Figuring: Bodies, Materiality and Touch in a Multi-Person Virtual Reality – Developing an Ethics of Care/Touch in Participatory Performance Practice

Guest post, by Lisa May Thomas

Figuring is a participatory performance which uses a multi-person virtual reality framework [1] to explore bodies, materiality and touch. It was prototyped for 30 invited participants, who ranged from scientists and technologists to artists and curators, in September 2018 at the University of Bristol. The project is led by dance artist and researcher Lisa May Thomas. It brought together an experienced team of dancers, designers, digital technicians, and computational scientists, enabling an exchange of skills and knowledge between scientific and artistic practices.

FIGURING R&D WICKHAM THEATRE BRISTOL 2018 PB-140 (1).JPGFig 1: Dancer and project Artistic Director Lisa May Thomas, and Figuring Dancer Ania Varez. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

Figuring takes its name from its intention to explore ‘string figures’, which are created through simple movements of folding, looping, twisting, and knotting strings between the hands, fingers and thumbs of one or more people. String figures have evolved as a generational mechanism for the transmission of stories, knowledge and value systems across the world and are present in many different cultures. Through choreographic processes in Figuring, string figures were transposed from fingers to bodies: long strings and elastics of varying tactile and physical qualities were brought into the dance space as physical structures for bodies to collectively move within. These body-scale string figures offer a mechanism – as responsive structures – for connecting bodies like nodes within a network, enabling bodies to feel the dynamics and physicalities of other bodies through space. Through the Figuring project processes, ways in which these structures could enable different connections between participants and how this information might be transferred in some way to connect bodies which are simultaneously embedded in virtual spaces were explored.

FIGURING R&D WICKHAM THEATRE BRISTOL 2018 PB-91.JPGFig 2: The Figuring team collective play with string figures. Team members from left to right: Alex Jones, Mike O’Connor, and Philippa Thomas. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

The research with physical strings also guided ideas toward accessing ways in which bodies, embedded in the same virtual environment, can collaboratively construct string figures using simulated strings. Proteins, which are effectively pieces of molecular string, and which are the essential building blocks of all life forms, form the ‘raw material’ for these virtual string figures. The ability to make folds, loops, twists, and knots in a simulated molecular string is possible using a multi-person VR framework that lets people touch and interact with real-time protein simulations. The development of this technology has been led by Philip Leverhulme and Royal Society Research Fellow David Glowacki who is scientific lead for the Figuring project.

Prior to Figuring, I worked on two other artistic projects which explored touch in very different ways: The Touch Diaries (TTD, 2016), and Dances with Avatars (DwA, 2017). In TTD audience-participants were invited to touch the dancers during a performance-sharing to reveal content about diaries where people had written about their touch experiences. This invitation to audience members revealed that, whilst some people were happy to come forth and engage in touching the dancers, others held back and preferred not to touch. In DwA the relationship between the ways in which participants move, interact and touch another avatar in a virtual environment and the visual representation of that environment and of the bodies within it was investigated. DwA findings revealed that the conventions for participation and touch vary considerably dependent on these visual representations. [2] Technology can and does mediate interaction and exchange and allows conventions for participation that move beyond the normative. In a technologically-aided virtual environment, participants can quite often find themselves emboldened to do things they would not ‘normally’ do. The multi-person VR framework that is being used and developed through the Figuring project enables the unique capacity of a shared VR experience in which participants are co-present both virtually and physically. There is much to explore in this territory, such as the aesthetic of the visual virtual body/environment and the relationship between this and the behaviour and interaction of participants, the ways in which people recognise and move with each other in the VE; and the issues and ethics that arise with shared participation using this technology.[3]

Figuring is a participatory performance experience which shapes an interplay between physical, virtual, and imagined materials or phenomenon through a sensory participatory journey through four environments. A crucial element in the development and design of Figuring has been about creating an ethics of care with the dancers, in their roles as guides, witnesses, and often as unseen bodies who spoke to, touched, and moved the participants during this journey. The continuum for each participant’s experience through their Figuring journey was their relationship to the dancers, and often to one dancer in particular. The vernacular for the touch, movement and words articulated by the dancers in Figuring was woven through all of the environments passed through by the participants and supported the transitions between these environments.

