ASU professor awarded grant to make the invisible visible through movement technology

October 14, 2020

ASU School of Arts, Media and Engineering Associate Professor Grisha Coleman — whose work focuses largely on movement research, computation and digital media — has been awarded a 2020 Media Arts grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support her project “The Movement Undercommons.”

The Movement Undercommons” project aims to shift the use of new mobile motion capture technology normally confined to Hollywood CGI and academic research laboratories, to repurpose these technologies by working with historically marginalized communities to create visual sound media narratives that emerge from movement data. Coleman asks how we can use this technology to reveal and express patterns of moving in cultural contexts. This new technology can be used to mirror and create new images and understandings of the movement passed down generationally.   sample animations to demonstrate use and potential for motion capture data Sample animations to demonstrate use and potential for mocap data. Photo courtesy Grisha Coleman Download Full Image

The principal focus of the project is to discover how movement relates to and reflects one's identity. The concept that movement has its own lexicon, its own vocabulary  much like sound and music — is an important concept for Coleman to express, and one that she hopes to share on a large scale.

Another important facet of this research is representing and making visible the ways that movements and interactions impact immediate society and the cultures around them. Coleman believes that this level of technology shouldn’t be confined solely to traditional research practices or entertainment, but also used to capture movement history as it relates to our identities and society. 

“The Movement Undercommons” will focus on community-driven archives in Arizona in order to build an iterative, exploratory model for greater global public engagement. Nancy Godoy, the director of these community-driven archives in Arizona, is partnering with Coleman to support her in sharing and archiving her findings of all of the groups who are not represented in the archives. Partnering with Godoy is a crucial portion of this research, Coleman says, because it will demonstrate an immediate application of her  research, showing grounded and innovative findings. It is important to Coleman not only to ensure that the past is not erased but also to properly represent and document the future generations of these groups.

Coleman’s research dovetails with the creation of a live dance work that animates and choreographs material emerging from the repository for a public hybrid performance and installation work, accompanied by a sound score composed from the movement recording process. This project is unique in that Coleman plans on asking questions big enough to have a large impact on society and history. She hopes to discover what is out there without feeling confined to one specific cultural demographic or concept to help her. 

Question: What inspired you to create “The Movement Undercommons?”

Answer: The idea evolved from multiple directions. I was working with these various motion capture technologies and wanted to see the technology used among people and situations that wouldn’t typically have access; to explore what movement patterns emerge from a people that are migratory, who have been displaced, who are often rendered invisible — not through photo or video or even audio media representation, but in movement data.

Q: How would you describe this project to someone unfamiliar with these concepts?

A: I suppose like the work of a documentary filmmaker, or, in some way, I often reference the work of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. In the 1950s and '60s he took what was then new tech of mobile audio recording equipment and went south, engaging in field recordings, recording and validating the music that people — many black and brown people did to accompany the fieldwork: hollers, call and response, the blues, the jazz — the work songs that were not written down, no notation. And of course later on, his repository of recordings, the "Smithsonian Folkways." And then the music was valued differently, so even though Lomax had some problematic (i.e. racist) ideas from my present vantage point, the archive is massive; it’s utterly critical to defining and understanding American music. So how might this new movement capture tech add to a future archive? How do we "read" patterns of movement? What is passed along, kinesthetically? And … what kind of work, animation, representation can come from paying attention to different communities — not the dominant stories, if you will.

Q: Which communities will be positively impacted by this project, and how?

A: I've been in conversation with ASU Library’s Community-Driven Archives Initiative. Since 2017, the initiative's director Nancy Godoy and her team have worked with the Latinx, Black, Asian and Pacific Islander, Indigenous and LGBTQ communities to center the lived experiences and knowledge of historically marginalized community members, and to create intergenerational and intersectional spaces and places that support and protect lifelong learning. In this way, "The Movement Undercommons" project can begin applying the general research of developing a movement repository while joining with a stream of work that is already in motion in meaningful ways that can give back to the larger archiving project. We spent a good part of the year, previous to the lockdown, discussing how this project might support, extend and enhance the goals and relationships already established by Nancy and her team.

Q: How has your background in choreography and composing prepared you for this project?

A: Everything I do is choreography and composition; it's this foundation of process, function and organization that allows me to approach any research, any … content. Meaning, physical bodies and sound coordinated. An acknowledgement that stuff (ideas, bodies, society) works in relation to the parts — so this kind of holistic approach to working with ideas, developing projects. … I imagine this as extensions of composition, extensions of choreography. It allows for expression, for complexity, for approaching ideas ... indirectly or directly! It's a wonderful framework.

Q: You mention leveraging “new technology to demonstrate how a mobile motion capture system can be used outside of a lab/studio.” How do you plan to showcase this concept to the public?

A: As an artist, in venues like museums and performance spaces that can support hybrid (time-based installation/performance) work. As a scholar, writing about the work. In workshops and events with the very public that I am working with — this is the way the research develops and multiplies, the ideas become more viable, more "concrete" as the process evolves outside of my head and in collaboration with the people moving.

Q: What draws you to working at the intersection of hybrid live performance, movement and the studies of cultural geography?

A: It’s a rich cross-section of potentials. I am allowed, across these diverse contexts, to consider many layers of meaning making. And it allows me to collaborate with people I may not usually be in conversation with, explicitly, through work, through a prism of understanding. Because who thinks in a single track? No one! So it’s a learning environment. The project itself asks for the participants, and of course I have certain skills accrued through my life in the arts, so I often will look to see if the ideas can be expressed in a plurality of ways — better ways to speak to a range of the public.

