Daniel Belton: dance, music, and digital art

Roxanne Vardi

Daniel Belton is an artist, filmmaker, choreographer, and dancer from New Zealand. In 1997, Daniel Belton and creative producer Donnine Harrison founded Good Company Arts, an entity devoted to creating live events, exhibitions, and installations through the fusion of multiple art forms, and is internationally recognized as arts innovators that combines dance, choreography, fine arts, music, and digital cinema. Belton acts as the artistic director of Good Company Arts, and together their project based art programs are internationally recognized as innovating the arts and design sectors.

On the occasion of his solo show artcast Unification of Dance, we had a conversation with Daniel Belton about his work and artistic practice of combining different mediums and art forms into a unifying whole. Belton has choreographed a number of acclaimed dance works, created a number of experimental film dance works, and has created a number of short films. The artist holds a number of renowned rewards and honours.

Daniel Belton, Astrolabe – whakaterenga (Portals), 2020.

In your digital artworks you combine contemporary dance, music, animation, and AV technologies. Can you walk us through the different complexities combining these disparate media into a coherent whole?

In my work the role of digitally augmented dance is really determining how the narratives or story threads are shared to the viewer. As well as this, the relationship between the choreographed work and music, is a central driving force. When you watch the works in motion, for me it is the relationship between the dance and sound, that is the heart beat, the emotional arc if you like. From this centre all the other elements are derived – the couture, the motion graphics and generative atmospherics, the virtual worlding of spaces in which the human figures project themselves, traverse, journey, or inhabit. 

I’m a self taught filmmaker – I studied photography and painting before heading into an international career in dance. After a decade working in Europe for various theatre and dance luminaries, I returned home to Aotearoa NZ to begin raising a family, and this was is also a significant turning point, when we founded Good Company Arts (1998). I began working closely with film artists to initially document our live performances. 

My curiosity for film and dance as shared mediums, really grew through the next decade, and continues to this day. More recently I have focused on outputs from the digital to print, and installations.

When I edit film, it is not in a conventional way. I use FCP, After Effects, predominantly for my workflows which often have 10 or more layers of visual material in a scene. I usually start by testing out the compositional space, with various visual components. This means playing with masks, scale, proportion, colour, and tone to establish a design language for the specific work. If you see all my works in a space together, you will recognise the “eye” and aesthetic, which is my signature. I’m grateful to the small team of collaborators who I bring in to support the overall vision – these artists work with software such as Cinema4D, After Effects, Premiere, Lightwave and more. I commission and guide their contributions, and we have a long rapport of collaboration. Their work becomes part of the total vision for the design feel of my work with GCA.

Collaboration with the performing artists is key. I work closely with Donnine Harrison (my life partner and Creative Producer for GCA), to choose dance artists who are also makers in their own right. These young artists bring their choreographic voices to the work, which is carefully guided. Usually we work shop and film in a choreolab style process. The filmed material is then reflected on in post, and this is where the relationship to music, and the visual design and narrative structure is developed – the total work is usually anchored this way. Sometimes later on, and it can be years later, a work is recommissioned to be performed as a hybrid piece. Then we bring the team together again to realise a performance activation of the digital work, for example with large outdoor projection, live music and live dance bridging to the digital world and expanding on it.

It is a fluid relationship. Works arrive and carry in a specific quality or message. They have their own energy and wairua (spirit). So the relationship becomes overtime, even more attentive because it is like communicating with a child of ours, and this is reciprocal. We listen, watch and respond.

“Works arrive and carry in a specific quality or message. They have their own energy and wairua (spirit).

Daniel Belton and Good Company Arts, AD PARNASSUM – Purapurawhetū Solstice, 2022.

There is something very theatrical and cinematic about your compositions. Do you find inspiration in these two areas of artistic expression?

Yes, I come from a background as a professional dancer, choreographer and visual artist, with many years of working in theatres. It has become a deep fascination to explore how we can expand our storytelling practices out and away from traditional blackbox and proscenium theatres. This gradual shift in my own work, has developed skills with digital mediums to grow my practice for dance art-film, and 2D screens, projection mapping etc. More recently I’ve started the deep dive into XR which has migrated my projects with GCA from 2D to 3D formats with full dome and CVR.

