Arts as embodied Interaction?

Had some additional random thoughts and ramblings about the subject while in the shower. Like I said, I’m confused, so things would just pop in and out of my head…

So I was thinking…
I said that performing arts is all about embodied interaction in my previous post. Well I think I would like to correct that. Performing arts is about embodied communication. At the very least, classically speaking giving a performance is about transferring a message or expressing yourself. (note that I’m looking only at the ‘performing’ part of ‘performing arts’ now. I haven’t started thinking about what embodiment does for the ‘arts’ part yet). You are not theoretically ‘interacting’ with anything or anyone. So my initial impulse to say performing arts is embodied interaction, wrong wrong. Now, the new forms of performing arts that allow the audience or viewers to take part in the performance together with the performers can maybe be said to be forms of embodied interaction. But while interactive visual arts such as installations are rather common nowadays, interactive performances are much less so. This reminds me of something I read back in undergrad about Augusto Boal and his work titled ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. If I remember correctly, it’s about a form of theatre back in Aristotle’s time where people can participate in theatre pieces that were ‘improvised’ by actors on issues that the play directors wanted to bring to the masses’ attention. I’ll have to look this up again. But at the time I read that for an interactive storytelling course I think.

So how do you transform performing arts from an embodied communication form to that of embodied interaction? And if performing arts are given the interactivity component (through technology presumably), what effects will it have? Is it a good or bad thing? In fact, I’ve been trying to collect papers on that out of pure interest because it’s just something that I’m really curious about. I would like to know whether research has shown anything conclusive on that. Sadly, I haven’t had much time to go through much of the literature I’ve collected on that so far.

One more thing that occurred to me in the shower is that performing arts seem to be one of the only (there could be others that I can’t think of right now – I thought about digital games and virtual environments but these lack the embodiment part, not the situatedness part. Context can be easily created in virtual environments I think.) forms of embodied interaction (ok communication if you would prefer to keep it at that) that does not have the situatedness link. Like what I said in my previous post, embodiment necessarily entails situatedness since bodies need to exist in a specific place, time and context. But in the way I view it, performing arts is carried out in very much of a ‘vacuum’. Yes, it’s performed in different kinds of environments and at different times but those have no impact really on the embodied communication that takes place, isn’t it? Whether you perform on an open-air stage, in an arena, on a theatre stage, it’s always a standard ‘performance area’. The performers may have to adjust their formations, and maybe their moves/steps, to cater to the space but that’s about it. So I wonder, how can we bring situatedness into the performing arts? Can technology help to create a specific context that the choreographer can fashion to help in communicating or expressing his/her ideas? And if it’s about performing arts as embodied interaction, how does the creation of the situatedness element change the whole interactive experience for both performers and audience?

Maybe these are all questions and points that have been discussed profoundly in the literature with already formulated answers. If so, please excuse my failure to peruse prior literature before writing this. These are truly random thoughts that came to me off the bat.

Embodiment (and the Arts)

In one of our meetings today, my advisor was trying to explain to me what ’embodied interaction’ means. I think it is a very interesting way of viewing people, interaction and the world around us in general.

From what I understood (and hopefully rightly so), basically the whole idea of embodiment is that we, as human beings, live in tangible forms called bodies. We need to use our limbs and other bodily features like the eyes, head, and mouth to interact, communicate and carry out tasks. And this inevitably shapes how we interact with, understand and make sense of a host of different things (objects, people, machines, the environment, society at large). We cannot (as of now at least) communicate directly through the mind and through consciousness. If we could do that, our interaction with the world would probably has been tremendously different. A more direct connection and line of understanding I would assume. Designers whose job is to figure out the mental/conceptual model of users would lose their job. But then I may be wrong too, and maybe we’ll never get to know that for sure.

Embodiment also brings attention not only to the fact that we live in bodies, but also the fact that at any point, the bodies exist in a certain place at a certain time, and not in a vacuum. This is important because any external factors present in our surroundings (again, including other people, objects, states, sounds, etc) influence or change the way we interact and create meanings. The outside world is a very complex one, which renders interactions opaque to clear interpretation and understanding.

