Relatively few computers remain isolated from the internet, and given the explosive increase in the use of cell phones, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), pagers, and other wireless devices, our potential for connecting is continuously expanding to the point where we are perpetually, if intangibly networked. James Buckhouse, a young, San Francisco-based artist, became interested in making a work that responded to the cultural and social transformations that emerge as we learn to navigate and adapt to ubiquitous, multi-layered networks and the information that traverses them.
With Tap, Buckhouse and his project collaborator, Holly Brubach, present a PDA-based artwork that exists in the overlap between digital public space, physical public space, and the more personal network of person-to-person exchange. Tap can be downloaded from the internet, received from one of several beaming stations located in public spaces around Manhattan, or beamed directly from one person to another.
Once loaded onto a PDA running the Palm operating system, the artwork begins. A male or female figure stands fidgeting, ready to start. The user can work with the dancer to practice steps, to improvise new dances, or to choreograph new dances from a palette of sixteen steps. The character will stumble, throwing its arms up in the air in frustration, bow askance sheepishly, and continue, despite repeated mistakes. With practice, the character gradually gets the steps right, sometimes lapsing, but eventually mastering each step. Whether improvised by the character or choreographed by the user, dances can be saved, re-worked and exchanged. They can then be beamed directly from user to user or posted and retrieved from the permanent dance archive on Tap's website. A screensaver version is available which allows for exploring the steps with a character that is an experienced dancer.
Dia's curator Lynne Cooke introduced Buckhouse to Holly Brubach - writer, editor, and dancer, who has taught tap dance in Milan and New York. Brubach orchestrated the dance elements of the project, focusing on fundamental tap steps while injecting her unique style. She recruited ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, to participate in the project, and taught Wheeldon to tap dance, tailoring the learning process and choreography to the needs of the project. Videos of Brubach and Wheeldon were used by Buckhouse as templates for the female and male animated line drawings. The application was programmed by Scott Snibbe.
The choice of tap as the dance style to represent on a PDA is fitting -- navigation occurs by means of a "tap" from a stylus. At times, the handwriting process can feel like a dance as intentions are relayed through combinations of taps, dashes, and sweeping motions which are confined to a small writing area, like a tiny dance floor. Tap employs the built-in system sound of a PDA, called the "tapping sound." When the audio preference of your PDA is turned on, you can hear your dancer's steps triggering the tapping sound -- an important aspect given that the experience of tap dance is as aural as it is visual.
The style of tap dance used in this project is modular and re-mixable -- individual elements combine to create steps, and these steps are combined to create routines. The term "routine" is also used by computer programmers to describe a distinct series of instructions. At this basic level, a combination of dance moves parallels computing's loop structures. In addition, the analogy extends to tap dance's historical practices of "stealing steps" and "challenges." Stealing steps is roughly the equivalent of borrowing code, or reverse engineering as one dancer tries to figure out how another dancer got a certain sound. "Challenges" range from street corner attempts to one-up each other to the more formal technique of "trading fours," where dancers take turns giving their best four measures. Tap dance, like code, is modular, re-mixable, and exchanged among users.
Buckhouse wanted to find a way to change the way we think of digital data, in his words, "from reproducible packets of information to seeds for new ideas." The information that is passed between dancers is just the beginning. With Tap, when you download a new dance for your dancer, she or he may not yet be able to perform all the steps. Practice may be needed before the dance can be mastered. As a result, a disparity is acknowledged between acquiring information and attaining proficiency - a distinction between data and understanding.
The notion of practice is fundamental to Tap. Just as PDA users must practice to learn the specific style of handwriting that a PDA can recognize, so must the dancers practice to learn the steps and perform the dances. By injecting a learning process into the application itself, Tap functions as a metaphor for the way we navigate technology in a wider sense: with practice, patience and exchange. Buckhouse is interested in playing off this double meaning integral to the concept of "practice" -- both the repetition of an activity in order to acquire new skills, and the long-term development of insight derived from an ongoing "practice," such as a doctors practice, artist's practice, or even religious practice.
Digital art in public spaces has a growing history, from Jenny Holzer's LED signs in Times Square in the early 1980s, to Jim Campbell's new outdoor digital sculptures.1 Buckhouse and Brubach, however, are among an increasing number of artists in recent years to develop projects that integrate public art with private exchange. One notable example of this latter intersection is Speaker's Corner, a fifteen meter LED display that accepts the text it displays from the web, a nearby phone booth, or from SMS wireless messaging which was organized by Matt Locke and Jaap de Jonge in Huddersfield, England.2 Buckhouse's interest in a different merging of private and public, namely, the space of an individual's computer screen, led him in 2000 to co-curate an exhibition of screen savers by twenty-two artists.3
As PDAs, cellphones and other information appliances become cheaper, smaller and increasingly powerful, the ability to leave one's desk behind, while remaining connected, is enabling what Patrick Lichty has termed "a culture of distribution and nomadism4" as untethered, we are free to take our information with us and exchange it with ease. Contact information, applications, games and art can be traded with the tap of a stylus, creating a portable peer-to-peer network in the palms of our hands. Artists, like Buckhouse and Brubach, are interested in responding to these new cultural shifts. Just as bodies can now wander around with computers in hand, so they have responded with bodies for your computers.
1. Jim Campbell's most recent installation is Primal Graphics, 2002, the first in a new public art series, Art on the Plaza, at the new Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park City, New York, presented by Creative Time. http://www.creativetime.org/artonplaza/artist.html
2. Speakers Corner is located outside the Media Centre in Hudderfield, UK. http://www.speakerscorner.org.uk/
3. Refresh, Art of the Screensaver, Co-curated by James Buckhouse and Merrill Falkenberg, at http://www.artmuseum.net/Refresh/
4. Patrick Lichty, in his curatorial essary for (re)distributions: PDA, Information Appliance, and Nomadic Arts as Cultural Intervention in 2001, an online exhibition at http://www.voyd.com/ia/