Dancer, Choreographer, Scholar, and Teacher:
The Luminous Liveness and Presence of Ashley Ferro-Murray
Bridging several digital fronts as a choreographer, scholar, dancer, and educator, Ashley Ferro-Murray illuminates a model of a deeply thoughtful and rigorous new media practice. Her innovative work offers us new directions for digital and dance education, performance, and theory. Currently, Ferro-Murray is a doctoral candidate in performance studies with a designated emphasis in new media at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research focuses on media-based choreography and explores the importance of movement in the construction of bodies and identity in the digital age. As a choreographer of MOOCing? Noisesense, Tulle/Tool, and other performances, Ferro-Murray simultaneously broadens the boundaries of choreography on questions of liveness and presence across platforms. Her groundbreaking choreography has been produced by Cornell University, University of California, Berkeley, The Milk Bar in Oakland, CA, and ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose, CA. As a scholar, she has a forthcoming article in Media-N Journal and has published book reviews in The Drama Review and Dance Research Journal. She has also been a featured a contributor on -empyre- new media list serve and on In Media Res and Dancers Using Technology blogs. In this HASTAC blog interview below, Ferro-Murray discusses the politics and "meta-investigation" of dance MOOCS, the role of the (posthuman) body, and the negotiation of positionality within new media studies. As Ferro-Murray shares, "New media has always drawn me in as a way to re-configure, expand, and work between physical realities."
image: Noisense photo credit: UC Berkeley
1. You are a unique combination of being a dancer, choreographer, and a scholar. How does your combined interdisciplinary creative and intellectual interests and training shape how you study, teach, and create new media art/scholarship?
This is a difficult and complex question, but one that is central to my daily practice. I have always identified as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar – even before I knew that these things were typically separate. To me, the trio has always been a natural combo. I’ve been a dancer for as long as I can remember and this led to my interest in dance scholarship and choreography in college. I found that my somatic experiences as a mover directly informed the ways I read scholarship and the ways that I made dances. Soon, all three began to inform each other. I have fond memories reading Deleuze and Hegel and other philosophers as a young scholar. Since their arguments were so complex, I would read looking for references to the body and movement. I would hold tight to these sentences as an anchor in the text, something that I could relate to. I think I often took things out of context, but this method of reading really served me. The words gave me a new way of looking at the world and were inspiring in my earliest days thinking about how to choreograph – how to write movement in time and in space. Also important to me were my earliest dance history courses and teachings in feminism, gender and sexuality. As a little girl trained in classical ballet, I felt empowered by this form of scholarship as a way to further understand the ballet culture that had so deeply marked me, and to articulate my own relationship to it. Inspired by my scholarly research, my choreography began to break down my past experiences as a ballet dancer. The choreography was a way to make sense of my own dance history, and it gave me space to decide what my future movements might look like. My writing used to be a big tangled web of references to philosophy, dance studies, cultural critique, my own experience dancing, and critical analysis of my own dances. It was where I used to make sense of how all three methods converged. I think this way of working still deeply informs the way I think about dance, choreography, and scholarship.
It’s interesting because as I’ve grown up as a scholar my three prongs have in some ways become increasingly separate. I’ve been asked to make my writing more clear, and with scholarly clarity and more rigorous academic critique my references to personal experience and to my own work have fallen away. Writing about one’s own work is something that many dance scholars have experimented with. I think it’s incredibly important, but I find that it is also very difficult to get critical distance from your own creative practice for traditional academic critique. Lately, I still write about my choreography, but in a drastically different tone than my academic writing. My scholarly research is so specific to a particular writing project these days, that I don’t often read creatively to find reference for my choreographic work. That said, my academic work analyses artists who are hugely influential to me. And the topics of my dances still relate directly to my field of academic study. For now, I think I come across questions in my choreography that ask me to research something from a scholarly perspective, and I find questions in my academic inquiry that beg for choreographic exploration. Even though the dance isn’t as explicitly in the writing as it was when I first started out, and perhaps vice versa, in my head everything is one big dialogue. The dance informs the writing, and the writing informs the dance. I think some questions can be answered in writing and others need to be figured out in dance. I guess in some ways the practice is even more intertextual than before. Because I don’t cover everything with each method of working, you really have to look across my methods to see where my thinking has gone.