We thus have to understand at least two external layers before we can understand the interaction in its fullest form (what is its true purpose, its intended meaning, its real potential): the external body and the external world. This leads to embodied interaction being a very broad topic, presenting diverse and interesting research questions. I think much HCI research in this is directed at how to adapt or improve our interactions with the various parties through the use of technologies, given embodiment and all that it entails. These research (and I may be wrong here) seem to consider embodiment as a positive thing. It is I agree a positive thing that creates a whole new level of meaning and experience for us. But even while agreeing that it is a positive thing, I have to say that the whole concept brings to me a certain sadness. The reason is that it makes you realize that despite embodiment, in the end we are all inevitably alone. Each of our minds are separate entities, with no hope of ever connecting. For example we can never ever be sure that the other person in front of us has understood exactly (and I mean, exactly) what you meant, even though he may explain it back to you again in his/her own words. Being embodied beings sure help us to bridge this gap by allowing for gestures, words, manipulation of objects, movement, eye gaze, touch, etc. But still, whatever the number of gestures you do, however you touch, whatever the amount or kind of words you say, the mind, which includes ideas, thoughts, emotions, feelings, is a lone ranger. I think this idea has been recognized in some branch of psychology before but I’m not sure which one or where. I’ll dig it up and post back again.

Ok, enough with the depressing stuff. I have enough depressing thoughts these days to lament further on that. Another thing which I realized following the discussion with my advisor is that embodiment is actually very related to what I want to research on, that is the performing arts. In fact, if I may say so, performing arts is all about embodiment. It’s about how to use the body to communicate, to express your mind, to interact. Yes I know, this is a pretty obvious statement and has surely been acknowledged in all arts research (performing arts research, the relatively few that exist, not necessarily visual arts). And I guess I have known this all along too but though I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, the extent to which embodied interaction and performing arts are intricately meshed together has only just hit me. Maybe I’m just dumb or something “-_-. In any case, I’m hoping to be able to get started reading a book called ‘Bodies in code’ by Mark Hansen and another one called ‘Telematic embrace’ by Roy Ascott soon. I trust that they will shine light on my embroiled and confused thoughts.

Year end 2008 – Welcome 2009

And yet another year that comes to an end.  2008 I must say was a very eventful year, full of surprises, opportunities, good and bad things.  On top of my head, the events that jump out to me when I think back to 2008 are in random order the gambit internship in Boston, IVP 2008, national wushu championships, pre-national comp trainings, the 2 wushu camps, traumatising job interview, my birthday party organised by Jer… hmm… Ok I may be a bit biased because obviously, due to recency memory events closer to the year end are clearer in my mind that those at the beginning of the year. But anyway, 2008 made an impact on me but I’m expecting 2009 to make an even bigger one.  Definitely, there’s gonna be lots of changes in the year ahead…whether I want it or not.  With the uni graduation, finding a job, moving out n finding a new apartment, there are bound to be some ups and downs. Haiz…but well…Till the end, We fight rite? 😛

At crossroads

And here I stand at yet another crossroads.  The last major one I guess was almost four years back when I was at the doorstep of my university years.  But at the very least, back then I had a goal, an ambition.  Now I stand totally clueless of where I should head at all.  If I thought I found the perfect way two years back, I am now having doubts.  I have invested so much into going into that direction that stopping now would be a total waste.  But what do you do when you find out that your passion lies somewhere else, somewhere that seems totally impossible and out-of-reach, and that you have been lying to yourself all this time simply to finally have a seeming direction in your life? Do I dare risk everything to try my luck at what I really want to do while throwing all my past efforts through the window? No I don’t think I am that brave enough just yet.  It is just too much to risk.  I guess the best route of action for now would be to go the usual way…get a normal job like everybody else and pursue my passion in my spare time.

Haha…this is funny though.  It suddenly occurred to me again how my mum always said that I always just had to go off the beaten track and do things differently from everyone else in the past.  Well, it really was because I followed what I wanted to do.  I didn’t like sticking to what people said cannot be done.  And I guess I still don’t like to…hum.  So will I again carve my own path, away from the old, trodden one? I would like to…but should I really? If only I had the answers to all these questions.  The only thing I know is that I’ll have to take a decision soon, too soon for my comfort.  I still have a little more time in front of me.  I guess for now I’ll keep on searching…for answers, for opportunities, for the right direction.

