I just realised I never posted about the making of the video for my Nybble project! It took a long time for me to get round to re-editing, since myriad other projects came up in the time after the event. The first cut was not great, and didn’t do justice to the excellent dancers who were involved, so I took a few days to re-cut the whole thing last year. This blog post is a quick breakdown of the elements of the final video.
It’s always challenging to cut a project, which has taken months of preparation and many conversations, into a succinct package which can explain the context and content in a few minutes. When I shot the Ant Ballet video, for example, I had enough footage to make a documentary as well, but had to exercise extreme restraint in order to only include the vital elements. The Nybble video is 3 minutes long, and attempts to explain John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, computer parsing, a code-base, and convey a sense of the choreography in that time. It is no mean feat.
The video was shot by my friends Danielle Willkens, Bernadette Devilat, and Fiona Williams (who you may recognise from this post). My thanks to all three for giving up their weekends!
Since the installation was about dancers embodying the actions of a computers’ CPU – receiving instructions and blindly processing data – and so much of CPU processing relies on internal clocks and synchronisation, the dancers needed an internal clock too. They also needed to be synchronised with each other. I composed a click-track with timings (the “one and two and…” track) which was broadcast via walkie-talkies into earpieces the dancers wore. Over the top of this, Abi Palmer read a list of the positions that the dancers had to move to over the top of the track. In the video you can hear both of these elements. However, on the day, the general public could not hear the soundtrack – much like we can’t hear the internal clocks in our computers.
The dance positions and code that the dancers were dancing to – unbeknown to them at the time – was a quote from the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot (“Dance first. Think later. It’s the logical order.”). This quote both contains the essence of the piece, in that the dancers were parsing a message that they did not know the contents of – they were dancing first, and thinking later. It was also a means to refer to one of the inspirations behind all of my work, Samuel Beckett. I also referenced Beckett in the Ant Ballet (which was a literal Theatre of the Absurd) and the Godot Machine (which diagrammed the Beckett play using an ant).
The message was transformed into choreography via Microsoft Excel. I like to think that it was the only project at the V&A’s Digital Design weekend to be programmed using Excel. This was partially a convenience – spreadsheets were the fastest way to build a character-mapping table for four dancers simultaneously, and are easy to print out for use on the day – and also partially funny. Nobody who calls themselves a programmer admits that they sometimes work things out on spreadsheets. I also believe that a lot of artistic and architectural projects are formed, shaped, and live and die thanks to spreadsheets. The spreadsheets’ role as a parametric shaper of contemporary culture is often overlooked.
The ‘blips’ you can see at the beginning of the video (after the title) are the code-base from the Excel sheets. At 1:42, the entire code-base is shown in more detail. The code-base video is also available in a slower form here:
I also shot several timelapses of the installation being performed in two different positions in the V&A’s garden. Only a fragment of these made it into the final video, but you can get an idea what the installation was like to see live from them:
I also made the following video early on in the project, as the core concepts were being solidified, to recruit dancers. It uses public domain archival footage from two documentaries to entice people into an intriguing project.
Part of the inspiration for the people processing information came from hearing about When Computers Were Humans by David Alan Grier, and partially from an anecdote about Alan Turing writing his own “Paper machine” in the late 1940s, but this extra narrative was too complicated to weave into the video.
For more information on the project and full credits, see the Nybble page.