LOOPS – New Iterations

Massachusetts Institute of Technology / MIT Museum
Building N51 265 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02139
Open Daily 10am – 5pm / Closed Major Holidays
Opening Reception April 24, 5:30pm – 7:30pm, free and open to the public
Exhibition Dates: April 24 – May 10, 2009


In 2001, the Media Lab held an art exhibition, entitled ID/entity. Organized by Judith Donath, it brought together nationally known new media artists with Media Lab researchers. One of the projects was created by the artist team of Paul Kaiser and Shelly Eshkar, together with Marc Downie of the Media Lab. These three still collaborate together as the team known as OpenEnded Group. For their ID/entity project, they motion-captured the renown choreographer Merce Cunningham performing his one person dance, Loops, that he had created as part of his repertoire in 1971. They then wrote software that used the motion-capture data set to create a screen based abstract digital portrait of Cunningham that runs in real time and never repeats. Loops continually draws from the data set so that the screen performance is always “live.” Subsequently, they ported their Loops software to new open source software they wrote called Field.

In February of 2008, the Cunningham Foundation and OpenEnded Group put the original choreography of Loops, the motion-capture data set, the Loops software written in Field, and the subsequent soundtrack all online as open source under a Creative Commons license with the help of the Mellon Foundation. Boston Cyberarts, with the help of the LEF Foundation, asked three artists, Brian Knep, Golan Levin and Casey Reas and one artist team, Sosolimited (Eric Gunther, Justin Manor, and John Rothenberg) to use this opportunity to reinterpret Loops as new artworks for the 2009 Boston Cyberarts Festival.

Visit the original Loops website

Merce in Motion by Brian Knep, 2009

"The reinterpretation, in 2001, of Merce Cunningham’s Loops by the OpenEnded Group gave his performance new life. Within the dance and digital-art worlds Loops was a wonderful crossing of boundaries, using cutting-edge technology to capture and transform the work of a cultural icon. The project is big and beautiful, and I am grateful that the captured data is now available. Watching the reference video, however, I found myself drawn again and again to Merce’s facial expressions, or lack thereof. As he has aged, Loops has become smaller and more intimate, moving from full-body performance to finger and wrist movements. The video captures more than choreography, it captures the evolution, adaptation, and aging of an artist and of a man.

I have isolated Merce’s face in the reference video, extract and enhance it using super-resolution and other techniques, so as to display it full screen to visitors, forcing them to slow down, focus, and pay attention to the minute movements of face, shoulders, and breath. The contrast between his facial expressions and his hand motions is emphasized by the juxtaposition of this piece with the others in the show. What are Merce’s thoughts while he is performing? Why is the face so relatively static as the hands flitter about? Are the subtle motions and micro-expressions part of the dance? And as he ages, could Merce perform Loops with face alone?"
— Brian Knep

Brian Knep is a new-media artist who uses science and technology to explore change, healing, struggle, and acceptance. Often his works are dynamic and respond to changes in their environment. Some are simply aware of the passage of time while others are interactive, sensing and reacting to the people around them. Knep has had solo shows at the New Britain Museum of American Art, the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and Arizona State University and has been part of group shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Laval Virtual in France, MobileArt in Sweden, and the Insa Art Center in Korea, among others. His works have won awards from Ars Electronica, Americans for the Arts, AICA/New England and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2005 Knep became the first artist-in-residence at Harvard Medical School in a program co-sponsored by Harvard’s Office for the Arts. Knep lives and works in Boston and is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NY and Judi Rotenberg Gallery, Boston.

Merce by C.E.B. Reas, 2009

The Merce software is an interpretation of a motion-captured performance of Merce Cunningham performing Loops, a solo dance he choreographed for himself in 1971. The motion-capture session took place in August 2000, as a part of Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar, and Marc Downie’s Loops project.

Merce is a reflection on the aesthetics of Cunningham’s choreography, the qualities of his set and costume design, and mixture of references to the Loops work specifically. The result is visually minimal diagram with the aspiration to focus the viewer’s attention on the quality motion and the relationships between the elements. The two primary visual forms in the piece (left and right) each move according to the data captured from one hand.

C.E.B. REAS (b. 1972 in Troy, OH) lives and works in Los Angeles. He focuses on defining processes and translating them into images. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of Design | Media Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles.

REAS has exhibited his work internationally at institutions including Laboral (Gijon, Spain), The Cooper-Hewitt Museum (New York), and the National Museum for Art, Architecture, and Design (Oslo), at independent venues including Telic Arts Exchange (Los Angeles), <>TAG (The Hague), and Ego Park (Oakland), at galleries including Bitforms (New York), BANK (Los Angeles), and [DAM] Berlin, and at festivals including Sonar (Barcelona), Ars Electronica (Linz), and Microwave (Hong Kong). He has lectured at institutions including University of Applied Arts Vienna, The Royal Academy of Art (The Hague), and the NTT ICC (Tokyo), and at artist-run spaces including Machine Project (Los Angeles) and Atelier Nord (Oslo).

With Ben Fry, REAS initiated Processing.org in 2001. Processing is an open source programming language and environment for creating images, animation, and interaction. In September 2007, they published Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, a 736 page comprehensive introduction to programming within the context of visual media (MIT Press).

