Barnard Artist-in-Residence Sarah Silverblatt-Blauer discussed her recent creative project Collective Body, which attempts to synthesize movement and technology, during a talk this Thursday.

I was a little apprehensive walking into the basement of the Milstein Center this Thursday—I don’t trust dancers or dancing. I’m what’s known in the musical theater world as a “strong mover”. When I played the Baker in Into the Woods, instead of actually dancing during my duet, the director just had me awkwardly gesticulate with an ear of corn. All this to say: I am perhaps the least qualified person to be writing about Collective Body, an installation created by dancer Sarah Silverblatt-Blauer in conjunction with the French digital media company Atlas V. 

The Barnard Movement Lab is a little difficult to find; when you take the stairs to the basement, the Lab isn’t signposted. Once you manage to find it, there’s a small antechamber where you’re meant to take off your shoes. As an adult, I find the idea of taking my shoes off in public repulsive, but I aquieced to the desires of the sign and removed my Converse. The doors to the Movement Lab proper are surprisingly thick, almost naval in design, which only heightened my feeling that I was intruding somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.

Luckily, that nervousness wouldn’t last long. I walked into the space, a kind of black-box theater with a large projection on the wall, and sat down on a thick green cushion to the sound of an unchanging electronic frequency. Silverblatt-Blauer was seated in a high-backed chair alongside Pierre Zandrowicz, the man responsible for the technological aspects of the installation. At one point, she said to the projectionist, “Should we show them the jellyfish?”, at which point the person behind the computer minimized the slideshow and looked up a three-hour long ambient video of jellyfish swimming. 

After a round of icebreakers (“What was the most interesting movement you saw today?”), the talk began. Silverblatt-Blauer spoke first about the thematic goals of the project: Collective Body, she said, is meant to reconnect people with their embodied selves through the use of virtual-reality technology. Much of the subsequent conversation attempted to shed some light on what that abstraction actually means. 

The idea was born, like much of the art of the past few years, out of the loneliness and alienation the artist felt during the height of the pandemic. Silverblatt-Blauer gave a helpful reference image: a Zoom meeting where only your head and shoulders are displayed on a two-dimensional screen. It seemed that the installation attempted to wrestle not just with pandemic-era isolation but, more broadly, the disembodiment we might feel in a world where, increasingly, our lives are lived on screens.

It was at this point that I found myself asking, as I’m sure you are now, what Collective Body actually is. The thematic context was helpful, though, for grounding something that would otherwise seem rather strange to my novice’s eyes. Collective Body bills itself as an “experience”, but it’s perhaps best described as a video game: six people don VR headsets and are then guided through a series of movement exercises, first separately and then together. The individual exercises are physics-based, involving a net of spheres that are first attracted and then repelled by participants’ hands, whereas the group exercises involve mirroring the others’ avatars and navigating a maze together. These iterative exercises roughly correspond to the stages of human development as articulated by psychologists like Jean Piaget, a creative choice that I didn’t feel was entirely explained. 

At any rate, the VR apparatus is meant to track each individual’s “movement signature” and then, through a machine-learning algorithm, create a visual representation of their movement. These are then collated and projected onto a wall, creating the titular “collective body.”

When it debuted at Lincoln Center last summer, the piece was incomplete; the graphics were particle-based and abstract, there was no music, and the “movement avatars” were entirely absent. These elements are currently under development. Collective Body is slated to make its debut as a finished project in 2025. 

Given my limited understanding of the installation—I didn’t get to experience it, and besides, it isn’t complete—I feel uneasy passing judgement on Collective Body, but it’s made me think a lot. As much as the talk traded in the language of dance and movement (at one point the artist made a reference to a century-old method of scoring movement called Benesh notation), it also invoked concepts like “user experience” and “extended reality” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Microsoft board room. As a work of new media that attempts to criticize technology’s place in our society, how could it participate in that same structure? Silverblatt-Blauer raised an interesting point herself: why have this experience interface with VR at all? Why not just teach a dance class? It seems that the artists themselves haven’t found solid answers to these questions.

Zandrowicz, however, told an anecdote that challenged this line of thinking. People of all ages and backgrounds, total strangers, walked into that space together, and left it with grins on their faces, having had an intimate moment that few people get to have in daily life. I think that’s the substance of the project: if movement really does help you reconnect with yourself, the technological apparatus lets you step outside yourself for a moment, allowing you to have that experience without really confronting the strangeness of it.

Image via Flickr