Valencia James is a Barbadian freelance performer, maker and researcher interested in the intersection between dance, theatre, technology and activism. She believes in the responsibility of artists to reflect socio-political issues and in the power of the arts to inspire change. Since 2013 Valencia has been researching the application of machine learning to dance and how artificial intelligence may change the future of performing arts. She co-founded the AI_am project and in 2015 presented the project at TEDxDanubia, TEDxGöteborg, as well as the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires and the International Symposium of Electronic Art in Vancouver. In 2016 she presented the project at the Gothenburg Science Festival and at Brain Bar Budapest. AI_am premiered their first evening -length work in Budapest and Gothenburg in October 2017. Valencia holds a BA in Modern Dance from the Hungarian Dance Academy and has worked with choreographers such as Ian Douglas, Yvette Bozsik, Zoltan Grecso, Maureen Whiting and Portsha Jefferson. In 2012, Valencia was invited by Wim Vandekeybus to participate in his research program at the world-renown Ultima Vez Dance Company in Brussels. Valencia won the 2014 Viktor Fulop and danceWEB Scholarships, with which she was able to study at the ImpulsTanz Festival in Vienna that year. She has performed widely in Hungary, Romania, France, Israel, Sweden, Argentina, and Canada. After a decade in Hungary, Valencia is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What do you plan to do during Phase 1 of Rapid Response?
By reimagining the use of computer vision and machine learning, traditionally used for mass surveillance, we propose a new online venue for live dance performance, to be experienced by a virtual audience of real people from diverse backgrounds. In the crisis faced by thousands of theatres and dance companies, performances have been cancelled and the creation of new work halted. With the future uncertain for large gatherings and high-contact activities, this project provides a safe alternative with new opportunities for positive social impact. In Phase 1 we will figure out how to represent human performance in the virtual realm in a way that does not erase or replace the performer with an avatar. It is important to note that the human performer is a Black woman and that her unaltered presence is critical in both physical and mediated space that has been made for and dominated by white male creators and users. This project reimagines immersive web spaces as a site for addressing the need for more equitable representation of humans in mediated performance. At its intersection, this project presents an evolution in dance creation, social impact and a viable future for the performance and enjoyment of dance despite the uncertain future.
My work will be supported by the expertise of creative technologists Thomas Wester, Ben Purdy and Sorob Louie.
How does your work relate to the theme of the open call?
As the impacts of Covid-19 make the idea of people spending extended amounts of time in virtual environments a reality, attention is needed to make sure that the inequities of society are not transferred into mediated spaces. We envision a new immersive online space that prioritises artists’ imaginations and authentic connections with virtual audiences of real people, without turning their data and behaviors into commodities. We will purposefully address the erasure and underrepresentation of people of color in society so that the work of marginalised communities can be experienced by a wider audience beyond traditional privileged demographics found in dance theatre.
What does the future look like to you?
Though the future is uncertain, I feel a sense of optimism. I think that given the time of pause that Covid has forced on the world, humanity has been given a precious opportunity to reevaluate its course and make the changes necessary for a more sustainable future. As a Black woman, I feel hopeful that the world is finally listening to our demands for racial justice and that the long, hard process of healing generational inequalities and trauma is underway. The question for me is, how can the collective sense of urgency and responsibility that we are experiencing in this moment continue to guide our actions and keep us accountable moving forward.
What is your grounding ethos?
I believe that my ultimate purpose in life is to do what I can to make the world a better place than I first came into. In order to do this I must take responsibility for my actions and do my best to stay aware of issues that affect humanity, especially those who are marginalized. I feel strongly for attainment of justice and equality for all and that it is my duty to speak up for what I believe is right. At the same time I strive to be kind and compassionate to others, treating them as I would like to be treated, remembering that we are all trying our best with what we have.