The Black Movement Project brings together performance art and animation to tell stories of self-expression and liberation.

This week, the Barnard Movement Lab welcomed The Black Movement Library Portrait Series, an installation from Artist-in-Residence LaJuné McMillian. The installation features Movement Portraits — video recordings of performance art pieces done using perception neuron motion-capture suits to create real-time animation — by five New York-based Black performing artists, Renaldo Maurice, Roobi Gaskins, Ntu, Roukijah Rooks, and RaFia Santana. 

McMillian first founded the Black Movement Project, an online database of motion capture data from Black performers, in 2018 with the goal of filling the gap of underrepresented bodies in current online motion capture databases. The library’s data is used not only for performance art like the portrait series but for gaming, extended reality projects, and research. 

The Movement Portraits are the result of a workshop hosted earlier this year by McMillian and the Black Movement Project, designed to help Black performing artists use motion capture to “integrate performance, extended reality, and physical computing to question access, control, and representation.” The portraits were first displayed in April, as part of a live performance outside of the Brooklyn Public Library in which the five artists performed their movement pieces while wearing motion-capture suits, allowing the portraits to be animated and displayed in real-time. 

The Barnard exhibit features recordings of the five Movement Portraits, as well as videos from the original performance and an interactive website where visitors can learn more about the Black Movement Project and the featured artists. The portraits themselves take up the majority of the lab space, projected onto two floor-to-ceiling screens, one displaying the portrait in its original form, and one reflecting it upside down. Colorful light displays overlay the performers’ CGI avatars, whose appearances sometimes mirror their physical bodies and sometimes take on new forms, more abstract representations of their movement. 

The larger-than-life projections are contrasted with recordings of the original live performance, allowing viewers to simultaneously witness both the artists’ process of creating the piece and the piece itself. The Movement Lab itself was even altered to enhance the viewers’ experience of the portraits, with interactive screens providing background on the project and artists, and custom lighting design created to accent the vibrant colors of the movement portrait, cultivating an environment in which viewers can feel entirely immersed in the portraits.

The striking Movement Portraits blend dance, spoken word, and vibrant animation to produce incredibly unique and deeply personal reflections on the artists’ relationship to movement. No two Movement Portraits are alike — audiovisual artist RaFia Santana’s portrait is marked by their distinctive vibrant and colorful art style, while choreographer Renaldo Maurice’s modern dance influences and dancer Roujikah Rooks’s background in hip-hop are equally present in their pieces. 

The recording of Santana’s live performance was fantastically vibrant on its own, featuring them commanding the outdoor stage with exuberant movement, dressed in head-to-toe neon pink. However, her Movement Portrait avatar — seemingly part human and part robot in a sea of neon colors — brought an entirely new element to the performance, reflecting Santana’s vibrant energy while allowing their movements to change the portrait’s virtual environment, a visual liberation of the artist from the limits of space and reality.

Meanwhile, Maurice’s Movement Portrait allowed his elegant modern dance style to blend in seamlessly with a wave of changing neon colors, creating the illusion that Maurice himself was creating each color as his movements spread them throughout the screen. While each performance was brief — no longer than the single piece of music or poetry to which the portrait was set — each one told the story of its artist’s unique relationship to movement, as their real-time performances altered the realities in which their avatars were displayed.

Each portrait deals with themes of self-expression and liberation, which are especially evident in the portrait by choreographer Roobi Gaskins, who defines their movement as a vital praxis of liberation in the spoken word accompaniment to their portrait. Each artist’s spoken-word piece acted as both written artist’s statement, providing a background on their journey to creating the piece, and an element of the art itself, an audio track playing behind their Movement Portrait. 

As their Movement Portraits were projected one at a time on the larger screen, the artists’ words played in the background in a blend of spoken word and music, while on a smaller interactive screen, a transcript of the piece was available to read alongside short bios and information about the workshop.

Inside the Barnard Movement Lab, the vibrant portraits projected against the space’s dark backdrop, surrounded by audio of the artists’ spoken word pieces, make for a truly immersive experience, allowing viewers to feel like they’ve stepped inside of each portrait. A sometimes otherworldly blend of stunning animation and dynamic storytelling, the Movement Portraits are not only captivating to watch, but tell powerful stories about movement, identity, and liberation.

The Black Movement Library Portrait Series is on display in the Barnard Movement Lab (Milstein LL020) from 12 to 5 pm every day through October 8.

“Black Movement Library” photo by Guy de Lancey via the event page