Anna Foka

Sensory perspectives: Toward a digitisation of historical performances.

This workshop proposes to utilize existing theories of embodied and sensory cognition (movement and sound). Specifically we will explore how digital technologies facilitate new methodology for historical and performance research. While it is certainly true that bodily experiences are culturally determined, it is also conversely the case that our conceptualization of ancient culture is an inescapably bodily and experiential/ sensory act. In foregrounding the role of embodiment, enactment, and sensory mediation, the proposed workshop will move beyond essentialist assumptions of knowledge-production.

During the meetings we (Umeå and Oxford , auro 3D technologies) we had the chance to involve ourselves hands on with a snippet of reconstructing only a fragment of the vast and polymorphous realm that is the digital rendering of ancient performance. For practical reasons, we had to break the event in two different dates, one dedicated to Virtual Reality and Motion capture and, separately, working around sound arrangements. Workshop participants explored how sensory knowledge is an essential component of performance history. To this end, we combined methodology and theory with physical performance and technical implementation in order to explore how digital technology may facilitate an immersive, sensory and kinaesthetic approach to historical research on ancient performances and enactments.

We (Humlab) operated most closely with the practice-led research collaboration Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD) that was set up in 2013 with the aim of translating the verbal and iconographic evidence for Graeco-Roman dance back into movement. Our initial hypothesis was that applying this evidence in the formulation of physical performances would provide an alternative mechanism for understanding dance from the performer's standpoint, as a kinaesthetic process, rather than its usual treatment as spectacle or ocularcentric product. By drawing on the expertise of professionally-trained dancers and sound engineers, we have been able to produce a range of conjectures for the representation of selected scenarios, and at the same time to extrapolate a number of key principles for the art-form. Digitization has added new variables and raised a new set of questions regarding the relationship between the body of the dancer in the present, ever-mutable moment and the absent figure of the ancient orch?st?s, for whom the live dancer acts as a s?ma, a marker. Live dance practice offered us insights into the vital symbiosis between the orch?st?s and the libretto, the orch?st?s and the musician, the orch?st?s and costume, character, emotions, mask/s and space; the additional layer of digitization placed more acute emphasis on the fundamental process of embodiment. Rather than the proprioceptive (internal sensorimotor) feedback which dominated the dancers' choices in the development of their live performance pieces, the activation of an external avatar required ongoing interaction with this distorted mirror-image, this not-quite-self which both resisted and responded to the dancers' manipulation. In setting up this experiment in motion capture, we shifted the point of reception from the human body to its virtual analogue.

While we expecting the RJ verdict on our initiation grant application, the Oxford University Scholars Helen Slaney and Sophie Bocksberger have been awarded money by the Fell Fund for the Humanities simultaneously: They thus brought forward a number of members of the dance academy Les Marchepieds from Lausanne to be part of our humanistic experience: This added a human-interaction element to our research since the dancers were specialized in experimental and conceptual scientific research of that sort. With the remote guidance of the Virtual Human Interaction lab at Stanford we delved deeper into embodied communication technologies. Ever since, we have been following the development of a number of projects of Virtual Reality environments built at Humlab: more precisely the virtual reality prototype for Pohlem's mechanical alphabet for the project Digitala Modeller and in collaboration with the Tekniska Museet (financed also by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond) in Stockholm (see www.digitalamodeller). As time progresses, Virtual Reality environments are widely distributed as part of our infrastructure and, seeing the need for further engagement we have developed a number of courses at Humlab in which we discuss the possibilities and pitfalls for creating an embodied communication portal with past lifeworlds.

The scholarly observations we have made during our meetings and collaborative efforts, lie in the intersection of the humanities and information technology and are illustrated in the list of current and forthcoming publications. The potentials of technology to advance the humanities through conceptual recreation that involves the senses (see Foka and Arvidsson 2016; Slaney Bocksberger and Foka in press 2017); the need for new Digital Research Infrastructures within academia (Foka, A. Misharina, A, Arvidsson, V. and Gelfgren, S. 2017); the emergence of the digital aesthetic and the expectation that we interact with prototypes as well as the fact that technology is not neutral in the process of knowledge production. Instead, it should be seen as the motivation behind concept work, as it is instrumental in orchestrating final deliverables (Foka 2017). Pedagogies, cultural heritage engagement, and new media literacies were all infiltrated through the lens of technological, digital innovation, and could be/will be potential implementations of such a project.

The proposed workshop initiated research between several strong research environments of the University of Umeå: HUMlab: The Humanities laboratory, Interactive Design, Interactive Institute as well as individual international specialists in the field from the University of Oxford, UK, Cornel, NY, the Virtual Human Interaction lab at Stanford, as well as the University of Florida, USA.


•    Slaney, H, Bocksberger, S., Foka, A. (in press 2017) ‘Roman Pantomime for Virtual Reality: Creating Immersive and Interactive History’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Northeastern University Publishing: Boston.
•    Foka, A., Misharina, A., Arvidsson A., and Gelfgren, S. (in press 2017) ‘Digitalized Infrastructures: Towards a viable socio-spatial model for Arts and Humanities’. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities: Oxford University Press.
•    Foka, A. (in press 2017) ‘Post-Human Minoans: Atlantis and its Civilization through the Lens of Technology’ in Hobden, F. and Wringley, A. Broadcasting Greece, University of Edinburgh Press.
•    Foka, A., Arvidsson, V. (2016) ’Experiential Analogies: Sonic Digital Ekphrasis as a Digital Humanities Project’ Digital Humanities Quarterly. 10:2. 

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