Comprovisations – Improvisation Technologies for the Performing Arts

Research-Creation Workshop  ⋅  May 24-27, 2012  ⋅  Hexagram Concordia & matralab, Concordia University Montréal

Summary

"COMPROVISATIONS - Improvisation Technologies for the Performing Arts" is a workshop during which leading researchers, artists and software developers from Europe, Asia and the Americas will discuss questions and artistic approaches in the emerging and fast-growing field of computer-assisted improvisation in Music, Theatre and Dance. As these technologies transform the aesthetics and practices of stage performance, they also engender new production modes and demand a new understanding from organizers and audiences as to what a "performance" is: a well-rehearsed repetition of a finished work where we admire the sensibility, skill and perfection of the performers ? Or is it something that happens once, just now, only for those present - where we also admire the presence of mind, the openness to context and the beauty of coincidence that lies at the bottom of all performance ? And how does the fact that computers can improvise, too, now, accompanying and guiding the live performers, change our perception of what happens in a performance ?

Over 4 days, from May 24 to 27, 2012, the invited guests at "Comprovisations" will show their work, their research and their art to each other - and will engage in searching questions that will try to understand what improvisation and performance can mean in the digital age. In invitational workshop sessions as well as in five public events, we will explore and discuss the boundaries of performance, humanity and art with some of the most innovative research-creators around the globe.

∞ A Sister Workshop, ImproTech Paris-New York 2012 : Improvisation & Technology, is being held from May 16-18 in New York City.

Context

Elaborate and complex rule systems in the form of computer software have become part of our everyday world. Knowing when and how to apply which kind of contextual knowledge has become more important than learning facts and using a repertoire of acquired skills and wisdom. This cultural shift has found its expression in the fact that more and more leading performing artists seem to be moving away from notated/scripted work and/or from well-rehearsed, repeatable performances: they relinquish control and allow for improvisatory approaches, whether backed by extensive computer systems (an approach often called interactive or reactive) or not.

This artistic reality, however, is marginal to the mainstream public perception of performing arts: many audiences still seem to desire recognizable "works" (or, if not works, then at least "traditional" practices) - spiced up with those references to the live context that we call "interpretation". And performance analysts, academics and critics still find it difficult to write about such ephemeral artmaking on stage: their conventional analytic approaches rely on manifest and citable "scripts" or "scores" or "recordings/fixed media" – and have proven to be quite inadequate. Improvisations are often believed to establish cultural relevance by creating a singularity, an ephemeral act of creation without past or future – often in deliberate contrast to a culture built on market penetration by repetition and multiplication as well as on the fabrication and conservation of tradition.

Such discourses, however, mask that there is no such thing as a "pure" improvisation. All improvised performance relies heavily on rule-systems, whether learned explicitly or embodied by training and preparation. Various persistent performing art practices worldwide have developed elaborate improvisation systems that allow initiated audiences to judge whether a particular improvisation is an acceptable instance of "their" art form or not. Recent modernist approaches to improvisation, by contrast, have emphasized a purportedly "free play" largely unfettered by explicit rules. They instead resort to implicit and thus consensual aesthetics in communities of performers and audiences, often held-together by trade-marked "free improv techniques" and the "certification" of accepted practitioners.

While embodiment vs. explicit rules, oral vs. written models, rule driven vs. consense driven etc. were real dichotomies in the pre-computer age, the advent of re-/inter-active technology has changed the playing field considerably. These "Ghost Scores" - a poetic term for performance software patches introduced by Morton Subotnick in the 1970s - are neither "learnable" like traditional scores/scripts nor can they be "embodied" in the same way as traditional rote-rules. And they introduce a new kind of aesthetic problem for audiences and performers alike – what do these "ghosts" contribute to our aesthetic experience if we cannot experience them as directly as we do other aspects of a performance ?

How are these "third presences" changing the performance situation? How do they change the relationship between performers and audience, between presentation and meaning, between stability and flux, between skill and chance? What strategies do performers and creators employ to make artistically exciting, non-gimmicky use of them? What kind of analytic, aesthetic and intellectual tools can audiences and critics use to describe and follow these new composites of flux and stability? And what can we say about the larger cultural environment: are fixed scores and scripts, are rehearsed and prepared performances just a cultural phenomenon from the past that we will leave behind one day - and is the enduring love of audiences for them thus some kind of nostalgia? Or do we still need the kinds of aesthetic experiences they afford – and why?

