Academy for Theatre and Digitality

Dear Dead Doctor


The collaborative research between dancer Kiraṇ Kumār and dramaturg Kai Tuchmann is towards the making of 'Dear Dead Doctor', a work of digital and documentary theatre. In the form of an open letter to Kiran’s late grandfather, who was the first doctor of western medicine in his family, the project explores performative strategies of bringing medical and somatic knowledges into dialogue on stage. This address to the doctor is conceived through Kiraṇ's grandchild: a parthenogenetic, proto-progenic being (P3B). P3B will be digitally materialized by drawing on 'data points' from yogic, dance and martial embodied practices. 'Dear Dead Doctor' re-imagines what 'being human in the world' could imply in its continuity across pre-modernities and futurities.


17 September, 2021: Transcript of presentation at PlayOn! conference held at the Akademie für Theater und Digitalität, Dortmund

When we began our fellowship at the Academy 10 days ago, we rearticulated our project for this public wiki. Basically the next 10 minutes will be a sort of performative-documentary gesture of ultimately writing out our research questions in this wiki after we have taken you through our thought processes, starting by sharing a brief project synopsis.


“The collaborative research between dancer Kiraṇ Kumār and dramaturg Kai Tuchmann is towards the making of 'Dear Dead Doctor', a work of digital and documentary theatre. In the form of an open letter to Kiran’s late grandfather, who was the first doctor of western medicine in his family, the project explores performative strategies of bringing medical and somatic knowledges into dialogue on stage. This address to the doctor is conceived through Kiraṇs grandchild: a parthenogenetic, proto-progenic being (P3B). P3B will be digitally materialized by drawing on 'data points' from yogic, dance and martial embodied practices. 'Dear Dead Doctor' re-imagines what 'being human in the world' could imply in its continuity across pre-modernities and futurities.”

One of the central concerns of our research is how to understand P3B. This is a complex concern with dramaturgical, technological and philosophical dimensions - which each articulate the concern differently:

Who is speaking with the dead?

How to speak with the dead?

Why speak with the dead?

Let’s be clear that speaking with the dead is by no way a romantic return to a past. Indeed it is a rational and imaginary gesture to reach outside modernity and towards an altered futurity.

Since Kiran is a dancer, we will make a key assertion that the bearing of embodied practices like dance, yoga and martial arts for our future, does not lie in a continued virtuosic display of skilled individuals. So rather than building our futures on recurrent stories of individual geniuses, through our research we propose that embodiment is a shared intelligence that is sort of compressed into an interpersonal storage mechanism, for example of a dance form transmitted from teacher to student, from performer to audience etc. This transmission of embodied intelligence cannot happen in a solid state of storage, like a fixed national culture or a singular artistic genius. Transmission of embodied intelligence happens through a sublimation of the self, an exchange of vaporous particles between us.

This is a 2 dimensional visualization of our digital starting point for developing P3B, depicting how data can be deduced from embodied practice and materialized in a pixel-cloud:

[Video Excerpt from Kiran Kumar`s work Im/material Beings]

The 3rd century Sanskrit text Tattva Bodham or Deep Materiality, offers a 3 dimensional conception of being-human. Moving away from the very binary conception of body and mind, this yogic conception instead describes a trinary materiality of gross, subtle, and causal dimensions of being-human. Our gross beings are bio-material substances, our subtle beings are psycho-energetic presences, and causal beings could well be our by now im/material ancestors.What we will do in the lab here at the Akademie is at first a Capture of images of Kiran`s gross body in yogasana/postures, dance and martial movements. Using photo, video and motion- capturing technologies, this will be a capture of the gross or bio-material dimension.After this digital capture of the gross body, rather than pictorial visualisation, we will move towards a pixelated visualisation in which the image is structured/choreographed using principles of the subtle body: sensory modulations such as touch of the skin and blink of the eye, using rhythms of breathing, using dream-images and visualisations.

[The apophatic body of the Jain ascetic. Collection Ajit Mookerjee, photo Jeff Teasdale. As printed in: Interpreting the Image of the Human Body in Premodern India, Dominik Wujastyk.]

Ultimately our creation of P3B will be a visualisation of a subtle body derived from data of a gross body. This data is primarily embedded in the living archives of embodied practices. But the troubling thing is: data, in contrast to evidence, is not something given. Rather it has to be extracted from evidence. In contrast to evidence, which can be binary: true or false, data is rhetorical; it is something constructed to create certain effects, therefore it has no truth value. Data is just the result of curating an archive. In this process of curation, data is transformed by abstraction, aggregation etc. Data eventually will be that what Kiran and I take into account. So we will struggle with questions that are deeply connected to this very notion of data and its visualization. Questions like: What kind of data counts as knowledge? Is it all about counting? What counts? Who counts? Can we blend counting and understanding in a meaningful way?

