Hammerstep On Activating Technology With Human Movement

The collective integrates drones with hybrid dance forms.

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Hammerstep's installation at Mana Contemporary.

Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner for NEW INC/New Museum.

"In the near future, society on the Eastern seaboard has fallen apart. New York City’s utopian Sixth Borough and its cutting-edge research facility, Borough Labs, are searching for solutions to the worldwide energy and humanitarian crises. Chief Engineer Micah Grey has discovered the presence of an Indigo energy life force, demonstrated through the physical and extrasensory abilities of society’s most creative and innovative individuals. Heightened movement initiative is a core indicator of 'Indigo abilities'—imperative to the development of the Sixth Borough society. For the first time ever, Micah is holding a public event to recruit 'Motion Thinkers' to help fuel a revolutionary new “Indigo” experiment, and you have been invited to participate."

This is the fictional landscape Hammerstep conceived for their exhibition and performances at Mana Contemporary, "Only Human." Their contribution to the show, which opened Sunday, April 29 and runs through Saturday June 2, is the culmination of their year-long residency at Nokia Bell Labs. Throughout the course of their tenure, the members of Hammerstep, Jason Oremus and Garret Coleman, collaborated with in-house engineers to advance their ideas and workshop their prototypes.

The following interview was conducted on Friday, February 23, 2018. From the day-to-day minutiae of working with the engineers, to imagining the future of human communication, the conversation that follows aims to enrich the dialogue surrounding the intersection of artistic production and technological innovation, and serves to document the unprecedented possibilities that fusions between these fields are able to yield.

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Hammerstep performs at Mana Contemporary. Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner for NEW INC/New Museum.

Lindsay Howard: Can you give us a little bit of history on Hammerstep?

Garrett Coleman: Jason [Oremus] and I grew up on the competitive circuit of Irish dance on opposite sides of the world—but under teachers who happened to be best friends. We both grew up in urban environments and had been exposed to diverse music and dance influences. When we met while on tour with Riverdance, we had a lot of down time and, while chatting, realized that we both had similar visions for how Irish dance could progress into the future. We wanted to take Irish dance and incorporate our shared love of street culture, hip hop culture, graffiti culture, skate culture, and all kinds of influences to make something new.

Jason Oremus: We started the company officially in the summer of 2009, which is when there was a lot of emerging technology coming out as well. We knew that these technologies were going to be important in our lives and to our generation, and that we needed to find a way to address them. It seemed like there couldn’t be two more different things: Irish dance and emerging technologies. But we loved both and wanted to find a better, more complete way of representing our generation by merging them.

LH: Who were your closest collaborators at Bell Labs?

JO: We worked with Bell Labs’s drone team. They’re working on controlling drones and drone flight through motion and movement. This is, of course, very exciting to us—this relationship between man and machine, and technological order versus [the] jazz of human movement. We started working on how to create a language of communication with our physical movement, with our dance, that then guides a drone’s flight. [Bell Labs engineer] Michael Baldwin is very open-minded and interested in what we’re trying to achieve, including exploring some of our crazy ideas about choreography and how to push the drones to be able to do dance displays that are [in] harmony with dancers.

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Hammerstep performs at Mana Contemporary. Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner for NEW INC/New Museum.

LH: What exactly are you doing with the drones?

GC: In the past, you see these big spectacle shows where people are doing things with the drones, and typically it’s pre-choreographed. It’s not reactive even if it has that illusion. Since we’re dealing with superhuman abilities in our narrative show, we wanted to give audience members the perception that they have, for a moment, a superhuman ability. Or an ability to move an object, or interact with the digital set, or something along those lines. We worked with the drone team to develop gesture-based motion control without sensors. It allows us to feel an energetic connection with the drone without having a device there. That’s been our reach goal, so we’ll see how that develops in the long run. But just that exploration alone has given us ideas about how to develop a coded language based in movement that the audience can observe. Something that they can actually learn on the fly, that isn’t too difficult, that gets them moving, gets them out of their rigid…what’s the word. Instead of being just a…

JO: Sanctioned movement.

GC: Yes, that’s a great way to put it. They can actively participate rather than just spectate in one static place. Getting them moving through 3D space is really what we’re trying to instigate. And this work with drones, you can’t help but want to move the drone. There’s an alluring thing about these little creatures that have [a] life of their own. So, we’ve been experimenting with Michael to see how far he can push through our rhythms, how low we can get the latency, how much can it really become. Can we break that barrier of disbelief in an audience’s minds to actually get them to feel the power of that energetic connection with a machine?

LH: Who else have you been collaborating with at Bell Labs?