Megan Patzem

Multimedia specialist, School of Arts, Media and Engineering


Voices from the Future shares stories from the front lines of climate change

October 14, 2020

After Hurricane Dorian tore across Grand Bahama in 2019, Dave Mackey called his home “a paradise, but a temporary one.”

With climate-related disasters increasing across the globe, Mackey’s statement could easily apply to the entire planet. In 2020 alone, the world watched devastating fires rage across Australia, the Amazon rainforest and the West Coast of the U.S. The Atlantic hurricane season has proved to be the second most active on record, with two major storms battering the Gulf Coast. This year is also on track to be one of the warmest years on record.   A collage of different climate-induced disasters, including flooding, fires, drought and fire. Photo illustration by Ashley Quay. Photo illustration by Ashley Quay. Download Full Image

Climate change is on our doorstep, and it’s not knocking politely. Steven Beschloss wants people to think about how they’re going to answer. Enter Voices from the Future, an initiative from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory chronicling the experiences of more than three dozen survivors of extreme climate disasters across five continents.

“I think there's been a failure to convince the public about the scale of the problem, the nature of potential responses and the science and the reality of climate change,” said Beschloss, narratives lead of the Global Futures Laboratory and director of the Narrative Storytelling Initiative

With his background as a journalist and narrative nonfiction writer, Beschloss saw an opportunity for storytelling to succeed where data and science failed. 

“This idea emerged to tell largely journalistic stories that would help people better understand these extreme weather events and what they mean,” he said. “What people go through, what that experience is like and ultimately, with the goal of increasing empathy.”

The stories, primarily compiled by writer and journalist Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss, examine extreme climate events from the perspective of their survivors. The stories span the globe, chronicling floods in West Virginia and Jakarta, raging fires in California and Australia and super powerful storms sweeping across Texas, Oklahoma and the Bahamas. 

“Whether it’s five or 7,000 miles away, the challenge is making people feel a sense of alarm and urgency to do something when it doesn't touch them in an immediate way,” said Beschloss.

Urging people to reconsider the effects of climate change is a sentiment shared by subjects of Voices from the Future, such as Mackey and Greg Kochanowski.

“I don’t think we are able to solve these problems on an individual basis, but with mass education,” said Kochanowski, who survived the 2018 Woolsey Fire. “We need a psychological shift that people start to demand those sorts of things.”

In addition to giving readers a firsthand look at climate disasters, the series explores the fallout of such events, examining how communities respond, rebuild and find support, as well as how inequality and economic fragility are as much a part of climate change as weather. 

Beschloss hopes that these stories give readers a chance to consider what they would do in similar situations and how they might persevere and adapt to our changing world.  

“Neighbors that don't know neighbors suddenly realize that their survival and ultimately their long-term well-being depends upon being able to connect and live together in a way that they haven't before,” he added. 

Amplifying voices from tomorrow

Beschloss thought the project’s global scope and appeal to action would be a good fit for the magazine The New Republic, which has a section dedicated to green politics and climate change.

In August, he partnered with the magazine to showcase the series. The New Republic has since published seven of the stories, as well as an introduction from Beschloss outlining the project.  

In another opportunity to bring Voices from the Future to a wide range of audiences, Beschloss and the Global Futures Lab partnered on a monthly series with PBS and veteran reporter Frank Sesno and Sesno’s Planet Forward project at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. The series features climate change issues and solutions with experts, innovators and others who can share compelling personal experience. Called “Planet Forward,” the series is part of Peril and Promise, an ongoing public media initiative from WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York. 

Co-produced by Beschloss along with the Global Futures Lab and hosted by Sesno, Planet Forward’s director, the first episode, “Can youth be the bipartisan climate communicator?,” focused on youth climate activism. Several subsequent episodes will draw from survivors featured in Voices from the Future to show the individual impact of climate change.  

“I'm encouraged by the way in which Voices from the Future is really connecting with people, and in ways that actually exceed what I would have anticipated,” said Beschloss. 

Voices from the Future has also grown to serve as the linchpin of a seminar class Beschloss is teaching with Michael Rohd, Institute Professor with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Beschloss originally sat down with Rohd, a theater professor, to explore the possibility of collaborating on a script for a short performance piece centered around the human experience of climate change. 

“And he said, ‘Well, you know, maybe we ought to build a class around it,’” said Beschloss. 

The class, Shaping Climate Narratives, is a Humanities Lab seminar that spans a range of climate change media, from books such as "The Uninhabitable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells and "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert to films like 2006’s "An Inconvenient Truth."

“The first five weeks we mostly focused on kind of laying the foundation of climate coverage and climate narratives, the ways that different writers and filmmakers and creators have gone about trying to engage the topic,” said Beschloss. 

Following a foundational review, the class moves on to exploring the Voices from the Future stories, with the ultimate goal of drawing out universal themes and experiences to create performance pieces, digital media or data visualizations that convey the human aspect of climate change.

The students enrolled range from freshman engineering students to graduate students in the arts, so the final pieces will have input from a diverse mix of talent and disciplines.

The pandemic has shifted expectations for the course’s final product — for now, it’s unlikely a live, traveling performance would reach the intended audience with the necessary social distancing and safety precautions.

“So we have to be adaptive in terms of how we are able to sort of communicate these stories to people,” said Beschloss. 

However, he ultimately thinks that the pandemic, like Voices from the Future, can rally people to action and inspire them. 

“The pandemic is an experience that has been global in nature and has touched people everywhere, just as a big climate-related event can actually touch the whole world,” he said. “I don't think we've quite teased the significance of that, but there surely still is a hope that we will actually recognize that our global interconnections are real and meaningful and necessary.”

Pete Zrioka

Assistant director of content strategy, Knowledge Enterprise