Some notes for intended research on the body, specifically movement / posture re-mediated through the ubiquity of photography. I’ll be creating a dynamic photo-based website which will explore how movement and non-verbal communication (posture) has evolved since about the turn of the century. To investigate this I will be comparing how people stand / sit / gesture (in other words, use their bodies) in photographs from 1910 to the present. The reason I’ve chosen this time frame is that there is far less photographic evidence to work with before roughly 1910. For instance, Eastman Kodak introduced their Brownie camera in 1900, and millions entered households between 1952 – 1967.
My theory is that, although there are a number of reasons for these changes (women’s emancipation, the development of certain fabrics which facilitate ease of motion, improvements in health, and so forth), at least one of the reasons for what I believe to be a big change is the re-mediation of the self through advances in and the ubiquity of photography. As there was an increase in informal snapshots, there was a simultaneous increase in formal portraits, all allowing the subjects to see themselves represented as immobile forms and providing ample time to study themselves with artefact in hand. I am not particularly interested in the so-called ‘Selfie’, although there is a great deal of scholarly work being done on this topic. I haven’t fully worked out the reason I am not interested, but am continuing to consider this and will report once I understand why.
I am, however, very interested in dance and movement and am working out the the link between the above and the grapheme. I’m exploring codes – computer code (about which I know just a little), mathematical symbols (which frighten me, to be honest), and the development of alphabets and notational systems. Punctuation and notational systems are very interesting, because there are a number of different dance notation systems and none of them are suitable for all our needs.
I understand this to be because the human body and the many movements it is capable of in space and time are quite hard to capture symbolically. Besides that, there is the fact that a simple movement may have a range of meanings depending on by whom, for whom, and why it is performed. Add to that the stillness of a photograph and the possible (probable?) intention of the subject to have this particular movement framed, and we have, in my opinion, some interesting questions about:
a) how to show this in written / coded form
b) how to interpret the stilled movement (the posture)
c) what possible influences (personal and cultural) there may be to the ‘quality’ of that posture
As pointed out by Ann Hutchinson Guest in her thoroughly researched book Dance Notation, The Process of Recording Movement on Paper: “Abstract ideas may produce designs created by isolated changes in the situation of hands, head, shoulder, hip, leg, elbow, etc.” The question is how any notation system can deal with such subtle differences and precision in the use of parts of the body, especially when we think of locating them spatially and temporally as well.
Nowadays, and for some time, we have video, of course, and almost everyone has access to some form of simple visual recording equipment and a way to archive and share this via various online platforms. There are, however, questions about different formats and we are far from a long term solution to problems of archiving in particular. In addition to that, we should consider the difference between the original or intended movement of a dance / movement piece and a copy / rendition / performance / interpretation of that work.
If a notated score or record of the use of the body in a particular way is useful, then at least part of its usefulness rests on the the quality of that record. Poorly recorded video aside, we also rarely have access to visual information that shows the body in 360º, for instance, and arguably if we are trying to understand, learn, or repeat a movement this would be better than a single frontal view. Notation can give far more complete information, much like a music score which is usually preferred to a recorded version.
A quick search through You Tube, as one example of the use of a social media platform for engaging with movement, will show hundreds of thousands (millions ?) of videos on the topics of dance and movement. These have been uploaded by everyone from young people practising or devising moves in their bedrooms to dance academies exploring, teaching, and showcasing choreographies. Clearly, the video is a useful and popular format for investigating the body in motion. There have also been significant developments in motion capture technology, which deserves a whole section to itself. Just briefly, it is used a lot in video games, for special effects in film, in virtual reality for training simulations, and for medical / clinical work such as gait analysis. Despite this, Labanotation (also known as Kinetography Laban) and Benesh Movement Notation continue to be the two most popular forms of dance notation in use.
But we’re not just talking about dance or even just dance notation; this is simply a jumping off point for me. I’m interested in how we can represent movement graphically, through the use of symbols on a page, virtual or physical – and why we continue to need or want to do this and what the implications for and connections to the written word are. My presupposition is that the body and the movement it is capable of is very important, because it is itself a language. Perhaps I should have said this at the outset, or I did, in a way, but I’m saying it again, for my own benefit.
I have been reading about early forms of writing; the Phoenician Alphabet, for instance, had no vowel sounds and replaced the (reign of terror ?) of complex symbols with beautiful clean sounds that could be composited to make many concepts out of individual words. Right now I’m thinking of it as early coding, but I need to discuss that with a philosophical coder I know to work out if the analogy has any kind of proper relationship to reality.
Notation is a visual language. Computer code is a language that makes a computer “do” something; there is a difference between source code and machine code, one is readable by humans and the other readable and executable by machines. This “maps well to the imperative mood in natural language”, said a helpful friend via sms when I asked what the notion of the “executable” meant in other languages and if the distinction only needed to be made when we speak of computer language. Apparently “programming is sometimes compared to baking or cooking, and programs behave like recipes.” I did not know of this useful little analogy.
Here is a very interesting presentation on how we “refer a visual object, an object which has been made with ink on paper”, the Graphic Notation Project.
I’ll be back as soon as this stage is on firmer ground. What I want to look at, more specifically, are the following:
i) the requirements we have of a notational systems
ii) the differences between a music score and a dance score
iii) developments in dance notation software
Any information or tips readers may like to share with me, please feel free to leave me a comment.
Hutchinson Guest, Ann. Dance Notation, The Process of Recording Movement on Paper. London, Dance Books Ltd, 1984