webcam performance & dramaturgy

(Sher Doruff)


Commentary on Cassis Caput
Performed on 28 June, 2003
Theatrum Anatomicum, Amsterdam + webams in Berlin, London, New York,
Amsterdam and Pincher Creek, CA

The following commentary, although related to an earlier performance experiment with webcams, is directly relevant to the research for "See you in Walhalla" and is offered here as a contextualizing description of the conceptual and physical elements of the new work.

The conceptual and technical realization of Cassis Caput as a research phase was predicated on constructing a performance ecology, bridging two continents: it played with the tension between determinate structures and indeterminate potentials. Guy Debord and members of the Situationist International created the idea of the dérive as a contractual drifting through an urban landscape in expectation of a virtual appointment with someone you have never met – as a device to create conditions of possibility that were thoroughly tangible. With their neo-Marxist political affinities and disdain of commodifiable art practice, the Situationists nurtured the divide between the aesthetics and politics. In many ways, the convergences of psychogeographies are present in the process of making Cassis Caput. Cortázar’s descriptions of paravisions and excentration, seminal to the initial research, give a similar perspective.

[Paravisons] > “An instantaneous aptitude for going out, grasping/perceiving oneself from outside, or from inside but on a different plane. But there are no words for a material in between word and pure vision. Impossible to objectivize, make precise that defectiveness caught during that instant which was clear absence or clear error or clear insufficiency.” *

[Excentration] > “An unrest, dislocation, an excentration in regard to a kind of order incapable of definition. The spectator on the edge of the spectacle, like being blindfolded in a theater. To be excentrated towards a center which is nonetheless inconceivable.” *

* Paravisions and Excentration are terms from “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar, naming this specific phenomenon

In Cassis Caput, the choice of public webcams as found objects/performance spaces was central to creating ‘conditions of possibility’ from which events and relations may or may not occur. The dancers moved according to scored timelines from which improvised relations with observers, seen and unseen, emerged who functioned as ‘strange attractors’. The dérive model, the virtual appointment, was between a distant audience and remotely situated performers. The witnessing, the anticipation of fleeting unison gestures from different lands with different time zones captured moments of convergence. Tableaux were created through the frozen sequences of webcam images, the sense of being surveilled and the knowledge of a common task, enacted simultaneously in real and virtual landscapes were present for all observer/performers. The local passers-by, unaware of an extended audience of players, amplified the element of random unpredictability and risk.

The qualities of the still image update of webcams with two, five and sixty second intervals, deny the viewer the dynamic, real-time flow of movement that a video camera would provide. In-stead, rhythmic sequences of freeze frame images accentuate change by isolating ‘samples’ and framing them. The absence of movement for the viewers and the absence of feedback for performers, weighed equally in the perceptual distribution.

The helmets worn by the dancers read as multiple metaphors – sensory deprivation, protection, aggression, costume, prop and an iconic visual identifier – a means of separating a performer in a crowd, of detecting a performer thru a distant lens. The exaggeration of intrinsic/extrinsic realities engendered by the helmet/webcam dichotomy was the percept uniting the events in the locations.

The Webcams: For several weeks, public webcams were scouted for their accessibility as site-specific stages. Four were chosen as quadrants for the main projection screen – Times Square in New York, The Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin, a Café in London and a street in Amsterdam’s Oud West. The URL’s for these cams were instantiated in an interactive media platform, KeyWorx. Each camera was programmed to zoom in and out, change from a one camera, two camera or four camera format. The formats and magnification were chosen on-the-fly as the images presented themselves. Another webcam was fixed to the outside wall of the Theatrum Anatomicum in the Waag (Amsterdam) to capture the musician, who played guitar from the square below. This was amplified inside the theater and mixed with feedback from an electric bass as an ambient soundscape. The images were displayed on a television monitor. Additionally, three laptops scattered among the audience, displayed the performer, a seven year old girl in a motorcycle helmet performing the score in Pincher Creek, Canada to complete the six camera installation.

The motorcyclists: Gert and Pieter from Code31, left Brussels on route to Ghent at the beginning of the performance on motorcycles. Their task was to take images from their mobile phones and send those images to a Max/MSP/Jitter patch where they were projected on a separate wall of the theater. Data from the transmission was used as source material for sound synthesis that was mixed with the guitar feedback in the soundscape.

