Oulu Dance Hack 2023: “An infinite amount of knowledge and possibilities”

In 2023, the eighth edition of Oulu Dance Hack ran from the 25th to the 29th of September. The event’s focus relies on how Artificial Intelligence can be part of the creation of dance work. Throughout the week, international artists and technology specialists came together in a collaborative environment to explore the possibilities of AI and the future of performance, and to develop a demo performance to be presented on the last day of the event.

When asked about thoughts on whether dancers will use Artificial Intelligence in their work in the future, French dancer and choreographer Laura Lille laughs and responds, “It is already the case”.

From the 25th to the 29th of September, international dance artists, media artists and technology specialists collaborate in Oulu Dance Hack, an event organized by TaikaBox. The 2023 event marks the eighth time they ‘hack the dance’ – that is, invent new uses for technology and use it in the creation of dance work.

This time, the hack focuses on Artificial Intelligence and its possibilities for dance, which, according to Israeli dancer and choreographer Amit Palgi, are endless: “It is a new tool, with an infinite amount of knowledge and possibilities, and we just have to learn a bit how to deal with it and how we can use this knowledge. I think it is something that can benefit creativity, but it takes time. It’s an investigation to learn and understand how to use all this knowledge and possibilities in a beneficial way that can extend creativity.” This view is shared with Tomi Knuutila, Art and Design Senior Lecturer and Media Artist: “As a Media Artist, it opens many new doors, and it is almost overwhelming in its possibilities. It is a huge opportunity and responsibility to act correctly”.

During the week, artists explore the technology and incorporate it into their creations. On Friday, the 29th of September, their work culminates in a demo performance, open to the public. The phase of exploring, from Monday to Thursday, has caused new ideas and challenges to emerge. When it comes to the latter, Knuutila points out: “We’re still in the stage where the AI makes mistakes, it doesn’t always give you what you want. If you ask for a dancer, it shows a dancer with a tutu or a ballet dancer or belly dancer, which is maybe not the image that TaikaBox dancers have. It’s kind of cliché, trained with material from our own culture, so it’s kind of biased on what a dancer looks like”.

Palgi, who has used AI to create dance videos, also recognizes some difficulties, such as the fact that it can take a long time for a video to be created. However, the dancer sees potential in that: “For me, there’s something really exciting about this unexpectedness. With the video, it takes a day for it to be made, so I go do some work and then, the next day, I get the video. And then it’s always not what I expected. It forces you to be flexible, and in a way, it forces me to extend my creativity”. Knuutila also sees potential in challenges: “At the moment, the AI makes mistakes, and it can be a good thing. It leads to more exploration, exploiting the mistake or weird thing, or going around it, thinking why the AI does it. Maybe in the future, if I do a prompt and it does 100% of what I ask for, it is not going to be as interesting.”

Image: TaikaBox

Particularities and the future of AI and dance

There are multiple ways in which AI can be incorporated into the creation of dance work, and Lille believes it can be different from using other technologies: “If you have some physical tools, like kinetic tools, that you can use, that are another type of technology, it can be a more physical approach. But with AI, it’s more in the air. And I think there is still a lot of research to be done on how to interact with it and how to make this viable”. Knuutila has a similar perspective: “Something we’ve realized is that many of these tools are powerful, but not in real-time. You can have, for example, sensors on the dancer, or a camera that is tracking a dancer, then we can do something in real-time. Media can be affected by the dancer and vice-versa. But AI works like this: you say some interesting prompt, and the AI takes 10 seconds to render an image, so you lose that immediacy. It can’t translate a video in an interesting way in real-time. But I’m sure it’ll be changing”.

When thinking about the future of dance and the use of AI, Palgi believes the latter is too powerful of a tool to ignore: “I think it will enter the art field and change it, but I think the essence of creativity will stay”. Lille, who is also a Human System Interface Engineer, shared some thoughts about the relationship between art and AI: “I think it requires a lot of sensitivity to use technology, actually, which is kind of paradoxical. And I prefer to see it as a tool to maybe transform how you can create and have a new methodology, as an input rather than a focus”.

Oulu Dance Hack

Oulu Dance Hack fosters a distinctive opportunity for artists and professionals to come together and join forces to build and share new ideas. This is reinforced by Knuutila, who describes the event as a collaborative creative process: “It is a nice community in the sense that everyone who is part of the workshop can participate”. The Media Artist also shared a unique aspect of Oulu Dance Hack, stating that “in quite a lot of the work I’ve been doing, especially with students, it takes time to learn how things are working. In these one-week workshops, we may get a demo and prototype in the end. But here at the Dance Hack, we can start with the prototype and actually do something creative with that”.

Laura Lille goes on to say: “A lot of AI is used to create videos, or VR experiences, to create the experience of a performance with a different media. And here, it’s more about hacking the AI tools to use them in this reality. And some people use it as creative input. You can have a lot of information, it’s just a different way of seeing how you use it and why you use it”. The French dancer also appreciates the collaborative atmosphere: “I am not on the side of seeing that AI is going to replace artists, because that would mean that the result is more important than the process and I don’t believe in this. For me, it can’t be a replacement. I think it has been great to meet people who share this point of view and still want to put humans in the center and question human sensitivity, and creativity, and not in an exploitative approach”.

The event is a great opportunity to observe first-hand user experiences outside of the usual setting of product development or testing. Knuutila observes potential for that in the Oulu area: “In Oulu, a small medium enterprise boom is happening. Lots of small companies are working on various technologies, like IoT, sensors, or other devices. TaikaBox has sensors that detect parts of the dancers’ body, temperature, and their position in space. There is a lot of that kind of knowledge in Oulu, but I don’t know how many of them thought that dancing or a dancing space would be an interesting testing ground”. The Media Artist compares dance to the concept of a black box: “something goes in and something comes out, but you don’t really know what is going on inside it. It works, but you don’t know how. Maybe this Dance Hack helps open the box. We have this technology, but what to do with it? Maybe dancers can explain, explore, or provide some interesting possibilities for the technology that maybe developers didn’t think about”. 

Text: Beatriz Rocha, Health and Life Science, BusinessOulu

Images: Beatriz Rocha & TaikaBox