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Outlines: Bursting with E-Motion

A new Opera House digital season is epitomising the deepened relationship between artist and technology

Ashley Chang

In 2018, a New York Times editorial titled ‘Welcome To The Post-Text Future’ predicted that society’s predominant form of communication would not be the written word but video. “The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text,” wrote tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. “And the exploding reach and power of audio and video.”

Three years later and that future isn’t just approaching. It’s here. 

The pandemic has accelerated society’s reliance on video in ways both obvious and obscure. Video’s virtues aren’t relegated to just entertainment or escapism as it once was in the heyday of the idiot box. In 2021 it is foundational to the way we communicate, learn, exercise, do business or turn out that perfectly perky sourdough. From Peloton classes and Zoom meetings to online lectures and telehealth conferencing, there seems no domain of life video hasn’t improved or pervaded – pixel by perfect pixel. 

It makes sense then that as lockdowns intensified, artists and institutions alike turned to technology to do what they couldn’t – enter other people’s lives and living rooms. Sydney Opera House included, which presents a new suite of digital programming with Outlines, a series of forward-thinking works uniting artists and technologists reimagining the future of performance and storytelling. 

This of course speaks to more than just how we consume. We often think about the ways technology distributes culture but what’s most striking about the pieces presented in Outlines are the ways technology helped create the works themselves. This is most evident in Beyond Black by the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company (KNCDC), a mesmerising digital performance that disrupts traditional notions of creative process or authorship by offloading choreography duties to an artificial intelligence (AI) named Madi. Produced in collaboration with media art group SLITSCOPE and choreographer Shin Changho, this formally adventurous video work was produced by feeding eight dancers’ movements into an AI, which then used this information to output new choreography for the company to replicate. The central question of the experiment is uttered by one performer: “If Madi can’t feel emotions, what would be Madi’s understanding of beauty?”. Can movement for movement’s sake divorced from aesthetic intuition, context or deeper understandings of human emotion still be just as, well, moving? 

A similar question is asked in R+J RMX, a remix of Romeo and Juliet powered by a storytelling system named Omelia. This radical retelling of the beloved Shakespeare tragedy is concerned less with disrupting its iconic source material and more so with disrupting the formal structures of storytelling itself. Part dance performance, part self-aware performance art, the work’s principal conceit is embodied by a bickering pair of actors who perform first as Omelia’s custodians, then as mouthpieces for the whims of the audience, then as active agents of change themselves. 

Elsewhere, the use of avatars artfully recontextualises performer and performativity. Fever dream Apotheosis is a multidisciplinary performance that injects a post-apocalyptic hellscape with the hypercolour glee of video games (The Road meets Rainbow Road, perhaps). Here Serwah Attafuah’s metallurgic digital art is mapped to the practised undulations of dancer Lydia Kivela and soundtracked live by the doom techno of Sydney producer ptwiggs. The audience’s attention vacillates constantly between the real Kivela adorned in motion capture accoutrements in front of the screen, and her avatar, situated inside the screen in Attafuah’s hallucinogenic version of an outer suburb train station. Creative dichotomies like this abound in a work that feels both of-this-time and timeless, futuristic and primordial, playful yet dystopic. Apotheosis, in the ancient Greek, means “the elevation of someone to divine status”, and this blooming towards metamorphosis is felt throughout. It’s unclear, however, whether this state of transcendence belongs to performer or avatar. 

“There is no insult in the lines of this urgent clarion call but a demand for racial justice, equality and compassion”

The same magic trick is performed in the fantastical Dream, a real-time motion capture performance inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The work, whose polygon aesthetics will be familiar to open world video game enthusiasts, invites audiences into a virtual forest with an avatar Puck as tour guide. Produced as an exploratory proof of concept by The Royal Shakespeare Company, the work puts forth a blueprint for live performance centred on accessibility, engagement and experimentation. It is telling of culture’s trajectory that a theatre company founded specifically to enshrine the past is so eagerly probing the future. 

Video can also connect us in ways we didn’t think possible. Watching video with others, whether physically or virtually, heightens immediacy and generates a stronger sense of connection. While the concept of virtual presence can sound impersonal and abstract, using video to experience something digitally is now commonplace and many of the real-time experiences people have on digital platforms can be as personal and community building as what is possible in real life. Therein lies the potential of combining technology and performance. Located between tradition and innovation is the ability to circumnavigate physical, contextual and temporal constraints to radically democratise access to artistic expression. To take the stories we tell to places we never thought possible. 

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