Animating Interest in the Commons: Making political figures dance to music in real-time Jiannis Georgiadis Art & Technology, Chalmers University, Göteborg, Sweden email@example.com Abstract We are used to watching public figures on TV delivering speeches, but how about politicians in clubs dancing along to the music of the DJ, or the King of Sweden dancing along to whatever is on the radio? Would they all dance the same? Would they seem more approachable? Who would be their favourite DJ? Despite the seemingly superficial and entertaining nature of such questions, it is the underlying hues that are of importance and require further consideration. Following the recent initiatives of political institutions such as the European Union looking for new ways to stimulate interest in the commons, this paper presents two projects proposing that in addition to debates, exchanges of arguments, questions, fora, and TV broadcasts, other forms of communication about public issues are also necessary, and the dialogue can be animated by other means as well. Between entertainment and cultural complexity, the two projects involve making political figures, and the associations they carry, dance to music in real-time. The three-dimensional figures respond to a live sound source and the animation is generated in real-time using custom made software developed for this purpose and techniques similar to those found in video games. 1.
We are used to watching public figures on TV delivering speeches, but how about politicians in clubs dancing along to the music of the DJ, or the King of Sweden dancing along to whatever is on the radio? Would they all dance the same? Would they seem more approachable? How many beats per minute could they take? Who would be their favourite DJ? Despite the seemingly superficial and entertaining nature of such questions, it is the underlying hues that are of importance and require further consideration. At times when apathy prevails and people’s interest in the commons has declined dramatically, as is evident from election turnout percentages, new ways have to be found in order to stimulate interest in the commons.
Engagement and greater participation in the commons are a necessary pre-condition for a vibrant civic society. Currently many institutions, including the European Union and the British parliament informed by reports of prominent think tanks are reconsidering the strategies they employ in order to engage in a dialogue with their public that will encourage greater participation and retain their legitimacy. In this context the proposition maintained throughout this paper is that in addition to debates, exchanges of arguments, questions, fora, and TV broadcasts, other forms of communication about public issues are also necessary, and the dialogue can be animated by other means as well. This proposition will be illustrated by two projects, which draw elements from popular culture as well as current thinking on public policy. One aimed at constitutional monarchy and one aimed at the European Union. Both of the projects described herein involve making political figures, along with the associations they carry, dance to music in realtime. Between entertainment and cultural complexity, silliness and seriousness, trying to heighten one’s awareness in subtle, calm and playful ways. The first of these projects is an installation, titled “Make Them Move”, exhibited in Sweden’s Trollhättan Konsthallen, with the King of Sweden dancing to whatever the local radio stations play, and can be regarded as another comment on monarchy. The second, an event/party, titled “Eurovision”, with the 25 Prime Ministers of the European Union member states dancing to the rhythm of the Eurovision song contest. The event was hosted in a nightclub in Athens, Greece, on the same day as the actual Eurovision song contest that took place there, and can be regarded as another comment on the song contest itself, the politician’s vision of Europe and our interest, as eurocitizens, in European affairs.
The three-dimensional figures respond to a live sound source and the animation is generated in real-time using custom made software developed for this purpose and techniques similar to those found in video games. The projects themselves present certain technical difficulties; notably the ability to detect note onsets and their temporal relation in musical signals and the ability to synchronise these events with desired postures of the character being animated in real-time. Conducting a rigorous experiment on the social impact of such projects is outside the scope of this paper; rather the emphasis is on how such projects can act as a starting point of discussion around issues of public interest beyond traditional means of communication. 2.
