Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Decisions

We are at an interesting point in our CoolState convergence project.

Our grad students are getting bogged down with not only the technical challenges of the project, but also with competing visions of how the system should work. We started out working on a sort of central structure based on a Fedora database, and the students have been trying to find ways to use the Fedora database to serve all the various needs of the venture.

There are problems, however.

First, not long after beginning the project Fedora produced a later release of the software - V. 2.0 is now replaced by V. 3.0. In general, we always want the latest release of software, but in this case, getting knowledge, familiarity and operability under our belts for the newer version would have slowed us down considerably.

Second, Sepideh, who has been working on what has essentially been considered a 'front-end' to this system became a bit frustrated when the other parts of the system didn't seem to be falling into place (I hope I'm getting my observations correct here).

Third, and probably the most thorny issue here, was how we should use Fedora (if at all) - and a couple of competing visions of what we should do. Ren seemed unsure how Sepideh's CMS fit in with the rest of the structure, Farrukh was unsure as to whether we wanted to use some of the built in features of Fedora to build our system or to customize our user interface from scratch - all against the background of a software package (Fedora) that seemed to be morphing before our eyes.

It seemed to me that since this is an educational process, and that all the work these students are doing will be of benefit not only to our news paper, website, and converged news room, but also to the university at large, and especially for the students who would be learning how to institute such a system in something resembling real world conditions.

With that in mind, we decided that it made a certain amount of sense to have Sepideh develop a Fedora front end that in the terms of NASA would be described as "Fast and Cheap" - essentially, a stripped down version of what we want.

The rest of the team would work to develop a more sophisticated version of the interface, more feature-rich, more variables and preferences.

We set an interim deadline of Feb. 9 to see what each team comes up with as a prototype.

The dynamics are somewhat complicated: Sepideh has approached the project with considerable independence, and for most of the past several months, has largely been working on the project as an outsider. Ren and Farrukh, on the other hand, have been struggling with Fedora usability issues, and trying to define a unified vision of what the project should be.

This two track approach should yield interesting results no matter what; we'd like the extra features, but perhaps getting the prototype operating in a simplified manner could yield some faster results out of the gate.

Also, it is conceivable that both 'products' could be usable in the market place: it is possible that the simpler model being developed by Sepideh would be more appropriate for community groups, senior centers, and libraries to feed into a regional news operation, and the bigger, more complex system would be used by, well, bigger, more complex news operations.

We'll have some learning in a few weeks...


Projekt GB - Projekt1

"The Projekt" Observation

Interesting Observations
What has been cool about this process so far has been the absolute riches of ideas that we have had to play with. In a strange way, I think that was one of the problems we began to face on 1/28. With so many video choices so easily available, there is a tendency to want to work through each of those effects, when what we really need to do is to stay with one video effect, for example, and really work through its possibilities.

With that understood, putting audio with our project was a lot of fun, though I think we've barely begun to scratch the surface of that medium.

Mostly, there were the absolutely eye popping, hypnotic and provocative images of the 'Hand Ballet', the cell phone video being captured by the camera, and the wonderful tango/romance performances. There was a piece of music that Sara brought that sounded like a swarm of insects and then veered off into all these interesting progressions and developments - it was my favorite piece of the session, although the tang was a close second.

We were using the Tango, of course, in a very playful manner, but in the context of telecommunication, alienation, humor, and trying to connect with people, it takes on a darker, maybe even sadder meaning.




I also love the sort of whip-sawing from one musical style to another.

Can't wait to see photos!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thursday's Exercise

I'm really self-centered and narcissistic. When I stole away Jonathan, Alyson and Paul to play with some video for our piece, we left most of the class downstairs in MUS115 working on drumming, under Sara's guidance - working with a percussion teacher from the Music Department (Sara, could you please enter his name here!).

The idea was supposed to be that after Jonathan, Alyson, and Paul got the hang of working with the video, we would go down and recruit the rest of the students to come up and play with the technology. It hadn't even occurred to me that I could be interrupting Sara's work with the rest of the students. So when I got to MUS115 and signaled that we were ready for most of the class to come up to MUS 219 to play with the technology, Sara, almost timidly, asked if we should bring up the percussion instruments and put the music together with the technology.

I said to myself "Oops. I've been pretty presumptuous here." Of course, yes, absolutely, we HAVE to have the percussion there.

Wow. That was a good lesson, because bringing the percussion work Sara was doing to the video work Jonathan, Alyson, and Paul were doing was spectacular. It seemed to me that this session was a great example of what we are looking to investigate. The mixture of the percussion and it's driving, reassuring structure made the movement really natural. Then on top of that, the video images we produced were eye-popping. This was really cool.