GC: We worked with Larry O'Gorman pretty much from the start of the residency. It’s been an inspiring collaboration in a number of ways. We’re using some of his technology in the performance, as well as some of his mannerisms in our choreography. He has a great sense of humor and way of moving. One of the main focuses for us coming in, in addition to giving the audience this illusion of having a super human ability, was also to help them tap into their relationship to objects and the space itself. This comes in to our digital set design. There’s a sentient structure that sits in the center of the space, and we wanted the audience to feel a connection to it. So, we used Larry’s motion-based technology to make the space responsive, to look at how many audience members were clumped together in certain areas, what the sound level is, how much motion is happening is these sectors where they’re gathered – there is a whole range of things we can experiment with on that basis. We’re taking a select few to showcase in this iteration.

JO:  With Larry, it was an organic shaping of what we were trying to achieve with motion-based tracking of humans, and how they related to the space around them, and how that was represented audio-visually.  Larry is in the AV Lab and his motion-based tracking is focused very much on collective tracking, understanding groups and how that information is represented as a whole. It made us think differently about what we were trying to do and it also made us think differently about how audience members could relate together as a group, to our experiences, versus individually going through various trials or experiments, or interactions between characters. It opened our minds quite significantly, and forced us to try to think on a larger scale when it came to groups working together and also working in unison, and how we could represent that in the show live as it was happening. That’s what I think was very important with Larry’s technology. It influenced us creatively, and shaped the story that we’re telling in terms of how the audience relates to the characters in Indigo Gray.

GC: That’s a really good point about Larry. His research is unique because it’s not focused on individuals, it’s focused on the collective. We found that in immersive theater a lot of great work that has been done focused on an intimate relationship between one actor and one audience member, or in some cases the audience is anonymous within the piece and they don’t really have agency. The collective energy of the audience is not as important to the piece. In a world that is highly fractured right now, we feel the social fabric is fractured based on the divisions in our society. We want to explore how we can utilize a collective audience. How we can bring people together and get them moving in unison and participating as a whole. Larry’s analysis of the collective and reflecting that data in the projected environment that we’re creating is really intriguing.

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Audience members interface with drones at Hammerstep's performance. Courtesy Jesse Untracht-Oakner for NEW INC/New Museum.

LH: How are you conducting these explorations and experiments at Bell Labs? What’s your studio space like?

GC: We have a basic studio, an all-white box studio. It’s actually one of Claude Shannon’s former laboratories, which is inspiring in and of itself. We have a bunch of projectors, drones, sensors, monitors, and various other equipment in there. We have an HTC Vive and we’ve basically been going in there periodically to work with that equipment but also to check in with the engineers. Everybody is super busy so we come together, have a blowout exploration for maybe two hours, an hour to two hours to meet, and then we will go our separate ways for several weeks and work on our aspects for the project, come back together and see what the update is. That has worked quite well.

JO: We’ve been given a lot of freedom. The studio is located [in] a building that’s separate from the main offices, so we can make noise and dance. We also take excursions to different departments, like the AV labs, with Paul Wilford and Larry, and then over to Michael and his drone playground. They set up a closed-off obstacle course and experiment with the drones. That’s fun. We always like looking for excuses to go over there and test out the gesture control drone and flight playground. We do loops between those two departments.

LH: What will the audience experience when they step into your performance at Mana Contemporary?

JO: They’ll be getting a look into the characters of this futuristic narrative, Indigo Grey, which includes some engineers and Micah Grey as the head engineer. The core of it will be his guardians. He has six motion guardians, which are these indigo energy warriors that are very dance-heavy warriors that showcase how indigo energy operates in this futuristic world through their custom dance. You will see these soldiers moving around the space. There are some dance formations. There will be sort of dance ambushes that will be going on, and the idea is that these snippets of dance and how people move will actually shape and interact with the environment. What that environment looks like is a culmination of projection mapping and 3D geometric structures that are visualizers that are responsive to people’s movement and energy.

GC: The reason why Micah Grey holds this event is to recruit motion thinkers from the public. He’s looking for people who are potentially tapped into their indigo aptitude and who can express that through a puzzle scenario that he will put them through as part of a larger experience. This will be our first experiment, as immersive theater choreographers and directors, to see how much an audience will participate to just test their level of agency, and to experiment with the audience actually having agency within the narrative itself to contribute to the outcome of the experience.

JO: One of these puzzle pieces requires an audience member to show off their indigo aptitude by gesture controlling a drone through the Indigo Grey language of dance. They will learn essentially a big chunk of that language. Imagine a basic movement or rhythm spell that can activate the drone into a flight path.

GC: We just want to give a taste to an audience of what that has looked like live and in the flesh, and in which they have some sort of role to play with it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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