Or maybe…passions are after all not meant to be followed.  Dreams are just dreams…maybe they should simply stay as such.  Only the truly luckyand blessed ones among us get to follow their passion and realise their dreams on this earth.

GAMBIT Postmortem

I wrote this article for the Today newspaper, but unfortunately for various reasons, we didn’t send it to them.  However I thought I would still publish it here.

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June 2008.  The MIT dome stood majestically in front of me.  A cool breeze touches my skin.  The Charles River flows silently behind me.  I am in Boston.  I was not there to put on my tourist hat.  There and then started eight weeks of intense game production.  Yet, needless to say that the batch of 45 Singaporean students who were sent to the US had a blast too this summer.

I flew to Boston under the MIT-Singapore Gambit Lab initiative.  Gambit is a five-year project undertaken in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored by the Media Development Authority.  It aims to develop digital game research by building associations between Singapore institutions of higher learning and relevant departments in MIT.

From June to August 2008, seven teams comprising of a mixture of Singaporean and MIT students worked to develop game prototypes around different research goals at the Gambit Lab in Boston.  I was the scrum master (akin to a producer) of Team PanopXis and we developed Gumbeat, a casual, single-player game where you take the role of a teenage girl in a city where bubble gum is outlawed.  Your main task is to blow bubbles and recruit followers to your cause so as to topple the government.  The road to developing GumBeat was not a totally smooth one, as for all the other six teams developing their own games.  Challenges were faced and it took dedicated teams and difficult decisions to produce good games in the end.

Challenge 1: From the research goal to a concrete game design

It often happened when the research goal and the game design would pull in two opposite directions.  Good game design is about incorporating features that would make the game fun, but those would sometimes clash with the research goal.  For GumBeat, our research goal was to weave ideas of political revolution into the heart of the gameplay.  The message we had to pass in the game was that you are an average citizen trying to overthrow the unjust government.  The objective of our initial prototype was to blow bubbles and pop them on a central statue of the city’s dictator to cover it entirely with gum so that it will float away.  This satisfied the research goal on a high level but on the lower level it clashed directly with it, because by sticking gum on the statue, the character will no longer be an average citizen but will turn into an outlaw defacing public property herself.


Challenge 2: Working in multi-disciplinary teams

Not only did each team have MIT and Singaporean students working together, but the age range varied from 18 to 27 years old, and each team member was specialized in a different area.  Under the pressure of producing a good game in eight weeks, no wonder that disputes sometimes arose.  In my team, at the beginning we tried hard to enable everyone to participate in the design process to generate ideas and to brainstorm. But later in the development process, this method proved to slow progress down tremendously and we decided it would be better to have an overarching designer making decisions.  Across all the teams, many other conflicts surfaced: clash between artists and programmers, clash between artists and designer.


The Importance of Testing

Testing started as soon as we had our very first prototype out.  Even in its rough form, with only boxes and stickmen, we placed the game in front of people, gathered their feedback and went back to the discussion table to modify things that were not understood by our audience.  This process was going to be repeated continuously over the eight weeks as we strived to create a game which would be crystal clear and as user-friendly as possible.  It was imperative that the design and art be flexible enough to accommodate any changes necessary.  Not so surprisingly, at the end of the summer, my team had ten different versions of the in-game life/happiness bar. (See the next post for a timeline of the happiness meters)


Nevertheless, all the challenges that we faced as student developers, far away from home, taught us things that we would never have learnt in the classroom.  We realized how valuable the advice and suggestions of more experienced people were, we learnt how essential clear, efficient and patient communication is for progress to be significant, we understood that the player is king.  And I personally now know that every member of a team must feel valued for teamwork to succeed.

Gambit provided us with a unique experience.  Not only did we learn the intricacies of game development but we also had the opportunity to discover the historic city of Cambridge and the Boston area, and to walk down the ‘infinite’ corridor of the prestigious MIT.  All in all, Gambit is a big step towards nurturing students who will potentially help Singapore expand its games industry later on.


