The Italian art studio fuse* presented the North American premiere of their interactive audiovisual installation Dökk in San Francisco Friday evening, May 3rd, as part of the digital arts festival MUTEK. Herbst Theater, across from City Hall, was full. The Beaux-Arts architecture of the theater provided an archaic frame, a counterpoint to the proceedings. Dökk fulfills the promise inherent in an art form that owes some of its power to theatrical and visual art traditions, but is in other ways quite new. Those who were there won't forget this performance soon.
Sonically, the piece begins with a pounding in the low frequencies, generated by the heartbeat of Elena Annovi, a gifted dancer and aerialist who provides the human center of the piece. She rarely leaves our sight for the 55 minute run of show.
The stage picture is dark. A faint swirl of illuminated particles is seen. A burst of light reveals something like a nebula, accompanied by a spike of white noise that rocks the audience and creates a wave of laughter in the room. This also has the effect of riveting our attention, as it's made clear we're in an unpredictable and unfamiliar world.
To give a bit of necessary context, the staging involves projection both onto the screen behind the dancer and onto the scrim in front of her. There is nothing new about this way of creating depth-of-field in theatrical staging. What is new is the marriage of this to interactive, digitally generated visuals. A significant part of the fluid and kinetic imagery is responsive in real time to movement, meaning that a plate of star-encrusted, galactic brilliance tilts, twists, and spins when Ms. Annovi turns a bit to the left, or to the right. A swirl of floating, illuminated gas or a spray of particles shiver, retreat, or barrage the lone figure on stage, at times obeying her and at other times seeming to overwhelm her. These effects are not literally holographic, but the effect is fully three-dimensional in a way we have not seen before. This is striking, and, in the hands of these gifted creators, a revelation.
fuse* are admirers of Joanie LeMercier, the esteemed Parisian innovator, who has created many wonderful works of light art, of projection mapping. One can see the influence, in part, in the stark color pallet. But there is more. As artists are developing the language of digital arts, the evolving vocabulary for these installations and performances is recognized to have a kinship with emergent phenomena, with natural processes.
In fact, generative (digital) art is itself a process like those that result in a lightning storm, or a murmuration of birds. This matters because a process is, in part, what we are seeing on stage in a piece like Dökk. And it matters because the sort of "story" that these pieces tell is more akin to a lightning storm, or the aurora borealis, or to the mathematically precise growth of a sea shell. Though Dökk is called an"opera" by its creators, I am not sure that the medium they have chosen is well-suited to traditional story telling. They seem to know this, and have created an hour-long stage work where there is no text, and nothing is spoken or sung. Nor is a story "communicated," in any traditional sense, through gesture or pantomime. The dancer at the center of this piece is buffeted by energies that seem to be beyond her control. At other times she is cradled by them, or flies, exhilarated, through the midst of them.
As a story, that may seem threadbare. It's not. The natural processes that surround us - or that take place in our own bodies - are often invisible, but are no less profound or enthralling for that. To see such processes painted in light, in motion, and made the theme of human struggle, this does not require an articulation beyond what is provided here. There is no exposition in a work like Dökk, no plot points. It ends more or less as it began, with the dancer still, on the floor of the stage. But things do not sound or look exactly as they did when the show began. Things have changed along the way, and we have changed with them.