body controller and live electronics, 2018

    walk circles round the morning and
choke down again tomorrow, too
I would like to introduce
the days all crawling out of you

yawn those teeth a little wide
next year's last week's burnt anew
yesterday's stuck on your tongue
you'll try today, but then forget to




This piece is essentially two ideas.

  • Idea #1: how do I make a body controller or a robot a means to an end, rather than an end itself?
  • Idea #2: how do you explain "recovery" to someone else without ever saying the word?

Having seen many examples of the above electronic objects (body controllers and performing robots) at NIME @ VT, and feeling unsatisfied with both, I spent Summer 2018 mulling over these two questions. Can I make a human performer a robot? Can I turn the human mover, encased in a body controller, into a fetish object? (Especially since this seems to be their role regardless, even when the effect is unintentional?)

At the same time, having undergone dramatic life changes, and then-presently experiencing a slow, agonizing march towards what can only eventually be called Better, can I express recovery without its mention? The quotidian slog: without the benefit of hindsight, being unable to measure overall progress, every day feeling too much like the day before. Can this be expressed?

The sounds

I grew up in a highly positive, New Thought Christian church, the kind that omnivorously borrows ideas from every source that inspires it––Buddhism/Zen Buddhism, Oprah, Harry Potter, Joseph Campbell, The Secret, salt lamps, yoga, reiki, etc. Without attempting to dissect any belief system for what is "true" or "useful" or "effective," there was one unexpected consequence of growing up in an environment that believed every individual had sole control (and responsibility) over their lives.

Regulated positive thinking is a fast path to guilt. Believing that your thought patterns have a hard-line butterfly effect on your future, and the futures of everyone around you, means feeling bad for feeling bad on top of everything else. If the affirmations aren't working, you aren't trying hard enough.

Guided meditations and mindfulness exercises fork in two directions for me. On the one hand, they can be profoundly calming. On the other hand, when heard through the ears of suffering, or loss, or depression, they become profoundly meaningless. What right have you to be sad, when you can change at any time? What right did you ever have to be sad in the first place?

The controller

The Arduino-based controller sits on both sides of controlling and being controlled. The main interaction is a pressure sensor in one heel, which pauses the fixed media (and replaces it with static) any time the entire foot is touching the floor. This is the crux of the interactivity, and the live performance; to finish the piece, stay on your toes, stay ungrounded. The effort of balancing is palpable and hard to watch. The pressure sensor represents different ideas to me every performance; sometimes it feels like failure, sometimes it feels like the acceptance of failure, sometimes it feels like an enraged fugue state.

Everything else on the controller serves to emphasize the discomfort. Two motors, mounted on the waist, unpredictably winch the torso inwards and the hips closer to the floor as the piece progresses. Ankle and wrist cuffs hamper movement hours before the actual performance; even connecting wires to the back of the controller requires the help of other people (often strangers), both in rehearsal and performance.