My navigation of the dancer/choreographer/scholar relationship is perhaps most clearly articulated in my teaching. I love teaching undergraduate students. Perhaps because it’s a space where I can return to those early moments when I first began putting the dance, choreography, and scholarship in dialogue. It’s so much fun to throw all three methods on a seminar table or the studio floor and ask, how do these relate? My students often have such open minds about the intersections of the different methods – they truly inspire me to continue pursuing a career across all three.
image: MOOCing? photo credit: Yvonne Portra
2. In your recent choreography "MOOCing," it is described as a meta-investigation, why? Can you describe your process and collaboration with dancers a bit more, and why you chose to work with these experimental methods?
In 2012 I collaborated with my friend and colleague Reginold Royston on an online course in art practice in conjunction with the HASTAC/Macarthur Digital Media and Learning project. Making this class and researching online instruction, I repeatedly came across debates over liveness and presence in the classroom. These same two topics are rampant in dance scholarship and especially in dance and technology scholarship and choreography. This inspired me to consider “massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other methods for online learning from the perspective of dance. I found that dance departments were not necessarily at the center of conversations about online learning – after all, isn’t dance a quintessentially physical art? Dance instruction is grounded in being together live in a studio with an instructor. That said, I thought that dance and the obstacles that I would face making a dance in an online classroom could inform conversations about the future of higher education.
I called MOOCing? a “meta-investigation” because the dance was in an online classroom and about an online classroom. The topic of the dance was the medium of the dance. I was choreographing from New York City with my students in Berkeley, and I had never met five out of the six dancers in person. We worked in a hybrid course model where everyone met synchronously in an online classroom once a week, Skyped into a physical rehearsal twice a week, and the students collaborated in asynchronous conversation via a blog, twitter, instagram, and facebook. Frankly, I made the dance about the dance’s medium because I imagined that making a dance online would prove so difficult that our content wouldn’t get beyond the obstacles that we faced.
After making MOOCing?, I realized that it had become more than a pure “meta-investigation.” As an instructor, I found that making a dance online forced my students to develop their skills navigating liveness and presence on a stage even more than they would have in an on-land classroom. Because they had to focus so hard to make these qualities come across to one another and myself in our online spaces, their cohesion and presence on the live stage at the end of our online rehearsal process was astounding. Ultimately, the students felt that the topics they came across in our more meta-discussions were applicable to many other situations. Since I was curious about how deeply the students could delve into topics and collaborations online, I let them run with it. I think what they came up with is a dance about liveness, presence, togetherness, and distance – generally, not just in online instruction.
image: MOOCing? photo credit: Yvonne Portra
3. This piece MOOCing? seems to really engage/critique the future of higher education and online instruction in the incorporation of dance, was this your intent? How do you feel new media art and performance can intervene in institutional politics of the academy and learning, such as MOOCS? Also, how was your experience of the piece after viewing the show?
Yes, I made MOOCing? to engage and critique the future of higher education and online instruction. When an online pilot project was proposed at Berkeley several years ago there was a great deal of angst across the campus. Some members of my home department in particular were concerned about what would happen to our live theater and dance classes in such a mediated format. Several of my colleagues assumed that because I was a new media scholar and a dance and technology choreographer, I would be a proponent of the online program. Just because I am in new media, however, doesn’t mean that I don’t have political, personal, intellectual, and creative concerns over the ways that online instruction is implemented. I think critique is an important part of creation and implementation. Some of the things that I was concerned with include: preserving the need for physical rehearsal and performance spaces that dance and performance departments fight very hard to gain and maintain access to; preserving live dance classes where instructors are able to give physical corrections; the importance of undergraduate dance students learning to perform in a live ensemble where they learn to share weight and contact in physical performance settings; process-based development of artwork that does not fit into a pre-recorded lecture model of online learning; access to technology necessary for learning; and student support services. Still, I don’t want to discourage online learning altogether just because I might have concerns with the way online instruction is developed and implemented. My hope with MOOCing? was to work with the students to develop a model that felt right for us and for our project. This was why I foregrounded synchronous rehearsals, set a hybrid on-line/on-land schedule, and also built in plent of time for meta-reflection. I wanted for the students to be able to analyse and critique their experience, and also have the opportunity to change it when it wasn’t working.
I think that because so much new media art and performance is process-based, making this type of work in the classroom demonstrates how there are ways of learning that are not conducive to pre-recorded lectures that get used over and over again without intervention or reflection. A great deal of experimental new media and performance artwork takes into account the individuals who are making it. From my perspective, the content is the creator. For this reason, my courses change drastically each time I teach them, and the artistic product is entirely dependent upon the individuals who are in my courses. I was recently asked if I would re-set MOOCing? on another set of dancers and in another institution. One of my dancers overheard the question, and I saw her head emphatically shaking “NO!” Despite the fact that my students were not together in the same physical place, they worked hard to illustrate how identity can be articulated online and how distinct backgrounds can be explored and navigated in online space. I think this can only be accomplished in an online course setting when the course is approached critically and planned carefully in accordance with the topic taught in the course.