Yet even as we invoke such a dialogue of the philosophical with the technological, we are careful towards the Californian talks and promises around disruption through technology. Eventually this Californian perspective claims thatconsciousness could exists independent of embodiment. And that one, for example, could upload the consciousness into a cloud and that it would exist there independently from the body from which it emerged.

We want to intervene into this perspective of a loss of embodiment, which is also symptomatic for the western discourse of posthumanism; We want to ask instead, how the embodied practice of theatre and dance can be expanded into a practice that thinks with and through data? This also connects to Kai`s research interesest into the field of dramaturgy. Which Kai understands as a practice that is constantly expanding the possibilities of theatre.

The following is an excerpt of the film LOSERS AND WINNERS by Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken, which documents the dismantling of the Kaiserstuhl coke factory here in Dortmund and its shipment to and reassembly in China in 2005:

We are introducing this excerpt here because it hints to a second biographical layer of our project. Because Kai was born and raised in this city and grew up in a workersfamily. Some of his relatives even were associated with the depicted coke factory- while he has moved to Beijing in 2016 where he developed a BA program in dramaturgy. Growing up here, he could witness the effects of the end of industrial culture on the local peoples minds: a loss of belief in any valuable future prospects, a rise of violence and xenophobia were very often the consequence of it. To some extent, we regard the city Dortmund as a symptom for a broader “western condition”, which we characterize through the three buzzwords: loss of identity, decline of western empire, transformation difficulties.

Seen from this perspective, Dortmund`s embracing of the digital (academy, port, university) points to questions around the sociological foundations of the digital: How can the digital be an opportunity for reinventing one´s identity as a city- or (in the case of nowadays Chinas) even as a nation? In our project, we are looking for ways to interact with the very concrete city that hosts us. We are planning interviews between P3B and local citizens of Dortmund, as well as with the global networks of media scholars and philosophers of science. The data collected through these interviews with P3B will then form the textual basis for the letter to the dead doctor.

Like we said in the beginning, we want to use this presentation as a performative-documentary gesture to write out our research questions in this wiki. And basically we have now oriented our research around the following 5 questions:

Research Questions

  • What kind of knowledge can data produce? Is it all about counting? What counts? Who counts? Can we blend counting and understanding in a meaningful way?
  • How can we possibly bring P3B from his 2 dimensional state into the 3rd dimension?
  • What Indic knowledges of the human body-mind did the doctor have to disinherit? And could these knowledgesbecome accessible through surviving practices of temple dance and yoga?
  • How can the embodied practice of theatre be expanded into a practice that thinks with and through data?
  • What does it mean when the digital becomes a medium for reinventing identity as an individual, as a city, or even as a nation?

[Rehearsal Notes: 19 September - 1 October, 2021]

What to capture, and why?

In order to prepare the visit of our programmer Matthias Härtig, whose expertise will help us in creating P3B, we started discussing the question of how to select from the living archives of Yoga, Kalaripayatt and Odissi-dance. We want our methodology to be transparent and consequential, which is even more important when one considers, that in contrast to Yoga and Kalari, Indian dance was completely reconstructed during the turn of the 20th century. Eventually, we decided just to focus on the pedagogies of Yoga, Kalari and Odissi- as they were taught to and are practiced by Kiran. In case of dance, we will draw, among other things, on Kiran`s training units. The following video displays such a unit that Kiran actually recorded for his master Bijayna Sathbathy during the time of the Pandemic (when personal training was not possible).

Evocation of the Dead

Kiran posesses several documents from his late grandfather: 5 pages entitled “Dates to appreciate and to remember”, 16 pages entitled “List of Patients”, several unnumbered pages and several wordless pages, and eventually the draft for an autobiography (pages 3-115). On September 30th we started to decipher, transcribe and read this autobiography, that we eventually put up on the stage of our lab.

