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Mapping Human Gesture into Electronic Media

Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello
Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello.

Troika Ranch is the name of a New York-based performers’ group founded in 1993 by Dawn Stoppiello, a dancer and a choreographer, and Mark Coniglio, a composer who studied under Morton Subotnick. Troika Ranch develop works of what they call slash arts: dance + music + theatre + interactive media. Dawn and Mark decided not to use the term “multidisciplinary” since the most salient feature of slash arts is, in their opinion, the slash itself: the union of various expressive forms in a coherent whole. Troikas’ performances resound chaotic rhythms of contemporary urban life and are based on a fascinating mixture of music, dance and interactive technologies (developed by Mark Coniglio himself) whose goal is to allow the performer to control the entire theatrical space with her body.

In a joint effort with Morton Subotnick, Mark has developed “Interactor” a Macintosh software that allows the computer to interpret data coming from a set of sensors placed on the performer’s body or somewhere on the stage, so allowing the performer herself to directly control different devices such as synthesizers, theatrical lighting, digital audio effects, video apparatus, and even robots. Mark has also built a costume (the “MidiDancer“) that hides eight sensors placed in crucial points, such as elbows and knees. Through the sensors, the movements of the body are detected by a tiny computer that codifies the signal in such a way that it can be sent to a receiver/decoder plugged to the computer, by means of a radio transmitter.

Between the many performances realized by Troika beginning from 1989, the most demanding were The Electronic Disturbance (inspired by the book of the same name by the Critical Art Ensemble), Vera’s Body and the more recent The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, presented for the first time in New York City and, later, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Saggini: What is the story of Troika ranch?

Coniglio: Troika Ranch is a New York City-based dance theater group founded by myself, composer Mark Coniglio, and choreographer Dawn Stoppiello in 1993. Our mission is simple: to create new live performances that unite four disciplines: dance/music / theater / interactive technology. Dawn and I first met in 1986 when we were students at California Institute of the Arts. There, we discovered that we shared an interest in creating performances that went beyond the normal confines of dance and music. We continued our collaboration after graduating in 1989. As we continued to collaborate, we decided to create a company dedicated to this work.

Saggini: What does “Troika Ranch” means?

Coniglio: The name is the result of a long, and humorous, conversation that I had with my friend Woody Vasulka – a pioneering video artist and one of the founders of The Kitchen in New York. We were on a residency together, and decided that every entity in the American Southwest was in fact a “ranch” (Woody lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico so he should know). There would be the “Vasulka Video Art Ranch”, and the “Dawn and Mark Interactive Performance Ranch” etc. Later, about the time we decided to form the company, I seemed to come across the word “Troika” several times. It was the combination that I liked: a Russian word which (for me) brings up images of Eastern Europe, and the Americanized Spanish word “Ranch, which makes one think of U.S. Southwest. I think it is the opposition of the two words suggests drama: one element of our work that is very important.

Saggini: A recurring theme in your works seems to be that of polarities and the movement between them: corporeal bodies trying to appropriate characteristics of electronic bodies and vice-versa (The Electronic Disturbance); the conflict between mind and body (Vera’s Body); the transformation of the soul from broken and decrepit to vital and transcendent and, once again, the passage from corporeal to electronic life through the downloading of mind from the brain to a silicon replacement (The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz). What does this mean? And how autobiographical are your works?

The Electronic Disturbance (singer Joan La Barbara on the wide screen)
The Electronic Disturbance (singer Joan La Barbara on the wide screen).

Coniglio: Well, my own personal experience of life is one of loss. Now that sounds a bit depressing and dramatic, but I see this process as quite beautiful. I think that for each of us there is a significant moment in our lives when we first experienced an emotional injury: finding out that someone you cared deeply about had lied to you, the loss of a loved one, etc. It is at this moment that we lose innocence in exchange for wisdom. Each person handles this in different ways, some deny that the injury happened, others focus on the injury and become bitters, and still others integrate the experience and while attempting to retain the spirit of innocent hopefulness that existed before. These experiences continue through out one’s life, though it is often the case that the first one is the most notable. To me personally this process is poignantly beautiful, even though it is often quite painful.

There is no direct autobiographical representation of my personal life in our work. But, I suppose that all of the pieces Dawn and I have made portray the process described above in one way or another. And, the idea that technology is the motor that drives the transformation represented in many of these narratives represents my own experience with the technological world – at once dehumanising and intoxicating. So I am certainly “in there”, just not in a direct way.

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