On a projected screen in a darkened room, strange glitches rocket across a browser. The interface is reacting to live coding by graphic designer and performer Joana Chicau, who types into her computer just in front of the screen. She begins to dance, her body moving with the distortions taking place above.
This is one of Chicau’s many live coding performances; she’s also danced at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in her hometown of Rotterdam, as well as at live coding and movement computing conferences in London, Tokyo, Mexico, Berlin, and New York. Chicau combines her background in dance with her training as a graphic designer and programmer in order to explore and reveal the design processes behind interface and information design. In both her personal and client work, she takes an approach she’s coined “choreographic thinking”—considering composition, space, and timing through the lens of the body’s movement, and interpreting software and dance as languages that might converse and coexist.
Chicau trained in classical ballet while growing up in Porto, Portugal. Years later, while studying media design and communication at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, she began to consider the ways in which the abstract language of dance might be useful when approaching, and humanizing, UX. She now applies her choreographic ideas—which are often initially explored during artistic performances or residencies—to her approach as a web designer.
“All of our contemporary tools and materials are built using metaphors of flesh and the body,” says Chicau. She refers to computational organization, which etymologically comes from organ, as well as the idea of the life span of a computer, or how Alan Turing spoke of thinking machines. “Everything is so physical,” she says. “What I cannot grasp is how we’ve come to see [the digital and the physical] as so separate. People almost deny the body in the computer, but the two are deeply connected.”
In her various performance projects, Chicau often focuses on one form of dance at a time. During a residency in Buenos Aires, for example, she dove into tango, and while at a research program in Tokyo, she collaborated with butoh dancers.
“When I began research into this history of tango, I was so intrigued to learn that it was largely forged by immigrants, by people from Africa and different parts of Europe, all coming to Buenos Aires and using it as their common language,” says Chicau.
For her “Tango for us Two/Too” performance, she explores that communicative nature of tango but in a web context. She begins by distorting the code of the Google Translate homepage so that it continually self-translates fragments from interviews with tango dancers. The text in the two translation boxes seem to dance with one another as the words rhythmically flash and re-translate on the screen. Chicau concludes the performance with a duet—one between her and a program she’s coded. To the audience, she seems to dance the tango with a black box that elongates across a browser.
Her project is exploratory and probing: in what ways is Google Translate like tango, in how it helps to communicate when you cannot read a language? But also, how might the communication principles of something like tango inform and improve an interface design that spans across cultures?
How Chicau uses choreographic thinking in a commissioned project naturally depends on the brief and context. In general, she will take the default conditions of web design and “choreograph them differently” to create an “environment of discovery,” instead of something given and established. To understand how this mingling of dance and code might inform functional UX design, head to Chicau’s website, and you’ll quickly notice its elegant scrolling function. Instead of up and down, content drifts from bottom left to top right. It’s an unusual direction on a screen, but also familiar and intuitive; it looks like the gesture a hand might make when elegantly swiping something to the side. It’s been choreographed to mimic the body’s own movements.
“In a mobile screen, the amount of information displayed at once is limited by its size, so in certain cases, it’s interesting to use random functions to define and prioritize which elements will be displayed,” says Chicau, providing another example of how she might apply her thinking to a commissioned project. “In other instances, I’ve made the edges of an interface the ‘center of attention.’
Different spatial qualities can provide different rhythms in which to navigate through digital environments, and likewise in print design. I’m very interested in hybrid publishing, in using choreographic thinking to connect various mediums and how information can traverse them.”