In the 17th century, French engineer, inventor and landscape designer Salomon de Caus published a work on automata entitled The relations of motive forces with various machines as useful as they are pleasing. At the time, automata — early versions of what we’d call robots today — were all the rage, a must have in all the royal courts of Europe. They delighted and confounded with their seemingly independent agency, and the often uncanny appearance of animate life they possessed.
There was also a whiff of the carnival about them, with observers looking to discover the source of movement, certain there must be a person hidden inside. — and in the case of famous chess-playing automata The Mechanical Turk, they would have been correct.
Those early experiments were a part of a larger movement in history, an explosion of technology that has led us to the present day and our ever more automated systems of production and leisure. And while most of us play the role of carnival gawkers — in awe of the advances, lost in the illusions that come with them — there are contemporary avatars of Salomon De Caus asking questions and conducting experiments in the arena where humans and technology do our little dance of collaboration and dependency.
One such person lives and works in Charlotte, and has created a dance performance based on the work of De Caus. On Nov. 1-2, local audiences can view Motive Forces, a dance work created by Eric Mullis.
As an interdisciplinary artist, Mullis wears many hats. He’s a director at Goodyear Arts, a percussionist in the band The Fastest Steed on Earth, a dancer and dance maker with an MFA in Choreography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who regularly performs and presents internationally. Oh yeah, he’s also a Fulbright fellow and Doctor of Philosophy who in addition to running the Philosophy program at Queens University has published extensively on the intersection of philosophy and dance.
Mullis has been making dance work steeped in the philosophical tradition ever since his days working with Triptych Collective, a group of performance artists who were active in the late aughts, introducing Charlotte to such powerhouse choreographers as Sarah Ingel, Ash Williams and Caitlyn Swett before transmogrifying into an astonishing spectrum of other projects ranging from Ingel’s Ladyfest, Williams’ work in reproductive rights and prison abolition, and Swett’s experiments with biofeedback and sound art.
How Mullis blends movement and innovation
Mullis started with Triptych as more of a musician, but, having grown up doing martial arts, embodied practice is second nature to him. The blending of the corporeal and the cerebral, and the ethics at play in such operations has been central to his work as long as he’s been dancing.
So it makes sense that Mullis would be interested in and au courant with current and controversial conversations around using technology to extend agency. Mullis has been working in the realm of dance technology for the last three years, specifically using different hardware and software to amplify dancer’s movement by giving them control over light and sound.
A Knight Foundation tech grant allowed Mullis to purchase motion capture suits for this work, and so the first seed of Motive Forces was born with a small experimental performance at Goodyear Arts in 2022. This involved linking dancers in motion capture suits to projectors, transformed their movements into patterns of moving images that were then projected on the massive white walls of Goodyear.
After this initial exploration, Mullis began to think about next steps. How could this work be extended, expanded and expounded upon? Spending a lot of time at Camp North End thanks to his work with Goodyear Arts, Mullis was no stranger to the behemoth that is the Ford Building, a former auto manufacturing plant on the sprawling campus.
This vast space is begging to be filled with performances, and local directors and choreographers have been eager to work there. Of course, working in the Ford Building poses its own challenges.
In a recent conversation with Mullis, he somewhat ruefully acknowledged, “The Ford building is always the strongest character in any performance you stage there,” and that once he had settled on creating the next phase of his work in the expansive environment, he’d have to go back to the drawing board and reimagine how audience, artists and technology would collide at the site.
During a year of experimentation, he developed the final form of Motive Forces, collaborating with the space itself, creating a work in which technology is in conversation with the human body, but also with the array of perspective and scale at play in the Ford Building.
Mullis has discovered that this new version of Motive Forces required an expanded notion of what technology is. Describing the mix of high and low tech that the show employs, Mullis said, “There will be motion-capture suits and infrared cameras, interactive projections, but also flashlights and work lights; those are technologies too, just simpler. So all of those things are in conversation with each other.”
Additionally, Mullis has expanded the ensemble of performers involved. The group of dancers includes Mullis himself as well as Joy Davis, Mattie Badgett, Gavin Stewart, Mikaela Laxton and Taylor Railton, with regular musical collaborator Brent Bagwell of Ghost Trees contributing a score.
Mullis’ techniques and influences
Describing how technology as a tool and concept informed the creation of the work, Mullis said, “This isn’t a gimmick. The movement wasn’t made for the technology I’m using, it can stand alone on its own. At the same time the movement was created in conversation with technology.”
What does that mean? Mullis continued, “The movement was made independent of the technology but the piece was constructed using a technological approach to choreography. For instance, there is a pretty big section of movement where the dancers improvised on camera, that footage was then cut up and scrambled and then given back to the dancers to learn.”
This technique and its introduction of chance into the process has more than a little in common with one of Mullis’ artistic heroes, Merce Cunningham. Cunningham and his partner John Cage famously performed experiments in performance collage and the use of chance operations at Black Mountain College in the mid-20th century.
Black Mountain College has become a sort of artistic place of pilgrimage for Mullis, having performed at (Re)Happening several times and even getting married on the campus.
And so there is an interesting continuity at play here, akin to the developing relationship between humans and technology that has been both blessing and curse since humans first harnessed fire all the way to today’s debates over the ethics of artificial intelligence. In creating and performing Motive Forces, Mullis and company are a part of a lineage of creators examining and reevaluating the tools at their disposal for making art.
It is exactly this engagement, this confrontation with technology, that reinforces the work’s humanity. Ultimately this work is about humans — how humans make their way through the world and how technology at its most basic is about extending human agency in the material world.
Motive Forces runs Nov. 1-2 from 7:30-8:30pm in the Ford Building at Camp North End. Tickets are $15 cash or Venmo.
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