As in traditional animation, keyframes define the moments when the action changes significantly and precise control and attention to detail are required, likewise the two projects described herein define key issues and questions framing the discussion in an effort to animate interest in the commons. A major factor for our current disinterest in political affairs is the interface of public political institutions; how they are represented and perceived. Politics are traditionally perceived as boring, dull and something exercised by middle-aged men in suits inside a parliament’s auditoriums, long corridors, offices and bars. Yet there is a great deal happening behind the parliaments’ doors and the disconnection between perception and reality must be bridged. In January 2004 a commission established by the British Hansard Society set out to examine how the UK parliament presents itself, and is presented by others to the public. The question the commission sought to answer was how the UK parliament has come to be perceived as remote and increasingly powerless. Looking at ways in which the current system can be reformed to re-establish the crucial link between people and the parliament the commission states that “the parliament does not communicate with those it represents, and in the 21st century, institutions that do not communicate fail”. The British think tank Demos, led a project investigating how the media and marketing can work for democracy (Demos 2006). As a fictitious example in this direction, consider
the possibility of the European Commissioner kicking off the European football cup. Although such a move might sound as a public relations stunt, a cunning observer might also regard it as an indication that Brussels still maintains a connection with what is happening on the field. Would it change our perception and attitude towards the European Commission? On its own, probably not. Would it add something to the Commissioner’s persona or would it make him appear less credible? It depends on how it is performed and whether one thinks that politicians should be at their desks doing what they know best or whether they should also be on the field. In the same spirit, would politicians dancing in clubs change our attitude towards politics? Considering such an event in isolation, probably not. In accord with a wider strategy to communicate politics, it could potentially act as an agent amongst partygoers, if not initiating a debate about politics, at the very least tickle one’s perception of politics as well as lead politicians and their advisers alike to rethink the way politics are being communicated. Or, how would it sound if a serving member of the parliament appeared on celebrity Big Brother? The fact that a member of the UK parliament did in fact participate in the British version of the reality-show raises some interesting issues1. A Tale of Two Houses presents a compelling comparative study between the House of Commons, the Big Brother House, their occupiers and their audience investigating whether British politics could learn something from the reality show (Coleman 2003). A conclusion was that Big Brother residents appeared to be more ’authentic’ and more ’real’ than the residents in the House Of Commons. We are familiar with the image of the King or the Prime Minister appearing on various occasions as a figure giving authoritative importance to the event – in this case the opening of an art exhibition. The Eurovision song contest is more in line with our everyday lives than European politics.
Endemol, producers of the Big Brother, were not broadcasting anything that the MP said which was deemed to be political.
Make Them Move
Is the title of an installation, exhibited in the main art hall of the city Trollhättan in Sweden, with the King of Sweden (Carl Gustav XVI) dancing on a chessboard to whatever the local radio stations play. The King is directly connected to a radio player and one can tune Him to different radio stations and watch Him react, with the entire installation taking on different meanings when, for example, He dances to the Sugababes and when He moves along to the daily news. The King’s dancing figure is projected inside a golden frame and the animation is generated in real-time using custom made software and techniques similar to those found in video games (Figure 1). KEYFRAME: It is a paradox that countries
such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark the UK and the Netherlands, all of them open and progressive societies, still accept, even typically the idea of monarchy. Although the King of Sweden enjoys the least privileges amongst his peers, having only representational and no political power, the Royal Family in Sweden enjoys an 80 percent approval rating. Having no apparent political power also means having no significant political enemies and the Royal Family acts as a unifying national symbol in a continent where the old nation states are gradually losing power to Brussels. Royalty comes with its own set of intricacies and duties. During national elections, the members of the Royal Family are entitled to vote but following established practice refrain from exercising this right. Allowances for the Royal Household and for the fulfilment of the King’s duties are decided annually by the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag). In 2005 this allowance was 95 million kronor (10.2 million euros) of taxpayers’ money. Half of this amount goes towards the upkeep of the royal palaces while the other half goes directly to the King to pay for the Royal Family’s living expenses and to cover staffing costs. Only the half that accounts for the operational costs of the palaces is open to public scrutiny, while the other half the Royal Household has no obligation to account for it (Swedish Institute 2006).
Figure 1 “Make Them Move” – Installation with the King of Sweden on a chessboard dancing in real-time to whatever the local radio stations play (Tröllhattan Konsthallen, Sweden, Nov 2005)
In a society obsessed with celebrity, fame and glory, royalty is the real deal, albeit a costly one to maintain. Although almost entirely ceremonial in nature, does the public value generated by the Royal Family at this price outweigh the political cost of stirring the political and social taboos woven into this fairy tale? “Make Them Move” is presented as a project that could potentially act as an agent in stimulating the debate about monarchy in Sweden and other countries where constitutional monarchy is established. The aspiration being that such a project could bring the sensitive issue of monarchy at the forefront of the news bulletin in a subtle way, and animate the constantly postponed debate on whether constitutional monarchy should be retained or abolished. 4.
