SCRIPTING MEMORY THROUGH VIRTUAL REALITY
ALMEDA BEYNON and KEVAN LONEY
Lovushke is a movement-based project that uses virtual reality to explore the vulnerability of memory, fate, and mortality. Created by Almeda Beynon and Kevan Loney, graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University, Lovushke also investigates technology’s relationship to dance through the use of an Oculus Rift, a headset that allows its users to be completely immersed in an augmented world. On April 2, the duo presented a work-in-progress showing of the project at PearlArts Studios in Pittsburgh upon the conclusion of their Pearl Diving Movement Residency with collaborators Amy Gijsbers van Wijk, Vanessa Frank, Julianne D’Errico, Amanda Jerry, and Keith Kelly. During the presentation, eight audience members were invited to join performers Amanda and Jerry on stage in order to create what Beynon and Loney refer to as a “dual-audience experience.” What follows is a conversation about the origins of their artistic partnership, creative glitches, and the evolving relationship between dance and technology
Jessica Lynne (Rail): What does Lovushke mean?
Almeda Beynon: It means “trapped” in Russian. This project has gone through many changes. Originally, it was called Locked In. We first conceived of it taking place in a hospital room as a way to tell the story of patients with Locked-in Syndrome (LIS): patients who are in a coma, aware that they are in a coma, but can’t move. This paralleled the experience of the Oculus pretty well for us. It was a story that we felt needed to be told. However, as we started creating the work, we became more interested in how the project could be representational and not quite so literal. So, as the project changed the title changed–until we finally settled on Lovushke.
Rail: Is this your first time collaborating together? How did this artistic relationship begin?
Beynon: It began the first day of graduate school. We met at orientation, recognized that we are both from the south and work in similar disciplines, and quickly formed a partnership.
Rail: How do you see the work that you do in theater, new media, sound design, or technology informing your movement-based practice? Of course I’m thinking specifically about Lovushke, but also perhaps more broadly in scope?
Kevan Loney: For me, as regards interactive media especially, programming the arc of how people move is very interesting. An actor, dancer, or performer has this distinct movement or emotion that they are driving through their action, and the way in which technology enhances that is profound. In Lovushke, we “get rid of the performer” by putting this huge thing on his or her head. Then we simulate his or her movement for the audience so that those watching may have the experience that the performer is having as well.
Rail: How does technology inform the way we talk about dance or movement-based work, not just the way we might experience it as performers or audience members?
Loney: I think technology is great for both dance and theater because it brings in a new generation of audience members. We’re so connected already. Our cell phones are in our hands. Our computers are in front of us. We’re talking to you via Google Hangouts. We’re already living in this glitched reality in that we are increasingly expressing ourselves through digital means. An introduction of technology into this classical, “un-glitched” form means that dance and theater can become more representational of current realities.
Beynon: I think communication between performers—either in the dance, traditional theater, or the technical world—can be congruent. Often we are saying the same things. Though it does get frustrating; dancers can execute and re-execute quickly if things go wrong, but as technical creators, there’s a very different troubleshooting process.
Loney: However, when things do go wrong—and they are guaranteed to go wrong—it can be enlightening because you discover something new. The dancer might think she is supposed to move in a certain way because she is responding to a technical mistake. As a designer you think, “Oh, I never would have thought of that.” Technology is helping inform the dancer in ways that we as the coders might not always see.
Beynon: We like to call those the happy accidents [Laughter.]
Rail: Talk more about the coding. Given the origins and sociological impetus of Lovushke, how do you script or “code” such a project to even give to a performer?
Beynon: Kevan uses Unity 3D to do the coding. As far as the more general idea, we had to work with a group of people who trusted us. That was the biggest challenge. We had to seek out people who would trust us from beginning to end, even when it seemed as though the project wouldn’t come together. We knew we had to work with a playwright because Kevan and I don’t write plays. We just had really strong ideas. We wanted a particular sequence of events to occur narratively so that we could have particular things happen technically.
As we started working with our playwright [Amy], she flat out told us at one point that she didn’t know how the project was going to work. But she was forgiving, and we allowed both her and [Vanessa] the dramaturg to become our narrative advisors and guide us in the storytelling.
Loney: In the end, there really wasn’t a true script anymore. There was no A-to-B storyline. There was no definitive narrative but rather a collage of ideas.
Beynon: And that is really how Kevan and I work.
Rail: You also experiment with audience interaction. There is an in-house audience and the live stream audience of which I was part. I watched the in-house audience watch the performance and simultaneously had my own viewing experience via the Internet, which included network problems now and again. But I felt those interruptions served my viewing experience positively. To what extent were you thinking about those of us viewing via live stream as you contemplated the audience’s relationship to your virtual reality?
Loney: We did think about the live stream audience. We were constructing a precise reality for our performers. Then, there was the in-house audience watching that reality, and even beyond that, we knew there would be this other audience watching the entire machine through the Internet.
Rail: Memory and its fragility are themes that loom over the project as well.
Loney: Absolutely. We were playing with memory and the five stages of grief. The main character uses the Oculus to reconstruct memory. She hopes that by reliving her memory, she can change it. In reality though, you cannot change memories. You have to face who you are. In trying to change memories, she is trying to avoid death and, ultimately, her fate. She has to take off the headset and accept that she, like all of us, is going to die at some point.
Beynon: From the beginning, I’ve been interested in exploring how the mind and the body can be at odds with one another. Amanda and Keith were playing the same protagonist. Amanda represented the attempt to avoid death and Keith represented the acceptance of death. The character wearing the Oculus was literally tapping into the brainstem of the performers and curating this experience for them, but could not actually change their fate.
Rail: It was great to see this tension on stage because the body itself functions in this linear way—birth, life, death—but memory functions on this grid, like dots on a plane that can betray our bodies in unexpected ways.
Loney: Yes, that’s exactly the point we are getting at.
Rail: What is next for Lovushke? Do you intend to work with individuals who suffer from LIS?
Beynon: Kevan and I are interested in creating our own production company so that we can apply to other residencies to keep developing work. Much of what has driven the project thus far is this idea of the Oculus as an empathy machine. Currently, there is a wider desire to develop the Oculus in a way that allows a person to be placed into a particular moment in another person’s life so that one might understand what the other person is living through. This still creates a distance between both individuals. It is the mind of the person wearing the Oculus, not their body, which has the experience. So, for us, working with individuals who experience LIS as Lovushke evolves is intriguing because maybe that is the connection that the Oculus needs.
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is founding co-editor of ARTS.BLACK.