Interview with Johannes Birringer, part 2: Connecting analogue and digital technology

by deborah on 02/2/2011

This is the second part of the interview with Johannes Birringer. Read the first part here: Interview with Johannes Birringer, part 1 – New media, interactivity and performative arts

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Photo above: Johannes Birringer by Glenio Campregher (c), 2008
Photo bellow:  scene from Ukiyo by DAP-Lab (c)
Taken from Dance-Tech


Can you tell me something about your collaboration with Michele, considering the fact that you founded two years ago a project that deals with wearable technology?

JB: It was an accident. I fell in love with her. You know, often, especially with smaller companies, of course, the dynamics is generated by your partnerships, your intimate friendships with some people you really trust. I’m sure it’s the same here. In the period of the nineties when I was able to travel to Slovenia I was always travelling with a dancer that I was working with at the time – Imma Sarries-Zgonc, a dancer from Barcelona. And she inspired me to try many things in movement that I never even thought about.

After I was teaching in Ohio on Dance Department, the job ended and I was stranded back to Houston and I got this offer to come to England. I was first in Nottingham, and that’s where I met Michele. I saw that she was a fashion designer and I met her once in the studio where she was designing, and I said to her: why wouldn’t you and me do a workshop?

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Live Computer Gaming Workshop
Taken from Sonic Arts Research Centre

And we brought in some of her fashion students and some of my performance students. And that’s how this interest in wearables started. Because she said that there is a lot of vibration now in the air, people talking about intelligent fashion. And she showed me some books, and so she did a research into the smart fabrics and in sensors. I then I thought OK, we can built some experiments here.

And that’s how the piece has developed, and we showed some stuff. At this one wearable conference we have met Barbara Layne, and some of the others. It was exciting to me to see even that there was someone like Hussein Chalayan and some of these fashion designers very much at the cutting edge.

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Ukiyo costume by Johannes Birringer & Michele Danjoux (c)
Photo taken from Kibla

There is also one amazing artist in that field you would probably like and that’s the body architect Lucy McRae. She is doing this combination of organic low tech and high tech in wearable technology, it’s fascinating. This is somehow connected with my next question on your work…  Your pieces have this references to the ‘analogue’ world….

JB: … how the piece has a little retro dimension? Because we feel that the link between, let’s say, current and retro is very important. We had a young doctoral student working with Michele who is in product design, but she brought this stuff to us, called thermochromic. Material that reacts to temperature and things like that.

So, we have on the one hand these new material – scientists, and then on the other hand, we have Michele’s ideas, and she wanted to use this dysfunctional speakers and wires that go nowhere. But these wires are hanging around the body. And then, two of our dancers are  actually wearing real speakers that are still wired to the amplifier, so you could see the cables. It’s beautiful!

What I’m trying to answer is that we have now an interesting new perspective on analogue and digital technology. The analogue is actually sometimes more organic exciting.

We are no longer so much hiding, you know, putting the little transmitter into a nice pocket. In the latest Ukiyo production, Michele is exposing the wires more, and making the audience also see the wiring of the body.

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From Ukiyo – Movable World by Johannes Birringer
Taken from Subtle Technologies

Yeah, showing the process. It’s almost like a nervous system, that’s very interesting. What kind of sounds are you using with your wearables?

JB: We recorded the sounds of the garments we are making and Michele bought some special materials that are metallic or that had textures, and when you crank them they create a sound. So, these sounds were recorded and processed.

But this process also created some electronic sound that was responding, and we have one performer in the company who is instrumentalist and she plays  the bandoneon. So, Michele has built a dress that in a sense is derived from similar materials as the bandoneon and opened sound. So, the speakers emit elements from pulse, bandoneon and her voice.

Therefore, we are trying to collect some of the sounds from the instrument and from her, and we are processing that.
The other actress is doing a scene where she is using a wireless microphone as if it was a needle, playing the record with the microphone. Basically, it’s a noise performance, like you would hear from the Japanese…

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Ukiyo costume by Johannes Birringer & Michele Danjoux (c)
Photo taken from Kibla

Tell me something about the Russian scientist who did experiments with sound…

JB: It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve found this in the book by Siegfried Zielinski called Media Archaeology. And he’s going back to some points in the history,  like you remember perhaps this other Russian  inventor, Leon Theremin….

Yeah, of course…

JB: When I saw this film with Clara Rockmore, performing with a theremin in 1930 or whatever… Amazing! And again these are her hands moving electromagnetic spectrum invisibly, similar to what we were trying to do with our early one to one mapping, you know.

I went to couple of workshops in the nineties in Hellerau, and we would touch the invisible space and you would just hear Pliiing! It was also related to the pitch, high pitch, low pitch. That was this Icon software. But it was of course, new at the time, naturally it became old very quickly. This one to one mapping.

I think we need much more dynamic forms of interaction and the body emitting and perceiving,  incorporating and excorporating. Michele in her work with design speaks a lot about this inside / outside relation. I think, for a designer, it might also be interesting to look at what happens in the biomedical sector. She saw once an Australian artist with equipment that is really taking the heart beat or the pulse, and then how we can work with this bio-data in interesting ways, that’s a challenge.

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DAP-Lab (c)

For this performance you are using SL (Second Life) in combination with dance and virtuality, doesn’t matter of the wires. But I’m interested what do you actually think about virtuality and the lack of body and physical senses? What is happening with us? And even SL was hype few years ago, and the hype has gone now…

JG: Well, I think for me it’s like, I’m in my mid fifties now,  and I don’t foresees spending a lot of time in SL. We use it in Ukiyo as a humorous and ironic commentary on a certain kind if virtual future where people might meet in SL or have their avatars meet. We have this three scenes where the avatars are gathering and watching. And audience can go to this island where we have our design, we are beaming up some videos from the real space to the SL, and we watch SL in our real space. That’s  for me about it. Our Japanese partner Gekitora would design avatar choreography, he loves working with these avatar figures.

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Second Life avatar, taken from Second Life Empire (c)

I think it depends on the cultural background, and also whether people in my group like it and I know that Olu, we have African-British artist, is spending quite a bit of time in SL. But I’m not, you know. I get tired from it. My colleague Stelarc has now created a virtual gallery of his work, so you can send your avatar in his space and go to the exhibition, and also see some of his early performances in SL.

That’s all very nice, but I really don’t want to build a gallery of my work in SL, because I think we really need to experience it in a physical space. So, I can not relocate entirely, it can only be a sort of playful game…

Johannes Birringer’s Lecture

It was cool when Eva and Franco Mattes aka 0100101110101101.ORG did Synthetic Performances with Marina Abramovic’s work in SL…

JB: Yeah… I’m getting tired of it, but again the virtual is, of course, challenging concept in a discussion on digital media, and it’s being criticized now, also. I’m just reading a book by author Frances Dyson, a book on sound art. And she is criticizing the way virtual reality is often taken wrong. You are in the virtual reality but in fact the virtual reality is a simulated world.

It’s constructed, synthetic world, and you only access it through device like stereoscopic glasses. So, you are not in virtual world but your are wearing this glasses. And then you are seeing this simulated realm.

In the theatre I think it’s complicated to bring these closed tools to the sensorium of physical experience and to the audience. But that’s what I think we are currently looking at, is it possible to enhance and enrich the performer and audience experience with the media. With certain media that we are using.

Johannes, Thank you!