THE MAKER BRIEFINGS: Dwelling On The Entirely Hackable “Kinect” With Maia Love

October 17, 2011 

by Emily Smith (photos: Alex Kwok) | The Kinect is an interesting tool. It’s sort of OK for gaming, but when it comes to hacking, there are all kinds of creative applications. From using it as a controller for roomba hacks to generating interactive visualizations and music, the possibilities are far-reaching. I recently caught up with choreographer Maia Love who, with the help of Miles Thorogood (interactive artist), has integrated the Kinect with a dance performance by Darcy McMurray, wherein the Kinect-generated visualizations are based on Darcy’s movements. The performance is stunning, and through talking with Maia, I can tell that it’s a seed of something that’s going to take even more shape in the future. I’m so looking forward to seeing where these performances go, and checking out more interactive installations and performances from this group in the future! (fingers crossed). Video and interview after the jump…

Other artists who worked on this piece: Darcy McMurray – Dancer; Miles Thorogood – Interactive Artist; Faye Mallett and Lindsay Cuff of Heartbreak House – Sound; Maia Love – Choreographer / Director.

Have you ever worked with projected artwork/technology before? What draws you in that direction? Projected video on the moving body was an idea that came to mind in 2009. I had taken a vocational test that said I should be a documentary film-maker. I thought, hmm, how can I combine moving pictures editing and dance, and then decided on projections onto the dancer. Wanting to make pieces that engage the viewer in contemplation of how the physical body relates to earth processes, I used projected images of water for the first piece “Mirror / Drink”. I was curious if people could identify their bodies as connected to the earth, on a subconscious level.

I’m drawn to projected artwork because it embeds the dancer in a fantastical reality. Viewing the creations, I feel that “willing suspension of disbelief” and can enter this magical world where the dancer’s emotional through-line holds sway. When my partner on this project, Miles, explained the Kinect image tech to me, I got shivers. I felt: this is the kind of artwork that I have always wanted to do, and now I’m here, hearing about it, and I can feel the excitement and resonance of how natural this is for me, in my bones.

Did working with Miles on the kinect affect how you choreographed the piece? Not yet. I had choreographed the piece already, and then met with Miles at Nelson the Seagull to talk art. Miles and I had collaborated on idea-creation before, and had co-created with a novel concept that we have yet to try (so that’s a secret). At Nelson, Miles told me about the Kinect. We weren’t aware of any dance pieces using the Kinect, so we got excited about being on the “cutting edge” of dance-tech.

Having worked with Miles on “Mesosphere”, we are both now talking about what it would be like to create a dance piece that is integrated with the Kinect imagery development. We’re talking grants, because that would give us the time and money we need. To integrate the Kinect and dance choreography will take a lot more attention to timing, and require scheduled rehearsals in studios with appropriate technology, and a seamless wall.

That said, Darcy and I modified the piece a little, in order to enable the Kinect to capture her body in space, so that the visuals could follow her movement.

Can you talk a bit about the music that was created for this piece? Oh, I adore Faye Mallett and Lindsay Cuff’s music – together they are called Heartbreak House – you can read more about them at cuffthemallett.com. Memory Theatre is their first album. I’d met Faye before, and was over at Katie Huisman’s to discuss Katie’s photography project on documenting couples. Faye came in for her and her man to be photographed, and we listened to her piece “Coyote”, one of the songs for the album Memory Theatre. Coyote is about the route to letting go of the emotional pain of holding on to a finished relationship – forgiveness is the magical tool to be able to release and let go. I loved the balance in the music between emotion and ambient, melodic simple notes and big multi-instrument sound. Haunting music really. Faye altered the music to match the performance piece. As you heard during the performance, the piece really is a landscape, or map, taking you on a dynamic journey through various musical atmospheres. I was so excited about their music, that I submitted it to CBC “Cultural Secrets” contest – they made it on air on CBC last Friday! Stay tuned for their upcoming show in the winter – it will be magical and have many layers of visual experience.

Can you talk a bit about how your group formed, and where the idea for the performance came from? Our group formed very spontaneously. Over the summer of 2010, Faye and I were meeting for coffee and going for bike rides to Third Beach. I was wanting to make music videos that included dance, and Faye and I thought it would be cool to make one for some of her music. Then Darcy McMurray approached me. I’d worked with Darcy to co-lead a group called “Sensearth”, for artists making works with themes connecting Body and Earth. She was curious to work together on a dance piece. Working with her was a charm – she is such a skilled dancer technically, and beyond that, she incorporated the organic movement and theatrical intention intuitively, and matched it to the feral nature of the music quickly. Simply awesome to work with such a practical and passionate artist.

At the time of choreographing the piece, I was contemplating the thoughts and emotions a person can hold onto after being around another person for a significant length of time. I had this thing for clouds and mist, and was imagining that another’s effect on you might metaphorically hang around you like a mist, and then peel off when you are ready to let go of that person. I was also reading a meditation book about imagining the closest people to you dying, so that you can appreciate life, and live with less fear and more awareness. So, the theme of “letting go” intrigued me. I made a storyboard for the character, and the piece evolved out of that. But I needed someone to shoot the music video. Katie Huisman and I had met for a tea at the Wilder Snail, and ended up talking about making music videos. So, I approached her. This was after I’d shot video footage for the piece up in Lynn Canyon. There was a nice synchronous moment for me when, during our meeting, I saw the music video she had made for “Diamond Hill”, which has a similar wild and forested aesthetic to it.

So, there was some kind of similar aesthetic evolving out of Faye’s music. Katie was interested to shoot a clean video, and she prepared a beautiful heritage apartment to shoot Darcy dancing the piece. She took some inspiration from the storyboard, and then took the piece even further, in her meticulously-timed edit of the music video for “Coyote”. Katie is amazing to work with – she really can capture what someone is thinking of, and then take it steps further into a very polished and striking end result.

However, we had these visuals from Miles and the video shoot Darcy and I had done in Lynn Valley Canyon. So, that seemed to be best as a live performance piece. Darren at Five Sixty really helped us exhibit the video in the Five Sixty space – remastering the video and choosing an aspect that sinks the viewer into a deep forested world. The nine video screens and nine-projector set up was incredible to work with.

Miles and Darcy and I had worked with the visuals several times, as we had to adjust a lot of things in order to make them appear as they do in the final piece. Miles evolved this very sensitive and graduated density approach to adding in the visuals, he is very much a kind of “Kinect DJ” during the live performance. He really is the “Magician behind the Screen” for the piece, as he makes the magic that the Kinect can do come to life in a very organic way.

Any upcoming projects coming up that we should check out? Stay tuned for a collaboration with a concert for Heartbreak House this winter. After that, we’ll all have to focus on our day jobs for a while, before incubating another project over the rainy spring. Keep your fingers crossed for a grant from the Canada Council! Then we can create more Kinect magic, to tantalize the imaginations of Vancouverites and beyond.

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Emily Smith is a graphic designer, crafter, technical writer, life-hacker, and bicycle lover. She is passionate about DIY, open-source geekery, and facilitating collaborative and creative workspaces. She is an active member of the Vancouver Hack Space (VHS) and enjoys foraging for unlikely materials and increasing bicycle safety. In her off time you can catch her spinning on a drop spindle, dyeing with found materials or knitting half a day away.

  • Matt

    Yep, this is just wonderful! I find myself always impressed when art and technology merge. Kinect’s been generous to theater recently and I’ve been applying that tech to have movement triggers automated. Like the Virtual Shadows which uses it for greek theater. Great job and I hope dancers further utilize Kinect!