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Tracing Electronic Gesture


















The past two centuries have seen extraordinary developments in media technologies. These include the rise of the phonograph and other forms of sound recording, the emergence of such visual media as comics, film and animation, not to mention the computer and the forms of digital mediation it has sired. Spanning art objects and practices across such media, my research is concerned with how media technologies have mutually shaped our embodiment.

Driven by an overarching interest in the mutations of our bodies, as well as shifting philosophical and artistic perspectives on human embodiment, I also research non-normative bodies, such as monsters, cyborgs and "freak" shows, in performance and representation. My work is informed by approaches from media studies, performance studies, disability studies, and the history and philosophy of technology.

I took this photograph during a workshop led by the musician and inventor, Onyx Ashanti. Ashanti designs and 3D prints his own gestural interfaces for making music, and he was among the musicians I observed and interviewed for the project. 

For many of us, our everyday gestures are encounters with pens, keyboards, touchscreens and controllers of all stripes. New technologies bring a variety of new movements into our repertoire: the fluid motion of a pen scribbling on paper yields to the familiar patter of fingers flying across a keyboard, and back again. Contemporary digital technologies such as writing tablets and styluses borrow the physical gestures from handwriting. Escaping the keyboard, these technologies return us to the gestural experience of writing, even on a digital platform.

In a changing economy of motion, our gestures are bearers of cultural and technological change. My research uses art objects and practices across different media to understand the significance of these evolving encounters.

Electronic Gesture

While digital technologies have become instrumental for how many people engage with the world at large, they are often described by their fracturing effects. Such media supposedly divorce us  from the embodied connection of more traditional forms, a story that becomes more clear framed in terms of gesture. By this logic, an image drawn by hand is more authentic than one rendered onscreen and music strummed on a guitar more expressive and richly human than sound created with an electronic controller. My research traces out new forms of electronic gesture in art that complicate this story.


Like the digital stylus, some contemporary art practices borrow dynamic elements of gesture from prior forms. Like sampling in music, this borrowing allows artists to creatively use and recontextualize these movements and their cultural meanings.  Rather than impeding human creativity, the structure of the bit characteristic of digital technologies makes this possible.


I explore this gestural sampling in four classic artistic media: writing, drawing, dance and music. In this way, I create a taxonomy of mediated gesture, from gesture as signmaking and markmaking, to the space of recording and live performance.

This project merges approaches from media studies, performance studies, art history, cartooning, literary studies, sound studies, the history and philosophy of technology, musical ethnography and auto-ethnography.

It spans art objects and practices across the whole art system, including works by dancer Bill T. Jones, artist Saul Steinberg, cartoonist Lynda Barry, poet Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha and musicians Onyx Ashanti, DiViNCi and Jeremy Ellis, and many others. It also addresses cutting-edge hacked and "Maker" technologies, such as Ashanti's gestural system, virtual dance created with Kinects, and a device known as the EyeWriter, which allows a disabled street artist to draw with only his eyes. 

During my fieldwork, DiViNCi invited me to play around on his controllers, and I made my first song, Monkey Rave, which you can listen to here. 

I drew these images as part of my attendance at the cartoonist Lynda Barry's "Writing the Unthinkable" workshop, held at the Omega Institute in upstate New York in Summer 2016. Each day, Lynda asked us to sketch, in 3 minutes, a cartoon of ourselves in various incarnations. Here I am as a sea monster, as royalty and at the disco. This workshop helped me deepen my account of the phenomenology of drawing by hand, and how digital forms of drawing depart from these gestures. 

Monkey Rave - Vanessa Chang
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These images, which I took at DiViNCi's home studio, capture this musician performing complex gestural sequences on his Akai MPCs. These powerful production tools are among a number of others he uses in his production and performances. 

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