More selected projects

Embodied Performance

by: Simon Katan


In this post I would like to contrast a number different approaches to embodied performance systems and discuss their aims, merits and weaknesses.

Firstly I would like to look at embodied performance systems for making music. Such systems date back as far as the Radio Baton of the late Max Matthews who was a founding pioneer of computer music. Such controllers are particularly useful to electronic musicians as they allow them to capture nuanced musical gestures which would be hard to convey through typing on a keyboard. Here is a charming video of Max demonstrating his radio baton. He starts playing it at around 10 mins.


The last ten years has seen a proliferation of such controllers, partly because of the increasing affordability and availability of the necessary electronics and partly because of issues raised by the development of laptop performance.  Kim Cascone complains that “during laptop performances, the standard visual codes disappear into the micro-movements of the performer’s hand and wrist motions, leaving the mainstream audience’s expectations unfulfilled” (Cascone, 2003).  Such an effect might otherwise be known as “checking email syndrome.” Cascone goes on to state that “Spectacle is the guarantor of presence and authenticity, whereas laptop performance represents artifice and absence, the alienation and deferment of presence.” And so in the field of live electronic music, physical control interfaces are used not only as a means of capturing nuanced gestural movements of performers, but also as a way of expressively communicating their actions to the audience.

Two leading contemporary practitioners of sensor-based musical performance are Marco Donarumma and Laetitia Sonami. They also happen to both have working relationships with Goldsmiths.

Donarumma uses a technique called Biofeedback to produce sound. Biofeedback uses analogue and digital sensors to render imperceptible internal bodily mechanisms in sound or vision. The technique is mostly used for medical applications but Donarumma employs the technique to create his own musical controllers.

His controller  Xth Senses “uses a microphone that picks up subcutaneous mechanical vibrations, or better, sounds that originate within the muscle fibres of the performer’s body” ((Donarumma, 2012). These sonic vibrations  are used as sound material to be processed using the same data stream. As opposed to controlling parameters for synthesis  such as frequency and volume Donarumma simply controls the live sampling and spatialization of the muscle sounds, which the computer diffuses through the loudspeaker. In other words the sound of the performance is entirely derived from the sounds of his muscles tensing and releasing.

Here is a video of Marco performing with Xth Sense at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Laetitia Sonami takes a more conventional approach but with equally dramatic results. Sonami performs with The Lady’s Glove. This is an instrument that she has been developing since 1991 (Sonami, 2015). The initial glove was a pair of rubber kitchen gloves with five transducers glued at the tip of each finger on the left hand. The right hand had a magnet by touching the fingers on the magnet varying voltages produced and converted into MIDI signals. Sonami describes 4 subsequent iterations on her website with glove no 5. being created at STEIM in 2001. The final glove has significantly more sensors and micr0-switches. All the control data is created using STEIM’s Sensorlab which is then routed through to MAX-MSP. Her performance are particularly striking for her refined and graceful movement. The interface is sufficiently complex for it to be relatively difficult to discern how the sound is being controlled, but she manages to give enough clear cues to nevertheless keep you guessing.

Here is a video of Sonami performing with the glove.

Digital Performance Art has also concerned itself with physical controllers but from a quite different perspective. Stelarc is a performance artist who is primarily concerned with the augmentation of the human body through technology. His performances often involve the surgical integration of his technologies. Such extreme methods are partly driven by Stelarc’s conviction that the human body is obsolete. “It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing body with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form.” (Stelarc, 2015). Here is Stelarc in conversation.

Just such ideas lead Stelarc to develop the  third hand which is in the large image at the top of the page. The hand was completed in 1980 and was originally designed as a semi-permanent attachment to the body. He contends that  that technology ‘constructs our human nature’ and that there is no natural, metaphysically and biologically given human body (Stelarc, 2015). Stelarc controls the extra limb via a series of Emg sensors which pick up and interpret his regular muscle movements.  Here he is performing with it in 2000.

Dani Ploeger comes from a younger generation of performance artists. His work more overtly explores themes of sexuality, vanity as well as ecology (Ploeger, 2015). Ploeger’s most notorious piece is called Electrode. Ploeger uses an anal electrode connected to a modified EMG sensor. Inserted into his anus, it registers the activity of his sphincter muscle. Both devices are medical consumer devices for the treatment of incontinence problems. However, in this case the devices are connected to a version of Xenakis’ GENDYN algorithm which sonifies Ploeger’s sphincter contractions. In the performance Ploeger attempts to replicate the sphincter muscle contractions recorded from the orgasm  an anonymous subject who took part in an experiment into the nature of the male orgasm in 1980. Ploeger’s performance was reviewed in the WIRE and received the now notorious comment ‘this piece features two assholes too many.’ I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Here is a video excerpt (Warning: explicit content)