Moving Past Present: Digitally Reanimating the Gaiety Girls

Last month the KCL Anatomy museum played host to Moving Past Present, an experiment in digital biography created by artist Janina Lange. Knowing that the theme for the Arts and Humanities Research Institute’s 2016 festival was play, I had approached Janina with the idea of creating an event that would speak to Ego-Media’s interest in playful digital identity work while showcasing the history of creativity on the Strand – a subject that the King’s Centre for Life-Writing Research has been exploring through its Strandlines project.

Inspired by Janina’s previous work on actor Sarah Duhamel, I suggested that the project could be about the Strand’s Gaiety theatre and the ‘Gaiety Girls’, musical theatre performers whose shows captivated late-Victorian London, and who became some of the first modern media personalities. Janina came up with the idea of a performance that would use 3D modeling and gesture tracking technologies to ‘reanimate’ two erstwhile Gaiety Girls, Constance Collier and Ellaline Terriss. During a time of rapid social, cultural and technological change, these women worked to give a face and form to emerging ideas of femininity, modernity and national identity, developing their distinctive public personae across a range of contexts – from theatre, film, records and radio to the memoirs both wrote and the postcards, magazine covers, advertisements and cigarette cards their images graced. This, we felt, made them ideal avatars for an exploration of how understandings of identity, technology, work and celebrity have developed from the 1890s into the era of ego-media.


In particular, we were interested in how Collier and Terriss developed distinctive gestures, mannerisms and expressions that have come down to us through their film performances, and in how new technological formats – from the halftone print, the praxinoscope and the cinema camera to GIFs, Vines and gestural videogame interfaces – mediate the moving body. Is the movement vocabulary extracted from early films specific to its time? How might these gestures translate from cinematic via physical into virtual space? How, through effects like flickering and glitching, do technologies inscribe themselves in the very movements they are looking to reproduce? And what might a form of ‘life-writing’ focused on capturing characteristic gestures rather than recording memories or events look like? These were some of the questions that drove the project, which saw Janina transforming the Anatomy Museum into a hybrid motion capture studio and gallery space for an event that was part exhibition, part live performance, part recording session.


This transformation was realised with the assistance of performer Meghan Treadway and the technical support of animation programmer and motion capture engineer Moses Attah. Working from archival footage, Meghan reproduced fragments of performances by Terriss and Collier, shifting mercurially from upbeat dance numbers to tragic death scenes. Her gestures were in turn mirrored by the performers’ digital doubles, which were projected onto the screen behind her. Recorded by a Kinect infra-red motion capture camera (a technology initially developed as a means of interacting with Microsoft’s Xbox games consoles), these movements were uploaded during the event to Sketchfab, a database used by animators and videogame creators. As digital files ready to be downloaded and incorporated into new contexts, these records of Meghan’s performance will describe their own trajectories through online space, inscribing themselves into other virtual bodies and seeding the contemporary Internet traces of the nineteenth century Strand.


(All photographs David Tett)


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Prior to joining the Ego Media team, Rob worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games... read more about: Robert Gallagher