Spheres of influence: Wayne McGregor dances the line between man and machine

Spheres of influence: Wayne McGregor dances the line between man and machine

‘There isn’t really an English word for what we have created. It’s kind of an experience; a performance; a living artwork.’ So says Random International’s dramaturg Heloise Reynolds, of the practice’s latest installation, unveiled in London last week.

Staged in the echoing Roundhouse theatre, the art-meets-technology studio has designed seven helium-filled white globes that hover and swarm around the space on tiny propellers. In one moment, they’re pack-like, curious. In others, they’re inanimate, programmed, droning. ‘We’re trying to create a sense of otherness,’ says Random International co-founder Hannes Koch. ‘We want people to feel like aliens. We want to say, “This is how it feels to be intimately exposed to a very advanced organism.”’

Dreamt up in an unlikely industrial estate in Balham, where Random International’s engineers have spent the last five months buried under complex behavioural data maps, the spheres’ flocking behaviour is determined by generative algorithms built to resemble human characteristics. Able to react to their environment, the computer-controlled orbs select individuals from the audience to hone in on – swooping inquisitively towards them, or sinisterly mirroring their movements. In a landscape of driverless cars, digital butlers and ‘the robots are coming!’, these oddly familiar spheres pull at the tangled thread of what it means to be human in the age of AI.

Frequent Random International collaborator, choreographer Wayne McGregor, has long been fascinated by this ever-slimming intersection between man and machine. Through his futuristic staging and his boundary-defying collaborations, McGregor does more than walk the ‘uncanny valley’, he dances there.

As he has done here, engaging a troop of his dynamic studio dancers to perform underneath the hovering, human-like globes to an electronic score especially composed by Warp Records’ Mark Pritchard. The formidable likes of Edward Watson and Fukiko Takase look anonymous, painted with either a ‘+’ or ‘–’ symbol. They are human magnets, pulling together and pushing apart. The elemental dancers enter into a loose dialogue with the globes, staying low, as the orbs twist into lofty formations overhead.

The human and technological aspects of the exhibition interact seamlessly, a testament to the well-matched collaborators – despite the fact McGregor didn’t know exactly how the installation would look and act until it was installed. ‘I got it conceptually, and that was enough,’ he explains.

It helps that the collaborators are ‘on the same page aesthetically’. Instead of shunning technology as a clinical device, both McGregor and Random International use it as a theatrical tool to evoke emotion. ‘I think technology can make you feel something,’ McGregor continues. ‘It’s visceral. It can help the audience to embody a performance.’

That’s exactly what the spheres do here. As the dancers file out, the stage is left empty for audience members to enter into their own duet with the white globes, in what Koch describes as an ‘emotive experiment’. Forgetting our inhibitions, we enter into a game of computerised cloud-gazing, in a display of how the human imagination, and the artificial one, can partner to create something out of this world.

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