[Rehearsal Notes: 10 October - 17 October, 2021]

Motion Capturing

These videos show Matthias Härtig and Kiran Kumar during the Motion Capturing:

But it's only really digital when there are glitches:

Matthias Härtig on the software Kalypso

In this interview our programmer Matthias Härtig talks about the historical and technical particularities of the software “Kalypso”, that he is using to process the data from Motion Capturing:

How Kalypso works

Movement in Dance and the Digital

On the historical origin of Kalypso

Dortmund reference

Documentation of Dear Dead Doctor

Photographs of the performance presented at Academy for Theatre and Digitality, January 21st, 2022

Essay: Dear Dead Doctor's Motion Capture and Eadweard Muybridge's studies on Motion Pictures

“Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone’s before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther…The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it.” (Solnit)

When we started the infrared recordings of Kiran, we were fascinated right at the beginning by how much the recordings resemble the optics of Eadweard Muybridge`s studies on motion.

Muybridge's work on the technology of moving images is at the beginning of artistic research as well as a new relationship to space and time. As an artistic research project that uses the digital to question modern understandings of space and time, it made us curious to think about Dear Dead Doctor in relation to Muybridge.

Artistic Research of the 19th Century

The 1870s revolutionized not only industry but also human perception. It was in this decade that the newly invented telephone and phonograph joined photography and railroads as instruments for erasing time and space. It is also this decade, that Muybridge begins his motion studies that will ultimately form the precursor to cinema. He is commissioned by the Californian ex-governor and railway entrepreneur Leland Stanford to find out whether a trotting horse has all four feet off the ground at a time (which it has!). This collaboration between the then already famous photographer Muybridge and the entrepreneur/politician Leland Stanford, takes place in Palo Alto. It is Leland who, in memory of his late son, will endow today's Stanford University, which has arguably become the academic incubator that has contributed significantly to the emergence of today´s Silicon Valley. The Muybridge/Stanford collaboration prefigures some of our current understanding of artistic research. In fact, photography in the 1870s was really a craft, because each photographer had to develop his own optical apparatuses and chemicals to be able to make images at all. Muybridge had become famous for his outstanding camera shutters. To solve Stanford's little scientific question about horse movement, Muybridge constructed a special track, with wires on the floor that the horses touched and thus triggered photographic recordings of their movements. At the end of the 1870s, Muybridge developed the technology of the zoopraxiscope that showed his still images in rapid movement. A precursor to today´s cinema.

The Horse (1878)

Photography and History

Muybridge's study of Stanford's horse (which actually was called “Occident”) showed that the feet of the trotting horse do indeed leave the ground, but only when they are under its body, and not, like it has been always depicted throughout the history of painting, when they are stretched away from the body. Muybridge's Moving Image technology enabled the human eye to see what had never been seen before. Time stood still. Walter Benjamin will later speak in this context of the “optically unconscious”, which is made visible by the camera. And it is Eduardo Cadava who eventually showed how much Benjamin` s thinking of history is deeply endowed to the technological apparatus of the camera. This is especially evident in his theses on the philosophy of history, in which he speaks of the “standstill of history”, or of a past that “flashes” up. One could even try to extrapolate from here, that some significant parts of our modern discourse around history, would have not been possible without the technology of the photography and the conceptual metaphors it provided.

Motion Studies vs Motion Capturing

Muybridge has captured and recorded movements by photographing their sequence and stringing together 24 images of this sequence per second. We in turn capture motion by using 26,000 data points or pixels. We are interested in the changes that happen within a motion sequence. For this we understand the data point not as a representation of a positional state, but as the expression of a difference between positional states, which results from a movement. Thus, our data points are the memory of a motion. Again, this memory can only be expressed by specifying certain processing parameters, such as whether and how long a pixel should remain in existence after a movement has been performed. By setting these parameters, it is possible to visualize previously made movements, for example. This possibility represents, in analogy to Muybridge, a new form of making visible what was previously optically unconscious.

Digitality, to reach outside modernity

In our aesthetic approach, we short-circuit this form of visualization with the Vedic idea of a subtle body. For the possibility of making the absent visible refers to the immaterial reality of the subtle body. We use digitality here to counter the modern understanding of history generated by photography with a different experience of temporality.

Essay: Contaminatedly Yours: Genre, Information, Body by Nishant Shah - Reflections on Dear Dead Doctor

One of the keenest promise and biggest myth of digital technologies is cleanliness. There is a continued replaying of the digital systems as clean, reliable, and free from unwanted contamination.

• In e-governance it takes up the SMART (Simple Moral Accountable Responsible Transparent) rubrics, insisting that digital governance can be cleaned of the excesses and corruptions of analogue bureaucracies.

• In computational design, it favours storage over memory, presenting stored data as clean and sorted, able to be retrieved and remembered by querying algorithms, for an infinitely digital future.

