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334 W. 17th Street #4E
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My name is Benny Simon, and I am a dancer, choreographer, and teacher based in New York city. My research interests involve the use of technology in intermedial dance works.

The Digital Double


The Digital Double

Benny Simon

During the autumn semester of 2015 I observed Norah Zuniga-Shaw’s Intermedia class, which included dance major undergraduates and a few MFA students. My roll was to document the pedagogical methods used by Professor Zuniga-Shaw, and to trace the impact of those methods on the students. Outside of direct observation in class, the most useful source of data available were the students’ written reflections in Carmen, our online class forum. Here, they discussed class readings and experiences, and replied to each other’s thoughts in a way that complemented class activities.

In this post I want to discuss one particular set of written responses regarding a reading of Steve Dixon’s chapter, “The digital double,” in Gavin Carver and Colin Beardon’s New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies. Although the students’ responses mentioned all of Dixon’s interpretations of the digital double (such as the alter-ego, the spiritual emanation, and the manipulable mannequin), much of their language, whether they were aware of it or not, lent itself to Dixon’s concept of the reflected double.

The reflected double is one where the spectator is also the performer, and becomes what Dixon calls “the primary subject” (18). He describes a performance by Niki Woods, noting her use of a reflected double, or one that uses a digital double “as an instrument for self-analysis” (Dixon, 18). Dixon is also careful to specify that, for him, the reflected double is one that “mirrors the identical visual form and real-time movement of the performer” (18).

It’s the instrument of self-analysis that continually emerges in the students’ writing, as is illustrated in these quotes from two different students:

I believe that the whole idea of having a double, or another one of you, is a very secretive thing, yet we don't showcase it that often. What really resonated with me was having the double be the utopian reality against the dystopian skepticism. This concept is certainly replicated through everyone, even if it's on a smaller scale. On the outside you could look like you are having a great day, but on the inside you couldn't feel worse (Digital Doubles (Reading 01, Dixon)).

Using the digital double as a reflection is also really interesting. I think there are so many ways to use a reflection in not only the production aspect of a dance, but the emotional aspect too. A reflection can be just that, a reflection, but it can also be a portal for someone to look into and see themselves in different ways. Using the reflection as a point of analysis and judgment could maybe be used in breaking down the walls of the performer in front of an audience. I think that vulnerability can be used for strength in not only performance, but life too (Digital Doubles (Reading 01, Dixon)).

It is not surprising to find students using the concept of the digital double to examine their own thoughts and feelings because this course encourages an exploration of intermedia concepts through a process of self-inquiry. One could also look at the entire experience of an undergraduate education is a process of personal discovery and reassessment.

I’d also like to think that Dixon’s description of Monika Fleischman, Wolfgang Strauss, and Christian-A. Bohn’s portrayal of the Narcissus myth in Liquid Views inspired some of students’ lab work with digitally-projected portraits. One student wrote:

One idea from the reading that is really resonating with me right now is the section about the technological reflection. Dixon writes that it creates a whole new kind of vanity - a technological vanity where we are inclined to see what we look like as pixelated versions of ourselves projected on a screen. I think this is so relevant to my generation and our "selfie" culture (Digital Doubles (Reading 01, Dixon)).

These thoughts were embodied in this particular student’s digital portrait exercise. The student’s face was scaled up and projected onto a screen from a live camera feed offstage, while two other students in the lab group improvised movement in front of a different, more abstract projection of a shadowy dancer. The screen with the student’s face was angled to “watch” the improvisation, creating the illusion that the real, offstage student could see what was happening. This configuration is interesting because the digital double “sees” without seeing, while the two dancers on stage can see and are influenced by the double—an example of what Dixon calls “the power of the virtual over the real” (16).

A reply to the discussion comment above begins to explore this concept of the virtual’s power in performance:

It is interesting the point you bring up about our culture and "selfies" and how we are obsessed with our essentially digital reflections. However, these can be useful in performance to show layers of character and ability. It seems that using these walks a fine line between helpful, expressive, and vain and obsession. Both could make for an interesting performance (Digital Doubles (Reading 01, Dixon)).

It’s extremely gratifying to see this overlap between written responses and lab work—especially given that this reading and exercise took place early on in the semester. It indicates that the students were beginning to think more deeply about the impact of including technology in their work, and validates the pedagogical approach of mixing hands-on exercises with theory in order to create a contextual framework around intermedia works.

This represents just one facet of my experience in this course. Speaking personally, the act of documenting Professor Zuniga-Shaw's pedagogy, coupled with our Graduate Seminar mock research proposal exercises, began to shape the direction of my larger PhD research. I've shifted my viewpoint from the single, practical approach of my intermedial play concept to one that encompasses a much larger range of possibilities--many of them far from practical, but equally as valid. Listening to the students develop their own definitions of intermedia was a crucial part of this process, but also my conversations with Professor Zuniga-Shaw. I'm eager to dive into the long list of books I've compiled over the semester. I began this first semester with a solid understanding of my past research, but little to no idea of where to go from there. I believe I'm glimmering toward that place now.

"Digital Doubles (Reading 01, Dixon)." Carmen Discussion - AU15 Dance 5213 - Intermedia Perf. The Ohio State University, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Dixon, Steve. "The Digital Double." New Visions in Performance: The Impact of DigitalTechnologies. Ed. Gavin Carver. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger, 2004. Print.