To me, the theatre and the cinema are inherently connected. They are powerful amplifiers and channels for broadcasting our stories. Human beings are story telling beings. From the cave painters of the paleolithic, through to cutting edge VR, we have always pursued the liminal, pushed ourselves and our communities towards a greater understanding of our place in the cosmos. This search is a beautiful, ongoing quest for identity and belonging.

“Human beings are story telling beings. From the cave painters of the paleolithic, through to cutting edge VR, we have always pursued the liminal, pushed ourselves and our communities towards a greater understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Daniel Belton and Good Company Arts, soma_songs_(aarhus_festival_promo) (Original), 2022.

Your artworks have been exhibited at art galleries, museums, public spaces, and architectural facades. Can you elaborate on the differences, at least from your personal perspective, working in the public sphere as opposed to the private gallery sphere?

This is about space, the human relationship to environment, our sense of belonging, and well-being. It is about discovery and returning to something to engage with it in a new way. What do we see? Our perception of an artwork is altered greatly when we augment through scale, light, surface. The ephemeral digital nature of film, especially projected, means that it is a membrane of datum, a digital cloak of light rippling with stories.

When we can identify ourselves in these stories because they are populated by the human in motion, then our awareness also moves to new places. So my works are not didactic, they do not attempt to tell a story in the traditional sense, rather to create an invitation for the audience to connect. This is a personal experience, and each individual will have their own response to an artwork. 

I find that when filmed dance appears in unusual sites such as mapped onto building facades – people really engage with it. Perhaps part of this immediate connect is that dance is a universal language.

In this way we can bring a new kind of illumination to a site, and invigorate, catalyse. For my work Line Dances at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, this was a direct link up to Paul Klee’s lithographs inspired by the theatre such as his delicate and humorous “Realm of the Curtain” and “Equilibrist”. It was 2013 with the Genius Loci Weimar Festival, and my first go at projection mapping. Since then we have learnt much, and I have been fortunate with GCA to be invited to many cities to show our work in more unconventional ways, with mapping. 

I do love the clarity and purity of a fine gallery or museum space. Artwork can breathe, and when curated well, bodies of work offer incredible insight to public, around an artists practice and oeuvre.

Many of your artworks, including Astrolabe – whakaterenga (Portails), are rendered in black and white and display celestial, astrological compositions. Could you elaborate on the intended reception of these representations?

The monochromatic space is powerful. I find it a natural optical realm in which to create compositions, and to cultivate spatial relationships that are coherent. Integrating the human figure here is also a natural progression for me. Don’t get me wrong, I adore colour! But it must be introduced carefully and deliberately. Human beings are travellers, and our ancestors were largely nomadic. Since we can remember our species have navigated using the stars, and the natural elements which we embrace as part of the vast family of sentient life on Mother Earth. In our shared histories, Indigenous peoples from all around the globe have created maps and charts, and systems to move safely and efficiently from place to place, over land and water. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of knowledge founded in the wisdom of the stars, and the wisdom of living in rhythm with Gaia (Papatūānuku). Certain GCA projects I have directed, such as Astrolabe – Whakaterenga, are about celebrating this. Whakaterenga in te reo translates as “to launch”. In this work, there is a merger of Asian and Pacific Island wisdom, that binds such systems as astronomical charts and stick charts (used in canoes to navigate with the stars). This work as with OneOne is about honouring diversity, and acknowledging the many links that bind us. These pieces are affirmations of the human spirit, of diversity and unity. They speak of the interconnectedness of being.

Daniel Belton, NGURU, 2022.

In many of your works, including NGURU, you reference Māori arts which are an important part of Māori culture. Could you dive deeper into this compelling subject matter and how it facilitates in representing more contemporary media?

