A/D/O by MINI | Ben Cullen Williams’ Computer Choreography

Journal

Performance

Ben Cullen Williams’ Computer Choreography

Sculptor Ben Cullen Williams wants “to rip the digital open and expose its guts” with projects like his set designs for choreographer Wayne McGregor.

We live in a world where technology is designed to be as sleek, neat and unobtrusive as possible: the subtle swipe of a touch screen; the barely-there haptic bump of a smartphone tap; the smooth black mirror of our laptop screens. “I want to rip the digital open and expose its guts,” sculptor Ben Cullen Williams told The Journal. “I’m obsessed with taking things apart and seeing what lies beneath.”

Comparing today’s closed black boxes of technology to the translucent iMac G3 desktops that defined cutting-edge tech design in the late 1990s (where all of the computer's inner workings were exposed through gem-hued plastic casing), Cullen Williams muses that we’ve become too alienated from how things function.

Ben Cullen Williams' created the Living Archive installation for Wayne McGregor in LA.

“For me, sculpture is a way to investigate our changing relationship to the world. It’s not about a specific medium or a Roman bust or whatever, but more about a multidimensional approach that can explore light, technology, space, movement – our whole phenomenological experience.” 

Although the digital crops up regularly in Cullen Williams’ work it is not an exclusive focus, and projects range from immersive set design through to an in-depth exploration of Antarctica. “It’s one of the last great liminal spaces,” he said of the frozen continent. 

“It’s a shifting geography, a continuous edge. I’m drawn to projects that can explore the undefined. We like to think we live in a time where everything is mapped out, but scratch the surface and there are so many unknowns. With Antarctica, for example, have we passed the edge of irreversible climate collapse? Or are we still on the border? It’s impossible to know.”

Living Archive involved training AI with 25-years worth of McGregor's choreography.

Having graduated from London's Royal College of Art in 2013, it’s unsurprising that Cullen Williams’ expansive definition of sculpture has led him into collaboration with other creatives. Perhaps most notably he’s worked on several projects with cult choreographer Wayne McGregor, the most recent of which was a collaboration with Google Arts & Culture in 2019.

Called Living Archive, it involved training artificial intelligence with 25-years worth of McGregor’s choreography, identifying unique movements and predicting sequences. The result was hundreds of thousands of moves that could then be collated in an online module where users can combine them into unique phrases, opening up new ways of understanding the human body in action.

Cullen Williams also worked with McGregor on the set design for a performance titled Autobiography.

McGregor approached Cullen Williams to help translate this unprecedented archive back into the physical world through sculpture. “We were no longer confined by the human body and the output was completely open,” explained Cullen Williams, who began with the deceptively simple question: if a computer could dance, how would it?

Google’s creative technologists set about answering this question using the trained AI, and the result was 30 minutes of code that evolved from the mechanical and jerky to the fluid and kinetic. “It was very important that we weren’t recreating human choreography, but making something completely new that drew on these inputs while carrying none of our preconceptions about beauty,” Cullen Williams said.

Cullen Williams created a video installation for Orpheus and Eurydice at the English National Opera.

Once happy with the final sequence, Cullen Williams then set about translating this code into physical outputs that could be displayed on a giant digital screen and used as a backdrop for an original McGregor choreography.

“We created a call-and-response performance where movements were constantly being translated back and forth across the digital divide,” Cullen Williams explained, deliberately leaving a tangle of cables trailing from the screen, with the video run in low-resolution as a pixelated reminder of the medium.

His other projects have included sculptural work for the Staging Schiele performance.

“Collaborating across disciplines is so important – it’s the only way we’re going to find answers to the massive questions that we’re faced with today,” Cullen Williams concluded. From climate collapse to the democratization of technology, many of our greatest challenges feel too complex to tackle:

“Our engagement has become very shallow, instant and fleeting – it’s a kind of Pinterest-Instagram mode of consumption that looks no further than the surface. Unless we properly engage with the big topics of today then we can’t really turn around in a few years and say, wait a minute, we didn’t ask for this. We have to start having the conversation right now.”