“We from code31 will do a small intervention. Pieter and Gert will drive on their motorbikes from Brussels to Ghent during the performance. This will take about half an hour = the time of the performance. They have electronics on their helmets and a camera on the motorbike. All data/image data is being send to Guy at de Waag. Using a wireless internet-connection using a cell-phone. Guy will receive this data and use it to alter the audio stream that is being created by the guitar player. The visuals will be shown on a small screen. The electronics on the helmets are simple accelerometers and a compass/hooked up to a basic stamp/hooked up to the computer. In Ghent the same evening there is a dorkbot event, People over there will follow the url.

The spaces: Every performance location receives a score either on paper, per fax or email. These were exactly timed and coordinated with each other. The performers were given stop-watches and drawings, indicating the movement sequence. Different time zones had to be taken into consideration. The aim was to perform certain parts of the score in unison at the very different sites and under very different circumstances. For the audience, who viewed the Internet broadcast at de Waag, different camera angles and proximity to the bodies (+ update rate of the webcams) resulted in a variety of views on the same subject.

The timing: Rhythms, gaps, spaces in between. The refresh rate of different webcams (the image will update only every 5 seconds up to one minute, depending on the camera) creates a limitation for the perception of dance as time-based art, starting to merge with the characteristics of visual art. Every time a body is caught by the camera, the image is a frozen movement.

The performer does not know when the image is being taken (the photo camera, indicated by a click or flash). The fragmentation of time within the perceptive process becomes a strong influence on the awareness and creation of movement; the performer enters a different time zone. This fragmented time nonetheless is being perceived as real time (flow) within the (real) public space by the passing crowd. The webcam is invisible to the people, the extraordinary timing and strange behaviour of the performer will immediately draw attention. In the broadcast space, the differences in refresh rates among the different projections create their own choreography of rhythm.

The unintentional audience: The performer at the public location performs for at least two simultaneous realities of audience: one being the invited (in the broadcast space) and the other being the 'uninvited' audience, the people that just happen to be there, look out of their windows, stop on their way (as if catching a street theater performance). A third audience to be considered is the observer of the Internet stream. The performer has to deal with a potentially multi-focused projection to close and far away spaces while only receiving direct feedback from the concrete location. Adding to this complexity the performer is separated from his/her environment by the helmet-layer that creates an artificial privacy space around the individual.

The spectator: An extrasensory excitement. As spectators in theater plays we are used to following a real time action in the illusionary space created for and with us, in the black box or any other equivalent. The illusion might trigger the imagination: a virtual fantasy space, memory or desire. In this case of a media event dispersed over separate and distant locations, the spectator is being confronted with real time absence, dislocated presence and multi-layered real spaces that are being perceived as virtual ones. If theater can be a sensual experience, this performance is a proprioceptive experience.

Augmented perception: Helmets are here being used as objects representing human and social autism, political miscommunications, alibi for violence, the picture of the uniformed and authoritized body. The helmet lets us perceive the world in an unusual way: as the head/brain, our most vulnerable organ, is protected, we can act differently and less carefully than we would normally. Our vision and hearing are so narrowed, that we are thrown back to our own physicality, whereas external information is mainly filtered out. We have to educate our senses to develop 'antennas' – grow the invisible connections in between spaces and people.

Performing a unison score in different, distant, disconnected physical spaces. The different sites, spaces, passers-by, the weather, the time of day, the refresh rate on the camera – all those elements guarantee unpredictability factors considering the coordination of all different places in one event.


Sher Doruff (media design), Nora Heilmann (performance+movement concepts), Guy van Belle (processing Code 31), Arjen Keesmaat and the Anatomix
Highway Ghent to Brussels: Code 31 (the motorcyclists sending images via mobile phones Gert and Pieter)
Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt: Monica Page (guitar)
Amsterdam Overtoom: Sylvie Huysman, Marianne Langenegger
Berlin Historic Museum: Jana Heilmann & friends
London Soho: Paloma and Etienne
New York Time Square: Isabelle Jenniches
Canada Pincher Creek: Michelle Teran (camera) & Reina Teran (performance)


For further reading on the theory and practice of translocal, networked performance, see Sher Doruff's PhD dissertation: "The Translocal Event and the Polyrhythmic Diagram". Go to SD's website for the text.