Eleven Play is a Japanese dance group that incorporates advanced technologies directly into their practice. This is the first dance of theirs — that I could find online — that incorporates drones into the performance. Surrounded by an all-white stage, sprinkled with black computer monitors facing the audience, the three dancers and their accompanying drones put on a mesmerizing and eerie display. The result is stunning.
Upon first viewing, I had so many questions. What does it mean to make beauty with drones? Why is this tension between human dancer and robot so palpably moving? Is this a gimmick?
Drones are coming into our world very quickly and artists have already been reacting, utilizing, and protesting them. This is not a gimmick. While a publicity stunt for now, Amazon has unveiled future plans for using drones to expedite delivery to your door. Facebook even has ‘humanitarian’ plans on using drones to bring internet to the rest of the world. For better or worse, drones are coming; figuring out how humans will live in relationship to them will be our challenge.
Much like Alexander McQueen’s haunting use of robotics in performance, Eleven Play’s dance is not without a sinister side. At the beginning, the dancers appear in control, or at least in mutual dialogue with the drones. We see the dancers pushing and pulling the drones, as if conducting them. The drones are what one would want in a good dance partner, they follow the music and they’re responsive to your body, they just happen to be flying robots.
Yet at the performance’s 1:56 minute mark, there is a shift, and the drones become menacing and the dancers visibly fearful. Simultaneously, with the projection appears to become the drones’ conductor — a commentary on the problems of control in a largely algorithmic machine. The drones start dancing to their own beat, and the human dancers become superfluous. This is not a hyperbolic point either; the US has already relied on algorithmically determined drone strikes based solely on phone metadata.
I hope to see more artists confronting these new technologies. There is a lot to learn and think about in human-machine interaction, and the issues will only grow more pressing. In the meantime, Eleven Play offers many visually stunning dances situated squarely between humans and our brave new world.
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