Collaborative Dance, Interactive Music, Folklore Preservation: High-Bandwidth Applications with Global Implications
Deborah EVERHART <email@example.com>
In the midst of discussions concerning how the Internet is changing global communications, we may also consider the impact of the Internet on cultural expressions. New high-bandwidth uses of the Internet in particular are changing our abilities to interact with and create cultural materials that are available to a global audience. The widespread availability of interactive online audio and video environments will alter our attitudes toward and definitions of artistic performance, cultural participation, and perhaps even collective memory.
In this essay, I will focus on five examples that demonstrate this statement and raise provocative questions concerning the long-term impact of high-bandwidth global communication on our cultural perspectives:
Global simultaneous dance is a new phenomenon enabled by Internet videoconferencing. The World Wide Simultaneous Dance organization has successfully connected dancers from around the world in a free-form "dance-in" (http://www.wwsd.org). On June 7, 1998, at noon Greenwich Mean Time, more than 90 people from the United States, India, South Africa, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Australia, and several other countries participated in a simultaneous dance event. Performers with videoconferencing software and digital video cameras trained their cameras on their own performances and sent them to the Simultaneous Dance Website, where they were available to viewers in real time. With the same videoconferencing software, but without needing a camera, viewers could go to the Website and choose which dancers to watch. These selections were displayed in small video windows arranged side-by-side on the viewer's screen. Since viewers had their choice of over 90 simultaneous dances, no one witnessed exactly the same event, and therefore the organization asked viewers to capture "particularly beautiful combinations or moments" so that they could be archived on the Website as records of the live event.
This free-form event does not fit into the traditional definition of dance performance, since the dancers were not choreographed and their participation was not formally coordinated. There was no rehearsal, and in fact most of the dancers were not known to the organizers before the event. The event was improvisational, in that the dancers were free to perform as they pleased, and somewhat interactive, in that the dancers could watch and respond to other dancers while they were dancing. As videoconferencing technology has gradually become available to people around the world, we have witnessed the birth of a new artistic form enabled by this technology: simultaneous dance -- artistic expression that is still very experimental, unstructured, and unpredictable but nonetheless provides a rudimentary means for dancers to interact in ways never before possible. Greater bandwidth capabilities would allow the dancers to interact more intricately by providing full-motion video (rather than choppy transmission) and large-scale projection (rather than tiny video windows on the screen). These enhanced technological capabilities would enable choreographed performances, but as the art form evolves, artists could choose to incorporate the unpredictability and improvisational aspects of current free-form events into new artistic forms rather than focusing on recreating traditional forms.
One American student organization is expanding the possibilities of new artistic expressions by using videoconferencing and other technologies to generate hybrid art forms and online events that defy categorization. The Interactive Performance Group (IPG), based at New York University (NYU), is "devoted to cross-breeding the arts in nontraditional ways, often with the use of technology. At a recent event, improvisational musicians accompanied the strokes of a master of Chinese calligraphy; a vocalist used sophisticated signal processors to introduce musical effects into her performance; an actor recited the closing lines from Dr. Faustus while a flautist and Brazilian zing player accompanied a capoeira dancer" (http://www.nyu.edu/pages/ngc/ipg/).
Many of the IPG's events are local, organized in a physical space, but increasingly they are including participation from or even basing their events on the Internet. One of the ongoing projects that has emerged from the IPG and collaboration with artists around the world is the Cassandra Project, which organizes a series of events that incorporate dance, poetry, music, video, and drama inspired by the mythological character of Cassandra (http://www.nyu.edu/pages/ngc/ipg/cassandra/). During one interactive event on May 8, 1998, dancers, musicians, actors, poets, and Web collaborators all contributed to a real-time online performance that was organized and rehearsed in advance. Performers contributed to the live event via videoconferencing and audio streaming. A Web coordinator synchronized materials as they came in from around the world. The audience for this performance could either sit back and enjoy the sound, video, image, and textual materials as they came in or contribute and help shape the performance via a live chat session. Some of the materials from this and other Cassandra events are now available from the Asynchronous Web Jam page. Although the materials are not live now, the page is reloaded with different materials once every two hours.