You can download and try out the games created by the Gambit Summer interns 2008 at: http://gambit.mit.edu/loadgame/prototypes.php

– Sharon Lynn Chu

Cambridge/Boston- Gambit days

I was looking at the Boston pics and it felt really strange.  We’ve been back in Singapore for almost 2 months now.  Somehow it feels very near, but at the same time very far behind.  I guess it’ll be like my days in NTU.  Very powerful memories which I would probably remember the feelings for my whole life every time I think about it.

I didn’t want to go at first.  I really, terribly didn’t want to go.  I wanted to stay in Singapore with Jer and with all the others to train up for the Wushu competition.  It was important to me, considering that it was my first Wushu competition and I really felt I should do a good job.  I so much didn’t want to go that the first few weeks in Boston were really difficult for me and I was missing ‘home’ like crazy.  I swore I would still do well in the competition and went all around Boston and Cambridge to search for a Wushu school.  In the end, didn’t really find one where I could train my competition routine.  Well i did find one with a supposedly pretty good coach, but then it was quite far from our hostel, and since I was very closely watching my expenses there, I decided it wasn’t worth the money and time to travel there every week.  And so I ended up only training twice per week with the Harvard Wushu club members, at least with those who came since it was holidays for the students there.  And I can say it was one of the best parts of my Boston days.  I really liked our trainings out there in Cambridge Common or in the MAC.  I liked the people there and I felt I was doing progress.

But still things became much much easier for me when I resigned myself that I won’t be able to win both sides.  I couldn’t enjoy Boston and yet still win the Wushu competition.  And so I kind of let go of my competiton dreams.  Well I still pushed my psychological self to go training alone sometimes on weekends.  Man, that was hard.  Training alone is not easy.  At all.  I was also always amazed by how the Harvard wushu peeps would sometimes arrange for extra trainings on Sundays :).  Of course I was happy cuz I then had people to train with me instead of training alone.  But what amazed me most was how those people train really just for the fun and love of it.  They aren’t aiming for any competitions or any performances.  They train consistently only for fun… That’s what I call the spirit of Wushu.  On that note, I want to say Thanks to all the Harvard Wushu members with whom I trained.  Jiandi, Heiko, Vincent, Frances, Nick and all the others who I have met only once or twice.  You guys made my days back there in Cambridge.

Back in the Gambit lab, well I must say I also liked the work we were doing.  Ya some days were crazily stressful for me and some days I was so tired I wanted to go back straight to the hostel to sleep after work, but I dragged my feet to the wushu trainings and somehow felt revived and more energetic after training haha.  Yay Wushu!  Well, my team was quite good as well.  We had a few hiccups and difficult times but fortunately we managed to go through all of it well in the end.  I’m kind of satisfied with our game.  We, especially I, were especially lucky that our product owners were Gambit staff, seeing how Matt and Josh really helped to give me directions both on the game and how to handle the team sometimes.  I guess I could have made more efforts to go out and socialize more with my team members….well I did try and we did go out and had a few good times together.  But sometimes I was too tired, missing ‘home’ too much or simply too unsure of how to handle my double role in the team.  Scrummasters are supposed to relate their stories to the other scrummasters, not to any specific members of the team so as not to bring down the spirit or whatever.  But well…since most of the other scrummasters were guys and hanged out together, well let’s say I prefered my teammates haha. To any members of my Gambit team, thanks for being a good team in Cambridge.  Thanks for your support, and well thanks especially to Yuku for going around with me during the first weeks to search for my Wushu schools and for jogging with me 🙂

In retrospect, I think now I didn’t go through those days too badly.  I definitely don’t regret anything that happened there.  I learned a lot, both personally and on the work side.  I don’t know if I’ve grown up and matured more after that experience but yes, I don’t think it’s something I’ll forget soon.  Many of the Gambit interns have recently been saying how much they miss Boston, Burton-Conner and the Gambit lab.  Well…I won’t really say that I miss those days.  Cuz I like having Jer back, the fun Wushu trainings in KEVII with all the others, and the more familiar Singapore surroundings.  But then Cambridge-Boston days will always evoke some particular kinds of feelings.