In some of my works, those that carry and promote nga taonga pūoro, I have with GCA engaged Māori artists who are practicing musicians, composers, dancers and weavers. Specifically the works are OneOne, Taiao, Astrolabe, Nguru and Ad Parnassum. Although I am not Māori, I have Maori and Samoan cousins. I greatly respect and admire Māori language, arts and culture. When GCA brings in Māori artists to collaborate, they lead in their specific field of expertise, and their mahi (work) is carefully combined into the total artwork and process. We are attentive to protocols (tikanga) and this is reciprocal. For Ad Parnassum -Purapurawhetū there is a focus visually on weaving and the horizontal. The music score created by Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead (of Ngai Terangi and Tuhoe descent), is a fusion of classical (string quartet) and taonga pūoro (traditional Maori instruments). Of the nine female dance cast, 2 are tangata whenua (which means they are Inidgenous Māori, or have a Māori bloodline). The other 7 dancers make up this multi-cultural team which combines ancestry from Japan, India, the Phillipines, Eastern and Central Europe, Scandinavia, and Fiji. Their dance is contemporary, not traditional, but I do see influences in their work that offer glimpses of each artists cultural ties.

Get to Know Anne Spalter: Academic pioneer, artist, collector, curator and author

You have an MFA in painting from RISD: Rhode Island School of Design.  What came first for you, art or technology?

I studied traditional analog art in high school and at RISD as an undergraduate before transferring to Brown University to study mathematics. I was as surprised as anyone to find myself using the computer to make art after graduation. In fact, I have to admit that I was a total computer-phobe and pretty much thought art made with a computer had to probably be evil (which, unsurprisingly, seemed to be the general institutional sentiment when I later returned to RISDI for my MFA).

I really began to appreciate the visual power and convenience of the digital world when I was working in New York after college. I had a computer in my cubicle and was working a gazillion hours a week. The only way I could work on my art was inside that machine; it became my tiny studio. I began to explore what I could do with art software like Photoshop… and when my boss walked by… presto… like magic… I could easily click back on Excel.

After a while, I realized my future probably didn’t rest in banking [duh] and I applied to graduate school in Painting at RISD–of course, without mentioning that I’d been using a computer to make art, since that was still a pretty subversive insult to the painting tradition back then.

Once I was back at RISD, I wanted to continue exploring the digital realm. There weren’t any classes offered, though, so I actually ended up getting “volunteered” to teach one to my fellow graduate students. In the course of developing curriculum for what became the first digital fine art courses at RISD and Brown, I ended up writing the widely used textbook, The Computer in Visual Arts (Addison-Wesley). This was a multi-year undertaking and it brought together aesthetic, technical, and art-historical aspects of the field.

I was also fortunate during this time to work with Andy van Dam in his Computer Graphics Research Group in Brown’s Computer Science Department where I was a researcher and Artist in Residence. It was a bit like an old fashioned apprenticeship and I learned about the technical side of the field.

After 15 years immersed in academia, I thought, if I don’t give my art career a chance it’s probably never going to happen. I took a sabbatical in 2008 and ended up not returning.

Precession at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, curated by Elizabeth Keithline, New York, NY, 2016. Wall mural, video screens, canvas prints. Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

What do you think is most misunderstood about digital art and what would you like people to know?

Ahh, where to begin. Perhaps the most common myth, similar to the “anyone can point and click” accusations that plagued photography, is that somehow the computer is making the art for you and the digital artist is merely pressing a mouse button and sitting back with a toothpick while the machine does all the hard work.

In reality, it is exactly as difficult to make art with the computer as with a paint brush or any other medium because the hard part doesn’t lie with the technical device or medium but in the artmaking aspects–the choice of content and how to express it. A great artist can make art with a crayon–as Picasso did drawing a dove–and a lousy artist can fail to make art with the world’s most powerful supercomputer. If anything, I’d say it takes more hours working with a computer than most traditional media because it is a new technology and involves a lot of tedious problem solving on a daily basis.

As we move into a new world of machine learning and AI, this may change and the computer may truly be making art, but I have not seen convincing examples of that yet.

