Virtual Dance

Virtual Dance Museums is an international new research and experiment project dedicated to the promotion of dance as a living mirror and a shaping part of human culture, as well as an intangible heritage that provides an aesthetic, cultural and economic value for its bearers. By bringing together digital technology, dance, and heritage, the project aims to explore new ways of presenting and thinking about dance museum, heritage, and audience interaction.

The project was initially provoked by a scene from the 2012 American 3D dance film known as Step Up Revolution directed by Scott Speer.  As can be seen in the part of the film posted above, the scene begins with a young lady being invited by another young man into a Gallery (museum) where several dancers are seen transformed into paintings and sculptures (the visual arts). Then we see, the young lady and other visitors of the museum being surprised, shocked and even deceived by what they see as they initially thought that the dancers were part of the lifeless wall paintings and sculptures. Although the association of the museum and dance are not a completely new ideas and practices these days,  the ways in which the dancers and the dance is presented in this film raises a number of questions related to dance, the museum, heritage and the nature of audience interaction. For instance, does dance (as one of the performing arts) has to be transformed into the visual arts in order to be displayed in a museum? Does dance belong to a museum like any other cultural heritage? If so, should a dance museum contain tangible objects when it is often considered as an intangible heritage?

The aim of the project is thus to examine these questions and thereby define and experiment new methods of presenting the contents of a dance museum and engaging visitors and their experience. Drawing the visitor’s attention to dance as an intangible cultural heritage and a living art form which has to be safeguarded by being practiced, augmented performances and holograms will be displayed in an empty space where the visitors themselves are the participants. Using headsets and other digital tools, the museum will place the visitors at the center of the experience of dancing, and thereby enable them to take the heritage on their body as a form of "experience as artifact". 

By creating an interactive space where local and international anthropologists, ethnochoreologists, ethnomusicologists, performance and digital artists, curators, heritage and museum experts and others can meet, the project also aims to engage these scholars in various productive academic discourses and studies around the various dimensions of dance Museum.  By doing so, it fosters creativity and thereby produces a body of knowledge which, in turn, become a resource for dancers, performing artists and theorists to experiment and question new and existing ideas. Furthermore, the project aims to promote the work and scholarship of various local and international researchers/practitioners who study the relationship between digital technology, dance museum, and intangible cultural heritage.

These aims fit within UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.  They  also  have  a  strong relationship  with  the UNESCO accredited ICHNGO FORUM which  is  aimed  at  providing advisory services to the Intergovernmental Committee in the framework of the 2003 Convention for the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The aims of VDM were presented at the ICHNGO Forum of the 11th session of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee (which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) together with other projects of the Choreomundos Alumni Association.

VDM also closely works with Museene Danser, a project currently being conducted in collaboration between museums in South Trøndelag, Norway and the Norwegian centre for folk music and dance. The project will last three years producing three major exhibitions at Ringve Music Museum, Sverresborg Trondelag Folk Museum and Rockheim.

UNESCO Director's Speech
VDM Founder's notes
The former Director-General of UNESCO Koichiro Matsura emphasised in his speech on the value of safeguarding the intangible cultural heriatge of humanity such as dance and other oral traditions
A virtually created dance museum may help take visitors their dance heritage on their body and thereby safeguard it for tomorrow

Since its establishement some seventy years ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has emphasized on the  significance of the cultural heriatges of humanity for humanity. In contributing to the implementation of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO draws on a number of standard-setting instruments in the intangible cultural heritage field, in promoting and preserving cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and, the safeguarding  of the oral expressions and traditions of humanity, including the performing arts.

The inclusion of “the performing arts” as one of the domains of intangible cultural heritage raises ontological questions for dance and its safeguarding practices, because of its ephemeral nature. This is why the White Paper for the Dance Heritage Coalition makes a reference to the fleeting nature of dance as both a blessing and a curse for preservation and safeguarding practice. Philosophers and dance scholars also have raised ontological questions regarding dance, especially when it is digitized and disseminated on the internet as an image.  

In light of the challenges in promoting intangible cultural heritage values using images, the ICHNGO FORUM held a symposium on “the role of the image in safeguarding cultural elements using photography, video, and the internet” on the eve of the eleventh session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which took place in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa Conference Centre in Addis Ababa.

As in many of the themes presented during the symposium, the participants discussed the issues of safeguarding dance as intangible cultural heritage critically.

