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Features / Art

Wayne McGregor and Random International ask: what does it mean to be human?

Words:

Bryony Stone

The Royal Ballet’s controversy courting resident choreographer Wayne McGregor and experimental artist collective Random International’s Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass have been exploring technology and emotion together for nearly a decade. Their latest collaboration, +/-Human, opens tonight at the Roundhouse, London. The immersive installation harnesses the talents of team of musicians from Warp Records and renowned lighting designer Lucy Carter.

“[Random International and I] were both thinking about working with these autonomous flying objects. That’s how it all started,” Wayne McGregor tells It’s Nice That. Responding to the circular walls and soaring roof of the Grade II-listed, former steam engine maintenance shed, Random International created Zoological, a “swarming algorithm” of drones exhibiting collective behaviour.

The white orbs, each roughly an arm’s length in diameter, are kept suspended in mid-air by visible motors dotted around the balloon’s rubbery surface. On first glance, there’s not much new about the orbs — in fact, they recall the blimp airships which dotted the skies of blitz London. The magic lies not in the fact that these anonymous white balloons move, but in how they move; swarming intently around the Roundhouse, at first they are mesmerising, but get too close and they become intimidating. It is as if inside each sphere was a fully-functional brain and the drones are, in fact, alive.

Random International and Wayne McGregor’s collaboration began in 2008 with Audience at the Royal Opera House, an installation commissioned by McGregor which harnessed 64 mirrors hacked with tracking software to trace the movements of viewers and return their bodies to them in narcissism-inducing reflections. In 2010, the trio reunited for Wayne McGregor’s production Far, for which Random International provided a site-specific light installation. Next, in 2012, there was Future Self, when audience members were once again confronted with images of their physical bodies, this time redistributed three-dimensionally as tiny points of light. That same year heralded Random International and Wayne McGregor’s most successful collaboration to date, Rain Room, an 100-square metre installation in which audience members – and dancers — could linger in a rain storm without getting wet, a concept that proved so enticing that the Barbican warned of six hour-long queues.

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©Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke

The relationship between Wayne McGregor and Random International is defined by an instinct which belies the technical complexity beneath the trio’s work. “What’s great with Wayne is that he naturally exhibits trust within other people,” Florian explains. “Back in 2008, we were much less likely to get a bank loan maybe, but I think he instantly put the same trust in us as he does now. In terms of respect, it was always about the respect of the artistic vision.”

“We value our creative freedom above pretty much everything else,” Hannes adds, “and with Wayne there is a unique talent — or a rare talent — to be specific in expressing his vision for something. There is one hundred percent openness.”

“I think we push each other,” Wayne considers. “I think we trust each other. We’ve learned it’s always a bit of a leap of faith because these projects are really experimental. The technology misbehaves a lot, and it’s very different from live dancers. Our rhythms and time frames are very different, but we’ve always discovered something, so perhaps it’s about learning something new by working together.”

“We value our creative freedom above pretty much everything else. With Wayne there is a unique talent — or a rare talent — to be specific in expressing his vision for something. There is one hundred percent openness.”

Hannes Koch

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©Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke

+/-Human plays on our century-long fascination with, and fear of, technology — a theme which becomes more relevant as artificial intelligence is developed in new and increasingly unknowable ways. Last month it was reported that Facebook was recently forced to abandon an experiment after a pair of artificially intelligent chatbots began communicating among themselves in an unrecognisable language.

“I’m interested in machine learning,’ Wayne explains. “I’m interested in how you take data sets and how you use them to propel things physically. I’m interested in things becoming animate — but to a limit. What would the possible behaviour be between things that have intelligence, that have thinking and behave like insects and swarm, that have physical behaviours: how does that affect humans?”

The moon-like orbs have the same poetic serenity about them as a swarm of birds flitting in unison across the sky: but only from a distance. As they circle overhead in increasingly closer movements, the body tenses with rising panic. What if something goes wrong?

“As soon as we see something moving, we attach meaning and behaviour to it because we want to understand what’s going on,” Florian explains, considering what it means to be human. “You know how simple it can be sometimes to trigger the human code? How pure can it get, how simple can it look, how crude can the movement be? We only want to see meaning, we only want to see life. You look into the clouds and see a face: there’s no face.”

“Our thesis is that we’re fairly desperate to read similarity as human beings,” Random International continue. “We’re desperate to read similarity into movement and assign sentience to matter. We’re desperate for familiarity.” In a world where artificial intelligence is slowly seeping into normality, where supermarket cashiers and call centre workers are being replaced by an army of smooth-talking machines, we are more desperate than ever to connect with the physical world around us.

Despite the drones distinctly otherworldly appearance, despite the audible whirring noise of the propellers, and despite the mechanical glitches and failures that will no doubt plague +/-Human 18 day-long run, Random International and Wayne McGregor appear to have achieved the impossible: bringing a machine to life.

For all the technology behind Zoological, +/-Human asks us to turn our gaze on ourselves. “The audience are part of the creation of the content in a way,” Wayne says, “And they know that their presence within the artwork is actually making a material difference to it. I think that’s really a very beautiful — and very strong — draw when you know that the work is becoming because of you.”

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©Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke

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©Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke