Why Jessica Rajko Is Tackling Big Data with Dance, Lasers, and Knitting
Dancers execute a series of lifts and rolls inside a rehearsal space on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus as choreographer Jessica Rajko, an interdisciplinary artist and assistant professor at ASU, sits cross-legged on the floor. She’s leaning in toward the dancers, carefully watching their work and pausing periodically to offer notes about various technical or theatrical elements of the piece they’re practicing.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in mid-January, and they’re getting ready to première Rajko’s full-length dance work, titled Me, My Quantified Self, and I. Cell phones and other digital devices peeking out of backpacks strewn around the room’s perimeter confirm the relevance of the topic at the heart of the piece – the ways contemporary lives are tangled up with digital spaces.
For Rajko, who earned her MFA in dance and interdisciplinary digital media at ASU in 2009, these spaces form “a messy, cluttered, complicated ecosystem.” And that’s just what her newest piece seeks to explore through performances from February 10 to 12 at Unexpected Art Gallery. It’s a collaboration with eight Phoenix-based artists who blend dance, digital music, and laser art in ways meant to prompt reflection and conversation on the intersections of big data with individual lives and communities.
There’s a significant visual arts component, too – created by five members of a Tempe-based service organization called Needlewielders, comprising age 50+ volunteers who knit, crochet, sew, and quilt items for community members in need. They’ve created a giant net that forms the backdrop for the show – weaving artifacts that reference digital culture into its web-like connections. “I wanted to create a world about data that people can touch, hold, feel,” Rajko says.
The web might just as easily represent Rajko’s own creative journey, marked by a series of collaborations and explorations of different media. Rajko co-founded and co-directs the urbanSTEW arts collective, which creates participatory art and technology installations. She also co-directs the Human Security Collaboratory, which is part of an ASU initiative exploring diverse technology-related topics from digital civil rights to wearable technologies.
The première of Rajko’s newest work couldn’t be better timed, given the ways big data has been front and center in American politics of late – through controversy surrounding foreign entities hacking American political processes and the new president’s penchant for lambasting opponents through social media. Dancers performed three excerpts from the piece during the 2017 Breaking Ground contemporary dance festival.
It’s not the first time Rajko has explored issues central to contemporary culture. In November 2015, she premiered a full-length work called I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am at Crescent Ballroom.
With Me, My Quantified Self, and I, Rajko presents a counterpoint to common assumptions about digital culture – including the idea that it’s primarily the purview of heterosexual white men, or always affiliated with a clean minimalist aesthetic. Recognizing the prevalence of big data discussions driven by experts, Rajko incorporates spoken word elements culled from conversations with ordinary people whose lives are deeply intertwined with data – often in ways far beyond their own control.
“I wanted to capture the experiences of those who don’t necessarily understand how big data works but can feel the impact of its infrastructure on their lives,” Rajko says. “For me, dance allows us to amplify our emotional experiences, behaviors, habits, and values that are so hard to put into words.”
Me, My Quantifed Self, and I performances take place 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 10, through Sunday, February 12, at Unexpected Art Gallery. Arrive at 7 p.m. to interact with the performance space. Tickets, which are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, are available through the event Facebook page – where you can also find information on several related programs happening that weekend.
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