Strap On Your Exoskeleton And Dance, Dance, Dance

 

I'm in the middle of the dance floor. The strobe lights above me are popping in time with the thundering kick drums and violent synth-bass rolling out of the speakers at 110 beats per minute. I'm shuffling to the rhythms, but I'm only able to control the lower half of my body. All of my movements from the waist up are being dictated by an exoskeleton strapped onto my trunk like a jacket.

My arms jerk up and down and twist from side to side with the beat, but my own muscles aren't doing the work; my flesh is being pushed around in space by the 45 pounds of metal, cable, and hydraulic cylinders running across my shoulders and down my arms. A robot is making me dance.

With me beneath the lights are 11 other humans, each cinched into an exoskeleton of their own that's connected to the rafters by a tether. In front of us, an audience of a few dozen spectators laughs and gawks and fills up their Instagram stories. Behind us, the two artists who dreamed up this post-singularity techno nightmare, Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers, stand next to their computers, controlling both the music and the movements.

At the midpoint of my 30 minutes as a meat puppet, I'm still struggling to loosen up. Having one's elbows jerked up and down by a robotic exoskeleton is about as unsettling as it sounds. (As we were being fitted with our cybernetic harnesses before the show, Demers instructed us to just relax: "It's better if you don't fight the machine.") To calm my mind, I meditate on what would happen if the contraption ripped my arms off. The artists made me sign a waiver, so I guess I'd be on my own.

Soon, I'm in full surrender mode. I'm grinning and laughing, and when I look at the other volunteers in my ad-hoc dance company, I see them doing the same. Nobody's fighting their machines anymore; the robots have assumed full control. Two songs later, the music stops, the thick velcro straps come off, and we're freed from our mechanical prisons. The crowd gives us a hearty cheer. A few of the other dancers join me in taking a bow. The robot exoskeletons hang behind us, limp and lifeless.

Full Immersion

The dance show, titled Inferno, is meant to be an experiential representation of hell, and I suppose it is, just maybe more fun. Inferno has been touring the world for a couple of years, and it made its US premiere in San Francisco this past weekend at the Gray Area Festival.

The four-day conference, now in its fifth year, is billed as an exploration of the design and construction of immersive spaces for art and expression. There were of course plenty of talks each day about virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, the technologies which live under the category of "immersive" as it's currently defined in the era of headsets and smartphones.
But attendees were also treated to talks about designing immersive spaces in the analog realm. Jia Jia Fei of New York City's Jewish Museum detailed the challenges of creating an app for gallery exhibits that encourages museum-goers to not to rely on their phones. Playmatics founder Nicholas Fortugno discussed the immersive design principles behind both Disneyland and Dungeons & Dragons. Naut Humon (say it out loud) of Recombinant Media Labs showed footage of the immersive art shows his group has been building since the late 1960s. On a coffee break, I met some proponents of the Gaia theory who schooled me at length about the symbiotic relationship between humans, their technology, and the planet's ecosystem. (Earth: The ultimate immersive experience!) And of course, there were the dancing robots, which anyone attending the Gray Area Festival could sign up to physically merge with.

Saturday's keynote speaker was Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and WIRED 25 honoree who coined the term "virtual reality" and is widely considered to be the godfather of digital immersion. Lanier delivered a seated monologue on the similarities and differences between virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The 90-minute talk was at times disjointed but frequently accented with brilliant insight.

"What we call AI has become, almost exclusively, about large corporations tricking people," says Lanier. The examples we see in voice assistants or in chatbots on the web feature a computer pretending to be a human. "It creates the illusion of information exchange." Virtual reality also creates an illusion, Lanier says, but it's a less pernicious one because there's always a real human—you!—at the center of the experience. People can meet up and hang out and improvise in VR, so the information exchange is real and not illusory.

Lanier, who is an accomplished musician and a lover of exotic instruments, opened his session with a short musical performance on a Lao khaen and closed it with a piece played on a bowed Tarhu, sending attendees off with minor-key melodies.

Set and Setting

The festival is the flagship event for the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, an 11-year-old San Francisco organization that produces shows, workshops, and interactive exhibits that merge technology with art, music, and design. Five years ago, it took over and renovated an old art deco theater in the Mission District, the city's cultural hub. The newly named Gray Area Theater is the group's primary venue for its immersive productions, including the eponymous shindig.

Gray Area Festival curator Barry Threw tells me the group is trying to show that the setting for a piece of art—whether virtual or actual—is just as integral to an artwork's context as the content of the piece itself. To support the argument, he brings up cave drawings.

"When humans first started making art, with the earliest examples we have in the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux—those were completely immersive and site-specific art experiences," says Threw.

The caves had a sonic element, he says, a specific ambient hum. Fire was required to light the dark interior of the caves, and those fire patterns would create movement on the drawings. The art itself was painted to take advantage of the geological form of the cave.

So much has changed since then.

"There's the situation we're all used to, where you go into a white-walled gallery and see this collection of objects presented in a homogenous way that's decontextualized from wherever they came from originally—that's an anomaly," says Threw. "The immersive practice we're studying now is a return to how people originally experienced art in a full-sensory way."