Are We Human Or Are We Dancing Robots? Connecting Arts and Tech at The Ferst Center

Robots, drones, and the arts – Georgia Tech is determined to find out the connection between these seemingly disparate entities and is supporting artists who are researching this area. On Saturday night, the Ferst Center for the Performing Arts presented of Robots, Drones, Artists and You, featuring Time to Compile, a duet with Catie Cuan and Amy LaViers, followed by musician Robbie Lynn Hunsinger, and SCRAP Performance Company with Ghosts and Other Guests. All the artists demonstrated the magic of connecting the human body with technology.

Time to Compile – Photo by Sam Berube, courtesy of Catie Cuan

Madison Cario, the director of Georgia Tech Arts, energetically hosted the program and in an effort to knock down the fourth wall of theater, encouraged the audience to watch the break down and set up of each piece. She informed us of the complicated coding that was behind the scenes of each performance, and engaged the audience through each brief intermission. Normally, I might spend the breaks reading the program, but this time I enthusiastically watched as multiple stage hands brought projection screens, instruments, and other objects on and off the stage. I could only guess all those objects were technologically advanced.

The turnout was surprisingly, and disappointedly, low, despite Georgia Tech’s efforts to grow their arts program. Hopefully, after word of this fantastic performance gets out, more of the Atlanta community will stop by the stunning new theater and take a second look at the arts programming in this technology-based school.

All three performances in the bill proved that technology is neither a burden nor a solution. Our cell phones can provide light, as demonstrated by a film section of Time to Compile that illuminated LaViers and Cuan dancing with only the flashlights from their iPhones, and our Skype sessions can interrupt and overstimulate us, while also creating an otherwise impossible connection. Although their limbs only moved based on a complicated code, maybe robots are capable of pulling out a new sense of creativity from us humans.

Time to Compile – Photo byKeira Heu-Jwyn Chang, courtesy of Catie Cuan

With a QR code survey attached to the program, Time to Compile asked the audience to consider our personal interactions with technology. I was pleasantly surprised that my answers to questions like, “How likely do you think it is that you’ll have a robot in your home in 5 years?” and “Define future,” changed after I watched Cuan and LaViers take the stage alongside a miniature robot, a human hand sculpture, an abacus, and a projection screen. Before, I scoffed at the possibility of having a robot in my home (I’m a dancer and a writer – I don’t have the funds or the need for that), but after seeing how easily the robots moved and interacted, I wondered if Roombas would become more inexpensive and somehow find a way into my cleaning schedule. The future also suddenly seemed much closer after watching a robot dance. I didn’t fully connect with the use of the abacus and the human hand, as they generally sat onstage untouched, but Cuan’s fluid, natural movements perfectly contradicted her robot-like costume of a gold sparkly bodysuit layered with a black dress. When she mimicked the projection of a robot, shifting her limbs as it jerked right or left to the beat of techno music, the differences between the two – human and technology – were apparent.

To an old-timey, sultry tune, Cuan slow-danced lovingly with the miniature robot, blending the lines between human relationships and relationships with, and using, technology. When the robot abruptly awoke – complete with neon-lit eyes and techno sounds – it seemed like a child mimicking its mother when dancing with Cuan. In contrast to these human qualities of technology, a Skype ringtone looped in as a soundscape, providing a feeling of overstimulation often associated with our devices. Cuan and LaViers successfully demonstrated their expertise in both dance and robotics, evident in a recording of LaViers talking to herself on Skype about complicated coding files, and they found many unexpected ways to blend the two together in one cohesive piece. While changing the set and taking turns dancing solo in a spotlight, they chatted casually about their experiences as women in robotics: Cuan going so far as to tell a story of discussing math with her gyneocologist. Despite their degrees and experience (Cuan is a 2018 TED Resident and ThoughtWorks Artist Resident), they still have to justify themselves in their area of study.

Photo courtesy of Robbie Lynn Hunsinger

Robbie Lynn Hunsinger, a trans-media artist, followed the dance duet with two solo pieces for oboe and suona that oddly reminded me of Yiddish music from my childhood. Her finale was a duet of her own – featuring a drum that played autonomously. In Duet for Arduino Drummer, Hunsinger played the oboe beautifully to a nostalgic Slavic march, accompanied by “Ardy the Drum.” Ardy, as Hunsinger affectionately calls her music companion, is a motor and snare drum played by an ultrasonic sensor and an arduino microcontroller. I loved Hunsinger’s spacing in the duet: as she faced Ardy, rocking in towards the drum, they created an image of a human duet. Although the self-playing drum was certainly the highlight of this section, her opening solos also reflected the intelligence and artistry of technology, with a projection of graphics that shifted and changed based on the notes played.

Ghosts and Other Guests – Photo courtesy of SCRAP Performance Group

My curiosity with creative technology was amplified in the finale of the evening with Ghosts and Other Guests, choreographed and directed by Myra Bazell. Indya Childs and PhaeMonae Brooks opened the piece with an intimate duet, staying in constant contact with each other, sharing weight and jumping into the other’s arms. With the absence of technology, their human connection was pure and honest. After the other SCRAP Performance Company members, Britt Ford and Melanie Swihart, joined in with unified movement, the fifth dancer, “Drona,” the drone, made her entrance, introducing the idea that technology can enhance human relationships.

Ghosts and Other Guests – Photo courtesy of SCRAP Performance Group

At first, the dancers were hesitant, backing away and holding onto one another in fear of this strange new object. Slowly, through exploration of the space and reaching, searching leaps and extensions, they gained confidence and found a connection with the drone. Combined with a projection on the scrim, the drone showed us a bird’s eye viewpoint and featured the dancer’s faces as they got up close and personal with its camera. The drone also allowed the audience to see three images of the stage, and because of the delay, it created a cannon, adding depth and layers. The most fascinating moment happened when Childs reached up for the drone and it slowly descended into her arms until she caught it, holding it still. It was uncomfortable and intimate, forcing the audience to watch this direct connection and see Childs’ emotions play upon her face, and could have offered a very strong final image. Instead, Childs released the drone, and it followed one dancer offstage, leaving the remaining three dancers to end the piece in silence, lying on the ground. Without the presence of Drona, they were defeated, perhaps lost.

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