Külli Roosna: The Algorithmic Body


Lecture given on the 29th of April 2019 for the International Dance Day at STL in Tallinn.

I would like to talk about The Algorithmic Body, a metaphor that has inspired me as a dance artist, both in my work with movement as well as with sensor technology. I will try to use this metaphor to go from personal examples to a more general picture.

I have worked in the contemporary dance field in Estonia and abroad for the last 15 years, and during this time I have participated in various processes, organized by ourselves or by others.

I think that the process of making a performance is a fragile place to be, with all kinds of fundamental questions being asked, new connections being made and old habits challenged.

As an artist you put yourself out there so that people can play their own mind games with what you bring to the stage. They can find something that they like and they can agree with you, they can disagree with you, and they can also completely misunderstand you. Norwegian choreographer Karen Foss has said that you should always assume that people don’t understand each other.

So how do you maintain your own integrity and sense of freedom in this situation?

In my practice I have thought of freedom as action, freedom as responsibility, freedom as awareness. But today I would like to deal with freedom as being connected.

For this I am going to use the Algorithmic Body metaphor.

Let us imagine for a moment that all of our choices, feelings, experiences and interactions with others can be described as an extremely complex algorithm.

An algorithm is a series of steps to accomplish a specific outcome, for example a recipe for baking bread or instructions for solving a mathematical problem. A more complex algorithm could be a biological function, such as breathing or digesting the bread we just baked. It could even be your moral code or the reason why you voted for the social democrats - or not.

When I talk about the body I don’t mean just muscles and bones. I like to think about the body together with its sensations, thoughts, words, actions, as well as technologies - sensors, phones, computers - materialized thoughts - all of which extend our body in different ways.

The Algorithmic Body could then be seen as a metaphor helping us to grasp our complex, connected reality, relationships of cause and effect, visible and invisible connections through time and space.

Now we have this image of a web of connections in and around ourselves that we are actively navigating. This web has lots of rules and limits. The question then becomes: Are we actually making any choices or are we just being played by the algorithm?

Luckily, we don’t know the answer to this.

Even if I am just an incredibly tiny and insignificant part of this algorithm, I am still deeply involved in it. And I believe that I might be able to change it, by creating new connections in my brain, as well as in my surroundings.

Which brings me to the Responsive Body movement workshops, where we explore these questions practically.

The body’s movement is limited by the freedom of the joints. It is quite fixed which direction and how much movement your joints enable. You can increase the range of motion a bit by training, but there will still be clear structural limits before the body breaks. However, if you combine the movement range of all the joints, then the body has an infinite amount of possibilities to move. Now, when we have infinite amount of possibilities available, then why do we mostly limit ourselves to a few habitual patterns?

We may think this is dictated by what’s practical or functional. Because obviously good, practical habits have helped us to get a lot of necessary stuff done. However, it is also clear that many habits are not functional.

One of the purposes of Responsive Body training is to expand the range of movement possibilities.

How do we do that?

Tasks that you can not solve in a habitual, easy way will create the need for new solutions, creating new connections in your brain. For that we use the help of a partner, someone that does not think like you and can therefore challenge you.

An example: When you get an impulse from your partner, a physical push with a clear direction, you have a range of possible responses - from pushing directly against the pressure to totally giving in and following it. At first we may agree that you are only allowed to push against every impulse you receive, however your partner is free to change the places on your body where she gives you that impulse. So your task is always the same: to identify the place and direction of the pressure, and allow your body to adjust in the best possible way in order for you to be able to resist. As your choices are directly dependent on the choices of your partner, your personal comfort zone will be challenged.

Of course things get more exciting when the algorithm gets more complex, for example if you are allowed to give in to the pressure and your partner does not know if her suggestion is met with resistance, complete acceptance or something in between. Here are lots of opportunities for misunderstandings, failures and moments of confusion.

Another important way for us to explore connectedness is the work with sensor technologies. Since 2013 we have been using movement sensors called minibees in almost all our pieces.

The sensors which are attached to my body are connected to a computer, which produces sound in response to my movements. This allows me to create a realtime soundtrack to my own dance. The connections that can be achieved through this instrument range from simple “mickey mousing” to more unpredictable interactions between movement and sound. In the first case it functions more as an illustration of the movement, whereas in the second case the sound is influenced by the movement, but it has more space to also follow its own complex, inner logic.

Interesting possibility: if I put the sensor on my left hand, then I will move this part of my body much more consciously than I normally would. This can help me to challenge my habits, forcing me to give conscious attention to the body parts that I normally pay less attention to.

Because I play my own soundtrack live I feel much closer to it. I own the soundtrack more because the movement and music are connected in such an intimate way. It gives me the concrete experience of having an extra limb, a sound-limb. The experience of an expanded self.

It seems to me that all these connections in the physical body, between people, between technologies, give me the chance to tell new stories about what it means to be human, about what it means to live the algorithm.

In our work I have always been struck by the moments when simple, step-by-step processes of stringing together movements, sounds or thoughts suddenly take on a life of its own, and solutions start to appear from the system itself. In this moment the process becomes a real partner for you, where you can trust the game itself.

Ultimately we are interested in the ‘organic’ aspects of technology and algorithms, where we can stop thinking about rules and structures, but rather be surprised by what emerges.