• L'équipe du MAJ

Week 9 - Technology: an ally or an antagonist?

Theme of the week: art and technology

Part of the values of the Musée d'art de Joliette is opening the doors to development of new creative avenues by encouraging experimentation and risk-taking. Within its exhibition programming, the Musée supports selected artists by adapting projects to its spaces, creating new works, or having a retrospective look at their artistic practice. This support takes many forms: studio visits and conversations prior to an exhibition, support in the search for funding, and technical support from a team that listens to their needs and desires (as much as possible!). Setting up artistic residencies is another. Residencies at the Musée have quite naturally developed primarily around performance art, an art form that is less easily adapted to the exhibition format that is at the heart of the institution's regular programming.

Thus, in 2017, the Musée consolidated its partnership with Diffusion Hector-Charland in L'Assomption to set up a program of three "dry" dance/performance residencies per year. The City of Notre-Dame-des-Prairies subsequently joined the project by providing a place for artists to stay for the duration of their week of residency: a presbytery transformed into a living and cultural space. For the Musée and its partners, the idea was to provide the artists with a context for creation and experimentation without the pressure of definitive results, a space and time in which to concentrate on the creation of a work, in the company of performers. At the end of the residency, the public is invited to attend an informal presentation of the work in progress. It is followed by a discussion with the artists, where questions and exchanges are encouraged.

As part of one of these residencies, Jacques Poulin-Denis, Artistic Director of the Grand Poney company, spent a week with two performers, Émilie Wilson and Kim Henry, in the fully-windowed room at the front of the Musée. At the centre of his choreographic experimentation was a device, some kind of hacked treadmill. For the dancers, is it an ally or an antagonist? Or perhaps simply an adjuvant, that is to say, an assistant that fuels or reinforces an action, without having to qualify its role as positive or negative. Certainly, the technical object was central to the residency, which was aimed at imagining the possibilities of two people working together on the mat. How to negotiate that space, which was already limited and restrictive for one person? Its speed? Its direction? For this is no ordinary treadmill: the choreographer can change its direction (rolling forward, backward) and speed in real time, thereby affecting the movements of the dancers on it. The device is the main prop of a one-dancer piece, titled Running Piece, which has been touring in Quebec, Canada and internationally since 2018. The aim of the MAJ residency was to think about other ways of using it.

Jacques Poulin-Denis presents his project as follows: "Running Piece is a work for dancer and treadmill, a machine that allows to travel without moving. In this confined space, a man stands still while being forced to move forward. He traverses the states and situations that define us, in order to take a look at our humanity and the path we take. Good-will jogger, overachieving multitasker, compulsive latecomer... Running Piece addresses our propensity to constantly chase our breath, exalting the cult of business.” I saw the piece at Agora de la danse in Montreal in 2018. For 55 minutes, dancer Manuel Roque walks, jogs, runs, works, sweats, and breathes out on a treadmill that never shows any sign of weakness. The image is simple, but it is precisely from this simplicity that it draws its strength. Are we always, like the performer, running after a desire, an ambition, an objective, which seems to move away at the same pace, immutably? What role does technology play in setting up this context, these expectations, this pace of productivity? Undeniably, it often acts as a facilitating agent. On the other hand, by making us reachable at all times – among other things –, doesn’t it also cause undue pressure?

For this thematic week on art and technology, I wanted to ask Jacques Poulin-Denis about the role of technology in the creation of this piece. How did it influence him? He kindly agreed to be interviewed and I thank him for that!


Jacques Poulin-Denis residency (with Émilie Wilson and Kim Henry) at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2018. Photo: Caroline Langlois. 

INTERVIEW

Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre: At the centre of Running Piece is a device: a treadmill that, in a way, dictates the dancer's movements and the rhythm of the piece. Where did you get the idea to create this device? Did the concept of the treadmill come to you right away, or did you come up with other types of devices to influence the performance’s dramatic effect?

Jacques Poulin-Denis: The idea of the treadmill came to me in a flash, like a dream. For the story, I had been on a trip to Berlin and the music I was listening to in my headphones gave every ordinary shop window, intersection and building the emotional quality of a film scene. I was thinking about the ability of music to "dramatize" everyday situations, and as I imagined how to transpose this questioning to the scene, the image of the treadmill came to me. The idea was to reduce certain parameters of the choreographic composition, such as space, which is related to a small area in the centre of the stage, and even movement, which must always be in motion. I think that this flash also came from a desire to simplify the creative process and its form, by freezing the movement in space. It then becomes possible to observe the most intimate details of the performance.

AMSJA: Which idea came to you first: the creation of the device (the treadmill) or the desire to create a context that would put the dancer's body in that kind of state?

JPD: The creation of the device came to me first. Although the development of the physical possibilities was done in parallel with the research and development of the machine, the first year of the project was mainly devoted to the optimization and appropriation of the machine. Everything had to be done to maximize the few possibilities it offered us. During this time, the dramaturgical potential of the device was taking shape, its images and the meaning that flows from them were being elaborated. Then, in a second phase, we began to choreograph and develop an approach to movement.

AMSJA: Do you consider the device as a central partner in the piece, just like the dancer? Does the device enhance the body/dancer, or does it take precedence over the dancer?

JPD: Great question! I would tend to say that it is the treadmill that takes precedence over the dancer. In the creation process, the first step for testing an idea was to program the score of the treadmill. It is possible for the dancer to "control" the speed of the machine thanks to a motion capture system that allows a real exchange between the two entities. The more the dancer gives, the more the machine gives. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible for the machine to ignore the presence of the dancer. As spectators, we witness and sense this one-sided relationship.

AMSJA: What were the challenges in composing the piece? Did the device transform the way you worked with the dancers?

JPD: The biggest challenge comes from the one-sided relationship mentioned earlier. The mat rolls relentlessly, so when we explore movements on the machine, they can scroll before our eyes without us being able to hold them back/repeat them, or even understand what we are seeing. It's a continuous, even hypnotic process, it's quite difficult to work with. Looking for precision in the gesture becomes futile. In this process, it was rather necessary to choreograph the "contours of the movement." If I may say so, the choreography looks like a "somatic philosophy" rather than a movement score. The gestures of my choreographies are never perfectly defined, but it was even more necessary to pursue this way of doing things here.

AMSJA: The symbolism in this piece is very strong. The description you make of it encourages us to interpret the work as a social commentary. All your creations are engaged, addressing issues such as resilience, the tyranny of the image, the invasion of solitude, the measurement of value. Running Piece seems to be your most bare and at the same time most direct work. Do you consider your work to be political, in the sense that it takes a stand?

JPD: I consider my work to be indirectly political. The subjects I deal with are often political, but I don't try to take a position or offer my opinion on major social debates. Rather, I try to share the issues that preoccupy me in order to fuel individual reflections. With Running Piece, I wanted to create this simple and evocative universe in which spectators are invited to project their own personal preoccupations and past experiences. The political angle is meant to be felt rather than overt.


Jacques Poulin-Denis residency (with Émilie Wilson and Kim Henry) at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2018. Photo: Caroline Langlois. 

Jacques Poulin-Denis residency (with Émilie Wilson and Kim Henry) at Musée d'art de Joliette, 2018. Photo: Caroline Langlois. 


This article was written by Anne-Marie St-Jean Aubre, Curator of Contemporary Art, Musée d'art de Joliette.

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