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Remarks from Dance Studies Association 2019, Plenary 1: Reservoirs of Movement: Common Flow and Circulation

Originally presented at the Dance Studies Association 2019 conference Dancing in Common at Northwestern. (Presented in tandem with a video desktop performance.)

How and where do we learn to dance? Certainly, families and communities, studios, clubs, and other places that people gather are at the top of the list. And screen media should be as well.

Now, as a field, dance studies has tended to overlook movement acquisition, focusing instead on representation within choreographic works, or the specific practices of movement communities. But what I want to suggest today is that scholars should evaluate screen media not only in terms of representation, but also in terms of transmission, participation, pedagogy, and the common.

My specific interest is how dances and dance practices circulate through digital media, namely, but not exclusively, online. Whether talking about dance challenges like Level Up, The Git Up, or, cover dances, which are most strongly associated with k-pop but which are also bigger than a single music genre, or video games like Dance Central and now Fortnite, or other examples of participatory digital cultural practices, I am interested in how gestures, movements, and choreographies circulate across bodies and digital platforms, and how a general uptake of gestures in circulation produces a kind of corporeal common.

Our bodies and bodily capacities transform as we take up dance vocabularies and increase our fluency and legibility, showing how dance is irreducibly social. The only way for dancing to make sense is with reference to a common that dancing itself produces as practitioners (and I should also include avatars) physicalize its movements, and by so doing, alter that which is collectively generated and shared. Social media in particular has exponentiated the speed with which gestures proliferate across screens and then bodies, forging new dance literacies as flash trends are embodied, performed, and uploaded for global digital access.

In my own work, I prefer to use the language of the common rather than the commons, and here’s why: I have not yet been able to trace how the commons came to signify open-access, anti-capitalism, and radical democracy in the context of the Internet’s founding mythologies or in contemporary cultural theory, when the commons is a vestige of a European feudal system.

There are of course many models for collectively producing and managing resources, but when we speak of the commons, this European history is being invoked, erasing the socio-economic conditions of lordship and serfdom it would have entailed, and the various dues that would have been owed for usage rights on a manor. In contemporary life online, we now pay these usage fees in the forms of our own data, creativity, and attention, in addition to subscription and provider fees. But to really think of the commons online would require us to reconfigure our conception of what the Internet is as a system and set of ideologies, recognizing that most users limit their activity to producing and consuming content on platforms, set aside for their use, which results in others’ profit.

I prefer, then, to speak of the common following Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and also commoning practices following Elizabeth Dillon. Hardt and Negri define the common as “those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production.”[i] This could include languages, affects, knowledges, practices, orientations, beliefs, as well as movements, rhythms, and gestures. Crucially, in this model, the common, which is also to say the social, is actively reproduced through its use; it is not a finite resource. In her study, Dillon foregrounds corporeal practices and dramatic performances, commoning practices that she says “articulat[e] relations of mutual belonging in a collective whole.”[ii] Commoning practices bring people into relation and offer a means of creating shared ground.

While I find these to be incredibly useful frameworks for thinking about dance, I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating the common as a structure or an ideal. I’m trying to understand the kinds of projects it facilitates. The notion of a common in which we all share is a specifically political proposition. With the globalization of neoliberal economic theories, the common offers economic solutions to social questions, confusing the moral and ethical problems of access, inclusion, and conditions of participation centered on belonging with those of market share. As Randy Martin contends, such a logic “brings people together only to seem to take away what they thought they possessed.”[iii]

The common is situational, a relation among people with access to different kinds of power and capital, where sharing, participating, stealing, exploiting, conserving, and proliferating dances and dance practices are complex social negotiations. Computer mediation adds to the social complexity as Thomas DeFrantz has observed, circulating dance content beyond localized communities of practice and bypassing their norms, instantiating dance movements in new contexts and literally re-coding transmission in terms of unfettered circulation and universal access. In the past, this orientation pit internet platforms against legacy media companies until it became apparent that “free” content also works in the service of capital. That which is shared can be monetized, and platform capitalism has demonstrated in the past few years that sharing dance can be way more profitable than was previously imagined.

This poses an interesting problem for our field, which has been reluctant to acknowledge the long history of media facilitating dance transmission. We therefore do not have a robust vocabulary for thinking about dance in a contemporary global media landscape that is shifting rapidly. Specifically, we do not have good language to analyze fan engagement with popular dance, which social media makes more visible than ever before, because practices of fandom complicate theoretical frameworks premised on concert, social, and folk dance practices. Whereas our previous theorizing might have suggested clear distinctions between sharing in a dance common and sharing it out, social media obliterate this distinction, bringing all participation into the flow of global circulation.