• In probability driven computational networks where the human is often sought to be replaced by computers undertaking mechanical transactions and calculations that perform efficiency and scale, this is often illustrated by showing human circulation of information as constantly mutating and changing whereas computational circulation remains discrete and contained by the protocols within which it is established.

The affirmation of cleanliness is both an exercise of control and a black-boxing of technologies, despite the fact that we continually see how computation technologies are ontologically and manifestly produced through multiple layers of contamination. A cursory look at algorithmic governance practices opens up a field of intentionality, bias, encoded discrimination, and amplified filtering that leads to the production of harm and violence without accountability and restitution. The obsolescence of databases, the leap-frogging of technologies, and the continued breaches and leaks of data and information belie the idea of immortal data and indeed presents data and information infrastructure as fragile and prone to breakdown and manipulation. Especially in the world of self-learning algorithms and networks of correlation, we continually see our reliance on unexpected, undesigned, and unplanned for variable queering models, producing states of exception, and leading to designed deviance which can neither be planned nor controlled.

Cleanliness then is neither an attribute nor a condition of digital networks and their spaces. The foregrounding of cleanliness has to be seen as an attempt to clean bodies, informations, and approaches that threaten the power, destablise the status quo, and resist the benign narrative of computation that is being naturalised in our everyday practices of digitalization. Cleanliness has to be recognized as an active way by which resistant data and technology usage can be controlled, punished, and penalised in order for dominant narratives to be favoured.

This insistence on cleanliness and controllability of digital technologies also creates the dominant aesthetic of our times that reinforces this filtered, curated, cleaned digitality as the de facto mode of visualising and engaging with the digital. In Dear Dead Doctor, we eschew this promise of cleanliness, and even when working with these technologies of cleanliness, continually look at different conditions of contamination that the digital technologies have to offer. From parthogenetic births out of dirt to the diffuse and distributed data, we examine ways by which the aesthetics of digital contamination can be constructed by looking at the logic, logistics, mechanics and intentions of networked computation on three different sites.

An Apology for Contamination

There has been a recent autobiographical turn in the performing arts, where the attempt has been to centre the lived experiences and histories of the individual as data for new performances and interventions. The autobiographical turn seems to be human centric but perhaps mimics the ‘deep mining’ and ‘data harvesting’ possibilities that new digital technologies of ‘more than’ and ‘smaller than’ the human seem to offer. The autobiography becomes a way by which lived and affective experiences can be re-narrativised to become a spectacle which can then populate the ever expanding data sets of digital storage. Autobiography as a genre also lends itself to verisimilitude and historical reconstruction supported by archives and evidences that can help clean up the realm of the personal for better intelligibility and taxonomy.

However, the space of theatre and performance is not to deploy these digital aesthetics and queries in order to produce spectacles of machine logic. The challenge of theatre is to create new genres and modes of autobiography that can destabilise this individual turn by exploiting other potentials and possibilities of the digital.

In this performance, we are thus moving towards an biomythography, where through the tropes of autobiography, we produce new myths which are part fiction, part lived-reality, part fantasy, and part politics. The idea of biomythography is not a resistance to digitality but in fact a joyful appropriation of its cleanliness rhetoric and finding new modes by which the post-digital can be performed.

Instead of thus, relying on the archive as discrete, the memory as contained, the record as sacrosanct, and the evidence as the only way by which a story can be told, automythogaphy creates a new terrain of post-digital performance where we lean into our pasts as contaminated and queer, open to interpretation and intervention even as we use the elements of autobiography making. In this project, we are perhaps looking at how the digital affordances can help move from autobiography to biomythography:

Positioning the 'Origin Story' as a Collective rather than an Individual one

It is at the heart of digital computation that the nodes do not have a linear, comprehensive, origin story where it pre-exists the network and intention of information circulation. Nodes in a network are products of intention – and each node is ontologically replaceable by any other node in the network. This idea of nodes as universally interchangeable offers us a new entry point into the personal history: That the personal history is both an imagined one, and a collective one. Autobiographies, as Jeanette Winterson had once said, are stories about other people, while pretending that they are stories of the self. What would it mean to have this digital possibility of telling the story of multiple people – entire generations and communities, instead of focusing on the self.

If autobiography is about querying the self, biomythography has to be using the self as a query that tells the collective stories of the people, things, events, and memories that both precede and escape the formulation of the ‘I’.

Leaning into Fragmentation and Omission

One of the imperatives of the conventional autobiography has always been the act of reconciliation. Whether it be in epistolary or confessional forms, the autobiographical subject performs the stitching of fragments and actively filters things that cannot be synthesized into the discrete subjectivity.