Movement and Meaning

As I observe our performers moving through their exercises, I am struck by the profound relationship between movement and meaning.

In older, more traditional forms, the meaning behind the movement is probably more specifically and formally defined - gestures for sadness, elation, love, inspiration, etc. As movement and dance have become more 'modernized' and 'post-modernized' the relationship between specific meanings of movement has become more sophisticated and complex.

I think particularly of the work of the German choreographer Pina Bausch and New York based Trisha Brown, both of whom have at various times been described as 'post-modernist' choreographers. They are, of course, not the only pioneers in this direction, but perhaps the best known on the world scene. Like non-narrative musical composition and other abstract forms, these choreographers often construct compositions based purely on their aesthetic sensibility, with no specific meaning behind them. With both Bausch and Brown, the results are often tantalizing, teasing, and strangely moving. But if there is a meaning drawn from their works, it is not necessarily a meaning specifically intended by the choreographer, but rather a meaning supplied by the viewer.

This is not to say that there isn't some over-arching idea or meaning, but rather an approach to that meaning that is considerably more sophisticated and subtle than simply proposing that 'a' signifies 'b'. Instead, the relationship between movement and meaning can bypass the 'either/or' bifurcation, and can instead be 'either/and' or 'neither'. But because we are 'playing' in a certain intellectual territory, there IS indeed some meaning we should consider.

As I watch Tanya work with our performers, I love the way she sort of brushes aside any specific meaning or message as she plays. The movement of bodies through space is in itself a lovely, engaging process. I don't suppose she has any specific philosophy behind her technique (or maybe she does), but rather just sets out on playing with her performers and seeing where it goes.

There is an interesting side note here too: this free-form method of play never seems to dissolve into anarchy; there always seems to be an evolving structure. Also - just an observation - the wide range of movements and physical gestures suddenly morph into a formal structure the moment the gesture is repeated, especially once they achieve a second repetition of an original movement. In other words, the first time a gesture or movement is performed, it has to succeed or fail on its own. Then when that gesture or movement is repeated, once, then twice, it becomes a part of the physical 'vocabulary' of the exercise.

No Boundaries

One of the things I find most inspiring about the way Tanya works is that she doesn't recognize any boundary between what has traditionally been considered "acting" and "dancing". There are long traditions that encourage expertise and vocabulary in each of these traditions - theatre has its long history of character development, connection between character and text, the actor's creation of a "reality" and so forth. And dancers have traditionally dealt with a tradition of virtuosity - meaning that what we would normally consider "dance" had something of an expertise about it, not to be 'indulged' by amateurs. This history of related but separate growth has given us a remarkable and rich literature in both disciplines, but it has also limited their visions.

At its fundamental roots, both dance, and what we consider acting come from the same atavistic tradition: the expression of ideas bigger than daily commerce. And while Tanya does not hit our student/performers with this overly-intellectualized idea, it's really brilliant to see her approach this way. Because she refuses to recognized the boundaries between acting and dance, her communication of this idea to her performers acts to liberate them. Whereas a young performer might feel intimidated to take on a dance project - if they have no dance background - Tanya's simple, almost child-like approach to play finds these performers throwing themselves into their work like they had years of training.

I think it is largely because of the de-emphasis of virtuosity - that is, how 'talented' a dancer they are - makes the play area an open, inviting space.

Creating Content

We don't usually think of performance workshops as 'creating content', in the way we 'create content' for a web site or online service, but the process is very much alike. One of the things that has been most fun about our Projekt process has been building content without any particular goal or agenda. Rather, we just play and see where things go.

It's very, very cool to see that so much of what we create seems to be good content. My fear is that we are just deluding ourselves and flailing about on stage, but my instinct, after many, many years doing this kind of work, is that this is the real deal. The chemistry of not only the three instructors but especially of the student performers makes this particularly fun.

Students with a background in performance tend to 'jump off the cliff' very easily, whether they know what they are doing or not. Tech heads, like our TVF students, want to have the system well understood before they move much, and they chose to be behind the camera because that felt more comfortable to them.

The atmosphere we are developing makes it impossible for the timid to hide in their shell, and for the adventurous to call upon their mates to get out and get on stage with them.

The result is almost an embarrassment of riches: just about every exercise we have done seems to provide interesting, even provocative material. It seems like there is almost nothing that is NOT usable, which is deliriously lovely and a little terrifying: how do we track and capture all the stuff coming our way, and how will we paw through it to decide what to keep and what to discard? It's a little daunting, but what a fabulous position to be in: what from all the rich, cool stuff we've created do we want to keep? How often do you get a choice like that?