Capsule review: Hiroaki Umeda’s Adapting for Distortion & Haptic. Or: Dude Dance.

Dude dance, or boy-choreography. The foyer discussion turned into an animated bitch fight about whether once we conclude that all men tend toward autism (as Simon Baron-Cohen argues, and so did some foyer men), this excuses male choreographers from engaging with emotion. I expected a work in the general category of Mortal Engine, and thought it was even closer to it than just generally close. All possible interpretations of Adapting for Distortion as metaphors for how contemporary technology eats people are as possible as they are simplistic: how innovative and progressive to produce the very object of purported critique (?!).

It was not the quality of the execution, but the thinness of it, that put off the female part of the foyer. During the first part of A for D, I remember thinking: ‘well, I’m sure there are complex mathematical concepts behind the realisation of this work, but I don’t care because it’s just so damn pretty’. During the second half, I was thinking: ‘well, I don’t care how good-looking this light-and-sound machine is, there is no soul here’. Pay attention: not ‘heart’. It was not emotion that was missing, it was depth.

Dude Dance is technological, not emotional, by default. Hence Simon B-C: it’s Asperger’s choreography. I’ve seen in the work of other exponents of Dude Dance attempts to address this lack by tacking sentiment onto it (see Mortal Engine for the most crystalline example), and the whole work collapsing into a heap, now guilty both of heartlessness and sentimentality. However, the most interesting (to me) proponent of Dude Dance, Wayne McGregor, puts together works that are as emotionally illiterate as they are in every sense sublime; if anything, the other-worldliness of McGregor’s concepts universalises his dances into something like philosophy on slender legs.

I am in no doubt that Hiroaki Umeda aspires to making philosophy on slender legs too; alas, his work is still closer to a video game.

Parenthesis: I loved Haptic up until the moment another foyer guy insisted that for him it had all the qualities of early Super Mario. Until that point, Haptic was a colourful dance macaron of sorts: much less brutal than A for D, its combinations of complementary colours and a moving man creating intensely hallucionatory effects in one’s mind. A pink man dancing behind the black man; that sort of thing. Until the Super Mario point, I was deeply taken with the experience and, to the extent to which the judgement of a girl can override a boy’s keen-eyed identification with Umeda’s preoccupations, I would argue it is a subtle, beautiful and rich work.

But I came out feeling an uncanny urge to watch some Bill Viola. Inappropriate and unfair as this may be, Umeda’s diptych seemed to have tickled just the right part of me. By putting on a hi-tech binge of sub-emotional effect, which buzzes but also fizzes away, it seems to provoke a need for a hi-tech sub-emotional experience that hits you in the gut instead. It was as if we came out on a dubious, nervous high, and needed to validate it with a satisfying come-down.

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5 thoughts on “Capsule review: Hiroaki Umeda’s Adapting for Distortion & Haptic. Or: Dude Dance.

  1. John says:

    But is a binary distinction between ‘technology’ and ’emotion’ really tenable? I think the two are indistinguishable, despite a century of discourse which sets them up in opposition. Trust me, the world would not look anything like it does if certain people didn’t understand how to manipulate our affective responses to certain shapes of technology (from ipods to strip mining) and growing up in this world probably means that our subconsciouses are moulded around techne.

    That said, I think I totally understand what you’re getting at but would argue that these works activate a pre-cognitive affective response, not the sort that drama or even Bill Viola’s stuff punch away at. I think most people left Umeda’s pieces feeling a bit shaken and nervous, but not in a way they could necessarily articulate.

    • Jana says:

      Funny you should bring it up pre-cognitive affective response just as I’m neck-deep in it (finishing my thesis)..! Yes, it certainly is, that’s what I was getting at by setting up the analogy with Bill Viola (who does the same, in my opinion, while also making ample references to literary, visual arts and theatrical canon in a way that allows you to relatively easily make sense of it later). Yes, I think Umeda’s work doesn’t have that referentiality, and I think that has an effect on the affective dimension of the work (as you say). If I sounded like I was making a distinction between technology and affect, I wasn’t. Rave culture is a perfect example of how close the two are. (Technology and emotion is a different story altogether, though: if we can agree that emotion, unlike affect or feeling, is cognitive, then it’s the stuff of drama, not of Hiroaki Umeda. I am even tempted to call Viola’s work fundamentally about feeling, not emotion. But I tried to avoid the whole question in a capsule review, because I’m writing a thesis on it already, and most MIAF-goers aren’t.)

      In fact, you’ve just given me a question to ask: to what extent is the contemporary interest in affect driven by technological advances, and consequent intrusions into what was previously un…manipulable perhaps?

      My objection is still, and simply, about the depth of the affective experience. Considering the possibilities thereof, Umeda’s work struck me as a very high-GI, high-carb, high-salt version of what could have been much more complex. As I said, Wayne McGregor’s work is exactly the sort I think of, which is yes, technological and masculine and devoid of articulated emotion (as opposed to affect), but builds up into something sublime nonetheless. Or Merce Cunningham, to be terribly blunt?

