Sniper / scorpion / stargazer: Suf(fix), a project of choreography and sculpture by Julianne Chapple and Ed Spence, articulates how the body forms itself anew in adapting to change. Objects, integrated as cages or prosthetics, become a geometry along which the dancer can realize new futures for gesture. Each alters an existing vocabulary of known actions, eclipsing or abstracting the human form. During this present phase, there are three acts: one involving a reflective sphere, another dependent on an over-long prosthetic leg. The final one is a display of mimicry and improvisation as each dancer sculpts their body to resemble a fluctuating shape.
The light's glint on the prosthetics is at times sublime, at times sinister. From the floor of the studio where we are filming comes a violent snap with each object-subject contact. Threaded through the work is a sense of tenuousness: the dancers approach the sculptures with a wary curiosity, whispering during the in-between moments about each piece's latent danger and how it changes their behaviour.
Highway Magazine: How did you come to use conceptual parameters in dance?
Julianne Chapple: This idea of looking at the body in this really formal way started in my practice a few years ago. Cataloguing a few movements, a warm-up I used in the studio, became a way of creating gestures. I took those mobility options and tried to mix and match them in ways I would have never naturally done. It really got me thinking about the body like a machine. I was working with a really formal structure, trying to take away character and emotion.
The first piece I did was with my face covered. Usually, the connection that the audience has with a dancer comes from a his or her eyes. I wanted to challenge myself to try and keep the viewer engaged without any emotional context.
Ed Spence: We can draw it even further back to a conversation that Julie decided to record when we were drunk one night, comparing our different practices. I was able to create a piece, walk away from it, and have it stand as an object on its own. We started talking about the body as an object and whether or not a performer can become an object: what constitutes objecthood within a piece of art or a performer in general. That line of thought naturally evolved into this collaboration.
JC: This happened at a time when I was suffering from some injuries. I was so jealous of visual artists being able to make something and walk away from it — I felt like my practice was always in my body. You do something in a studio, then two days later you're walking down a flight of stairs and you feel it in your knee. "Fuck, that piece I made is still bothering me in life!" I think that way of looking, trying to take the humanity out of the body, definitely started there.
ES: Not that Suf(fix) is a remedy of that. It almost reinforces the contrast between the body and the object.
JC: We were looking at transhumanism, that in-between place where the limits of your personhood can extend to. We were doing a residency in Italy; I was making a piece called H+ —
ES: — the abbreviation of talking about transhumanism. Breaching the confines of human limitations: humanity plus. Through technological means, extending the definition of what humanity is.
HWY: Everyone's a cyborg these days.
JC: Like when I'm wearing my contacts, or how Ed has a mesh plate in his stomach —
ES: — a teflon mesh to prevent my hernia from popping out again. Ideally the tissue would grow over it and have a strengthened lattice to stop that from happening again. These little things that help us along the way…
JC: I think it's going to be a short time before those technologies make the jump to consumer goods. We wanted to take this piece to a surreal place where transhumanism is elective but functional, or fashion-based. It was important that we kept it out of the real-world medical applications.
ES: It's not about making people run faster or see further. It's about abstract notions of altering function or altering form. [The objects] could be a little bit more meditative as opposed to analytical in their presentation.
Extending the line or the concept of the body further and out towards an infinitely far space, an imagined elsewhere.
HWY: How did you decide on these forms? Each object has such a different relationship with the dancers. For example, in Max's interactions with the gazing ball, there is a moment of rapturous curiosity between them before the ball integrates itself into her body, whereas the leg extensions seemed a little more violent or weapon-like. Were you thinking about semiotics?
ES: I feel that the sphere is a symbol or metaphor for a psychological state or a meditative space that you could either enter into or interact with. That's why the hole — penetrating into this space — was important. A space in which the body was obscured and the environment is reflected. With the peg-leg, or the extreme pointe shoe, that was to me a thought about extending the line or the concept of the body further and out towards an infinitely far space, an imagined elsewhere. The cage was more of Julie's concept, and it came to be more about personal space.
JC: It wasn't turning out quite the way we planned… Whereas the other ones are about the object being incorporated into the body, the cage feels like we are trying to incorporate the body into the structure. It takes dominance over me. There is the struggle of trying to become one with it even though it doesn't want me.
ES: I was listening to people speak about transhumanism and the potential for the battle between man and super-lifeforms — between us and a mass "grey goo" of nanotechnology that has no need for humanity anymore and therefore sees it as an obstacle.
JC: It also makes me think of having technical implants that malfunction, that sci-fi cliche of having to fight the hardware that's trying to take over who you are.
HWY: It's a big fear that's becoming really real as we become more integrated with the technology around us. With anything that tracks your movement or your behaviour, there's a distrust: at first of its source corporation, but eventually of the — what, the singularity?
ES: That reminds me of a TED talk by this guy whose company has been trying to create an artificial intelligence. It's becoming more common now, this thought that instead of programming information into a platform, you instead program a way for it to learn. This man had come up with what was essentially an equation for intelligence and the acquisition of knowledge. In his words, he created a programme that would "maximize future options for potential action."