KEYFRAME: How would it sound if the 25
prime ministers of the European Union member states were dancing to the rhythm of the Eurovision? On the 20th of May 2006, the day of this year’s Eurovision song contest, the 25 Prime Ministers of the European Union took part in a different Eurovision contest. Directly connected to the sound console, the animated figures of the 25 Prime Ministers were dancing all night to the music of different DJ’s until the best one won. When the final winner of the Eurovision song contest was announced, all 25 Prime Ministers danced to the winning song and the party went on.. The project is called "Eurovision" and the event/party was hosted in a nightclub in Athens, Greece, during the same night as the
final of the Eurovision song contest that took place in the city (Figure 2). It can be regarded as a comment on the song contest itself, the politician’s vision of Europe and our interest, as eurocitizens, in European affairs.
Figure 2 A different "Eurovision" event that took place in a nightclub in Athens during the same night as the actual Eurovision song contest that was taking place in the city, with the 25 prime ministers of the European Union member states dancing in real-time to the music of various DJ's th (Athens, Greece, 20 May 2006)
On June 6th 1954, Pope Pius XII inaugurated the creation of the Eurovision network - eight European nations linked via radio, coaxial cable, and mutual agreements – greeting TV viewers with a speech in five languages. News, current affairs, sport and cultural events could now be shared amongst the linked nations and connect audiences with events happening in disparate locations. In turn, the Eurovision Song Contest was founded in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union in an effort to build a broadcasting community in post-war Western Europe. The contest is now the longest continuously running TV programme on the continent. It is amongst the most criticised yet most watched television programmes across Europe, seen every year by a combined television and radio audience of more than 50 million.
The Eurovision broadcasting network, along with low cost airlines, have probably done more about the integration of Europe than any diplomatic mission. It is the only time when non-anglophone pop gets international airtime and the only international forum in which a given country can express its opinion about another, free of any economic or governmental bias. Yet, reinforcing common knowledge, researchers who rigorously analysed voting data from the song contest point out that "political-ish blocs" which vote each other do appear (Fenn et. al. 2005). KEYFRAME: Is it just the European Unions’
institutions fault that we are not interested in European political affairs? Are we too busy for formal politics? Is the immersion in the details of everyday life so deep that our routines are dominated by work, family, friendship networks and entertainment? The forms of engagement that we choose (or don’t choose) are embedded in the circumstances and routines of our lives. The “Eurovision” project is presented as an attempt to animate interest in the commons by extending the dialogue around European politics in an unorthodox way and staging it in venues where it does not normally take place.
KEYFRAME: Has the European Union done
enough to engage enthusiasm?
Not surprisingly, we are more interested in the Eurovision song contest than current European affairs. Is there an opportunity to use marketing communication to create a greater ’feel good factor’ around democratic institutions and public services? The European Broadcasting Union as the institution administering and producing the song contest has invested substantially in building the Eurovision Song Contest brand. Would it be beneficial for public institutions to follow this example and market themselves better?
Figure 3 The Prime Ministers of the 25 European Union member states that took part in a different th "Eurovision" event (Athens, Greece, 20 May 2006)
Making Them Move
Drawing elements from computer animation and sound analysis, both well-researched topics within the computer graphics and signal processing communities, a real-time animation and sound-processing engine was developed for the purposes of these projects. A skeletal animation system with real-time vertex deformation guided by joint movement obtained from motion captured data, and a sound analysis system responsible for processing the incoming sound signal and extracting certain features that guide the animation was developed. The goal being to synchronise the animation being generated with the music being played in real-time, preventing characters from taking anatomically impossible poses while at the same time maintaining a direct relation with the music. Informed by the work carried out by Kim et. al. (2003) whereby motion captured data are analysed to identify ’motion beats’ indicating discreet directional changes in the movement, a similar technique has been employed, albeit in a simpler way. Scheirer’s (1998) technique and implementation has been used in order to detect the tempo of a sound signal in real-time. ‘Motion beats’, defined as discrete directional changes in the acceleration of end effector joints (feet, hand and head), were obtained by analysing motion-captured clips and the sound signal was analysed in real-time to predict candidate musical beats. Based on these estimates, the timing of the animation was adjusted accordingly in order to make the calculated motion beats coincide with the estimated musical beats and synchronise the music with the animation being generated. 6.
To what extent did these two projects achieve their purpose of animating interest in the commons? Is one exhibition/event enough to stimulate the dialogue in this direction? Not alone, but it can provide subtle cues in realising and modulating the ambience of such crafted experiences. What these two projects strive for is presenting other constructive and engaging means of interaction, equally capable of triggering a debate around issues of public concern in addition to fora, weblogs, radio and TV broadcasts, and extending the dialogue to venues where it does not normally take place by stimulating shared experiences outside the box.
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