Discotrope Almost Arrives! (The Future is Dead. Long Live the Future.)

We’ve got a new video! And some thoughts on the future…

The future ain’t what it used to be.
-Yogi Berra

Economies are dismal in much of the world; R&D budgets are slashed. The space shuttle is no more, joining supersonic transport in the annals of Cool-Stuff-That-Used-To-Exist. When Steve Jobs died, it signaled the final bow of something we already knew was coming to an end: the future.

Wait – what? Why? Money? Now we’re told even the Great Depression wasn’t this depressing.

The future, according to some scientists, will be exactly like the past, only far more expensive.
-John Sladek

But maybe the future’s non-existence isn’t fait accompli. Maybe it isn’t bankrupt. Maybe the future just needs “restructuring.” Perhaps we can glean something from the days when the future didn’t have to be so slick. When it was a little bit kooky.

When crazy ideas…

… sometimes worked.

Otto Lilienthal, ca 1895.

Otto Lilienthal, ca 1895.

And led to not-so-crazy inventions (that sometimes didn’t.)

Wright Brothers’ plane turning over, 1911.

Wright Brothers’ plane turning over, 1911.

What’s this got to do with us?

We’re inspired by sea balloon bicycles and cars on skis. Zoetropes and YouTube. Disco balls and Lucille Ball. We think crazy ideas just might work. That fun and meaningful are not mutually exclusive qualities. And that a solar-powered nightlife might be energizing – as well as a new approach to image, movement, and improvisation in audiovisual performance.

Introducing Discotrope: The Secret Nightlife of Solar Cells. An audiovisual performance by Amy Alexander and Annina Rüst, with algorithmic sound design by Cristyn Magnus. Performances invoke both alternative energy and the curious history of dance in cinema – from backlots to backyards.

In the past few months we’ve made a lot of progress on the Discotrope hardware and software, as well as on structuring and rehearsing the Discotrope performance. We’re still putting some finishing touches on it, but we should be ready to perform in the not-too-distant future. We’ve made some new videos so you can check it all out and get some aural glimpses of Discotrope’s new real-time generative sound design by Cristyn Magnus. Check out our video page here. And, while we have your attention: If you know of a place that would be perfect for a Discotrope performance – from urban dance party to intimate white cube – please let us know!

The future is dead. Long live the future.
-Amy Alexander and Annina Rüst

Dancing at Cameras: Movie stars, then and now

We often say Discotrope depicts a slice of cinematic history – people dancing “at” cameras. That might sound as enigmatic as dancing “about” architecture. So what exactly do we mean?

When we started looking at dance films for Discotrope, we noticed something. There were plenty of films made “of” people dancing. These were generally shot in narrative style – the viewer was a “fly-on-the-wall” observer of whom the dancers were seemingly unaware.  But there were others where the dancers were clearly dancing directly for/to/at the viewer. In these films, dancers typically (but not always) look directly into the camera, and cuts are sparse. They’re shot and performed more like dance performances than films, and the result is a more direct relationship between the dancer and the audience. This is what we mean by dancing “at” cameras.

We also noticed some interesting things historically. Dancing at cameras was fairly common in very old movies (i.e. Edison era). That’s not surprising, since a) movies of that vintage were largely demonstrations of cinematic technology and b) early movies were stylistically similar to their predecessors, theatrical productions. These early films were generally shot with a proscenium viewpoint; the camera was primarily positioned at the front of an invisible “stage” into the 1920’s. Even through the 1930’s and 40’s, dance sequences were often shot more as performances directly for the audience than as part of the narrative. But you don’t see direct point-of-view dance sequences much in Western cinema of recent decades; they’ve mostly been subsumed into the cinematic style and seamless character portrayal of the narrative.  (Eastern cinemas of course have their own histories. Bollywood films, for example, have much different traditions with respect to dance. And mid-20th century Middle Eastern belly dance films were big on dancing at cameras; some of these make appearances in Discotrope.)

Fast forward: With the advent of webcams and especially of YouTube, we’ve seen an explosion of people dancing – and doing just about anything else – at cameras. Direct-to-audience is back – at least from the DIY dancers on our computer screens. The big difference, of course, is that now it’s mostly self-cast and self-directed. People dance for us as they want to. Which sometimes changes things a lot – and sometimes, not so much. So, in addition to the historical stuff, you’ll also see quite a few of these newer stars in Disctrope. It’s a little like the old and new of the Discotrope contraption, where zoetropes meet disco balls meet solar energy. What comes around goes around…

We recently came across YouTube: the New Cinema of Attractions by Teresa Rizzo.  She discusses similar issues, but in more general terms of how cinema has shifted from exhibition to voyeurism and back again. We enjoyed the article and recommend giving it a read if you can.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working away at Discotrope. We’ll have a new video for you soon showing some of the old and new at-camera dancers, as well as some of the new ball and visual choreography and a preview of the generative musical score Cristyn’s been working on.