I’d say another misunderstanding, and one that photography and video art and some other art forms share but that has for some reason particularly plagued digital art, has been that “it’s not art because it isn’t done by hand.” For reasons that are not entirely clear (given the history of other genres for which this is true), this stumbling block keeps reappearing. Ironically, I have often felt more like I was drawing and painting when working with digital video than I did wielding a physical pencil or brush. One would think in this day and age that art could be accepted for it’s conceptual and aesthetic qualities and the mediation of the hand would not be brought into so many discussions–but it remains an issue.

I could go with these misunderstandings forever, but I’d say these are the most common.

Adrift on Titan (Miami Marbles series) at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach, FL, 2016. The first PULSE PROJECTS Special Commission, Miami Marbles is a mixed augmented reality (AR) installation combining AR components, via a custom app, with nine physical helium-filled spheres—ranging from seven to 16 feet in diameter— printed with digitally manipulated footage of Miami Beach; Courtesy of Anne Spalter
Adrift on Titan (Miami Marbles series) at PULSE Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach, FL, 2016. The first PULSE PROJECTS Special Commission, Miami Marbles is a mixed augmented reality (AR) installation combining AR components, via a custom app, with nine physical helium-filled spheres—ranging from seven to 16 feet in diameter— printed with digitally manipulated footage of Miami Beach; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

You use custom software to create your work. Have you always developed/used your own tools?  Tell us about that process.

At this point I have custom software, but there was a process behind the evolution that led me there. I mostly used off-the-shelf software (back to Photoshop 1.0 and even its rudimentary predecessors like Letraset Realist) but starting with my kaleidoscopic video works, the standard software didn’t offer all of the features I felt I needed.

I began working with a wonderful programmer, Nathan Seilikoff, on custom plugins for Adobe AfterEffects and Photoshop. These let me work with more parameters for the patterning and motion, and also control them better. I did take programming courses but, basically I’m a slob and spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down stray semicolons. Learning how to program does help me understand what is possible, however, and to communicate with people who are good programmers. That said, I am happy working with programmers like Nathan to develop my custom software.

New York Dreaming, The Fulton Center, New York, NY, 2016-2017; 9 corresponding videos on 52 screens throughout the Fulton Street Transportation Hub; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As an artist, what do you think are the biggest challenges in exhibiting digital art?

Some galleries simply will not exhibit digital art. Of course, many artists use the computer at some point during their creative process (from image research to composition work and beyond), so this is an increasingly meaningless statement.

For those that do exhibit new media, the biggest challenges are making everything run smoothly and supplying instructions for non-technical people to easily keep things running. Surprisingly, there are still not any widespread “entry level” mechanisms for basic digital art display (e.g. a simple and easy-to-use screen or projector that would seamlessly loop digital files), and thus a new media show usually involves a crazy set up of extension cords and media players; multiple remotes with line-of-sight issues; and other things that are baffling to gallerists unaccustomed to such technology. Things are even worse if an actual computer must be kept running the whole time a show is up. Many spaces turn their power off at night requiring everything to be reconfigured each morning.

Beyond technical display issues, it is also sometimes challenging to explain to viewers that a work could be shown in their home or institution differently from the way they are experiencing it in the gallery or museum. For example, it is sometimes hard to explain to  people that a video work would look fine on a different sized screen, or on a screen even though they are seeing it projected. Prospective clients also often balk at having to choose their own screens or other equipment, even with advice from the artist or gallery.

Wonder Why, 5K digital video, 2017; 7 minute loop; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As a collector and artist, what  do you think are the biggest challenge in collecting digital art?

We collect mostly early works that are plotter prints on paper. As such, we avoid most of the archival and storage issues of collecting new media as essentially they are india ink on paper and this is a well known entity. We do have some works that are video, i.e., files, and those are backed up multiple times–both on physical hard drives and in the cloud.

