Toni Dove

Toni Dove’s “Lucid Possession” (all photographs courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

To tackle the anxiety of online identity and the constant torrential rain of information, artist Toni Dove has orchestrated a ghost story. It’s designed as a spectral experience that spills from video screens that raise from the floor and hover from the ceiling, blending in live soundtracking, robotics, motion-sensing animation, and a whole cavalcade of integrated technology that comes together more like a sci-fi symphony than a replica of all that online noise. I recently visited Dove’s studio in Lower Manhattan, where she demonstrated the technology behind Lucid Possession and discussed her continuously evolving new media-based work. This week at Roulette in Brooklyn, she will be premiering the piece, where all the studio elements will come together in a haunting performance of a ghost story. 

Toni Dove demonstrating “Lucid Possession” in her studio (photo by the author)

Since the early 1990s “when the web was just kicking off,” Dove, who started as a painter before first experimenting with projectors, has worked on this merger of performance with installation and screen-based work. All technology is fair game, from film to gaming to interactive gadgets, and especially the impact of the digital on daily life. “I was thinking a lot about microblogging and social networks and the performative nature of them,” she told me.

Lucid Possession, components of which Dove demoed for me in her studio, centers on an artist named Bean who creates online avatars, whose real world is totally threaded into this digital reality. One avatar, which looks like Bean with an especially extravagant haircut, goes viral, and she subsequently feels that something is haunting her, or rather, someone. The ghost in the machine, as it were, is spawned out of the “noise” that is mental static for the paranormally-sensitive Bean, whose mind is constantly chattering with invading voices like “a live Twitter feed.” Dove says this “noise” represents “the constant and relentless simultaneity of input that we’re grappling with all the time.” Bean is played by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, who, in addition to her role on the screens, sings and speaks for her character in the physical performance, accompanied by music from avant garde maestro Elliott Sharp and soundtracked live by Todd Reynolds on digital violin. (If you saw the touring Einstein at the Beach stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last September, Chinn was an unforgettable stand out as the soloist performing the ethereal “Bed” aria.)

But Chinn, Sharp, and Reynolds are only part of the network of collaborators Dove has involved in her work, including R. Luke DuBois who designed a proprietary software that controls everything in Lucid Possession. In the live performances, Dove said she stands at a deck of laptops to activate motion-sensing to guide character movements, and technical directors Ed Bear and Matt Tennie control sound and live robotics. They all sport illuminated, noise-responding costumes by Karen Young, while on the screens participants like Andrew Schneider as Kal, another avatar who has a video screen he can hold to his eye or mouth as a communication device, appear on the collection of transparent and traditional screens, with the projection sometimes even enveloping the whole audience. Lucid Possession has been four years in the making, but it’s really a culmination of all Dove’s experiments with technology.

Bean (center, played by Hai-Ting Chin) and two of her avatars: Kal (played by Andrew Schneider) and Theo (played by Bora Yoon)

Bean asleep in the net

Despite all its rampaging technology, Dove explained that there’s a distinctly 19th century feel to Lucid Possession. The projections of characters feel like an update of Pepper’s ghost, a magic trick popular in mid-1800s phantasmagoria where the illusion of a phantom is made with some angled plate glass and careful lighting. One of the projection areas is a robotic figure that looks a bit like an apparition in a bustle dress, which pulses illumination from within. Dove has juxtaposed this old world with the new before, such as in Artificial Changelings that linked the Industrial Revolution and its emerging retail with online consumerism, and Spectropia that time traveled to 1931 right after the stock market crash, which Dove made during our recent economic bust.

She explained that in the 19th century, the feelings of anxiety with mounting technology were similar to today. “All of the sudden, if you were in London, Paris was at your door step, and you felt this sense of the inflation of time and space through this speed of access,” she said. People started to dress similarly in response to the crowding and density of urban centers, and practices like phrenology that based your personality on skull structure and icons like Sherlock Holmes who could tell your life story from a tobacco stain on your sleeve contributed to the unease. “There was a prevalent anxiety about being revealed in some way,” she said.

Toni Dove using motion sensing to re-animate video

Bean, Theo and the Petbot

The anxiety over online interactions is similar now, with the added feeling of moving through several different realities at once (with the smartphone and its “noise” of the internet always at hand). Dove said that the way the piece is structured also makes its participants feel as if the characters and technology are an extrusion of the performer as an almost out-of-body experience, as if “you’re haunting the movie with the traces of your body,” she said. (Don’t worry, what Dove showed me of Lucid Possession in her studio manages to skirt the deeply unsettling humanoid pit of the uncanny valley.) This is also where the “possession” comes in, with the way we inhabit our digital identities similar to the performers controlling installation of technology.

Lucid Possession previewed last month at Virginia Tech, and premieres this week at Roulette in Brooklyn. Dove also hopes to stage it someday as “an automated machine” performance installation, an app, or even a costume that has “interations and narrative added into it.” “If you can pull fiction and then technology together, then you have a really powerful language,” she said. “I want it to keep growing like this organic entity.”

Lucid Possession previewed March 16–19 at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech (250 South Main Street, Blacksburg, Virginia), and premieres April 25–27 at Roulette (509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...