The field addressed by this workshop is thus in continual emergence: while practitioners have been exploring and extablishing some relevant techniques and technologies for about 50 years now, and some scholarly books have been written on the subject, most publications and discourses around improvisation still tend to focus on one particular artist's trajectory and/or community (e.g. William Forsythe), on a specific social setting (e.g. Theatre for the Oppressed [Boal]) or cultural practice (e.g. afrological vs. eurological jazz). In addition, discourses around new digital performance technologies tend to quickly become very pragmatic and geeky – often ignoring (or shelving) artistic and aesthetic issues. All three discourses – artistic, scholarly and technological – have so far tended to address this inherently cross-disciplinary subject in predominantly disciplinary modes, often impeded by cultural politics and social ideologies. We believe that the time has come to address it in a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary manner.

Participants

"Comprovisations" will unite some of the worldwide leading practitioners and thinkers in improvisation systems from art, academia and technology/software development. All active participants will be personally invited (even students), there will be no general call. While some sessions will be closed to encourage frank exchange and - in the case of hands-on workshops and creative collaborations – simply for practical reasons, most sessions will be open to invited members of the relevant professional and university communities in Montréal – and to a community of invited remote observers around the world (see Dissemination).

Read more about the Participants

Workshop Format

After some internal discussion we have eschewed the traditional paper-presentation & panel conference mode, because it does not allow for the kind of terminological and methodological diversity (with its concomitant need for explanation and consensus-building) that constitutes the distinctive epistemological potential of such an interdisciplinary meeting. We have instead designed a flexible, dialogue oriented structure (see Workshop Programme), where hands-on presentations, lecture-demonstrations, discussion papers, selected bibliographical readings and group discussions intertwine and cross-fertilize each other. A decisive aspect will also be the collaborative creation of a small number of comprovised performance projects: both making them work and observing the process of collaboration will offer a wealth of valuable insights. Thus, participants will be able to access and process in their own way the artistic ideas, the research, the technologies, the experiences such a workshop offers. The workshop should be a safe space of research exploration where new ideas for technology developments are born, new methods and approaches for aesthetic analysis are discussed, and new scholarly connections and creative collaborations made !

Themes

The subject matter of each session will ultimately come from the conjunction and cobination of its participants, of course, but we have identified a few relevant themes that we will try to explore in focused discussions:

  • » Notations And Ghost Scores
  • » Third Presences – Hard-& Softwares In The Room
  • » Bodies As Resistors - The Role Of Training In Improvisation
  • » Mapping The Implicit – The Role Of Aesthetics In Improvisation
  • » Distributed Creativity – Who Or What Makes Aesthetic Decisions in Improvisation Systems ?
  • » Made Up Versus Composed – The Different Social Roles Of Improvised And Pre-Composed And Well-Rehearsed Performance
  • » Poetics Of Comprovisation I: Where Does Meaning Go When It Is Gone ?
  • » Poetics Of Comprovisation Ii: Where Does Meaning Come From When It Comes As A Surprise ?

Venue

The "Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research Creation in Media Arts and Technologies" is singularly well-suited for the demands of this workshop. Its physical infrastructure comprises several fully equipped multi-functional performance and discussion venues plus many spaces for breakout sessions, a substantial state-of-the art performing arts technology warehouse for demo and development needs, and well-trained support staff and students. Concordia University and Hexagram UQAM will be able to provide additional infrastructure if needed. Montreal's vibrant professional dance, theatre, experimental music and performance technology scenes all have strong international reputations – an important factor for the follow-up and dissemination of workshop outcomes. Finally, the Hexagram Research-Creation Community is one of the largest worldwide: the workshop will thus happen within a larger research-creation context. In fact, with this workshop Hexagram intends to launch an annually recurring summer workshop, with changing subjects and themes, but with always the same central question: how do new technologies change our engagement with the world around us - and how does contemporary artistic expression react to – and, more importantly, drive these changes ?

Dissemination

This workshop by its nature will not primarily produce paper outcomes, even as we do expect attending scholars to submit papers to relevant peer-reviewed journals. But artistic productions or software developments resulting from the workshop will be considered an equally important means of dissemination. The workshop will be fully documented (audio/video), and webcast live to invited active participants (e.g. invitees unable to come) as well as archived for further research and artistic discourse. This unwieldy material will then be edited, cross-referenced and augmented for more efficient access: e.g. short tagged clip-clouds for certain discussion strands, narrated documentaries with highlights, as well as text transcriptions of particularly fruitful exchanges. Both full and augmented documentations and will ultimately become the seed for an extensive online research archive on comprovisation (sometime in 2013, Hexagram website) – and our hope is that this workshop web-archive will help create and sustain a worldwide community of researchers and practitioners studying the specific interplay of stability and flux in comprovised performance, thus offering an invaluable research tool to interested theorists and analysts.

© 2012 Comprovisations – Improvisation Technologies for the Performing Arts