FIGURING R&D WICKHAM THEATRE BRISTOL 2018 PB-141.JPGFig 3: Developing an ethics of care in and out of VR. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

FIGURING R&D WICKHAM THEATRE BRISTOL 2018 PB-148.JPGFig 4: Lisa May Thomas working with the dancers on ethics of care. Figuring team members from left to right: Ania Varez, Gemma Prangle, Anne-Gaelle Thiriot (hidden from view), Lisa May Thomas (foreground), Fernanda Munoz-Newsome, and Bryn Thomas. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

In creating a grammar of touch and movement ‘invitations’, and also through words spoken on a one-to-one basis to participants by the dancers, it was essential to create ways in which participants would feel supported and cared for, but not bounded or contained in any way. A physical map for Figuring was created which laid out the different sections of the journey and how these sections would operate and flow from one to the other through these invitations, as acts of care, made by the dancers to the participants. From this overall sense of the piece, more specific tools for each section were developed in response to each individual environment – the materials contained within each environment, and the ways in which bodies could move in and through that environment. There needed to be a sense of consistency through the piece in terms of the intention and attention of each dancer, both in response to the participant they were engaging with, and also to the wider group. Time was spent, both in the studio and in the locations used for Figuring, in developing specific movement scores and testing ideas with other ‘non-dancer’ members of the team and anyone else who happened to be around. Through this process, the following issues/elements were taken into consideration:

  1. What is the overall ensemble score which can ‘hold’ the dancers so that they are able to invite participation? – working with the premise that the dancers were working and acting as an ensemble not as separate entities?
  2. How do we devise approaches toward touching and moving a participant who, in some sections of the journey, cannot see us, and, in others (in the virtual environment), cannot see us and is also seeing something else?
  3. What sort of touch is being offered? i.e. What is the intention to touch and what is the physicality of the touch? This work was grounded in the use of techniques and practices used in Contact Improvisation.
  4. Finally, what are the philosophies of care that we want to adhere to? Nita Little’s work, in particular the following words in her essay Restructuring the self-sensing: Attention training in contact improvisation, very much framed how we thought about self and other through acts of care:

We are not responsible to – as in ‘in charge of’ – or obligated to account for our partner. Rather, we are response-able, able to respond fully within the moment in order to support her or his well-being. We do not want to become our partner’s keeper, which spells deep physical, if not political, danger. Response-ability is a far stronger relational practice. As an individual, our partner falls on a unique path – one s/he owns. Our most response-able relationality is one of communion. When we track what our partner knows, we read his or her ‘edges’, where the tones of their comfort become blind or uncertain. We are responsible for being within this zone, which is the zone of their ‘well-being’. They will be open and vitally engaged within this zone. When we move with our partner and as our partner we are response-able and ‘in the zone’, as are they. We both go further because of the other. Furthermore, our zone expands because of theirs. We respond as a larger self-sensing, a communion of being. Rather than narrowing the field of care, we expand it, giving further. [4]

FIGURING R&D WICKHAM THEATRE BRISTOL 2018 PB-242.JPGFig 5: Figuring team with participants. Photo: Paul Blakemore.

The engagement into the learning and play of ‘String Figures’ through the whole of the project process by all of the team members was a hugely important aspect of the project process and one which linked dancers with scientists through simple acts of sharing different string forms. This play also supported a more tacit exploration and understanding of the physics and materiality of the strings from analogue to virtual, and how the collective play with strings – of twisting, folding, looping and knotting – can produce complex yet responsive structures and networks.

For more information on the project please go to





[4] Little, N. 2014. Restructuring the self-sensing: Attention training in contact improvisation. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 6, 247-260.


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