I think his point is that human intelligence itself is one such programme, and that what we see as harmful is anything that we see as limiting to our own personal "potential future actions." He's saying that we are basically operating on this calculation, which is crazy and not necessarily right. But it also brings up the scary possibility that we might just become an impediment to our own creations' "potential future action." If we are trying to control a computer that is operating on the same principles that we do, it might just wipe us out when it believes us harmful or redundant.
HWY: Is that idea, this fear of letting our knowledge get away from our bodies, a theme of this work?
ES: I feel like it an idea that we were thinking about alongside this body of work. It's not a huge concern in the process of this piece specifically.
JC: For me, the focus was more in the body and the mental connection that you have to your physicality and the space around you.
HWY: It was interesting to hear the dancers talk about how each object was responding differently to the new space — even a difference in floor material, or the angle that they wore the object, changed how they interacted with it. Even the strict parameters that you have set up could shift depending on a change in their environment. It makes you hyperaware of not just the movement of the body but the space that it's in.
JC: And every tiny difference is so magnified by this extension that if there is a small change in how you execute a movement, it could take you in an entirely different direction. Dancers are so in their own bodies that adding this extension of the body, which they're trying to wrap their proprioception around, is a really interesting part of the struggle. It changes the work each time. Sometimes they'll come in and say, "this thing just won't listen to me today!"
On that note, the way that dancers look at their own bodies is so different from how regular people do. They'll say, "oh, my legs aren't doing it today, you know, they're arguing with me." You see your body as something outside of yourself because it becomes a tool for making your work. It ties into all the stuff that we've been talking about, trying to separate yourself from your body but trying to integrate yourself into it too.
You see your body as something outside of yourself because it becomes a tool for making your work.
ES: At times, I focus so much on my work and get so concentrated on the visual world that I can't escape thinking about perception. There is a struggle between the presentation and translation of my own perception, and how I would communicate it to an audience. My vision consumes my mind.
JC: Your practice bleeds into every part of your life.
ES: It is you, and there's no way to escape that! Just like how in the dance world, the way that you move, the presentation of your own body, is so intrinsically you —
JC: — that you can get so into your own head that even during a conversation with somebody, you're tracking the way you're sitting or the gestures that you're doing or the pain in your shoulder from rehearsal yesterday. Even the way that your body changes through different dance processes — it's so strange that a "useful" body in the studio can be something that I don't want in other circumstances.
ES: That ties into the rest of this stuff, with the fashion accessories and the body being an extension of fashion. The potential for transhumanist intervention in the body to change your appearance and function. Not just in a static way — it can be plastic, it can change day-to-day, it can change hour-to-hour.
HWY: I was also thinking about how people have to re-learn how to be in their own bodies after a surgery, for example. We think that it's our mental sphere that is so tenuous, but our physical makeup is not as reliable as we believe it to be.
ES: In these sculptures, we were also thinking about how we can experience an augmentation of the reality that is beyond the physical as well. We don't just experience an alteration of the physical body — we also psychologically participate in new virtual spaces. We experience layered realities simultaneously. The literal sphere in Suf(fix) especially makes me think of the abstract space that is affixed to our existence.
HWY: What was the process of making this work?
JC: This was the first time me and Ed have tried to collaborate evenly on a project. I was involved in designing and building the sculptures, and Ed was in the studio working with dancers as well. We began with playtime — we would come in the morning and go through the cataloguing of the joints. Everybody had time to work with each of the objects. We would go through some different tasks, like trying to travel with them, for example.
ES: The dancers could wear the objects however they wanted to, because we weren't yet sure what the potential of these things were at the time. We didn't want to limit the dancers to how each object's initial intentions.
JC: We also tried to open up possibilities in trying to travel with, say, the object off the ground, or always in contact with the ground — with different parameters.
ES: That forced the dancers to be creative with how they moved and adapt to what the object was limiting them to. In turn, that expanded our ideas with what the potential for each of these things was.
JC: Then we spent a lot of the time with each of the dancers and started creating the phrases that you saw today.
HWY: Do choreographers see difference between male and female bodies?
JC: I think it differs for everyone, but especially in this kind of choreography, I feel the future is going towards a more gender neutral place. The women you saw today can all play with a sort of androgyny and have some powerful or masculine traits. I try to choose my men in the same way — that they can mirror each other in a really androgynous way. I think it's important that both sexes are represented. The women you saw today are all so strong, they can give any guy a run for his money in terms of movement capabilities. When I'm creating duets between a woman and a man, I'll switch the choreography between them. It's important to me that both those sides can be explored.
ES: Dance inherently questions gender stereotypes. Throughout its history, feminine and masculine movements have been performed by both male and female bodies. It has been more open to different forms of gender than a lot of other spaces in society allow for.
HWY: Very future-feeling in all aspects.
Suf(fix) is a surreal meditation on the expanding definition of self and body in relation to technology and Transhumanism, created by Julianne Chapple and Ed Spence, in collaboration with dancers Maxine Chadburn, Kirstyn Konig and Ashley Whitehead. These choreographic findings were presented on January 11, 2015 as part of DanceLab, The Dance Centre’s interdisciplinary research program.
Video documentation of Suf(fix) directed by Chris Bentzen.
Interview by Alex M.F. Quicho.