The Flow Artist as a Visual Musician

Charlie Cushing Discussion, Opinion, Technical

To better understand the culture that PropLogic intends to serve and expand, it helps to know that many people value skill toys as expressive instruments, similar to musical instruments, and that these instruments can be used to produce a type of music that you watch instead of hear. This is a great application for XR, since the headset can be thought of as a pair of headphones for your eyes, instead of your ears. Whereas headphones are ideal for the consumption of audio music, XR headsets are ideal for the consumption of visual music.

A singer or musician communicates artistic ideas by skillfully using their body to produce patterns of sound, either with their voice or by manipulating an instrument. A movement artist communicates similar artistic ideas visually by skillfully using their body to produce patterns of motion. Movement artists who specialize in manipulating objects to produce visual music are often referred to colloquially as “flow artists”, “object manipulators”, or “prop dancers”. Skill toys used by these artists generally resemble sports-equipment, and are commonly referred to as props.  Flow artists wield their props with the objective of exercising fine artistic control and to produce patterns considered to be interesting, satisfying, or beautiful.

Motion as Visual Music

When we make music by singing, clapping, and playing instruments, we’re essentially talking in a rich and complex acoustic language that prioritizes abstract emotional affect over understanding and logic. Like spoken and written languages, music has rules, conventions, and dialects that make communication more efficient, but these rules are optimized purely for aesthetic value. By stripping away the literal meaning of words, we can use sound to convey feelings and ideas that words cannot describe.

While spoken language and music typically use sound to communicate, movement uses sight. To understand how movement is used musically, first observe that physical motion is already used as a conventional language, since those who are deaf can use sign language to communicate. By stripping away the literal meaning of sign language and modifying it to convey ideas that words fail, we end up with art forms such as Digitz, Tutting, Liquid, etc.

Here you can see our friend Matt doing some Digitz, which essentially amounts to musical sign language. I recommend muting the video and watching him as if he is using real sign language.

Audio music employs the domain of sound to convey abstract aesthetic and emotional concepts, whereas the music of dance accomplishes this through the medium of observable physical motion. For our purposes, we may refer to this medium as terpsichorean music, where “terpsichorean” means: Of or relating to the subject of dancing. The video above could therefore be referred to as terpsichorean sign language. Notice that “singing a song by moving your body” could be considered the basis of dancing, and that we can therefore extend the concept of sign language into the musical domain simply by changing the ideas we want to convey from words into abstract aesthetics.

Skill toys as musical instruments

Music and dance (terpsichorean music) essentially strive to achieve similar ends through different expressive domains. One additional concept to establish is that musical instruments can also exist within the domain of physical motion, since their purpose is simply to extend the expressive range of the language spoken by the artist.

Consider that a musical instrument could be broadly defined as:

A tool, constructed to augment range and timbre of musical expression beyond that which is possible with the human body, alone, and which may also constrain the range of possible outputs to be within the linguistic rules of modern music.

To understand the fundamental function of skill toys as expressive instruments, simply observe that the concept of a musical instrument can be extended into the domain of physical motion. Props are terpsichorean musical instruments. You can wield a tool to project abstract music-like language into people’s eyes via patterns of motion, similar to how a guitar or piano projects patterns of sound into people’s ears.

Sense faculty/domain:
Sound “acoustic” Sight “terpsichorean”
Instrumental Music:
Guitars, Keyboards,etc. Props & Skill Toys
Physical Music:
Singing & Clapping Dancing, Digitz, Tutting, etc.
Speech: Spoken Language Sign Language

Like acoustic musical instruments, skill toys can extend the range and timbre of expression beyond the limits of the human body, while simultaneously introducing restrictions on the possible range of movements available to the player. They also impose particular “rules” about what should and should not be done according to the laws of physics – AKA: mistakes such as dropping the object.

Like acoustic musical instruments, which are often categorized by type and family (brass, strings, woodwinds, percussion, etc.), many types of prop exist. Each variation falls into one of many categories/classes according to form and function. The most popular standardized prop variants are: Poi, Staff, Hoop, and traditional Juggling balls / clubs, all of which are commonly packaged into accessible toys that are fairly easy to learn, but which also offer a very high skill ceiling that can (and often does) remain fulfilling over decades of ongoing practice.

Audio/Visual Hybrids

Our studio works to proliferate flow arts and object manipulation for visual entertainment, but for audio entertainment, as well.  Audio and visual music are closely related, a relationship that’s easily understood by dancing to a song. By making the musical qualities of dancing with props available to Digital Audio Workstations like a MIDI controller, the props can become a combination of both audio and terpsichorean musical instruments. Flow artists often dance to live music, and in the near future we envision close digital relationships forming between DJs and dancers, allowing movement to interact in real time with that music in subtle and constructive feedback loops.