Possible Bodies


Item number: 022
Item title: Loops
Author(s) of the item: Merce Cunningham, OpenEnded group
Year in which the item emerged culturally or was produced industrially: 2008
Entry of the item into the inventory: 11/2014
Cluster(s) the item belongs to: Disorientation
Inventor(s) for this item: Possible Bodies

This item links to: http://possiblebodies.constantvzw.org/inventory/?024

OpenEnded group, Loops (2008)

[this text is part of a larger article, forthcoming in Inmaterial Journal (Bau, Barcelona, 2017)]

‘Loops’ entered the inventory through an experiment by Golan Levin (2009). Using an imaging technique called Isosurfacing, common in medical data-visualisation and in cartography, Levin rendered a motion recording of Merce Cunningham's performance ‘Loops’. The source code of the project is published on his website as golan_loops.zip. The archive contains amongst c-code and several Open Framework libraries, two motion capture files formatted in the popular Biovision Hierarchy file format, rwrist.bvh.txt and lwrist.bvh.txt. There is no license included in the archives [8].

Following the standard lay-out of .bvh, each of the files starts with a detailed skeleton hierarchy where in this case, WRIST is declared as ROOT. Cascading down into carpals and phalanges, Rindex is followed by Rmiddle, Rpinky, RRing and finally Rthumb. After the hierarchy section, there is a MOTION section that includes a long row of numbers.

Just before he died in 2009, Cunningham released the choreography for ‘Loops’ under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. No dance-notations were published, neither has The Merce Cunningham Trust included the piece in the 68 Dance Capsules providing “an array of assets essential to the study and reconstruction of this iconic artist's choreographic work.”

From the late nineties, the digital art collective OpenEnded group worked closely with Merce Cunningham. In 2001, they recorded four takes of Cunningham performing ‘Loops’, translating the movement of his hands and fingers into a set of datapoints. The idea was to "Open up Cunningham’s choreography of Loops completely" as a way to test the idea that the preservation of a performance could count as a form of distribution [9].

The release of the recorded data consists of four compressed folders. Each of the folders contains a .fbx (Filmbox) file, a proprietary file format for motion recording owned by software company Autodesk, and two Hierarchical Translation-Rotation files, a less common motion capture storage format. The export files in the first take is called Loops1_export.fbx and the two motion capture files loops1_all_right.htr and loops1_all_left.htr. Each take is documented on video, one with hand-held camera and one on tripod. There is no license included in the archives.

In 2008, the OpenEnded group wrote custom software to create a screen based work called ‘Loops’. Loops runs in real time, continually drawing from the recorded data. “Unique? — No and yes: no, the underlying code may be duplicated exactly at any time (and not just in theory but in practice, since we’ve released it as open source); yes, in that no playback of the code is ever the same, so that what you glimpse on the screen now you will never see again.” [10] The digital artwork is released under a GPL v.3 license.

Seeing interpretations of ‘Loops’ made by other digital artists such as Golan Levin, OpenEnded group declared that they did not have any further interest in anyone else interpreting the recordings: “I found the whole thing insulting, if not to us, certainly to Merce.” [11]

Cunningham developed ‘Loops’ as a performance to be exclusively executed by himself. He continued to dance the piece throughout his life in various forms until arthritis forced him to limit its execution to just his hands and fingers.

Merce Cunningham and OpenEnded group, Loops: Take 1 (handheld) (2001)

In earlier iterations, Cunningham moved through different body parts and their variations one at a time and in any order: feet, head, trunk, legs, shoulders, fingers. The idea was to explore the maximum number of movement possibilities within the anatomical restrictions of each joint rotation. Stamatia Portanova writes: “Despite the attempt at performing as many simultaneous movements as possible (for example, of hands and feet together), the performance is conceived as a step-by-step actualization of the concept of a binary choice.” (Portanova, 2013)

A recording of ‘Loops’ performed in 1975 is included in the New York Public Library Digital Collections, but can only viewed on site [13].

Cunningham danced ‘Loops’ for the first time in the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. He situated the performance in front of 'Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Airocean World)', a painting by Jasper Johns. Roger Copeland describes ‘Loops’ as follows: “In much the same way that Fuller and Johns flatten out the earth with scrupulous objectivity, Cunningham danced in a rootless way that demonstrated no special preference for any one spot.” and later on, in the same book, "Consistent with his determination to decentralize the space of performance, Cunningham’s twitching fingers never seemed to point in any one direction or favor any particular part of the world represented by Johns’s map painting immediately behind him." (Copeland, 2004)

Jasper Johns, Map (after Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Air Ocean World) (1967)

In one of the rare images that circulates of the 1971 performance, we see Cunningham with composer Gordon Mumma in the background. From the photograph it is not possible to detect if Cunningham is facing the painting while dancing ‘Loops’, and whether the audience was seeing the painting behind or in front of him.

Cunningham met Buckminster Fuller in 1948 at Blackmountain college. In an interview with Jeffrey Schnapp, he describes listening to one of Fuller's lectures: “In the beginning you thought, this is absolutely wonderful, but of course it won't work. But then, if you listened, you thought, well maybe it could. He didn't stop, so in the end I always felt like I had a wonderful experience about possibilities, whether they ever came about or not.” [14]

With The Dymaxion Airocean World Map, Buckminster Fuller wanted to visualize planet earth with greater accuracy. In this way “humans will be better equipped to address challenges as we face our common future aboard Spaceship Earth.” The description of the map on the Buckminister Fuller Institute website is followed by a statement that “the word Dymaxion, Spaceship Earth and the Fuller Projection Map are trademarks of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. All rights reserved.” [15]

The Dymaxion Airocean Projection divides the surface of the earth into 20 equilateral spherical triangles in order to produce a two-dimensional projection of the globe. Fuller patented the Dymaxion map at the US Patent office in 1946. [16]


[8] http://www.flong.com/storage/code/golan_loops.zip
[9] Website openeneded group http://openendedgroup.com/
[11] http://openendedgroup.com/writings/drawingTrue.html
[12] Paul Kaiser (OpenEnded Group) quoted in ScienceLine http://scienceline.org/2012/07/dancing-in-digital-immortality/
[13] https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2103ccd0-e87e-0131-dc7f-3c075448cc4b
[14] Merce Cunningham: An Interview on R. Buckminster Fuller and Black Mountain College https://jeffreyschnapp.com/2016/08/31/merce-cunningham-an-interview-on-r-buckminster-fuller-and-black-mountain-college/
[15] https://www.bfi.org/about-fuller/big-ideas/dymaxion-world/dymaxion-map
[16] https://www.google.com/patents/US2393676