      I’m trying not to be terribly unfair to Umeda, because I do think what he’s doing is very skilled, well-thought-through, and interesting. I am just uncomfortable with praising a work just because it looks like a cool computer game. Or, and this is worse, reading it as a critique of what it represents – which would be lazy and irresponsible. I mean, you know, walking down the street also provokes a pre-cognitive affective response, and so do Beckett’s plays on stage (for me, at least).

      If we read Umeda’s works as experiments of sorts into affect (and I think I was ready to read Haptic as such, maybe because it seemed less intent on causing me pain), isolating and breaking down the stimuli and contributing factors, then I guess there is value in the way they seem to much poorer and less complex than the experience of walking down the street. Is that the case you would want to argue for? Because I see how that could work, easily.

  2. John says:

    I definitely wouldn’t read it as a critique of what it represents, either – too easy and pretty unjustified, as you say. I’d be happy to praise a work just because it looks like a cool computer game, on the other hand, if it was the right kind of computer game.

    Maybe the basic question here is: is a whizz-bang visual extravaganza enough? It probably depends on the kind of spectacle in question. If it’s a computer-y light show, for some the answer will be no. If it’s pure, formal displays of outstanding technique – a huge amount of modern and classical dance – for others the same answer applies. But both will be of great interest to those who do have some kind of investment in dance or technology or whatever, I guess.

    I suppose I’m just not sure how much ‘depth’ you can ever attribute to any work as if it’s an epistemological fact, but I’m an old postmodernist wanker that way.

  3. Ian Woodcock says:

    As the guy who introduced Baron-Cohen into the foyer conversation, perhaps I should add something to this thread. The autism of boys was of course, a joke, and a gross misrepresentation of what B-C actually does say – which is, that autism is an extreme form of the male brain.

    However less interesting than the binary between technology and emotion is the one between boys and girls, but the dudes and dudettes division seems to have slipped under the radar as though this is less problematic! How interesting. If it’s possible to get away with critical commentary on the basis of ‘this was written by a boy’ without raising any eyebrows, then would it be possible to do the same with a charge of ‘this was written by a girl’?

    So back to the good Professor and the implications of his theories about sex-differences. If as B-C suggests, half the population has an emotional profile that matches a continuum from mild aspergers to acute autism, and the other half do not, then is a normative definition of emotion tenable? Is it ethical to invalidate the emotional landscape of an aspergers with the yardstick of … well, a ‘normality’ that is only potentially true for 50% of the population? Maybe an understanding of the differences of possible emotional landscapes is what work like this makes available. As an aside, think about what ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ has been (mis)taken for – the inside of an aspergers boy’s mind. Mark Haddon fervently denies this is what the book is about, that the main character is based on many different people, yet it speaks to very many people, some even with ‘depth’ of insight. I have yet to be diagnosed with aspergers, but I empathised with the boy in the book, all a bit of a paradox really.

    I certainly felt something was ‘going on’ at a ‘deeper level’ while watching Umeda, and I was also aware of a feeling that Jana wouldn’t like it. While the work may not be a ‘critique’ of what it represents, maybe it presents an aspect of the condition some of us inhabit, and does it very well. If that’s special boys’ business, so be it. Thus, unless the work was funded under a non-gender specific program, or explicitly makes universalist claims for itself, it seems pretty pointless to write it off for some kind of gender-based deficiency. Maybe it is a work that can only be fully accessed by boys, critiqued by boys, appreciated by boys. It seems such a silly thing to say, but then, it’s a show performed by a man, designed, choreographed, lit and scored by a man!

    If it causes pain, why does that invalidate it as a work of worth? Of course walking down a street is no less a human experience (composed as it is of pre-cognitive and cognitive, affective, etc dimensions) than any performance work. But not all streets are the same, not all streets are pleasant, interesting, painless. Should all streets be judged with the same yardstick? Should a Melbourne Laneway be judged by the same criteria as the Champs Elysees?

  4. “All possible interpretations of Adapting for Distortion as metaphors for how contemporary technology eats people are as possible as they are simplistic: how innovative and progressive to produce the very object of purported critique”?

    Aw cmon Jana. That’s a bit mean, isn’t it? The critique producing the object of critique is a cheap old stab. Not saying you can’t use it, but you have to marshal your evidence pretty specifically to back it up. After all, the argument potentially applies to any attempt at mimesis in art: Do we discard alienation techniques in theatre because they’re metaphors for contemporary alienation? No wonder you didn’t find affective depth!

    I read Adapting For Distortion as a more specific critique of Japanese culture, especially their legions of otaku (geek recluses, deprived of social experience usually through an obsession with computer games). I found it alternately hypnotic and tedious; the longer it went on the more sad and distressing it got. The visuals were also weirdly retro and nostalgic – very Apple II E.

    I guess there’s more affect involved if you’ve actually lost friends to computer games (as more will with each generation, I suspect – it was certainly an emotionally labile motif in The Endarkenment, the Gen Y pedal-powered opera I saw @ The Fringe).

    As for Haptic, well you gotta give the Umeda credit for independently discovering the Melbourne shuffle fifteen years on. I loled at the Super Mario line btw.

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