As I alluded to earlier, I was blown away by the live performance of MOOCing? I know you aren’t supposed to talk about your own work in those terms, but I entered this experiment very skeptical, and I wasn’t sure what I would be able to accomplish with undergraduate dancers in an online classroom all the while making a dance for the physical stage. The cohesion of the group, their awareness of one another, their ability to connect with the audience and be present on the stage was incredibly strong – I was really proud of my dancers. Pedagogically, I found that making a dance online has been the most successful method for teaching presence and liveness in dance performance. Because the dancers had to overcompensate for the relative lack of liveness and presence in the online classroom setting, they had to really strive to cultivate and make their performance of these qualities intentional and specific. I also found that the dancers had to find new ways of connecting and communicating since they weren’t always in the dance studio together – their usual way of working. They used discussion and reflection, and they shared more of their personal lives than they would have in a typical on-land rehearsal. Because the dancers really focused on their communication skills online to make sure their thoughts and movements were appropriated conveyed, I think these qualities were stronger in live performance. And of course, once they were together physically, the students appreciated the novelty of this quality and were able to really communicate the privilege of togetherness and physical care in dance to the audience. Finally, because I was never in the studio with dancers during the making of MOOCing?, the students had much more responsibility than they would have otherwise. The hierarchy of having a choreographer and instructor in the room was disrupted, so if the students wanted a finished product that they were proud of, it was up to them to keep rehearsals on track and to attend to details that were beyond the scope of the web camera. Of course, I was there every step of the way via Skype to lead and facilitate, but my presence was different from what the students were used to and they had to explore and learn a different method of dancing. This experience taught us that there is a lot to learn from online classrooms, but that online instruction shouldn’t merely be a way to cut corners and produce fiscal gain. Online instruction requires a lot of labor and responsibility from instructors and students alike.
image: Tulle/Tool photo credit: ZERO1 Biennial
4. Your Zero Biennale piece Tulle/Tool explores the history of the tutu, technology, and technological prosthesis. And it uses the tutu as a movement sensor. You seem to critique as well as utilize new media devices in your new media art, was this your intent with Tulle/Tool? Could you elaborate on your artistic and political positionality in regards to new media technology?
Yes, Tulle/Tool was a collaboration with friend and new media artist Erin Johnson. The piece was a reflection on the originally feminist beginnings of the tulle tutu in the French ballet La Sylphide. In short, the tulle tutu liberated the female ballerina from her previously heavy costumes and allowed her to move across the stage with more ease – to move in a similar fashion to men who were wearing only tights on the bottom. Since its feminist beginnings, the tutu has come to signify the overly sexualized ballerina and the objectification of her legs. I wanted to re-appropriate the tutu, which I considered to be a technical apparatus, as a vehicle for moving in the way it was originally intended to allow. I was also interested in expanding the definition of “movement sensor.” In past compositions, I had used wearable sensors to make dancers’ movements control sound and video output. In Tulle/Tool, I was interested in using fabric to achieve a similar perceptual extension of body movement. I wanted to explore how even though choreography with wearable sensors and live sound and video interaction might appear incredibly high tech, the concept is not very new at all. In this piece, Erin and I worked between new media art, performance art, and dance to explore the material/immaterial properties of the tulle as we projected a film of La Sylphide onto our performance art interactions with the tulle.
I think that every piece I make is an opportunity for me to try and figure out my artistic and political position on new media technology. Unfortunately my artwork never lives up to what I think is artistically and politically possible/necessary for new media art. I consider myself as offering just one very specific and narrow perspective on the topic. This is why I love being a scholar, so that I can analyze other artists’ work and put different perspectives together and in conversation with one another.
New media has always drawn me in as a way to re-configure, expand, and work between physical realities. At first I approached new media as a transgressive tool, one that could bust open restrictive material realities. I suppose I had a fairly utopianist vision of new media. As I made work, however, I worried that my association with utopianist viewpoints combined with my abstract artistic methods might lead to the misinterpretation of my artwork as having a disregard for material realities. I wanted very much to acknowledge histories and material realities and to address them with my new media artwork. I also wanted to effect critical potentialities. This led to a theoretical interest in tactical new media projects as well as projects that address new media cultures without using the new media technologies themselves. I try very hard to remain critical of my use of new media in my artwork – I am not interested in using new media for the sake of playing with the latest gadget and I don’t want to assume that new media devices have the ability to reconfigure things. I also don’t want to assume a fixed definition of what “new media” can be, who has access to the media, or how it’s used. I try to remain acutely aware of the fact that “new media” is an enormously broad category. I guess this is why I critique and utilize new media devices in my work.
image: Noisense photo credit: UC Berkeley
5. The body seems to emerge in your work in incredibly generative ways. What is the role of the body in your art and scholarship? How would you engage with theorization with the body in new media, such as the concept of the posthuman?