Even shared through digital platforms, dance brings people into relation. As Kiri Miller observes in her analysis of Internet-based kinesthetic cultures, “we still have to learn from other people’s bodies, finding a way to comprehend their kinesthetic knowledge and make it our own.”[iv] What kind of relation is established is open to debate. But as dances and dance practices circulate through social media, they produce a movement common on a global scale. We must therefore consider not only how digital technologies enable dancing in common, but also the uses to which that common is put.

 

[i] Commonwealth, xviii.

[ii] New World Drama, 7.

[iii] Financialization of Daily Life, 16.

[iv] Playing Along, 183. Original emphasis.

Dance in Transit at the Women in Data Science Summer Camp

I feel so fortunate to have been able to lead a workshop on data visualization and storytelling for the Women in Data Science Summer Camp this summer at Ohio State. This free program, directed by Jenna McGuire and hosted by the Translational Data Analytics Institute, offers young women (grades 8-10) in Columbus an opportunity to explore data science through presentations and workshops with OSU faculty, staff, and students.

I was able to put together a hands-on workshop for these young women using materials that Kate Elswit and I have collected and generated for Dance in Transit, focusing just on African American choreographer Katherine Dunham’s touring in 1950. Using TimelineJS designed by the Knight Lab, the workshop participants created their own digital timelines representing the data they gathered on Dunham’s travels and activism in 1950. This includes her lawsuit against a hotel in São Paulo, Brazil for racial discrimination, and her premiere of the controversial work Southland in Santiago, Chile.

The task of creating a timeline was fairly simple, but I asked workshop participants to use copies of archival documents and historical materials to create their data set. I provided them with copies of concert programs from Paris, New York, and São Paulo, newspaper articles, and letters, all from 1950, so they could piece together a Dunham story of their own. In the process of putting together a digital timeline about a single individual, they learned a little about working with archival resources, creating data sets from historical documents, understanding the history of racism in the Americas, and recognizing the ways arts-based political activism can fuel social change.

This workshop was hugely gratifying for me, and I enjoyed sharing ways that the arts, humanities, and computing can be complementary modes of research. I hope this camp inspires these young women to further develop their interests in data analysis, and I hope to see them at Ohio State in a few years!

Toward a Politics of Dance’s Everyday: Katherine Dunham on Tour, 1950-53

Dance in Transit data visualization showing light spots on a dark map indicating the locations of Katherine Dunham's touringHarmony Bench and Kate Elswit will be presenting at the 2018 International Federation for Theatre Research conference in Belgrade! What we are presenting at comes at the end of our pilot project, Dance in Transit (funded by BETHA, 2016-18) and just as we begin Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry (funded by AHRC, 2018-21). These projects extend our work on the geography and networks of historical dance touring and transmission (see Bench and Elswit, 2016), through the exemplary case study of African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006). Dunham worked across five continents in many contexts, from her early anthropological research in Haiti to her curatorial and administrative projects later in Dakar, New York, and St. Louis. She choreographed and performed in operas, revues, Broadway shows, Hollywood films, and modern concert dance. She was also an extraordinary self-archivist. In this presentation, we will show some data visualizations generated from daily travel data collected from primary resources documenting Dunham’s whereabouts from 1950-1953. We will also talk about what it means to track a single person’s movements every single day for four years (1461 days), the gaps and absences in the historical record, and the scholarly investments in mundane, personal, and behind-the-scenes information that emerged from this process.

Dunham’s Data receives AHRC funding

Kate Elswit (PI, University of London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Harmony Bench (CI, The Ohio State University) have been awarded over £566,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for their research project Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry. Elswit and Bench are co-authors of the first essay on digital analytics for dance history, and Dunham’s Data extends their previous development and implementation of archival databases and digital cartography. Together—and with international academic partner projects and UK industry partnerships with One Dance UK’s Dance of the African Diaspora and the Victoria & Albert Museum—they will pioneer the use of data analysis in dance history through a project that centres on the case study of African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006).

Dunham is an exemplary figure for analysing the ways dance moves across both geographical locations and networks of cultural, artistic, and financial capital. She worked across five continents in many contexts, and also spent over one third of her life on tour. The scale and distribution of datapoints necessary to research the transnational circulation of an artist like Dunham pose a challenge for traditional scholarly approaches. Using digital research methods and data visualization in the context of dance history can catalyse a better understanding of how dance movements are shared and circulated among people and continents, and the networks of support and influence that undergird artistic and economic success. While digital methods have altered the landscape of most humanities and arts disciplines, the field of dance studies has yet to fully identify how it can benefit from these analytic approaches. Therefore, this project is not only devoted to the specific line of research regarding Dunham, but also to the original problems and questions of dance history that can be advanced through an innovative critical mixed methods approach that includes geographical mapping and network analysis.

A portion of this new project has been piloted with support from a Battelle Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs Grant. See Movement on the Move (www.movementonthemove.osu.edu) for more.