Corporeal meets ethereal: Provocative performance blends video, dance and VR

Professor Freya Björg Olafson’s body of work has been recognized as cutting edge on an international stage. This month, the intermedia artist in the Department of Dance premieres a new performance work in Winnipeg that promises to deliver a heady and immersive experience for all.

The best contemporary art can’t be pigeonholed into one genre because, more often than not, it combines a variety of approaches in new and innovative ways that press or even coerce the viewer/participant into considering their own reality. Simply put: It demands more of the viewer. This is the engaging terrain of York University Professor and intermedia artist Freya Björg Olafson.

poster screen capture of Olafso's show

Freya Olafson’s “MÆ – Motion Aftereffect”

Premiering last year (Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, 2019) at the Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE) in Winnipeg, Man., Olafson’s “MÆ – Motion Aftereffect” is an unforgettable interactive, multimedia experience. It successfully blends dance, video, audio and virtual reality (VR), blurring the lines between the real and the virtual.

Trailer for MÆ-Motion Aftereffect Premiere Oct. 30 to Nov. 3,2019 from Freya Olafson on Vimeo.

“The MÆ project is a new work that aims to catalyze conversations about contemporary culture and performance while imagining societies future with advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, 360 video and related technologies,” Olafson explains.

“Boldly, and with levity and humour, Freya’s imagination and craft gives us a playful window into a world that we can only begin to imagine,” says PTE’s Artistic Director, Thomas Morgan Jones.

Olafson’s work combines different genres in a whole new way

Olafson came to York University just over two years ago. If one were to study her work over the years, to trace her evolution as an artist, it would be clear that she has embraced tremendous dexterity. She easily and naturally ventures into different media or genres, unfettered by conventional barriers.

Freya Björg Olafson

Freya Björg Olafson

A dozen years ago, for example, Olafson was a bold figurative painter. In the photo below Olafson sits in front of her New Icelander Series (2006). “In my early studio work, I based performances off of paintings and I created sets and props. This is before I started integrating video into my live works,” she explains.

Today, she is best known as an interdisciplinary artist and pioneering dancer/choreographer on the world stage. Between these two points in time, there have been many exciting developments in her work that drove the seamless shift from painting (a static, two-dimensional art form) to dance and VR – kinetic, three-dimensional art forms that engage viewers in wholly new ways.

Her most recent work centres around identity and the body informed by technology and the Internet, no doubt informed by her six years of classical training at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. This new work considers what it means to be present in our contemporary screen-obsessed world and constructs an experience that interrogates the impact of technology on our bodies and psyches.

It’s not a heavy-handed delivery; Olafson’s performances are elegant, sophisticated. They feature evocative and multi-layered images with figures and shapes disappearing and re-emerging in a ghostly, elusive way. For audiences, the impact of these works is borne of the experience in its entirety.

“Motion Aftereffect” hones in on out-of-body experience

“Motion Aftereffect” is a body of work that comprises multiple short video works, this upcoming live performance and in the near future a VR installation for exhibition in galleries. Funded by the Manitoba Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, “MÆ – Motion Aftereffect” was developed, from 2017 to 2019, through residences in Montreal, Portland, Winnipeg and San Francisco.

 “MÆ - Motion Aftereffect” series, Freya Olafson (2017). Photo credit: Robbie Sweeny.

“MÆ – Motion Aftereffect” series, Freya Olafson (2017). Photo credit: Robbie Sweeny

The premiere in Winnipeg is the latest incarnation of the series.

Olafson explains what is going on and what the viewers would see: “Onstage, I am working with live digital painting with a green screen glitch effect. Often in my work, I aim to conflate the live body with projections of digital figures/avatars. I also work with found video footage of folks testing out their home motion capture systems. In a later section of the work I actually use the VR headset.”

This work asks viewers to consider their own reality, through VR technology, to effectively destabilize meaning(s) of the corporeal body.

As Olafson noted, the project references and uses a variety of Internet content – such as material from open source motion capture libraries, ready-made 3D human models and monologues of individuals recounting their experiences with VR in live gameplay, explorative worlds and VR porn. “These texts and visuals combine with YouTube monologues about out-of-body experiences and astral projection,” she explains.

“MÆ - Motion Aftereffect” series, video stills: Freya Olafson (2017), overlaid photo credit: Ian McCausland

“MÆ – Motion Aftereffect” series, video stills: Freya Olafson (2017), overlaid photo credit: Ian McCausland

In an out-of-body experience, a person perceives the world from a location outside of their physical body. Astral projection (sometimes called astral travel) describes a person’s intentional out-of-body experience. This assumes the existence of a soul or consciousness, called an ‘astral body,’ that is separate from the physical body and capable of travelling outside and far beyond it – in fact, throughout the universe.

The result is a one-of-a-kind experience for viewers.

What’s next for Olafson? Upcoming publications include a score/script of her performance work AVATAR as part of Canadian Playwrights Press’ 2021 anthology on Digital Theatre in Canada.

Funding acknowledgement: The development of “MÆ – Motion Aftereffect” was possible via the AR/VR Artist Research Residency Pilot organized by Oregon Story Board, Eyebeam and Upfor Gallery in Portland as well as the 13th annual Montréal Choreographic Workshop. In 2017, this work was developed through the CounterPulse (San Francisco) ‘Artist Residency Commissioning Program’ with lead support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, and the Ken Hempel Fund for the Arts.

To learn more about Olafson, visit her website or Faculty profile page. To learn more about the show in Winnipeg, visit her website or the PTE site.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca