Loops is an abstract digital portrait of Merce Cunningham.

As a portrait of Cunningham, Loops attends not to his appearance, but to his motion. It is derived from a motion-captured recording of his solo dance for hands and fingers. The motion-captured joints become nodes in a network that sets them into fluctuating relationships with one another, at times suggesting the hands underlying them, but more often depicting complex cat’s-cradle variations. These nodes render themselves in a series of related styles, reminiscent of hand-drawing, but with a different sort of life. Many viewers liken their experience of seeing Loops to that of gazing into nature: its flickering motions put them in mind of fire or of primitive biology, perhaps seen under a microscope.

In VR, the presence of Cunningham’s abstracted hands becomes palpable — for the images seem almost to touch your eye.

Just as Cunningham’s motions generate the imagery in Loops, we use his voice to generate the music. The initial source is Cunningham reading diary entries from his first visit to New York City in 1937, when he was 17 years old: an old man’s voice evoking an earlier city and an earlier self.

We imagined that since Cunningham was speaking, then we would have John Cage listening to him, at least virtually. And so we decided to propel the intonation and rhythm of Cunningham’s sentences into a virtual instantiation of Cage’s prepared piano.

The pattern of the notes they strike is picked out and then evolved by autonomous musical intelligences, not only “listening” to the sound of this speech, but also “reading” the content of its sentences: the compositional structure derives from the spatial/metaphorical structure of that text. The musical “score” for this work does not specify the exact notes to be played, but instead establishes a series of potential relationships between intonation, metaphor, and a range of equivalent piano tones. These relationships are selected and played out slightly differently each time.

Loops has existed in four earlier versions.The first three versions had it running live: no single viewing was ever quite repeated, just as Cunningham’s dance changed every time he performed it in person. The first version was commissioned by the M.I.T. Media Lab in 2001 for the “ID/Entity” show; in 2005 its sound score was re-made for Ars Electronica; and in 2007, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, it was re-created in tryptich form and its underlying code released as open source.

In 2018, an entirely new version was created. It re-rendered the imagery in 3D and set it in 3D DCP format so that it could be shown at cinema resolution, as it was in 2009 at the New York Film Festival. After being shown at MoMA in 2015, the museum acquired it for its permanent collection.

Loops VR was created by Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser. Shelley Eshkar collaborated on its earlier cinema and installation versions.

This artwork was acquired by MoMA for it permanent collection in 2015.

Like many OpenEndedGroup’s projects, the imagery was created using OpenEndedGroup’s Field software. We release builds of the software as open source code.