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Dissertation Defense

Marc Downie: "Choreographing the Extended Agent: Performance Graphics for Dance Theater"

Thursday, August 18, 2005, 10:00 AM EST

Bartos Theatre, MIT Media Lab (E15)

Tod Machover
Professor of Music and Media
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bruce Blumberg
Director, Advanced Animal Modeling
Blue Fang Games Inc.

Mark Goulthorpe
Associate Professor
MIT Department of Architecture

The marriage of dance and interactive image has been a persistent dream over the past decades, but reality has fallen far short of potential for both technical and conceptual reasons. This thesis proposes a new approach to the problem and lays out the theoretical, technical, and aesthetic framework for the innovative art form of digitally augmented human movement. Downie will use as example works a series of installations, digital projections, and compositions, each of which contains a choreographic component—either through collaboration with a choreographer directly or by the creation of artworks that automatically organize and understand purely virtual movement. These works lead up to two unprecedented collaborations with two of the greatest choreographers working today: new pieces that combine dance and interactive projected light using real-time motion capture live on stage.

The existing field of "dance technology" is one with many problems. This is a domain with many practitioners, few techniques, and almost no theory; a field that is generating "experimental" productions with every passing week, has literally hundreds of citable pieces and no canonical works; a field that is oddly disconnected from modern dance's history, pulled between the practical realities of the body and those of computer art and has no influence on the prevailing digital art paradigms that it consumes.

This thesis will seek to address each of these problems, by providing techniques and a basis for "practical theory"; by building artworks with resources and people that have never previously been brought together, in theaters and in front of audiences previously inaccessible to the field; and by proving through demonstration that a profitable and important dialogue between digital art and the pioneers of modern dance can in fact occur.

This thesis will achieve these goals because of its methodological perspective—that of biologically inspired, agent-based artificial intelligence—and the technical depth to which this idea is taken. The representations, algorithms, and techniques behind such agents are extended and pushed into new territory for both interactive art and artificial intelligence. In particular, this thesis will focus on the control structures and the rendering of the these extended agents' bodies, the tools for creating complex agent-based artworks in intense collaborative situations, and the creation of agent structures that can span live image and interactive sound production. Each of these parts becomes an element of what it means to "choreograph" an extended agent for live performance.

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