Walking into the first set of double doors that lead into the Movement Lab on the lower level of Barnard’s Milstein Center, visitors are greeted by a shoe rack. Only after removing their footwear are dancers, professors, and visitors alike able to walk through the second set of doors, which open up to reveal an unmirrored and largely unstructured space.
The Movement Lab itself is more than another addition to the recently opened Milstein Center. It is part performance space and part laboratory, created with the intention to connect movement, the arts, and technology. This center is housed within Barnard Library and Academic Information Services, rather than a specific department, allowing for it to serve a variety of students and researchers from different disciplines.
A semester after its opening, the Movement Lab is still finding its identity on campus, according to leaders of the space and artists working in the lab. In order to have its equipment fully installed and operational, the lab took more time than most other centers in Milstein to become available for use, with its doors officially opening in October as opposed to early September. Since then, only two classes have been held in the space, alongside a number of events and workshops, though these have often been sparsely attended.
Despite its groundbreaking technology and the seemingly endless possibilities for growth, the lab’s goals remain unclear to some members of the Barnard community at large. Additionally, many of those closely involved with the lab are not affiliates of Barnard.
Though the space is well-funded, to date, it remains unnamed due to the fact that it does not have a donor, unlike other Milstein centers such as the Elsie K. Sloate Media Center. This combination of factors has contributed to a general lack of awareness of the lab, leaving some students wondering what exactly the space is used for.
“It’s a mysterious place,” Sarah Jinich, BC ’19, former president of dance group Raw Elementz said. “I’ve never been, but it sounds really cool. … It seems like they’re still kind of working out the kinks of the Movement Lab. It’s only been around for a semester, so I think they’re probably just seeing how they can most effectively use the space.”
In a statement to Spectator, Barnard acknowledged that the lab remains in early stages of development, and that it plans to develop the space over a two-year span, namely geared toward increasing programming and available equipment. The statement added that the college expects awareness for Milstein’s initiatives, such as the lab, among students and other Barnard community, to grow as the library itself grows.
Currently, the lab has been working to address uncertainties surrounding the space through programming and involvement with the community. According to Gabri Christa, the Movement Lab’s faculty director and an assistant professor of professional practices, one of the most common misconceptions is that the Movement Lab is synonymous with dance.
“That’s why it’s also not ‘dance lab.’ It’s the Movement Lab … so that’s a really big definition. You can be acting, or maybe you do something totally different, but you want to engage with technology, or film studies, and do something that has to do with movement,” she said.
According to Christa, the Movement Lab was created with the intention for unstructured “play” and exploration, with the goal of providing time and technology for what students are interested in, as the need arises.
“One of the things I feel as a teacher and professor … I noticed that students want time to play around and research, even though we’re not an official research institution. And one of the things that I want the space to provide is a laboratory space for movement and technology,” Christa said.
Christa has been at the forefront of the space’s conception since its construction. She cites the Motion Lab at Ohio State University as an inspiration for the lab, noting that faculty members from OSU even visited Barnard to advise her during the construction process. Throughout the ideation and construction process, Christa notes her intention of keeping the lab flexible as it grows within Barnard academics.
“Flexible means that we can grow with the technology,” Christa said. “That’s why I didn’t go in with tons of technology right away, because we can grow. … [It’s] more low-key than installing high-end $300,000 or more equipment and have nobody who can operate it, or nobody that’s interested in the research.”
Currently, the Movement Lab is funded through Barnard’s general operating budget, according to a statement from the college. Christa pointed out that Barnard has been generous in its funding of the space, but added that a donor could add funds for larger equipment.
“I also think that [the Movement Lab] is a hard thing to codify. As soon as you talk about interdisciplinarity, people don’t really understand what it means. … A donor might bring in more money or bigger equipment, but I’m okay that it’s not the center that’s named, and the reason is that we can start making it into something that is truly much more generated by ideas and by the students, and not sort of an imposed outside idea of what it should be,” Christa said.
Christa runs the space alongside Guy de Lancey, the studio manager, Ruby Mastrodimos, BC ’18, the post-baccalaureate fellow for both the Media Center and the Movement Lab, and Georgia Michalovic, a graduate assistant.
Though Christa described open time for play and research as important components of the space, a number of scheduled programs make up a significant role in the lab’s monthly operations. This includes the Media Movement Salon, a monthly event for students working in the space to receive feedback on their projects, the Stillness Lab, a weekly relaxation hour, and other workshops and events.
The majority of these workshops and events are open to students across the University, though Christa acknowledged that not all students understand the purpose of some of the programming.
“We do the Stillness Lab, and people are coming, starting to come. They’re still like, ‘What is it?’ but this was the first week that we had a good chunk of people coming in. Some of them just took pillows and took a nap, and others were just looking at the images,” Christa said.
In addition to being the Movement Lab’s faculty director, Christa also taught a screendance course last semester, the first class hosted in the space. Screendance is one of only two courses taught in the space since its opening, alongside Coding Choreography, a course taught by New York University Professor Mimi Yin rather than a faculty member from Barnard or Columbia.
Alongside Yin, several other individuals unaffiliated with Barnard currently play significant roles in the space. This includes the inaugural Artist in Residence, LaJuné, who is a new media artist that focuses on researching representations of blackness in movement and technology.
“In other spaces it’s mainly either one or the other. It’s either just tech-based, or it’s just dance and movement and performance-based. It’s very rare that you find a space that’s dedicated to merging the two,” LaJuné said.
When asked why the lab chose to bring in someone unaffiliated with Barnard as the inaugural Artist in Residence, Christa explained that there are merits to students being exposed to the work of artists from beyond the gates.
“I think it’s really important to have working people that are not necessarily the professors be able to interact with students and have a space that they themselves can explore, but then also share knowledge in a different way than we do,” Christa said.
In addition to the Artist in Residence program, the lab also invited two Student Artists in Residence, who propose research projects that involve use of the space as part of their thesis work, this spring. The program’s inaugural student artists are Kosta Karakashyan, CC ’19, and Allison (Allie) Costa, BC ’19.
Karakashyan has used the lab’s resources to explore technology that changes the lighting of his performances based on his heart rate, while Costa has worked with LaJuné on motion capture projects.
In Costa’s eyes, part of the role of the Student Artist in Residence position is to show students that the technology in the lab can be accessible.
“[The Student Artist in Residence is] someone who can show the space as approachable, and as a resource, and as also a space about their students. [The space is] a little intimidating, there is a lot of technology in there, but it is a place where cool things can happen that's also available for other projects,” Costa said.
Karakashyan emphasized that part of the value of the Movement Lab is established by what it means for the development of dance skills and dancers.
“It just gives us an opportunity as students to have a very professional hands-on approach, because we're doing a lot of things [that], if we were artists in New York, it would be really expensive or impossible to have access to,” he said. “Then when we graduate, you kind of already have a wealth of knowledge with dance and tech to bring to the table, which is going to be really special.”
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