Performing Technology: Welcome in the Uncanny Valley of 2019


By Rainer Hofmann

„I am hardly human and completely human“ is written on the front page of the programme brochure of SPRING Performing Arts Festival 2019. In the brochure and on the website you find a human head which is open on the backside and has cables and silicon chips inside. You will find pictures of limbs cut out of photos and copied and serialized. Man and machine meet, original and copy, digital and analogue, flesh and plastic. SPRING performs technology. But it also performs humanity. It performs the relationship between digital technology and humans, their interaction, their interweaving and intermingling.

Uncanny valley is a term invented by the Japanese robotica scientist Masahiro Mori. The concept uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects, which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings, cause uncanny, but strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. Is it human or not? It seems to be but also not. We want to see something human in a robot and at the same time are afraid if the artifact has a credible human appearance. The uncanny valley lies between hardly human and completely human.

What if we expand this concept from objects to the setting of our whole life? Don’t we live in an uncanny valley already? How many of the messages that we receive online are generated by bots? Who sets the prices that we see when we want to book a flight ticket? How many percent of trading are done by algorithms and not by humans? Is Donald Trump really more powerful than Mark Zuckerberg? When will our irises be enough to identify ourselves at numerous occasions, to open the doors of our homes, pay our shopping, get on planes? Are our (designed) online identities not beginning to lead their own lives? Will our physical bodies be complimented or even be replaced by artificial body parts step by step? Are our desires not since long determined by digitalized information?

But do we feel uncanny with all this or are we not embracing this new world willingly? Is this valley uncanny at all, if we do not realize its uncanniness? Are we maybe heading to paradise? Let’s see the good sides: algorithm-based medical treatments save lives, communication is easy and fast, we are told what we want to shop (and we really do want what we are told), social robots help lonely people, and soon self-driving cars may bring us comfortably and accident-free to our destinations. Let’s think it a bit further, why should we leave the house to travel when we can have the virtual worlds via 3D goggles and augmented reality and excessive flying destroys the climate anyway? Everything is going to be smooth and easy, if technological developments do outrun (and not cause) climate change.

What is the difference between man and machine? As Yuval Harari points out, some biotechnologists state that organisms are nothing but algorithmic machines. The main difference is that computers are based on silicon and the neuronal networks of humans on carbon.

How do the performing arts, THE art form, which happens live with people physically being present in the same room at the same time, deal with such topics? SPRING 2019 gathers a few performances and installations which reflect on new technologies and digitalisation (and sometimes also use them). In the centre is Uncanny Valley by Stefan Kaegi from the German label Rimini Protokoll.

The sole performer in Uncanny Valley is a humanoid, a copy of the writer Thomas Melle. The show, a monologue by the humanoid, evolves along two lines, Thomas Melle’s own history with a bipolar disorder and computer pioneer Alan Turing. The Turing-test is named after him, a test, which helps to divide man from machine. Melle and Kaegi wrote a witty text on originals and copies, on man and machines delivered by an ironic robot, who is a copy of someone, who is maybe already two personalities. One big question runs through the performance: what are humans?

Two  installations explore the space between humans and technology. Lawrence Malstaff creates with Polygon a large-scale kinetic structure out of lightweight tubes, which seems to show in its movements almost human-like qualities and emotions. The American OpenEndedGroup turned dancer Bill T. Jones into a 3D projection. The real physical body disappears, his movements are still present via motion-capture technique in the form of projected light. Is it still Bill T. Jones? Is he represented by his light-turned movements? Who are we when we are present but not present physically?

As we see, even actors get replaced by machines (but are they really? Maybe the actors are just not visible on stage anymore?) and doubtless the power of digital machines has been and will be rising. The power relation between humans and technology is shifting drastically.

Kris Verdonck asks in his co-operation with dance company ICK SOMETHING (out of nothing) what the place of humans is, when technology is not only a tool, but a decision-maker. When digital technology replaces us, controls us, when it takes over, what happens with what we regard as essentially human: mind, soul, desire, lust, sex, the body with all its functions and qualities? Verdonck’s dance show reflects on the position of humans facing the dominance of technology. He mixes objects and dancers, artefacts and humans and blurs the line between living and dead matter. As with Stefan Kaegi, there is an inherent question: Are we sure we are still humans? Are we not since long hybrids? Or just remnants of the analogue past in a world that does not need us anymore, a potentially extinct species, zombies running on the illusion of their own free will and importance? But we could also say: let’s dance – as long as we can, it is the physical proof of our existence. Dance is real, it cannot be faked.

Who is dancing when Mette Ingvartsen is dancing driven by the beats of drummer Will Guthrie? In All Around Mette Ingvartsen prolongs her body with a light bar. The show displays ecstasy with its hypnotic rhythm and circling dance moves but it also visualizes a merging of the human body with an artificial element. Mette Ingvartsen’s show connects in a metaphorical sense with new developments in biotechnology.

This programme seemed to get too male-nerdy until Mette Ingvartsen entered the scene, and next to her Australian Angela Goh with her performance Uncanny Valley Girl. She offers a decidedly female perspective on technology. She is referring to the extended history of females with machines, be it at hardware assembly lines or in the early stages of computer science, before the boys from silicon valley and their investors took over. But Angela Goh also connects the fear that machines take over with the male angst that women take over. The fembot enters the scene, the uncanny valley girl confronts the nerds.

Dutch installation artist Jeroen van Loon offers a specific take on the internet and its physical form of appearance. In Ephemeral Data he builds during 10 days a big sand mandala based on the glass fibre network of Utrecht. The mandala will be swept away after 10 days. In a brilliant turn his performative installation makes the material that guarantees fast communication (sand, which glass fibre is made of)) into a plea for deceleration and temporariness. He claims that the internet is developing from an archive to a performance machine, from Wikipedia to Snapchat; and that the future of the internet is temporal.

All these shows and installations map our digitalised, technology-influenced world. We might live in an uncanny world, we might be on our way to paradise or we might be human zombies that do not realize yet that they are superfluous. We invite the audiences to draw their own conclusions.

Scientific help comes in the conference Performing Robots (organised by the Media and Culture Studies of the University Utrecht) including a key note by Festival Fellow Peter Eckersall who comes to Utrecht supported by the Centre for the Humanities. This conference takes stock of interactions between theatre and robotics so far and looks at possibilities for future collaboration. What do the performing arts have to offer as inspiration, model, and test-case for the development of robots and for human-robot interaction? How might collaboration between the performing arts and robotics contribute to further development of social robots, as well as to critical understanding of what it will mean to be living with them.

The focus Performing Technology is supported by Prins Bernhard Cultuur Fonds.

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