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ASU professor awarded grant to make the invisible visible through movement technology

ASU School of Arts, Media and Engineering Associate Professor Grisha Coleman — whose work focuses largely on movement research, computation and digital media — has been awarded a 2020 Media Arts grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support her project “The Movement Undercommons.”

Sample animations to demonstrate use and potential for mocap data. Photo courtesy Grisha Coleman

The Movement Undercommons” project aims to shift the use of new mobile motion capture technology normally confined to Hollywood CGI and academic research laboratories, to repurpose these technologies by working with historically marginalized communities to create visual sound media narratives that emerge from movement data. Coleman asks how we can use this technology to reveal and express patterns of moving in cultural contexts. This new technology can be used to mirror and create new images and understandings of the movement passed down generationally.  

The principal focus of the project is to discover how movement relates to and reflects one's identity. The concept that movement has its own lexicon, its own vocabulary  much like sound and music — is an important concept for Coleman to express, and one that she hopes to share on a large scale.

Another important facet of this research is representing and making visible the ways that movements and interactions impact immediate society and the cultures around them. Coleman believes that this level of technology shouldn’t be confined solely to traditional research practices or entertainment, but also used to capture movement history as it relates to our identities and society. 

“The Movement Undercommons” will focus on community-driven archives in Arizona in order to build an iterative, exploratory model for greater global public engagement. Nancy Godoy, the director of these community-driven archives in Arizona, is partnering with Coleman to support her in sharing and archiving her findings of all of the groups who are not represented in the archives. Partnering with Godoy is a crucial portion of this research, Coleman says, because it will demonstrate an immediate application of her  research, showing grounded and innovative findings. It is important to Coleman not only to ensure that the past is not erased but also to properly represent and document the future generations of these groups.

Coleman’s research dovetails with the creation of a live dance work that animates and choreographs material emerging from the repository for a public hybrid performance and installation work, accompanied by a sound score composed from the movement recording process. This project is unique in that Coleman plans on asking questions big enough to have a large impact on society and history. She hopes to discover what is out there without feeling confined to one specific cultural demographic or concept to help her. 

Question: What inspired you to create “The Movement Undercommons?”

Answer: The idea evolved from multiple directions. I was working with these various motion capture technologies and wanted to see the technology used among people and situations that wouldn’t typically have access; to explore what movement patterns emerge from a people that are migratory, who have been displaced, who are often rendered invisible — not through photo or video or even audio media representation, but in movement data.

Q: How would you describe this project to someone unfamiliar with these concepts?

A: I suppose like the work of a documentary filmmaker, or, in some way, I often reference the work of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. In the 1950s and '60s he took what was then new tech of mobile audio recording equipment and went south, engaging in field recordings, recording and validating the music that people — many black and brown people did to accompany the fieldwork: hollers, call and response, the blues, the jazz — the work songs that were not written down, no notation. And of course later on, his repository of recordings, the "Smithsonian Folkways." And then the music was valued differently, so even though Lomax had some problematic (i.e. racist) ideas from my present vantage point, the archive is massive; it’s utterly critical to defining and understanding American music. So how might this new movement capture tech add to a future archive? How do we "read" patterns of movement? What is passed along, kinesthetically? And … what kind of work, animation, representation can come from paying attention to different communities — not the dominant stories, if you will.

Q: Which communities will be positively impacted by this project, and how?

A: I've been in conversation with ASU Library’s Community-Driven Archives Initiative. Since 2017, the initiative's director Nancy Godoy and her team have worked with the Latinx, Black, Asian and Pacific Islander, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities to center the lived experiences and knowledge of historically marginalized community members, and to create intergenerational and intersectional spaces and places that support and protect lifelong learning. In this way, "The Movement Undercommons" project can begin applying the general research of developing a movement repository while joining with a stream of work that is already in motion in meaningful ways that can give back to the larger archiving project. We spent a good part of the year, previous to the lockdown, discussing how this project might support, extend and enhance the goals and relationships already established by Nancy and her team.

Q: How has your background in choreography and composing prepared you for this project?

A: Everything I do is choreography and composition; it's this foundation of process, function and organization that allows me to approach any research, any … content. Meaning, physical bodies and sound coordinated. An acknowledgement that stuff (ideas, bodies, society) works in relation to the parts — so this kind of holistic approach to working with ideas, developing projects. … I imagine this as extensions of composition, extensions of choreography. It allows for expression, for complexity, for approaching ideas ... indirectly or directly! It's a wonderful framework.

Q: You mention leveraging “new technology to demonstrate how a mobile motion capture system can be used outside of a lab/studio.” How do you plan to showcase this concept to the public?

A: As an artist, in venues like museums and performance spaces that can support hybrid (time-based installation/performance) work. As a scholar, writing about the work. In workshops and events with the very public that I am working with — this is the way the research develops and multiplies, the ideas become more viable, more "concrete" as the process evolves outside of my head and in collaboration with the people moving.

Q: What draws you to working at the intersection of hybrid live performance, movement and the studies of cultural geography?

A: It’s a rich cross-section of potentials. I am allowed, across these diverse contexts, to consider many layers of meaning making. And it allows me to collaborate with people I may not usually be in conversation with, explicitly, through work, through a prism of understanding. Because who thinks in a single track? No one! So it’s a learning environment. The project itself asks for the participants, and of course I have certain skills accrued through my life in the arts, so I often will look to see if the ideas can be expressed in a plurality of ways — better ways to speak to a range of the public.