I am still articulating my stance on the body in both my art and my scholarship. I am incredibly invested in conceptions of posthumanism, which has been hugely important to my own thinking about the body in my artwork and in my scholarship. In particular, I am invested in posthumanism as a project that is resistant to the liberal humanist subject and its normitivization of the mind/body duality. I find that discussions of the posthuman conceive of “the body” and embodiment in more dynamic terms.
My artwork definitely uses, consists of, and relies on bodies. I have yet to make a dance without a live body. Still, I remain skeptical of the preciousness of the body. I don’t want to ever fetishize the liveness and materiality of the body or the flesh. Just as I am both critical of and utilize new media, I also try to simultaneously use and critique the body in my artwork. And in my scholarship I am interested in other artists who are critical of the body without discarding it entirely. I am generally disinterested by preoccupations with the “beauty” of the body and body-based arts, though I understand that there might be beauty in bodies as there is beauty in many things. Lately, I am writing about and find myself particularly taken by the work of Rachid Ouramdane and Mary Armentrout. The work of these two artists is critical and political, but it also happens to be beautiful. Unlike so many choreographers, however, they do not consider the body to be a whole and singular material entity that moves in space and time. Rather, they present fractured and unstable conceptions of the body as a dynamic element in family lineage, new media cultures, and personal identities. This is the type of body-based artwork that I look up to.
I think this goes back to my earlier statement about my relationship to new media in general. I started with fairly utopianist and somewhat cyborgian hopes for artwork in which the body didn’t need to be the center of attention, but just one node in a distributed stage network of various interactive media. The body is not ever fixed, but constantly in flux and in relation to other networked elements. Like “new media,” I find “the body” to be an incredibly broad category for which I don’t want to assume a fixed definition. From this perspective, I also want to be critical of the material realities of the body and to participate in a cultural critique that surrounds them. To do so means that I still always come back to “the body,” for a lack of a better term, and the body as it relates to identity.
image: Noisense photo credit: UC Berkeley
6) How do you get inspiration for your pieces? Coud you share any personal moments of inspiration for your work?
As I mentioned, I find a lot of inspiration for my pieces in my scholarly research. Questions arise in my scholarly research and teaching that I feel could be well articulated in a dance. MOOCing? is a nice example of this, as is Tulle/Tool. I think that all of my pieces together have collectively served as my personal exploration into the body as it exists in technical realms. I also love getting inspiration from close colleagues and collaborating on artistic projects across artistic disciplines.
Lately, I have found a lot of personal inspiration for my artwork. This past year I underwent diagnosis of and treatment for a rare type of Leukemia called Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia. While the most invasive treatment is behind me, I will continue chemotherapy treatment through August 2015. I am happily in remission now, but my cancer experience has been the quintessential body/technology/biopolitics excursion. While I have been discussing MOCCing? as a dance about online instruction, which it very much is, a good deal of my personal somatic experience living through cancer went into that dance. I mentioned earlier the “privilege” of being physically close to people. I think that this is something my students really experienced with online instruction, but it is also something that we worked through from my perspective of having lived through medical isolation and navigating life with a weakened immune system. Additionally, whenever my students would discuss the lack that they felt being mediated by technology in the making of MOOCing?, I would relate their reflections to my own relatively positive experience of being kept alive and sustained by medical technologies and the mediations therein. This is somewhat new territory for me. I have always approached my artwork from my perspective as a dancer/choreographer/scholar, but this new more personal perspective feels intimate. I’m excited to see where it brings my choreography and my scholarship.
7) What other publications or performances do you have coming up?
I am currently deciding what comes next in the performance arena, but I think something along the lines of my own experience of biopolitics and the culture of cancer might be something that I choose to pursue in the future.
I am thrilled that my article “Dancing the Hardware: Rachid Ouramdane’s embodied performance” will be included in the College Art Association’s New Media Caucus Media-N Journal special issue titled “Art & Networks: Revealing, Critiquing and Composing Global Infrastructures” to come out this Spring 2014. Additionally, I have an article about online instruction in dance education and my experience making MOOCing? in the current issue of the Bay Area Dancer’s Group journal, In Dance.