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The Dress That Eats Souls, artist’s studio, work in progress, segment 1950s

Image: Toni Dove

Toni Dove comes with artistic credentials. She’s the granddaughter of Arthur Dove (considered by many the first American abstract painter) and started her own career as a painter at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design—a fairly traditional path.

But, Dove says, following those steps felt like wearing “a shirt that was two sizes too small.” Starting in 1990, Dove began working in another way: with interactive narratives—hybrids of film, installation art, motion sensing technology, music and experimental theater that made her a pioneer in the field. Now the first survey exhibition of more than 20 years of her work is on display at The Ringling through May 20 with Toni Dove: Embodied Machines—a show that received mention in an October interview with Dove in The New York Times. A special highlight of the exhibition and the interview: the debut of the new work The Dress That Eats Souls, a robotic projection that Dove has been creating for three years. Like much of Dove’s work, the piece uses “the body as an interface; you [the viewer] use your own physiology to navigate the media,” she explains. For each exhibition goer, the experience will be unique, no matter how many times it’s viewed; Dove and her colleagues on the project have created a cycle of images lasting 13 minutes, but with five decades worth of segments, each with 30 alternative versions of storytelling. The direction the overall narrative heads will depend on the movements of the person watching.

“There’s a 14-foot skirt that talks to you,” says Dove. “The dress mirrors your body movements. Onscreen you see people who’ve worn the dress over 200 years of the past and into the future. It’s a cinematic automaton.”

The title of the work may sound a little scary, but Dove says it’s meant to be “intimate and visceral. It’s about the impact of technological change on the human body. I’m very fond of the dress now.”

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Lucid Possession, costume shoot with Andrew Schneider, Bora Yoon, Toni Dove

The dress is just the latest in a body of work that frequently focuses on how technology affects the way we interact, utilizing time travel themes and often featuring some ghostly images. Also on view at The Ringling will be Artificial Changelings from 1998, in which a kleptomaniac in 19th-century Paris dreams of a 21-century hacker; Spectropia, a piece that might seem to foreshadow the dot-com bust of the early 2000s in its take on credit, debt and consumer culture, but that Dove says was actually written about the economic crash and Depression of the 1930s; and Lucid Possession, which tells the tale of a young woman programmer who’s created an avatar that goes live on the internet. Dove describes that work as a “three-dimensional popup book that uses robotic and cinematic screens as well as a puppet, live musicians and singers,” along with Dove’s participation.

Dove will be in town this month for a presentation of Spectropia, March 9 (with three screens showing the film dominating the museum courtyard), and next month (April 13 and 14) for live performances of Lucid Possession in the Historic Asolo Theater. She says she’s looking forward to the experience here, although it’s always hard to predict what type of response her work, unusual both for its mix of cinema, technology and robotics and for its subject matter, will elicit.

“That can range from the really negative, like ‘I’d rather have forks stuck in my eyes’ to some who describe it as an out-of-body experience or a Vulcan mind meld,” Dove laughs. “People enjoy the fantastic nature of what I do, but it can also be moving. Those who’ve seen The Dress That Eats Souls as I’ve worked on it have told me it triggered all sorts of childhood memories, and it’s often described as ‘trancelike.’ It’s very immersive, so you feel like you’re wearing that dress. It’s interesting for me to watch as people react to it; I just want to hang out and see it.”

For more information about Toni Dove: Embodied Machines, visit

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The Ringling

Museum 5401 Bay Shore Road

The internationally recognized John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art features European (especially Baroque), American and Asian art. Cà d’Zan is the Ringli...