Merce by C.E.B. Reas

Ascenders & Descenders
A typographic reinterpretation of Loops
by Sosolimited (Eric Gunther, Justin Manor, and John Rothenberg), 2009

Critics of dance analyze it, reason with it, deconstruct it, criticize it, explicate it – toward the goal of a deeper understanding, an illumination of the work, it’s creator, and it’s place in the world. Despite the expressive power of words though, they cannot move us in the way real human movement can. One can write volumes describing a dance and barely put a dent in the reader’s ability to aesthetically experience the work. At the same time, for a performance art such as dance, words have been the only means of accessing the work for many.

Ascenders & Descenders is a typographic reinterpretation of Merce Cunningham’s dancing hands as recorded by OpenEnded Group for the Loops project. The piece cannot exist without the feeble words that huff and puff to make sense of Merce’s work. It is, in a sense, a Cunningham dance work reconstructed from textual deconstructions of other Cunningham dance works. Each finger has an associated excerpt from an article, review, or essay on Cunningham from the last five decades. These texts become the ink with which each finger manifests its movements. Each text is dynamically typeset in three dimensional space along the curves traced by his fingertips.

The software keeps track of various movement parameters which it uses to modulate aspects of the visualization such as letter size, camera position, angle, and zoom. Merce not only dances the dance, but becomes typesetter and cinematographer, conducting the audience’s view of the dance. In Cunningham fashion, the piece forgoes narrative development for a series of chance operations that determine one of three views onto the movements as well the current finger being tracked.

In the process of reading a text, each word has a lifespan and trajectory in our memory. Movement is no different – through mirror neurons we form motor memories of a dance as we watch. The fading letter animations play on our imperfect memories of words and movement.

We felt that the use of computer graphics warranted new views onto – and into – the movement, radically different than those seen on a stage or even on a video recording. Speaking about his work, Cunningham says, "In classical ballet as I learned it, and even in my early experience of the modern dance, the space was observed in terms of a proscenium stage, it was frontal. What if, as in my pieces, you decide to make any point on the stage equally interesting?" What, from the outside, appear to be subtle manipulations of the hands become a beautiful tangle of diving flocks and waterfalls of letters. Presenting dance in this way, we hope to get closer to the experience of the dance from the inside out.

Open Source Software Statement

We are in the process of porting the software for this piece into OpenFrameworks, an open source C++ library. As both programmers and artists, we are at an exciting turning point. Shortly before embarking on the Loops project, we decided to embrace the open source approach and community. It is clearly the future! There is an adjustment period of course and we are currently in the middle of it. Thanks for your patience.

Sosolimited is a Cambridge-based audiovisual art and design trio formed in 2003. The group takes a unique approach to video performance, creating their own software to remix live media. They performed ReConstitution, a live remix of the 2008 Presidential Debates. Their installation work is highly informed by their performance practice and represents a confluence of their overlapping backgrounds. They are interested in creating artwork that preserves and plays on the immediacy of media such as television and video camera, often deconstructing and transforming their source material in real time.

Ascenders & Descenders
A typographic reinterpretation of Loops

Ascenders & Descenders
A typographic reinterpretation of Loops

Merce’s Isosurface
by Golan Levin, April 2009

Software: Golan Levin, April 2009
Dance Performance: Merce Cunningham
Motion Capture Data: Cunningham Foundation and OpenEnded Group
Mocap parsing code: Lucas Walter, Bioviewer
Metaball code: Andreas Jönsson, Angelcode
Mocap file conversion: Moshe Mahler, CMU
Developed in openFrameworks.
Commissioned by the 2009 Boston Cyberarts Festival.

Merce’s Isosurface returns a mortal coil to the disembodied datapoints of Merce Cunningham’s 2008 “Loops” performance. Here, the digitally captured coordinates of Cunningham’s fingers and knuckle joints are used to structure a smooth field of simulated energy. The result is a twitchy, fleshy blob, animated by Cunningham’s own movements, which dances in the liminal territory between pure abstract form and medical information visualization.

Golan Levin’s work combines equal measures of the whimsical, the provocative, and the sublime in a wide variety of online, installation and performance media. His projects include Dialtones [2001], a concert whose sounds are wholly performed through the carefully choreographed dialing and ringing of the audience’s own mobile phones, and The Secret Lives of Numbers [2002], an interactive information visualization of global numeracy. Previously, Levin received awards in the Prix Ars Electronica and elsewhere for his Audiovisual Environment Suite [1999] software and its accompanying audiovisual performance, Scribble [2000]. Other projects from recent years include Re:MARK [2002], Messa di Voce [2003], and The Manual Input Sessions [2004], developed in collaboration with Zachary Lieberman, and Scrapple [2005] and Ursonography [2005]; these performance and installation works use augmented-reality technologies to create multi-person, real-time visualizations of their participants’ speech and gestures. Levin’s current projects, such as Opto-Isolator [2007] and Double-Taker (Snout) [2008], employ interactive robotics and machine vision to explore the theme of eye contact as a primary new mode for human-machine communication. Levin is Associate Professor of Electronic Time-Based Art and Director of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

Merce’s Isosurface
by Golan Levin
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