Dance As a Language for Design

For Gediminas Urbonas, the real project isn’t art or design. The real project is language. “At the turn of the last century, artists and designers created a visual language to help explore the complexities of their era–the automobiles and trains and communications that were transforming their lives,” says Urbonas, Associate Professor in the Art, Culture, and Technology program at MIT (ACT.) “Today we have even greater complexities in our lives: climate change, social justice, and now war. And we need to create an even more inclusive and elastic language to navigate them.”

One place where Urbonas and his students work to build that lexicon is “Studio Seminar in Art & the Public Sphere,” a course he has taught since 2014 at ACT. Created in the 1970s by Gyorgy Kepes, the founder of CAVS, the course leads students through the conception, planning, and realization of public art projects. Class work and critiques are coupled with field trips and a series of challenging readings. There is even foreign travel: past classes, before COVID, visited public art sites and cultural events in Reykjavík, Sao Paulo, and Havana.

“We are interested in a language that can slip between fields and disciplines,” says Urbonas. “A language that lets us smuggle knowledge from multiple domains: the political domain; the social domain; and of course visual arts. For all of us, this is a laboratory, in theory and in practice.”


Dancing In The Streets

The Studio Seminar draws students and ideas from myriad disciplines. In many editions, Urbonas  teaches in tandem with a visiting artist or practitioner, often from a field not usually associated with design. “However radical we may believe our convictions to be, it’s important that these convictions be disrupted from time to time,” Urbonas explains. “Bringing these artists in residence creates that disruption. And it creates a space that encourages all of us to seek new truths.”

For the Spring 2022 seminar, which is titled “Choreographing the City,” Urbonas invited choreographer and Theatum Mundi Fellow  Adesola Akinleye, to join him as a visiting artist. “I believe there are knowledges in dance that can be useful beyond the field of dance,” says Akinleye,  an Assistant Professor in the Dance Division at Texas Woman’s University and co-artistic director of DancingStrong Movement Lab. Her MIT artist’s residency is supported by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). She and Urbonas also collaborated on “Morning Conversations at MIT,” a podcast series that further explores the connections between dance, choreography, and place making.

“When we move together, as in dance, we feel how both space and time lack permanence. They change as we experience them. I see movement as method. It’s a different perspective, but one I believe can resonate across all our practices. And that hopefully will help designers create places that better respond to the experience of those inhabiting them..”


Keeping Score

Along with lecturing and mentoring, Akinleye leads the seminar students through movements designed to expand their vision and perception. On a field trip this February, students walked along the banks of the Mystic River in Medford while listening to a site-specific audio app. One of the artists featured in the audio app, ACT alumna and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe member Erin Genia (SMACT ‘19), met the group on the riverbank to discuss Indigenous approaches to art and the environment.

There were non-verbal elements as well. Akinleye—who was not present—had prescribed a series of choreographies or “scores” for the students to perform during their walk. In one exercise, an exploration of stillness and motion, she had students pause to balance on one foot and focus on their relationship with the ground. In another, students drew a slow imaginary arc across the land and sky with their outstretched hands, following those hands with their eyes as if their bodies were enormous compasses. “We are thinking of our eyes as the last extension of the spine, using them in this way is  almost like taking a journey through the core of your body,” Akinleye  explains. “ And when you look at something with your core, with love in your eyes, that thing is changed.”

For some students, Akinleye’s approach was a stretch at first. “I admit I had my doubts,” says Terry Kang ’22, one of two undergraduates enrolled in the 13-person class. A math and computer science major, Kang also works in pixel art, exploring interactions between individual pixels and groups. “But I was surprised at how effective the scores were. When I balanced on one foot, I remember thinking how refreshing it was to pause long enough to consider just being in that environment. And I remember all of it, the river, the bank, the ice, in a different way than I would have otherwise.”


Manifesto for Motion

This past March, at a midterm review, the 13 seminar students presented their preliminary research—their “Manifesto”—to the class. The topics varied widely. Some were pragmatic. Some were highly theoretical. Some were fanciful. In his Manifesto, undergraduate Terry Kang drew parallels between the algorithms that determine pixel behavior and the connections humans form with other humans. “I wanted to focus on human connections and kindness,” says Kang. “In the artwork, pixels change colors according to the surrounding pixels. You can think of each pixel as a human agent, whose actions are based on the actions of the people around them.”

Yiou Wang, a multimedia artist and third year Master of Architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who cross registered for the course, spoke of creating a human video game avatar that would move, behave, and ultimately live as a mouse. “Adesola then shared a story with me,” says Wang. “About a married man who accidentally  kept his lover within the walls of his house. Gradually, this lover grew accustomed to living in the wall. In essence, she lived more like a mouse than a human. It was the perfect metaphor.”

The MIT community will also have an opportunity to experience the connections between Akinleye’s choreographic thinking and the built environment in “Choreographing the Campus.” This project includes a series of campus walks and a video of Akinleye using a dance lexicon Akinleye developed during her time at MIT. The walks use dance to better understand spaces in and around MIT. Students are encouraged to film their own walks and upload them at #ChoreograpingtheCampus. 

Rethinking our Thinking

The search for a new vocabulary may well lead Urbonas, Akinleye, and their students to new techniques in design (and choreography)  and to more effective and compelling ways for artists to engage with the public. Still, Urbonas and Akinleye want their seminar students to first reset their minds–and bodies. “We have to shift our thinking on so many levels,” Urbonas says. “We need to consider the needs of human communities who were traditionally disregarded. We can no longer ignore the presence and needs of non-humans. It’s a question of justice. In this class, we offer students a learning environment where they can develop their own positions and vocabulary. After they do that we can start talking about design.”

By Ken Shulman
Editorial Direction by Leah Talatinian, Arts at MIT

Posted on April 4, 2022 by Tim Lemp