Some of the challenges are the same as any art collection I think–storage, organization, documentation, etc. We have begun to put the collection online for research purposes–to share it with a broader audience and you can see our efforts so far at spalterdigital.com. Many works are not up yet as they need to be photographed, and we are still entering data. Implementing any new cataloging system is always an incredibly daunting task, though.

As an artist creating digital video works that others collect, I have struggled to find an optimal way to present work for easy display and use and integration with clients’ existing collections. Several of my collectors have told me my work was the first new media piece they purchased; I think that is because I go to great lengths to try to make it easy to install and maintain the work. My ongoing search for solutions in this space led me to Niio. Their approach is the only hardware agnostic one I know of —letting clients use their existing screens without the need to  deal with extra remotes.

In addition, unlike virtually all the made-for-art displays available, Niio addresses file quality issues that have always bothered me, letting clients view the optimal version of the video. The Niio server also stores archival versions of the file, and addresses distribution and backup issues. It is difficult to communicate some of these features to collectors who are not technologically inclined, but they are supremely important.

Beacon, 1080p digital video, 3 minute loop, 2018; Courtesy of Anne Spalter.

As a collector and artist, how do you tackle the topic of  preservation?

[see above for the Collection]

As an artist I live in fear that I will lose files! This is the equivalent of a fire in the studio. I make local backups to a RAID array, multiple cloud backups, and off-site backups.

AR – Are you a fan as an artist? As a collector?  Any works in your personal collection?

I really love AR. I think AR has a great combination of convenience and aesthetic quality and ease of use. We own one of Claudia Hart’s AR works. I thought Will Pappenheimer’s Privateer (in Boston Harbor) was super. And, of course, I did an app for Pulse Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach in 2016–Miami Marbles–which you can download from the app store.

What do you think will help establish the stature of digital art in the context of the global art world?

Fortunately this is already happening! Although we are all impatient, it really hasn’t been that long since the invention of digital computers and the advent of digital art to, now, shows at major museums featuring new media works.  I think we all live in internet time and expect things to happen almost instantaneously. Artists already know that the computer is a part of the art-making process and use it without hardly thinking about it.

For collectors and the critics and THE art world status quo to accept it will just take a few real leaders to give it THEIR seal of approval. Shows like the Thinking Machines, curated by Sean Anderson and Giampaolo Bianconi currently up at MoMA in NYC, help accomplish this. Not only is it a thoughtful interesting show but it brings together digital and analog works under the aegis of a larger theme and it doesn’t comment on the difference. The show treats all the artists equally — de facto as part of art history. This is the type of thing cements digital art into the canon.

About Anne Spalter:

Digital mixed-media artist Anne Spalter is an academic pioneer who founded the original digital fine arts programs at Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1990s. In her studio practice, Spalter uses custom software to transform source footage—captured by the artist during multisensory experiences such as riding the Coney Island Cyclone; walking through an open-air flower market in Bangkok; and gazing down from a helicopter over downtown Dubai—into kaleidoscopic, algorithmically manipulated Modern Landscapes.

Spalter, who studied mathematics as a Brown undergraduate before receiving an MFA in painting from RISD, has a longstanding goal of integrating art and technology. With additional cross-disciplinary masteries including a 2011 Sensei designation in Kenpo Karate, Spalter’s influences in the studio are as diverse as Buddhist art, pure mathematics, Futurism, and Action Painting.

Spalter’s work is housed in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (Providence, RI); and others. In March 2016, Spalter received accolades from Forbes, Surface, Whitewall, and others for her large-scale installation Precession at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Later that year, she was tapped by PULSE Contemporary Art Fair for its inaugural commissioned installation series, debuting at PULSE Miami Beach 2016. Also in late 2016, MTA Arts commissioned Spalter to create a 52-screen digital art installation, New York Dreaming, in one of its most crowded commuter hubs (on view through Summer 2017 in Fulton Center). Spalter currently sits on the board of the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA).

To learn more about Anne Spalter and to experience her artwork, please visit: http://annespalter.com

Anne will be exhibiting her work with curator Natalie White at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018 in NYC, March 7-12.  Get passes now!