Reconciliation is a performance towards an external authority that requires for the production of this discrete subjectivity so that it can be isolated, tracked, managed, and controlled in its unfolding. Within digital networks, there is, however, a possibility to exploit the mechanics of ‘hyperlinking’ which do not need to perform causality or synthesis between two disparate objects within a network. The hyperlink is a freedom from the tyranny of the narrative, and allows for new modes of co-existence where information can be stacked at the level of the index rather than at the semantic level of the lexicon.

Using this as a trigger point, we examine the potentials of mythobiography as straddling paradoxes without the burden of reconstitution:

a. Memory without experience

b. Feeling without sensation

c. Phenomena without events

The possibility of mythobiography is in letting go of the aesthetics of representation and leaning into the world of simulation, where there is no ‘external reference’ because it is a self-contained loop of small world phenomena. We are looking at mythobiography as an act of interpretation with tainted factuality – not a narrative of proof but a simulation of stake, and thus offer the space for wilful misreading.

If the autobiography is a space for narrative, then this digital mythobiography is a space for metaphors, where the ‘auto’ – the self, which is a representational and realist construction, is replaced by the ‘mytho’- a simulated and an imagined programmed entity, that allows us to explode the probability horizon through potentiality functions.

Moving from Fidelity to Promiscuity

The autobiographical turn in digitalisation has often been celebrated because of the multiplicity of sources through which the personal narrative can be written. In an age of internet of things, where extreme surveillance is our de facto mode of existence, the presence of multiple recording devices from phones to drones, allows for a multi-faceted narrating of the subject through different sources. The montage of simultaneous streams that each offers a different vantage point and perspective has often been presented as the exploding point of the individual centred narrative.

However, in all of these processes of polyvocality, the autobiography stays compliant to the demands of fidelity. Even though we are already engaging in critical conversations around fakeness and reality, with fake news, misinformation, and deep fake becoming a part of our regular vocabulary, the question of fidelity – having that external referent which will make the distinction between real and fake, or clean and contaminated information continues to hold command.

With mythobiography, we seek to explode the idea of fidelity and instead move to computational promiscuity as a new mode of functioning and meaning making. This means that the distinction between an artefact and its narrative can be immediately collapsed by making networked relationships of circulation. The data that originates in one individual or event can immediately be transferred and anchored on to others. Data loses its potency as fidelity and instead finds its valency through circularity and virality, which are both conditions of digital promiscuity. We are now looking at data which is designed to be contaminated – to be constantly communicating and engaging with all the other data streams around us, and thus producing new possibilities for dramaturgy that follows digital information architectures.

The idea of promiscuous data also makes our bodies joyfully contaminated by desires, aspirations, longing, and belonging that is not contained by the machinations of computation logic. In this we realise that the new bodies that are being constructed – through regimes of computation and lifestyle, through disciplines of labour and valuation – can be more free and experimental. The decentering of the body is not enough; what we are looking for is a reconstitution of the body, and using the intersections of digitality and performativity to reconsider how we tell the stories of our bodies and how we relate to them as meaning making and divination practices.

Digital Contamination

Identifying contamination as the ontology of digitalisation and the possibilities of theatre to both exploit and expand upon these processes of contamination, offer a rich opportunity of thinking through the nature of evidence, historicity, personhood, and embodiment of the future. The attempt in this thinking has been to overturn the idea of the digital as contaminating – the digital as the medium – and instead propose that to be digital is to open one’s self to potential contaminations, translations, and circulations. In following the idea of digital contamination as a desired state (Because a clean network is a dead network), we are also making a call to question the clean, gentrified, GUI driven interfaces that are being presented as the ways of digitalising theatre and performance spaces. Instead of thinking about incorporating our digital screens as the new ‘platforms’ and ‘stages’, we recognise that the digital goes beyond the screens and their performed feedback loops. We move beyond the spectacle imperative and start examining the ways by which digital logics and mechanics can be deployed for human needs, thus overturning the idea of the digital as the measure of the human and establishing it more as a new way of thinking through the human subject.

This idea of accepting digital contamination as a part of the system, also follows the logic of how the body is staged between competing medical discourses, where we stop thinking about the ailments and the fragility of the body as pathology, and instead start constituting its meanings and its personhood through a collective, contaminated, and playful mode of belonging. In depathologising digital contamination, we might find ways by which we see the larger technological tropes of body shaping and sculpting through databases and algorithms, and instead search for the spaces where contamination is hidden and smoothed over in our digital operations.

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