A Dance With Drones Shows the Future of Art and Technology

ByNina Stoller-Lindsey

A good dance partner knows that the name of the game is give and take. That live performance with another person is a constant two-way street of nonverbal communication and subtle accommodation. One partner is behind the music, and the other adjusts. A lift goes awry and the pair conspires, silently and instantaneously, to find a way to save it.

Japanese dance group ElevenPlay released a video last week in which three female dancers endured the challenge of partners with a decidedly less-than-ideal level of interpersonal sensitivity. The dancers were joined on the stage of Tokyo's Spiral hall by three drones — three quadcopter, pyramid-topped drones, to be exact, fashioned by Daito Manabe, a digital artist and programmer with a knack for generating unusual fusions of technology with the human body. (He once, for example, attached myoelectric sensors to his facial muscles in order to create a human drum.)

When discussing the interaction between human and machine, even in art, it is the idea of control that seems to come up most often. Who has it? Who seeks it? Who determines it?

It's easy to interpret the arc of the dancer-drone relationship as a metaphor for the dangers of replacing human functions with machinery. When the video went viral, it incited a flurry of online musings on this thorny topic.

Engadget's Steve Dent wondered if the piece was a statement on the "dehumanization of modern technology," while Ben Valentine of Hyperallergic argues that it's a "commentary on the problems of control in a largely algorithmic machine" and reminded readers, with a bit of a shudder, that the "U.S. has already relied on algorithmically determined drone strikes based solely on phone metadata."

The ElevenPlay piece begins with the dancers circling the drones, sizing them up as if in some old-world courting ritual. The dancers appear to be in control, their movements determining the drones' height, speed and direction. The synchronicity is mesmerizing. But the drones, increasingly captivating because of their sheer novelty, threaten to steal the show, leading one similarly entranced blogger to allude to the old W.C. Fields-attributed showbiz adage, "Never work with children or animals."

A little less than halfway through the piece, there's a drastic shift in dominance and the dark side of the drones' enchantment is suddenly undeniable. The drones begin to elude the dancers' control, transforming into a menacing, all-powerful presence the dancers seem to fear like blood-hungry deities. They gesture in subjugated reverence to the drones before slinking off the stage where the drones incite a constellation of flashy, geometric happenings on a projection-mapped backdrop. Who is in control now?

Image Credit: YouTube

Of course, the drones were programmed. Regardless of who appears to be in control, and our human penchant for sci-fi fantasy, it is always the dancers, in this case, who are guiding our perception. Their subtle shifts in timing and expression create the illusion of shifting control. The dancers, not the drones, ultimately produce the drama, as well as the message we walk away with.

While the drones point to the enormous potential of technology to enhance and extend the capabilities of the performing arts, they also reveal their own limitations. It's hard to imagine that machines valued for their endlessly replicable precision could even begin to emulate the subtle variations that are the lifeblood of live performance. Performers can't do it the same way every time because they're human, and, in art, that's not a failure — it's an asset.