radical. Signs of Life

  • Marco Donnarumma - [radical] Signs of Life 2013
  • Marco Donnarumma - [radical] Signs of Life 2013
  • Marco Donnarumma - [radical] Signs of Life 2013
  • Marco Donnarumma - [radical] Signs of Life 2013

radical. Signs of Life (2013) is a large-scale biophysical dance show conceived by Heidi Boisvert in collaboration with an international team of artists. Through responsive dance, [radical] signs of life externalizes the mind’s non-hierarchical distribution of thought.

Music is generated from the dancers‘ muscles and blood flow via the Xth Sense biophysical sensors that capture sound waves from the performers’ bodies. This data triggers complex neural patterns to be projected onto multiple screens as 3D imagery. As the audience interacts with the images produced, they enter into a dialogue with the dancers. Conceptually, the piece is an embodied examination of self-organizing systems and the increasing disparity between the encroachment of bio-data and the quiet discord of bio-memory. The work reveals the dangerous legacy of cybernetics, and awakens an urgent need for inserting the body and affect into technology before technology further embeds itself inside of us.

The show

The audience enters an open black box theatre with multiple moving screens configured around a reflecting pool, behind which five dancers perform. Each dancer wears two wireless Xth Sense (XS) sensors on the body. The XS is a biophysical technology that detects and captures mechanical sound waves produced at the onset of muscular contraction. As the dancers begin to move, the corporeal sounds produced by their muscular activity are processed by the XS software, and then composed into real-time music. Data extracted from the emerging music composition is used to drive generative 3D imagery projected on multiple movable screens. A motion capture system enables the audience to interact with the 3D imagery through their own bodily gestures. A non-linguistic dialogue among the dancers and the audience is created.
The choreography is composed in real-time by five dancers from a shared movement database in accordance with pre-determined rules. Outfitted with two wireless sensors each, the dancers – Jennifer Mellor, Ellen Smith Ahern, Hanna Satterlee, Avi Waring and Willow Wonder – create patterns that dissolve from autonomous polyrhythms to intersecting lines as they slip through generative video and light. Original multi-channel electroacoustic music is also performed live with new interactive sound instruments based on the XS technology to sculpt a dense web of complex texture and emotion around the audience.

Below is a video teaser documenting the premiere of the piece at EMPAC, New York, US in May 2013.

[radical] signs of life (trailer) from Heidi Boisvert on Vimeo.

Self-organising systems

The dance performance evolves through three levels of self-organizing systems choreographically, which are also mirrored visually and sonically:

1. Conway
In the first game level, dancers can be seen participating in an adaptation of Conway’s Game of Life, which dictates survival between states of loneliness
and starvation. As individual movement triggers fellow dancers to move throughout the space, dancers collide within territories marked by tape. These collisions may result in the starvation of fellow dancers and the game level ends when one dancer survives.

2. Hebb
Each dancer begins level 2 with an individual goal and trajectory through the space. As dancers begin to meet fellow dancers along their trajectories, unions–adaptation–begin to form, much like a neural network. As these bonds strengthen, dancers begin navigating their trajectories as partners and eventuallly as a group. To win the level, a community of 5 dancers must be formed.

3. Markov
The dancers begin level 3 building upon the cohesion developed during level 2, but with the challenge of not being permitted to travel outside of their level 1 territories. The group explores dynamics of leadership until a clear director temporarily emerges, resulting in the degradation back into the power struggles of Level 1.

Total run time is between 60-90 minutes depending upon how rules play out.


[radical] is one of the first works of this scale using biotechnology to integrate networked bodies and interactive dance. It was conceived and directed by new media artist and game designer Heidi Boisvert in collaboration with an international team of artists, including Pauline Jennings (Choreographer), Doug Van Nort (Sound Designer), Allen Hahn (Set & Lighting Designer), Raven Kwok (Visual Designer), Amy Nielson (Costume Designer) and Marco Donnarumma (Sensor Designer & Developer). The project features the Xth Sense (XS), a biophysical sensor that detects and captures mechanical sound waves produced at the onset of musculature contraction. For [radical] signs of life, a wireless network and stand alone armband was custom developed for the XS by engineer MJ Caselden, and industrial designer, Krystal Persaud.

Credits and awards

[radical] finalised and premiered at EMPAC (NY), the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in May 2013 through generous support from the Arts Department at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute along with iEAR Studios. Rehearsal space has been granted through an Artist Residency at the Contemporary Dance & Fitness Center in Montpelier, VT. The project was realised thanks to the Creativity + Technology = Enterprise grant, awarded by Harvestworks through funds from the Rockerfeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Project Keywords

large-scale, dance, performance, bio, biosensing technologies, body, MMG; self-organisation, generative choreography, generative video, interactive, multi-channel sound; real time, audio processing, pure data.

Selected performance

  • EMPAC, premiere, Troy, New York, US, May 2013