Stay tuned to this theater channel domain…








Playing with the Live Camera

Discotrope Live Camera Test, August 2011

Above is a short video of Annina “dancing in the dark” to the Discotrope live camera.
Since we want attendees at Discotrope dance party events to sometimes dance along with the cinema and YouTube dance stars on the Discotrope, we’re using a Kinect as our live camera. The Kinect works with infrared light, and so is handy for night time events that feature projections. The person dancing in front of the Kinect shows up on the Discotrope projection as a silhouette. The color of the silhouette and its background change depending on the choices of the Discotrope performer. The performer also selects cinema and YouTube clips that are intermingled with the live cam footage. While the live cam sequences are quite colorful, most of the Discotrope show is not quite so psychedelic…

As you can see from the video, we had a good time at our Discotrope Dance-off Demo! In our tests we also found that even if, like us, the dancer is not quite Baryshnikov, Discotrope seems to let their inner grace and funkiness shine through.  So we are quite excited about sharing this Discotrope feature with a live audience soon! In the meantime we’re posting this psychedelic psneak preview psnippet.

Gear Box

One tutorial warns that anyone attempting to make a gear box must be either poor or bored. I disagree. I found some gears at Walt’s Hobby. They were not totally cheap but they work well together. So. The result is a new, transparent gear box for Discotrope! The gear ratio slows down the ball. Our previous gear box was the gear box that came with the disco ball. I had adapted it to the low current motor. But it was still a bit fast. Besides slowing down the ball, the new gear box also gives our low current motor some more torque (if only very, very little more) so that it can turn the disco ball in lower light than the previous gear box could.

Music music music!

(No, not that kind of music music music…. )

Just heard the first cut of Cristyn’s generative soundtrack, and it is awesome! Works great with the visuals, and gives me more ideas for developing the visuals further.

I’m one of those touchy-feely hands-on kind of artists who doesn’t really get the full sense of where a piece is going until it’s about halfway done. Mort Subotnick once put it something like this back in one of my CalArts classes, “Up until a certain point, you tell a piece what it needs. After that, it tells you what it needs.”

So anyway, having music to work with gives me some good ideas of “what it needs.” Now lets see how many of them I can actually get to work!



Thanks Turbulence!

Thanks to Jo-Anne Green for mentioning us on the Networked Performance blog at Turbulence. I’m a longtime fan of Turbulence. There’s not that many places that focus on the intersection of new media and performance that pay as much attention to the performance side as the new media side. So, props to Turbulence for doing that for all these years. And for mentioning us. 😉

Instrument-making and physics – aka physics is our dance partner.

For various reasons, I (Amy) have been thinking a lot lately about instrument-making. Although some musical instruments are more difficult than others, most traditional instruments seem to have been designed with at least the intention of facilitating performance as much as possible. With the advent of computer-based instruments – auditory or visual – things have gotten a bit more complicated: the sound/image isn’t directly made by the gesture, and interfaces have been inherited from paradigms of business, etc. But still the intention seems to be to facilitate performance.

With Discotrope, I’m working to design a visual instrument that is performable in “cooperation” with physics. Because the ball is powered by solar cells, brighter projected images generate more energy and make the ball move faster; darker images slow it down. This changes the speed at which the images “dance” around the space and how readable vs. abstract the images are – so it changes the flow of the performance. (More about that here.) We can change the overall brightness of the images by swapping out different videos, by changing the brightness of the videos themselves, or by adding effects (e.g. white/black/colored flashes). How we do this and the speed at which we do this changes the look of the videos themselves as well as the way the rotation speed changes. But – we have to also take into account inertia, which has a very big impact on the ball’s motion. Because of inertia, the ball doesn’t respond directly to the changes we make to image brightness, so we have to intuit this behavior as we perform. In other words – physics is our dance partner. This makes for an interesting situation – there’s a known external factor that makes performance difficult. On one level this seems to be a fool’s errand. But the point of building the instrument isn’t to facilitate playing it, but to incorporate the solar-induced physics into the way the instrument is played.

So this has me wondering: what other endeavors have their been in designing instruments to be performed in collaboration with an ornery external force? Thanks to Jaime Oliver, I’ve recently learned that there was quite some controversy surrounding the introduction of the Theremin. Apparently not everyone was convinced that performing an electromagnetic field was a viable way to perform music… but it turned out Theremin’s were suited to a different kind of music entirely.  Then their were early electronic instrument builders like Don Buchla and Raymond Scott who designed their instruments to have a degree of agency. Scott for example, wrote in a patent disclosure for the Electronium, “The entire system is based on the concept of Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine.” And of course more recent computer music and visual artists who have designed instruments to have some agency, or some chaotic properties for the performer to work with. I even did quite a bit of that in developing the CyberSpaceLand software. But in that case, it was software – I still had some degree of control as to how out of control I’d allow the instrument to go. I don’t seem to have the same degree of influence over physics…

Anybody have ideas of other endeavors into designing instruments that are knowingly ornery? (For now we’re not set up to take comments on the site, so if you have thoughts, we’d be happy if you let us know here.)




Discotrope Sneak Preview video at Art Produce

Our Discotrope Sneak Preview video recently screened as part of the Art Produce Outdoor Video Screenings in San Diego – curated by Trish Stone. A really nice screening, out in the Art Produce garden, projected on the side of a building at night… come to think of it, that’s one of Discotrope’s favorite environments!

Welcome to the Discotrope Website!

Discotrope is a work in progress, and so is this website. We’ll be posting news on the development of the project here as we go along. So stayed tuned…