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> > > Simon Mckeown: Motion Disabled

11 February 2009

Colin Hambrook takes a look at some innovative computer animation by artist Simon Mckeown

Still image of an animated figure Simon Mckeown

Still of a motion capture of Mat Fraser by Simon Mckeown

Image: Simon Mckeown

At the end of January I went up to Wolverhampton Art Gallery for the launch of Motion Disabled - an exhibition by Simon Mckeown.

Simon has been teaching animation at the University of Teesside, as well as working on various computer games enterprises - Driver (1,2,3) and Stuntman.

He has come out of the classroom to work in collaboration with Outside Centre who have put on a huge variety of Disability Arts film, performing arts, and visual arts festivals and events in the West Midlands over the past few years.

The exhibition uses motion-capture technology to map the movements of eight disabled actors doing everyday things, whilst wearing body suits with reflective markers placed on the major joint positions, such as the wrist, knee and back.

The real-time film of the individuals' movements are then translated by a computer into a 3-D replica. This motion is transferred on to a simple animated figure resembling a wooden life-drawing aid similar to the sort commonly used in art schools at one time.

The computer-animated figures are displayed in a looped series of motion captures on five monitors in the gallery, alongside a short video of the individuals involved talking about their experience of the project.

As one of the actors, Mat Fraser, says: "It's about my bodies difference being immortalised." As certain impairments come under threat of eradication, this exhibition asks a question about the uniqueness of movement and physicality associated with those particular impairments.

Mat continues: "A world where there are people with different physicalities can only be a good thing." This thought is explored further by another of the actors, Pauline Heath: "If you think about a world without disabled people, it would be a bit bland - a bit like IKEA."

On one level the work questions the role of genetics in cultural identity by looking at ideas of normality and difference. But on another level, its strength lay in being a piece of dance for camera. Set against a white background, everything is pared away. The figures are deprived of personality and show little reference to gender.

So the emphasis becomes an exploration of movements carried out during the daily routine. Movements such as using crutches, wheelchairs, bikes and unaided physical movements are recorded, while sound and motion have been added to simulate bathing, eating, shopping, relaxing and many other actions.

The movement becomes a form of dance. The amount of intentional movement (as is often used as a defining factor within contemporary dance) varies, but the work is at its strongest during sequences, such as the kick-boxing, where the intent behind the movement is at its most clear. I also particularly liked the sequences when the props are taken away, leaving the figures floating in virtual space.

There is a natural tendency to search for the soul of any representation of a human being. This is similar to our tendency to anthropormorphise; to find a face in any random pattern or series of marks. A defining factor for these animated figures is in how they do things: eat, wash, drive, walk, get up from the floor and so on.

As such, the work becomes an appreciation of the ordinary beauty attached to the way these individuals adapt to their environment. The viewer becomes engaged with their uniqueness. And it is in those moments that you find yourself face-to-face with an extraordinary depiction of the human soul.

I came away impressed and excited by the potential development of Motion Disabled. I'd love to see disabled dancers such as Isolte Avrila, Claire Cunningham, Laura Jones or David O'Toole participate in taking the work into another sphere.

Mat Fraser talks with enthusiasm about the possibility of his motion capture being used for a character in a computer game such as Resident Evil.

motion capture image Simon Mckeown

Still of a motion capture of Mat Fraser by Simon Mckeown

Image: Simon Mckeown

This leads me on to say something about the fear of disability that emerges around any exhibition engaging with disability issues head-on.

Reviewing the exhibition in The Times, Ken Russell gave it a great piece of publicity and made some valid observations. But what is it about the mention of disability that immediately brings out the references to tragedy, bravery and finds every non-disabled person rushing for their medical model textbooks?

The Times headline read: 'A 3-D view of disability leaves me in awe of these superheroes.' Typically, it is this view of disabled people that turns us into candidates for the freak shows presented as 'scientific' documentaries which are the daily fodder of television programming.

Personally I think of it as an invitation to keep on banging on the doors of everyday prejudice and ignorance and to keep disability in focus as much as possible.

If you are unable to get up to Wolverhampton to see this show I would still urge you to tune in to what emerges from it.

Go to the Motion Disabled website to find out more about the project

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