Jinn-Ginnaye: Using VR to remove the dancer from the dance in Islamic Culture


Jinn-Ginnaye is an exploration of movement in place. It is a collection of dance pieces exploring issues of bringing western dance performance to the United Arab Emirates, where local modesty laws influence how women can be shown in public. The pieces use video compositing, motion capture, and Virtual Reality techniques to remove the body of the dancer, but leave behind the dance, and the traces of the desert in which it was created.

Challenges of Showing Dance in Islamic Cultures

When it was announced that the 2014 International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) was to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there was much discussion within the digital arts community. Many artists were strongly opposed to appearing to support what they felt were overtly oppressive governments. Others felt this was a unique opportunity to support local artists and to act as international digital arts ambassadors, showing new approaches and new ideas. Very few attendees were prepared for the levels of scrutiny their works, and their papers, panels and presentations. Every attendee had to have his/her presentation slides reviewed and approved by a panel of Emiratis to ensure they conformed to local modesty laws, and were unlikely to offend their hosts. Slides were reviewed primarily for images of humans, primarily female, in a state of undress. Dubai modestly laws state that women must be clothed above the knee and below the neck. One of the other host emirates, Sharjah, abides by the much stricter Sharia laws.
In addition to conformance to modesty laws, the reviewers were looking carefully at the manners in which images of the human form were used in works. Images of humans are a complex, and oft debated issue in Islamic cultures, and there is much resistance to depictions of living beings stemming from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God. Therefore, the role of images and image makers has been controversial. The strongest statements on the subject of the depiction of the human figure come from the Hadith (written stories of the Prophet), where painters are challenged to “breathe life” into their creations and threatened with punishment on the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an is less specific but condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir (“maker of forms,” or artist) as an epithet for God. Partially as a result of this religious sentiment, figures in painting are often stylized and, in some cases, figurative works are destroyed. This Iconoclasm or aniconicism is still prevalent in Islamic cultures, and makes many artists unwilling to create artworks depicting the human form. Instead, they prefer to work with mathematical patterns. [1][2]
As I was attending ISEA 2014, I was invited by a friend, and long-time collaborator Carlos Guedes to go out into the desert to record sound and motion capture data. Carlso had been experimenting with methods of capturing the sound of wind across the dunes when he noticed how various shapes of dunes and densities of sand created very different sounds as one walks through them. In order to explore this further, XXXX invited a number of dancers to go out into the dunes with him, and they experimented with the best forms of movement to create sound. I had brought a motion capture suit with me for an ISEA piece, which we carried into the desert along with ambisonic microphones, cameras, and recording decks. Over the course of the following 2 years, we built up a collection of audio, video and movement recordings together with a 360 spherical images of the capture locations. I developed custom software using the Unity3D game engine, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift DK2 to (re)create Rub Al Khali desert and to allow audiences to instantly travel to one of the most inhospitable locations on the planet. However, exactly what audiences would see in this location was still a challenge. After several discussions of how we could work within the UAE Modestly laws and the Islamic challenges on depiction of figures, we began working with the notion of not showing a form, but rather showing the traces left behind by the form.
Working in the desert, we began to read of the legends of the Jinn. The Jinn mentioned in the Quran are not the genii of fairy tales or 1960s sitcoms. The word indicates "something hidden from view", and is used in the Quran with several different meanings referring to people or beings who are remote and not seen. This echoed the feelings of some of the crew working on the piece, and we decided to attempt to create a piece by recording the movement of a dancer in desert, but removing her.

During performances of Jinn in Abu Dhabi, audiences saw a live dancer perform in front of a video projection filmed in the Rub Al Khali desert. After several performances, we distributed Samsung Gear VRs, and iPhones with Google Cardboard viewers. We put the dancer into an inertial motion capture suits and performed a sand dance where the dancer’s movements were transmitted to the VR viewers and the audience could see her projected in 360 degree stereo into the remote location. The audience reported that the VR viewers gave the performance a more immediate context. They felt a clearer, stronger, link to the original location after viewing it in VR, but none of the audience members watched the entire performance in the immersive environment. They all chose to take off the 3D viewers, and watch the live dancer with in front of them. Two audience member reported that the sand dancers felt like a gimmick when viewed through the VR display, but viewing the desert location through the VR goggles changed their experience of the whole performance. They felt a greater degree of presence. Their experience of the performance was enhanced by this new form of photography, but they felt the presence of the live performer was stronger when she stood on the stage in front of them.

Kirk Woolford

Reader in Digital Media Arts, and director of University of Surrey's Centre for Emergent Media. Woolford has a hybrid background with 35 years of industry and academic experience.