While their approach was useful and relevant when seen from the perspective of their own practical experience with the safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, there are certain distinctive conceptual and ontological gaps that relate to dance that are not considered. This was partly because some of the participants were confusing the frameworks and key terminologies of the old and new conventions of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

As one of the participants, my presentation was on the digitization of dance film materials and the role dance images play in promoting intangible cultural heritage values. Within this presentation I tried to uncover some of the related issues and political and economic problems around the digitization of dance film, safeguarding activities and the 2003 convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity as opposed to the 1972 convention which mainly focused on the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

When discussing dance as intangible cultural heritage and the conventions mentioned, it is important to pay attention to two terms, notably safeguarding and protection. In the contemporary legal and theoretical discourses regarding heritage, these two terms often mark the paradigm shift that occurred between the 1972 and 2003 tangible and intangible cultural heritage conventions. Protection refers mostly to the tangible dimension of cultural heritage (see, whereas promoters and proponents of the intangible side of cultural heritage use the word safeguard (see precisely because the convention primarily requires cultural heritages to be in practice and not freeze in time.

These distinctions are useful to think about the virtual dance museum and how it relates to the 2003 convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. Considering the two main criteria of the convention, that is, “practice and inclusiveness” it relates in two ways. To put it shortly, one the Virtual Dance Museum does not aim to freeze any given dance heritage since it considers practice as its central feature. Two, the Virtual Dance Museum promotes inclusiveness (on both an individual and societal levels) as similar as the convention does.

Because, the museum places the visitors at the core of the experience of dancing using headsets and other digital tools, and thereby enable them to take their dance heritage on their body. In this way, the dance culture of humanity may be safeguarded for future generations.

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Standard-setting activities dealing with global issues were the great success of the 32nd session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2003. Five instruments concerning intangible cultural heritage, the destruction of cultura1 heritage, multilingualism in cyberspace and human genetic data were adopted. In addition, the process of preparing three other instruments concerning cultural diversity, bioethics and doping in sport were set in motion.

The adoption (without a dissenting vote of the International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage marked a decisive turning-point in several ways. Most importantly, it filled a gap in the legal system of international cultural heritage protection, which hitherto had been focused exclusively on the safeguarding of tangible heritage. When I was Chairperson of the World Heritage Committee before being elected by Members States to head the Organization, I was deeply concerned about the geographic imbalance among sites included in the World Heritage List. As I delved deeper into this issue, I came to recognize that through its exclusive focus on tangible cultural heritage and natural sites most of which are located in the 'North', the 1972 World Heritage Convention was unable to deal adequately with the living cultural expressions of the 'South'. Since becoming the Director-General of UNESCO in November 1999, I have sought to rectify this situation by embarking on two parallel actions, one in the short term, which is the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and the other in the longer term, namely, the preparation of a standard-setting instrument to protect intangible cultural heritage.

The preparation and adoption of this convention led us to revisit our understanding of the concept of 'heritage'. In 1992 in fact, the World Heritage Committee had already accepted the need to recognize the living and continuing traditions which link people and place and had added a new category: 'cultural landscapes'.

Intangible cultural values embodied in tangible heritage sites were increasingly recognized as an integral component of world heritage values. During my chairmanship of the World Heritage Committee, I had endeavored to broaden the scope of 'heritage' to include intangible cultural values, be they spiritual or social, but there is an intrinsic limitation to the World Heritage Convention, which does not deal with intangible heritage as such. In practice, however, all tangible heritage embodies intangible components such as spiritual values, symbols, meanings, knowledge, or the know-how of craftsmanship and construction. Moreover, while many examples of intangible heritage are also closely related to tangible heritage, these tangible aspects are not necessarily of outstanding and universal value, which is the fundamental selection requirement for the World Heritage List. Examples of the proclaimed Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, such as the craftsmanship of Zafimaniry, Madagascar (Proclamation 2003), or the cultural space of the Jemaa el-Fna Square of Marrakesh, Morocco (Proclamation 2001), demonstrate clearly that their tangible aspects are not necessarily of outstanding and universal value. In addition, of course, there are countless other examples of intangible cultural heritage which are not directly related to tangible heritage, such as oral traditions, languages, chanting, dancing, rituals, festive events and social practices. For the above-mentioned reasons, a new convention dealing specifically with intangible cultural heritage was clearly needed.

Thanks to the 2003 convention, the many and richly varied components of intangible cultural heritage are formally recognized as fundamental sources of cultural identity, creativity and diversity. The governments of the States Parties to the convention will establish national inventories of their intangible cultural heritage and will take legal, administrative and educational measures to ensure the safeguarding of their heritage. This heritage, as well as the groups and communities that created and are constantly recreating it, will be able to enjoy the full respect, support and cooperation of the international community. It may seem that this convention was prepared in haste (in just two years) but, in fact, twenty years of profound reflection preceded its adoption. This preparatory phase included the setting-up in 1989 of a 'soft' formative instrument, the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore.

It is against this background that the majority of Member States urged UNESCO to adopt this convention which pays particular attention to those cultural elements, transmitted from generation to generation in the past but on the verge of extinction today, that are at risk of disappearing forever. This is why it is urgent that this Convention enters into force as soon as possible, which will occur once thirty states have ratified it.

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        All Rights Reserved.
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