By: Jun. 15, 2020

MAX (Media Art Xploration), a nonprofit organization working with artists and scientists to create live arts that both interrogate and exploit the scientific innovations and technological changes of our time, introduces MAXvirtual: a home for MAX works created and curated specifically to be shared online. The works shared via this initiative reflect the mission of the young organization, whose first year of programming, in 2019, brought together over 100 artists and scientists in venues including Carnegie Hall, The Exploratorium, and the Norton Museum of Art to collapse the bifurcated worlds of art and technology. MAX activates science's ability to inform and expand art, and emphasizes art's ability to humanize and unpack the rapid advancements altering the fundamentals of everyday existence. As MAX shares these MAXVirtual works, the organization asks: how might we best travel through this moment? This initiative-and its performances and immersive experiences-are part of this exploration, inhabiting this moment and offering contemplations of a positive future.

With the launch of MAXVirtual, the organization presents two new works to experience from home: Mar Hwa Wei's digital, interactive one-on-one theater performance ELIXIR: Virtual 1:1 v 2.0 (remaining dates: June 18-19, 25-26) and artist Alexander Reben & dancer/choreographer Alice Sheppard's collaboration bridging human facial expression and machine learning, If Robots Could Dance | At Home (to be released mid-July).

MAX Producing Director Kay Matschullat says, "MAX walks the line between interrogating and exploiting technology, and is optimistic that ultimately humanity has the wherewithal to take control of the machine age and make it humanistic. In our work, we consistently interrogate technology for its humanist and ecological value, while also exploiting it for possibilities. We ask: what's the effect on humanity, and what effect do we have on it? Though the aim of MAX is to use technology in presenting live, in-person experiences, the questions at the core of our work have poised us to offer works that speak particularly to this moment where so much of life has abruptly moved online and become all the more enmeshed in the virtual. With MAXVirtual, we're working through our understanding of what this moment means for art, technology, and human life."

With ELIXIR: Virtual 1:1 v2.0, interdisciplinary artist, psychiatrist, and law scholar Mar Hwa Wei creates an immersive theatrical production that invites one audience member at a time into the world of fictitious AI startup ELIXIR-and gives them the chance to be one of ELIXIR's hand-picked beta users. Featuring a scenic element conceived by two-time Tony Award-winner Christine Jones (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, American Idiot) and performed by Maggie McCaffery, ELIXIR: Virtual 1:1 v2.0 walks the line between fiction and reality, engaging viewers in a provocative exploration of digital authenticity, identity, and legacy.

For If Robots Could Dance | At Home, Reben & Sheppard continue a collaboration that began with Pas De Deux, in which Sheppard's dance interacted with a robotic art making system conceptualized by Reben which created work live onstage, presented at MAX 2019: A Space Festival. They were inspired to further experiment with the ideas at the core of that project, in a larger work. Development and rehearsal plans switched drastically when, due to COVID-19, most daily interaction-and, of course, artistic collaboration-moved online. And so their latest work was itself mediated by tech at the very heart of its creation: rehearsals and collaborative discussions happened remotely, as Reben & Sheppard made work that complicates notions of what's "real" and questions the tendency to dichotomize the human from the technological.

Sheppard's work challenges conventional understandings of disabled and dancing bodies, and considers the intersections of disability, gender, and race. In If Robots Could Dance | At Home, she draws on the tradition of face dancing within dance and disability aesthetics. While her live, onstage work abounds with large, complex movements, Sheppard took the opportunity of quarantine to hone her ability to dance just with her face, to create a meticulous choreography of multiple expressions, all representing different facets of the act of forgetting.

Sheppard says, "Forgetting is a neurologically active and emotional practice. So if you forget something you will have a feeling about that or you might have a reaction: forgetting has its own vocabulary of facial expressions. In these face dances of forgetting, we take one story of forgetting-for instance, spacing out, that's one face-then move to another, for instance, blanking. Alex's tech has to find, search, look for faces that are like mine, and fills in the gap between two facial expressions. Now all of a sudden you have a moving forgetting, a dance that flows and moves and flows and moves. If there's one thing that unites this project with all my work it's that my work doesn't distinguish between flesh and metal bodies. They are all bodies. And here, I'm not distinguishing between the renderings of my face by the algorithm and the renderings of my face via video capture. To me they are the same real thing."

Reben's art explores humanity through technology, centering ideas of human/machine relationships and symbiosis, synthetic psychology, artificial philosophy, and robot ethics. He explains, "I'm interested in looking at how humanity has evolved with technology and where it has brought us and where it's going. A lot of people view technology as a subject that's disconnected from humanity but it's actually one of the most human things; all technology is made by us, through modification of nature. Technology is humanity, and trying to separate the two doesn't make that much sense-though that's the knee-jerk reaction. Here, we're experimenting with what collaboration means and what dance and technology means over remote connection."

The conceptual framework for this new work with Sheppard stems from Reben's previous interactive artwork for Ars Electronica-Latent Face, a photo booth that captured two people's faces and combined them in latent space. In If Robots Could Dance | At Home, machine learning is used to bridge Sheppard's expressions of forgetting, pulling from a trove of data in latent space to approximate her face between movements. Reben & Sheppard's resulting work transforms the ephemerality of facial expression and forgetting into durational dance. It both challenges the perceived boundaries between the self and the technologies with which it is intertwined, while simultaneously interrogating the limits and biases of the data on which these technologies operate.

Both ELIXIR: Virtual 1:1 v 2.0 and If Robots Could Dance | At Home precede in-person, live performances, which will also be presented at MAX 2021: The Neuroverse. More MAXVirtual works will soon be announced.

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