though, after our long conversation, I began to suspect that their respective cities seem to complement the different sides of their collaboration.

Stoppiello, who completed her MFA in Dance at The George Washington University in 2013 and has since moved back to Portland, Oregon, has been exploring these ideas in a deeply thoughtful, if decidedly less technological and more playful way.

“I started doing these performances in my garage based on this system I was calling ‘Object Oriented Choreography’”, she told me. “It was kind of a silly play on words because the game is basically that there is a series of objects on a table and that are being moved around by the audience members. The performer has an atomic unit of movement, sound or action that is associated with each object and is to be performed when the object is being manipulated. The orientation or relationship of the object to itself or other objects determines how the performer improvises an interpretation of the ‘atomic unit of action’ associated with that object.”

This relates to Swarm, she told me, in that, “As soon as the audience understands what’s going on – and in this case it’s pretty quickly, because it’s a simple relationship – they try everything they can to fuck with you. They want you in impossible situations, and it is really fun for the performer and the audience.”

“At the same time there are other people in the audience who are like, ‘Wait a minute! Don’t do that, move that over here!’ And then they start to talk to each other, ‘What if we push all the objects over to a corner of the table, what would that look like? Okay let’s try that!’  So they start to compose you. And that was part of the underlying thing with Swarm: would an audience really get excited about composing the piece once they understand that they were, in fact, composing it?”

Coniglio, speaking from Berlin, offers that in Swarm the computer that is “sensing” the audience, and thus directing the performers, is indifferent to their individuality. “The computer sees all these people – these objects, let’s say – in the space, but doesn’t differentiate between them. In this way the computer is like society, in the sense that in society a government looks at you as a thing that pays taxes, a thing that needs to not cross when the light is red but cross when the light is green, etc. There are a lot of very specific rules of order that cause society to exist. The death of one individual person in that society doesn’t mean much in that regard.”

“So when the computer looks at the audience it doesn’t care that they’re people, it’s just how they move, how their relationships form, that causes it to do things. It’s a little bit like the government or society as an idea.”

“But the people who are in the performance, the audience, they are a community, or they should be. We want them to be a community – meaning that they have an understanding of each other and their relationship to each other. And in that scenario each individual is important.”

“Picking up on something Dawn said, I was talking to a guy who works at a game design company and I was really taken aback when he told me that one of the key elements for social games was that you have to have a troll! You need to have someone who goes in and purposely tries to fuck up the whole thing because, in fact most people are not like that. So the instant the troll appears, community will form in opposition to the troll to try and manage that situation.”

Stoppiello told me that one of the central preoccupations of Swarm is emergence, which is the idea that complex patterns arise through interactions among many smaller or non-complex entities. Thus the behavior of the group, the impact of that behavior, the way a community does or does not form, the way the individuals as a group may or may not deal with a troll, all these elements combine to create the performance as a whole. It is at once rigorously structured, collaboratively created and almost entirely unpredictable.

“Lots of choreographers come up with processes, I call them ways to begin,” she says. “Susan Rethorst, who is one of my favorite choreographers in the world, talks about how you have to have something to make something, which seems obvious. But walking into an empty studio, it’s the blank page syndrome, how do you start? When I think back on my own choreography I’ve always had some little system that’s outside of my own head that gets me started moving. I’m not trying to make a piece about ‘Saving the Whales’ – I’m just trying to start moving and whatever idea I have inside me is going to come out through that physicality.”

Dawn continues, “One thing that I’m really working against right now is this notion that your work really means anything to anyone else other than yourself, or rather that you can control what it will mean. People see what they see because of who they are, not entirely because of what you present to them. You present them with something that they filter through their life experience, and what they’re feeling when they are watching you is entirely outside of your control.”

“Lately I’ve been embracing the idea that the only thing that is important to me about my performances is that they’re happening together with some other people. I’m trying to bring awareness to the act of being present more than the act of trying to ‘get it’.”

“This is why these systems are really interesting to me right now, because I’m not making pieces about anything. I’m just making systematic physical actions in locations that also bring a meaning – a house or a garage or a courtyard or whatever – that hopefully just heighten the notion that we’re right here doing this together and you’re seeing things and feeling things and hearing things and having reactions and that’s what the piece is.”

As social media and technology reach near-total ubiquity, and we as a society renegotiate our awareness of ourselves as individuals in a society, as we are called upon to expand our perception not only of our experience but our agency and responsibility as citizens in the world at large, this seems like a good place to start for an inherently unpredictable participatory performance project such as Swarm.

They say that in Ancient Greece that every temple to Apollo, the god of structure and form, also had a stele to Hermes, the god of inspiration. Twenty-five years after a fateful meeting in a studio at CalArts, Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio are still moving forward into new territory, exploring the ever-evolving relationship between artistic imagination and creative technology. I look forward to learning alongside Troika Ranch as they discover and create new worlds.

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