Interview with Johannes Birringer, part 1: New media, interactivity and performative arts

by deborah on 02/2/2011

During November and December the Centre for Drama Art aka cdu based in Zagreb organized a series of lectures and a workshop within the programme titled Cognitive of the Performative. The first guest in the series was Johannes Birringer who introduced his latest production Ukiyo on lecture titled Open Score: Performance Technology  that took place in net club Mama.

Johaness Birringer is an performance, video and new media choreographer. He is considered among experts as one the pioneers of media art in performative context. Birringer is the founder of the theatre company AlienNation Co., new media laboratory Interaktionslabor, and the wearable technology project DAP-Lab.

I would need an extra blog post just to name and list all of his projects, books, universities and departments  he was involved with during his career. Thus, I decided to make this interview as a full scan of his work and his current thoughts on what shall we do with interactivity in performing arts.

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Johannes Biringer, Photo: Glenio Campregher (c), 2008



I would like to start with your pre-technology phase. You were involved in German dance – Tanz Theater and Pina Bausch‘s work, afterwards with Deborah Hay in the United  States. Hay has been connected with Merce Cunningham; and at the end of this chain is Cunningham, who also started to seriously play with technology at the beginning of 1990’s (I’m not talking about Merce’s previous experiences with video and Nam June Paik)…

JB: So, if you are asking me, I would have to situate my career in the beginning of 1980’s when I was finishing my studies in theatre and I was in the United States in that time, I wanted to become a director. So, I started to do small theatre productions. During that time I encountered Pina Bausch’s work. I was fortunate that her company invited me to come in resident as an observer in 1985 when they did a huge retrospective of their work in Venice. And I saw the entire body of work that she had created. And I also observed her rehearsals and it was a great inspiration, so I wanted to start working with actors and dancers more.

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Pina Bausch, taken from itnumberpi.tumblr.com

Then I became more interested in the movement. Historically also in the 1980’s, when I began to make first one, two or three theatre pieces, I was in Texas.  At that time there was a new movement starting up, which was called Community Television, and they looked for volunteers to make cultural productions and to learn how to be a producer. So, I learned how to video tape, use camera, edit and produce. And that made me want to generate theatre pieces that involve movement and film.

So, eventually between 1987-89 I did my first large scale pieces which were a mixture between dance, theatre and film. But in the beginning, these were very modest projects with black & white film, 16mm and then video. Later I’ve added digital material.

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Johannes Biringer & Michele Danjoux : The Emergent Dress (c)

Then in the 1990’s, I run into Scott deLahunta who was doing a series of workshops in Amsterdam on dance and technology. At that point I’ve taken a dance course with Deborah Hay too, and I’ve become more interested in dance. I realized there was a young emerging movement of artists in dance and in, let’s say, computer technology that wanted to link the two. Merce Cunningham had just started to put out his stuff that was inspired by Life Forms and what he learned from Thecla Schiphorst, and so on. Hence, we are watching on the one hand certain abstract forms, like Merce Cunnigham’s choreography, or also the kind of theatre you would see in Bob Wilson’s work, you know, creating visual theatre forms.

As for the video art, I was always in video art and interested in what I could learn from video art. That created very strange mix with Tanz Theater, because I think Pina’s work was still very much emotional and expressionist even she had this very beautiful sense of irony, including personal biographies and story telling in interesting ways.

Hence, YES! It’s a wonderful period to have while growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Then I dedicated my work in the last ten, twelve years to this combination of performance and new media technology to see where I could go in collaboration with others. To learn how to be a composer of movement theatre that have this dimension of the networked interactive real time components.

See you in Walhalla, 2006

How important are the elements of space, sound and music in your work?

JB: They are getting more and more important. Of course, I’m interested in exploring different spaces, so to go back to what I was able to do, when I was independent artist in Texas. I have formed a small company, we were seven or eight people – Alienation Company, and we did smaller pieces in non-profit, alternative spaces. Theatre, dance and video pieces. In alternative sector back then I was always able to move into warehouse, and we were doing things in the warehouse

Then I would explore site-specific things, you know, I was with a dancer at the time, we were together all the time. And she liked to perform outdoors, so we would do outdoors things. Then I would always have my camera with me, so when we were outdoors I would filming and so. Eventually I could show work on the video from the material, but trying to make it stand alone video. So, over the years, I’ve done this kind of collaborative work in live performance and then video work. And now, the digital work is moving forward towards this exploration of interactivity.

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Johannes Birringer presenting Ukiyo, Photo: Tom Medak (cc)

You said during your lecture about the interactivity that you don’t see a kind of a future in that. In a sense of being between two polarities…

JB: I’m exhausted, yeah! Because after trying camera, visuals and sensors for, let’s say eight, nine, ten years, I’m now basically just exhausted. I feel occasionally we’ve put so much effort into this. The results are not quite what I had hoped, so maybe it’s just a certain level of disappointment.

