Atelier course hosts human flocking performance
It was the second of two events organized by Flock Logic, a new performance organization that began as a collaboration between mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Naomi Leonard and dance professor Susan Marshall. The organization creates movement-based performances that vary depending on where they take place.
Marshall and Leonard’s idea developed into an Atelier course, ATL 498/ DAN 451: Collective Motion/Site Specific Event. The 12 students in the class were involved in all aspects of the Flock Logic project.
“As the name suggests, we’re inspired by bird flocks and fish schools, and in particular the understanding that this collective behavior doesn’t emerge from a prescribed choreography or even from designated leaders in the group, but rather from simple rules governing how individuals respond to what others around them are doing,” Leonard said.
The project explores what happens when people follow the rules of collective motion, which researchers had previously applied to groups of animals.
“We want to learn about human behavior in this context and to understand and facilitate this kind of human collective motion,” Leonard explained. “It’s an integration of ideas from engineering, science and mathematics, together with ideas from choreography, dance and improvisation.”
Last year, Leonard spoke about her research into collective motion in robotics as part of the President’s Lecture Series. After hearing the talk, Marshall approached Leonard with the idea of applying the ideas to dancers.
“We were hoping to get people across all disciplines,” Leonard said. “We got people who could contribute creatively from all different perspectives.”
To plan for the larger project, the students worked with a simulator designed by Willa Chen ’13 to experiment with different rules, such as the guideline that individuals stay within three feet of their nearest neighbor. Rules led to a balance between group cohesion and repulsion, and the students studied the patterns that emerged.
“We were basically playing as a group to see what worked and what looked interesting,” Elizabeth Cooper ’12 noted.
“We wanted to go beyond what animals would do,” Marshall told the audience after the event. “The students got way outside the box.”
After experimenting over the course of the semester, the students recruited volunteers for the two culminating performances, including Monday’s at the Rocky common room and one on Sunday in the atrium of Icahn Laboratory.
Leonard, Marshall and the students in the class all said that they were very pleased with the response. About 40 volunteers participated in each performance, and each also drew an audience of roughly 40. Three professional dancers from Marshall’s dance company also participated in Monday’s event.
During the performance, volunteers followed the direction of a few leaders, who had advanced information on how the performance would progress and stayed close to the flock while trying to avoid “predators” with flashing lights.
Sarah Fingerhood ’11, a volunteer flocker, noted that although leaders had extra information, when everyone was moving together it was less clear who was leading and who was following.
“You can’t tell who has the information and who doesn’t,” she said. “Information isn’t a static thing; it’s like how animals in a flock would learn from their parents.”
Although there have only been two live performances so far, Leonard said they have already gained surprising insights.
“There’s something very beautiful about it, a wonderful balance between the predictable and the unpredictable,” Leonard said. “Because everyone is so different and responds differently to those around them, they all add a subtle variation, and that’s what makes it so rich.”
Participants enjoyed the flocking experience, describing it as calming and almost therapeutic.
“You can really get lost in the group element,” said Gabe Greenwood ’12, a student in the class.
The team plans to analyze videos of the events to see how human flocking sheds light on behavior and to see which guidelines result in the most aesthetic patterns. Leonard added that they are considering additional performances throughout the year.
“This is a very new idea,” Chen said. “No one has really combined the artistic and scientific aspects. They’re trying to create something groundbreaking.”