Performances such as these do not fit into our standard classifications of art and cultural expression. They combine some of the most provocative features of performance art and improvisation with interactivity among a host of participants from enormously diverse social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. The performers and the audiences bring to these events the ability to influence each others' perspectives. The project organizers are aware that they have created a rich cultural nexus, which they hope will enhance global understanding through experience and analysis of differing reactions to aesthetic creations.
Just as participating in global, interactive artistic creations can provide us with a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relationships with other cultures, so too can we benefit from exposure to the heritages of others. Another emerging high-bandwidth cultural application of the Internet is the distribution of family history and folklore materials. As scanners, digital cameras, and digital video recorders become more common and as digital storage becomes significantly cheaper, museums, heritage organizations, ethnographers, and even individual families are compiling vast repositories of digital folklore, family histories, and records of material culture. The collection of such materials and their local value to families and communities are not new. But the medium is new, and the digital medium brings with it the ability to reproduce, distribute, compare, and combine these materials in ways never before possible. The global value of these new methods of collection and distribution remains to be realized.
One example of this type of repository, Collected Visions, is "a participatory Web site that explores the relationship between family photographs and memory" (http://cvisions.cat.nyu.edu/mantle/info.html). Participants can submit photographs to an ever-growing archive (currently more than 1,200 images) and write stories based on their own photos or others from the archive. The organizers of the site say that these collected materials help us "explore the relationships between personal and collective memory."
This project currently includes materials predominantly from participants in the United States, but its presence on the Internet is gradually attracting contributions from other parts of the world. Some of these contributions demonstrate striking differences in perspective. For example, a contributor from Austria writes about someone else's photo of an American soldier. His essay is entitled "Enemy and Liberator," recollecting the stories his grandparents told him about their knowledge of concentration camps during World War II and the liberation of Austria by the Allied forces. He concludes, "It seems very important to transmit the oral history from one generation to the following generation, and also to give all the pictures in family albums a description. For this essay I took a picture from Collected Vision's Gallery, which possibly shows an 'enemy' of my grandfather between 1939 and 1945 -- a liberator of Austria. I don't know if the shown soldier had been involved in the liberation of Austria, but his picture seems to me to be a symbol for many other photographs" (http://cvisions.cat.nyu.edu/gallery/essays8/gert.html).
Another contributor, apparently the American who submitted the photograph, provides detailed information that identifies the soldier as Skip Culver and dates the photo to 1951, after World War II (http://cvisions.cat.nyu.edu/museum/beyond/skip.html). The contributor speaks warmly of Skip as a comrade and provides details about his uniform and the base stockade in Suffolk, England, that is in the background of the photo. The "facts" of this photo depict memories that are in sharp contrast to the memories stirred by the photo when it is viewed by someone with a very different cultural perspective. The "collectednesss" of the Collected Visions project and its accessibility on the Internet allow these perspectives to come into contact with one another, enriching not only the participants, but also others who visit the archive.
Collected Visions, though it is not yet globally representative in its archive, nonetheless indicates the potential scope of collected memory projects. The ability to archive, preserve, and annotate family and local history materials has always been in the hands of those who value these materials, but digital media and the global Internet provide the means to distribute and share these materials with others around the world. How many people in Yugoslavia have ever seen photographs of Americans on vacation? How would seeing such photos influence their perspectives? In the future, how will later generations look back on these photo collections and reconstruct their own histories or understand the general importance of snapshots during this era? Making that which was previously local international provides unprecedented opportunities for comparison of and perhaps healthy collisions of cultural perspectives.
Some collections provide striking examples of the necessity of preserving and disseminating historical materials that convey the perspectives of others. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides enormous amounts of historical materials online, including photo archives (http://www.ushmm.org). These remnants of an excruciating chapter in human history provide insights that profoundly affect our collective memories and make it impossible to ignore the significance of family histories. A single photograph of a Jewish family, part of a deportation transport, ascending the stairs to the railway platform speaks volumes of family history, national history, and cultural upheaval.
Other collections preserve the history of family traditions, folklore, and social practices while also recording the transitions from one culture to another. For example, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is home to the Korean/Korean American Folklore Archive, a repository of written records, photographs, and audio and video recordings representing active folk traditions of Koreans and Korean Americans residing in Southern California (http://www2.humnet.ucla.edu/korean_folklore/). These materials reflect traditional Korean perspectives as well as the mingling of first and second generation Korean Americans' perspectives with those of other cultures. Carefully compiled by ethnographers and sociologists (many of them students working in these fields), the online database of the archive includes more than 2,300 records, ranging from proverbs and superstitions to documentation of social phenomena such as the favoritism of sons over daughters in Korean culture and the pager subculture among Korean Americans. Only the database is online, not the photographs and the audio and video recordings in the archive; nonetheless, the detailed, well-documented materials in the database provide far-reaching insights into Korean and Korean-American culture. The distribution of these materials on the Internet provides a gateway to these cultures previously unavailable to the rest of the world.
These examples imply the possibility of enhanced global understanding through access to diverse cultural materials and participation in artistic events. Nonetheless, significant obstacles hinder the far-reaching impact of these projects and others like them. Not the least of these obstacles are technological, particularly with respect to real-time events. Because the Internet presents significant challenges with regard to delay time and bandwidth consistency, connecting geographically dispersed performers in real time is extremely difficult. Especially if the performance is to be carefully choreographed and timed, the inconsistencies of Internet connectivity interfere with the ability to achieve planned results. And in general, low-bandwidth connectivity, especially from individuals' homes, makes it all but impossible for most users to experience these events.
Internet 2 addresses some of these issues by providing 100 to 1,000 times greater bandwidth and quality of service controls such as low latency guarantees and bandwidth reservation (http://www.internet2.edu). Applications already proposed at North American research universities illustrate how these capabilities could be applied to cultural expressions. The Collected Visions project, for example, proposes adding sound and video files to the archives and using kiosks in public places to collect stories from people who do not own computers. The Cassandra Project proposes staging real-time events in which performers at remote locations can interact with life-size projections of each other while sound and motion are transmitted with high-quality controls. These applications would provide excellent examples, inspire creativity, and thereby speed the evolution of these forms of cultural expression.
To date, the United States National Science Foundation, which is the primary source of funding for Internet 2 projects, has looked askance on these arts projects, failing to see their significance. Therefore, part of the purpose of essays such as this one and further analysis of the impact of high-bandwidth cultural applications is to broaden the awareness of how these applications are influencing and have further potential to influence cross-cultural understanding.
Even if the National Science Foundation provides funding, however, the global evolution of high-bandwidth cultural applications will take time. Internet 2 is now primarily a venture of North American research universities, a test-bed for new networking standards and high-bandwidth applications. But one of the aims of Internet 2 is to expand these technologies to the global commercial sector as quickly as possible. Once commercialized, the new technologies are expected to be commodified in many parts of the world within a relatively short time (2-5 years), similar to the expansion of the current Internet into businesses and homes around the world. Given this projection, it is not unreasonable to expect that high-quality videoconferencing over the Internet and other high-bandwidth applications could be available around the world within a short time.
However, these projections do not address the fact that connectivity in different parts of the world and for different economic classes is extremely uneven with regard to both access and quality. The potential impact of applications such as these on global understanding and cultural sharing is severely limited by the lack of fast connectivity throughout most of the world. All of the projects presented in this essay are at least moderately high-bandwidth applications. Even the Korean Folklore Archive, which includes only text, requires a reasonably fast and reliable connection for retrieval of materials from the online database. And at the outside extreme, participation in the Cassandra Project's real-time events requires videoconferencing abilities. Just visiting the Cassandra Web Jam page to see the materials asynchronously requires downloading 6.2 megabytes of text, images, and videos and having Quicktime and Shockwave plugins to view them. Clearly this is not the medium of the masses yet, and economic differences will preserve a division of "haves" from "have-nots" in these new forms of cultural expression. Nonetheless, high-bandwidth cultural applications are only the most dramatic examples of new forms of global sharing. Similar effects can be felt in e-mail exchanges and simple Web pages.
Despite the difficulties of funding and implementing the technologies for aesthetically rich and intricately interactive cultural applications, we should not lose sight of the potential of these applications for enhancing global understanding. Dance, music, collected memories, and shared imaginings can provide a common global language.