The idea behind the interactivity for the audience, I don’t think it has really shown me that kind of potential that I thought it could have. It’s true that in contemporary culture the notion of participation is very important. Also when we talk about sharing, networking, social networks, etc.

Like for example I’ve met an artist from California, and she said that she works in video and film, but her work is constantly reconstructed in new versions and she like the idea of mashing. And she said to me: I give you my stuff, go ahead and mash with it together with your dancers, use it if you like.  So, this form of reusing and altering, of course, is very interesting. When I started my summer laboratory in the coal mine in 2003, I called this lab Interaktionslabor. I did not just mean interactivity, but also interacting between people from different backgrounds. Bringing people together in the space…

Ukiyo 2 Creation Scene Short Version
Performed in Kibla (Maribor, Slovenia), 2010

Sure thing, it gave you the possibility to bring people from different fields to make a mutual learning situation. But actually, bringing new media into real space too.

JB: Yeah, into real space. And then, sharing languages. For example, computer scientists and engineers have a certain way of thinking. We know for the great interest now in certain cultural sectors for arts and science collaborations. So, when you work with biologist or neuroscientist, you also have to get into this process of thinking of what cognitive scientist are after, like when they study emotions.

For me this was a shock in the beginning when I noticed how simplistic it sometimes is: you’re happy or sad, hot or cold. In terms of studying how the brain perceives kinetic movement – fast or slow, that’s very interesting. Although, it’s basic – fast, slow, acceleration. But for me it was very interesting, when they were looking how does the brain perceives more sensory information, and then they can point to the places in the brain were it’s happening. But they can’t explain it.

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Johannes Biringer, Photo: Glenio Campregher (c), 2008

And then, you go to the next stage and ask: OK, what are we looking at here? What is empathy? What is behind the idea of the mirror neuron? What can we learn from molecular biology? It’s fascinating. It brings up many issues, so interaction is for me research, and then the practice comes from this research.

May I mention here that in my role as a teacher, I’m actually advising artists on the University who are doing their Ph.D. thesis in England – practice based research. Unlike Germany, where you have to write a dissertation, in England, Holland and Canada you can create a research as artwork and then reflect on your process and write some of the concepts down. But it’s very interesting that we are asked to advise people in their artwork, you know, and also it raises a question: What is research as artwork?

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Johannes Biringer & Michele Danjoux : The Emergent Dress (c)

As a lecturer, what do you find more interesting? What concept of these two you’re more fond to?

JB: Well, research is fascinating to me, because my team of MA and Ph.D. students are very much a part of our lab, and they also go away and come back. Doros Polydoro, who created a virtual world for us, said: I need to learn some new programming languages and I got invited to Singapure. So, he went off and he’s coming back now. To observe the energy that they are using now for their explorations is very exciting to me.

I’m trying to work with them often in the space, because a lot of the younger generation, students I have, are mostly working at laptops – programming, editing, designing. But in the performing arts, I think we still need to work with the physical space. I work with them a lot on display concepts and installations.

What about the accessibility for students and people who are willing to work with electronic displays and interactive tools? Now they are affordable, but we still need it in a larger scale…

JB: Yeah! As you said about accessibility to digital instruments, when I’m in the coal mine I have to rent my equipment. So, I rent sound, light and projectors. People bring their own laptops. But I don’t have anything sophisticated. On the University we have a motion capture lab, very sophisticated professional sound equipment. So, sometimes it’s very helpful to have access to an institution that has these tools. But on the other hand, the lab during the summer in my coal mine is more enjoyable because it’s a bottom up. I think it’s full of creativity because we have to make things happen.

Performed in Kibla (Maribor, Slovenia), 2010

Could you describe me a bit  your working processes? From scratches till the end…

JB: It depends. I think work starts in different ways. Sometimes it start from an image that I become obsessed with. In this case with Ukiyo, it was the image of the woman with a prosthetic arm and a hammer. And reading about early Russian engineers who were studying motion force. And connecting that to my interests in motion capture and early photography. Cause I was at the time also reading about Muybridge and the way he was photographing movement.

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Johannes Birringer: Suna No Onna (c), 2007

So, it could be an image or a text. I read a lot and sometimes it’s a literary text, sometimes it’s a theoretical text that inspires me. For instance with the Bacon project, it was a suggestion from the composer to work with Francis Bacon’s paintings, and he asked me to listen to the music. So, I listened to the music first.

At the moment with Ukiyo, Michele Danjoux and I are talking a lot about sound, and what also Michele calls ‘designing motion’. Through her, I’ve became for the first time sensitized to fabrics, textiles, materials. Thus, my work in last two, three years has a strong tactile dimension because we work with fabrics. So, other different sources than I usually start with. And then, in the lab we develop ideas over longer period of time, and we all contribute to this development of ideas.

Continue reading the second part of the interview with Johannes Birringer: Connecting analogue and digital technology