An Underground Playground
Discovering Barnard’s Movement Lab.
By Kelsey Kitzke
Before I could step into Barnard’s Movement Lab, I had to take off my street shoes—a reminder that in some ways, this is a dance studio like any other. Upon entering, I wasn’t greeted by a typical studio’s floor-to-ceiling mirrors, wall-mounted bars, and panoramic windows. Instead, the Movement Lab features stage lights, sound systems, and six different projectors—four project onto the walls and two onto the floor. Even as I found myself struck by the artistic possibilities around me, the bottoms of my feet tethered me to the cool dance floor—an uncanny convergence of the digital and the tangible. Of course, this is just one of the University’s many state-of-the-art performance spaces. But what distinguishes the Movement Lab from other venues is its dedication to exploring the intersection of movement and technology.
Tucked away behind an inconspicuous white door on the lower level of Milstein, the Movement Lab’s learning environment stands in stark contrast with the bustling study spaces and classrooms above. Curiosity in college is most often channeled toward predetermined goals: We learn new skills to complete a project, write a paper, take an exam. The Movement Lab, however, is designed to encourage “lateral exploration,” as associate director Guy de Lancey called it. Others used the simpler word “play.” The Movement Lab is a place for playing—with the technology, with bodies, with space, and prioritizing discovery over the final product.
That’s how Noa Weiss, BC ’21, the Lab’s post-baccalaureate fellow, explained the eclectic array of equipment we came across during my tour. Weiss turned on the six projectors, each displaying a different looping video of a serene landscape. The videos are often used at the weekly meditative Stillness Lab, one of the most common ways that non-dancers interact with the facility. Jellyfish floated below me, a cat jumped through swaying tall grass in front of me, and lava poured down the volcanic rock to my right. When I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine what lava could possibly sound like, Weiss used the studio sound system to demonstrate its crackling. Oh, and these are the skeletons, he added, pointing to the two long black bags of complete human skeletal models. A human anatomy class meets here, too.
First conceived during the development of the new Milstein Center, which opened in 2018, the Lab was proposed as a space on campus to give physical form to the intersection of art, movement, and technology. “We thought it should be like a sandbox,” de Lancey said, “just filling it up with all the latest technology.” The Lab’s equipment constantly evolves to meet artists’ desires. The result is a highly flexible space especially beneficial for the student artists-in-residence (SARs) that the Lab hosts each semester.
Last fall, the Lab’s adaptability had a clear utility: In becoming somewhat of a film studio, dance majors could shift their thesis projects from the stage to the screen. But the Lab has since been able to resume a broader range of in-person activities. And as a space dedicated to the creative utilization of technology alongside bodily movement, the Lab is poised to challenge what the return to the “physical world” even means.
As opposed to other “movement labs” on campus that understand bodily movement through scientific research, Barnard’s Movement Lab attracts more artists than scientists. Still, these artists represent a wide variety of artistic and technical backgrounds. Current SARs Eli Duncan, BC ’22, and Sophie Paquette, CC ’23, highlighted that the Movement Lab and its technology have provided some freedom from the restraints of their other artistic disciplines, allowing for a new kind of engagement with art and the physical body.
A combined architecture and visual arts major, Duncan uses the Movement Lab to experiment with virtual reality. It’s a rare opportunity for him to act upon his passion for the crossroads of architecture and installation art. “It’s really exciting—the idea that you can just take anything that you make on the computer and then instantly enter into it physically, or somewhat physically,” he said. Initially, Duncan used VR to “test out” ideas for the “real world,” but he described that playing with the technology has allowed him to discover an entirely new visual language. He’s become fascinated with the uncanny juxtaposition of real images and surreal transformations, describing a software process that projects photos of real textures (like close-up images of flowers or food) onto three-dimensional virtual surfaces to create a bright, colorful, and chaotic viewing experience. Rather than gawking at the hyperrealistic techniques in classical paintings, Duncan is interested in seeing the flaws the technological process reveals in his art.
Though she has a background in creative writing, Paquette said that her interest in the Movement Lab stemmed primarily from her experiences as a roller skater. When she took up skating a few years ago, she discovered her body could move in ways she hadn’t experienced before—a form of creativity that didn’t require being hunched in front of a computer screen. When we met, she showed me the bright purple roller skates that she’s carefully painted and tweaked herself, a manifestation of her artistic approach to skating and her interest in construing meaning through movement. Recently, Paquette has been utilizing the Lab’s motion capture suit to project her movements onto an avatar displayed on the Lab’s walls, experimentation grounded in themes of learned movement and muscle memory.
Paquette joked about the motion capture technology’s imperfections: As she moves, the avatar might completely contradict her movements, its arm impaling its torso or otherwise splaying wildly. “It’s just a different way of thinking about my movements that they’re being read, like they are legible, but also that they’re being transformed [by the technology],” she said. But she also highlighted how the technology’s imperfections are a big part of its potential: “It doesn’t matter if my movements aren’t super perfect because they’re going to be warped through the avatar anyway.” While motion capture might seem physically alienating as a medium, it lets Paquette pursue a new kind of artistic embodiment in which she’s learning the body rather than operating it.
In part because of his architecture background, Duncan resisted the idea that this technology connects the digital and the physical worlds. “When you're in a space, you feel like you can pick up on the presence of things that are physically around you, and VR is a completely visual medium where there's no actual mass or volume that surrounds you,” he said. Sometimes, though, VR plays tricks on your body: Your arm tingles when you put your hand through a virtual wall or you feel like you’re falling as you walk down a virtual hill. Sound is particularly tricky, Duncan explained. “There’s so much that we absorb and process about spatial environments like based off of the sound that we hear, and so I’m definitely really interested in using sound as the main property that kind of keeps it grounded.” In the VR experience Duncan is building, you maintain an understanding that the world you’re in is virtual—he’s not trying to trick you into its tangibility. But the experience also forces you to surrender to how your body and brain will try to make sense of the nonsensical. As a result, it’s the imprecision in the technology—its failure to create a hyperreal experience—that shapes the artistic process and product.
The Movement Lab maintains a close relationship with the dance department, where director Gabri Christa is also a faculty member, and with the campus’ dance community. Dance and art history major Sophia Fung, BC ’22, emphasized the Lab’s specialness as a campus performing arts space. President of CoLab Performing Arts Collective, a group dedicated to building a community for creators of all kinds to present their work, Fung hosts its semesterly showcase in the Movement Lab, where she is also a SAR this spring. She highlighted both the Lab’s access to an array of technology and its intimacy as a performance setting, particularly for experimental or unconventional works. “I think that a lot of artists are drawn to the kind of expansive ideas that you can have in the Movement Lab, because you can have so much more interaction between, say, yourself and the projection, as a mover,” Fung said.
While the Movement Lab emphasizes fun, curiosity, and play, it doesn’t shy away from the biases this new technology can initiate and illuminate. The Lab isn’t pushing a world in which technology rules supreme over our lives and bodies; it’s invested in critiquing the racial, gendered, and classed implications of the world of technology.
“This technology is new and exciting and pretty accessible and also so racist,” Weiss said while discussing the Lab’s work with media artist LaJuné McMillian’s “The Black Movement Library Potrait Series.” The October installation consisted of motion capture representation of Black performers from their online archival project Black Movement Library, designed to push against the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Black movement in existing databases.
It’s exciting to play with the latest technology, to wave at your virtual avatar and see it wave right back. But as de Lancey noted, the Movement Lab’s always been about more than marveling at the latest gadgets: “If we get past the first phase of wonder about it—like, there’s you waving, what does it mean socially now?”