By Nekoro Gomes
“Dance like no one’s watching” was the phrase uttered on a constant loop during artist IMMA/MESS’s mesmerizing split-screen single-channel video installation, Staging Stages. This was one of nine dance-for-camera interventions developed by the Brooklyn-based collective AUNTS for the New Museum’s Fall 2014 Research & Development Season CHOREOGRAPHY and the resulting exhibition AUNTSforcamera, also presented at Amsterdam-based arts space TrouwAmsterdam.
Works in “AUNTSforcamera” were created during shared open-studio hours in the New Museum Theater. Each of the nine dance works created for the exhibit were produced and filmed simultaneously over the course of one week between September 10 and September 14, 2014.
Currently on display through February 15, 2015, AUNTSforcamera is ripe with themes of surveillance, disembodiment, and cultural appropriation. Even though some conceits work better than others, a tremendous amount of credit goes to the participating artists for leveraging the medium of dance and the archiving capacity of social media platforms in the exhibited works.
“Social media is typically archived permanently by the companies that host it, but masquerades as ephemera due to the constant influx of new content on social media channels,” writes AUNTS artist Karl Scholz in the description for his work #auntsforcamera, in which users could download the mobile app Ocho Video, record eight seconds of themselves dancing, and then tag it with the #auntsforcamera hashtag to be included in a sequenced single-channel video for the exhibit.
Always up for the challenge of participatory arts creation, I opted to play along and download the app. Like every other day, there was a race against the clock by my the dwindling iPhone battery life. I wanted to interact with Level Up: The Real Harlem Shake produced by artists Salome Asega, Chrybaby Cozie, and Ali Rosa-Salas.
In the exhibit, a hacked Kinect camera from an Xbox records and measures the accuracy of participants doing the “Harlem Shake,” performed on camera by artist Chrybaby Cozie.
Participants follow along to Chrybaby’s performances of the Harlem Shake, as opposed to the viral “Harlem Shake” meme popularized by the 2012 Bauuer electronic song of the same name.
In a written response to a query on the conceit for the exhibit, the artists note:
“The virtual erasure of the original Harlem Shake as a result of the viral meme was the point of departure to produce Level Up. When you google ‘harlem shake,’ you are inundated with viral meme versions, and it is difficult to find the actual dance (unless you know what you are looking for). This erasure is an act of violence in our perspective, a devaluation of black cultural production for mass media palatability.”
Ali Rosa-Salas notes that she became interested in developing the exhibit after continually viewing concert and commercial footage where dance forms like “hip-hop” and “vogueing” were presented as part of corporate campaigns without acknowledgement or consideration of the black cultural antecedents of those dance forms.
The format of the Level Up exhibit speaks to this very real sense of co-optation. Chrybaby Cozie performs the original Harlem Shake in the format of an instructional dance video, invoking participants to enter into his performative space as an engaged equal as opposed to a passive observer and consumer of cultural dance.
The idea of personalizing forces larger than oneself equally abounds in Cara Francis’ installation REMOTE, which utilized the medium of hand dances and interviews from the viewpoint of an AR Drone.
“My goal for 'REMOTE' is to create intimacy between a drone and its target. I asked people to stand on a square and be interrogated by the drone. These were mostly individuals, though a couple people requested to participate in pairs. I named the drone and had the participants repeat the drone's name, then I had them dance with it.”
The drone spoke in a disembodied voice similar to that of H.A.L from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It asked participants such pointed questions as: “Do you think a drone is like a death sentence without a trial?” as viewers stand over grainy military footage of drone bombings.
Cara Francis noted that she read reddit AMAs on drone operators, watched documentaries and listened to podcasts on the subject of drones, as well as taught herself to use the relatively AR Drone iPhone software needed to fly the drones.
While the different perspectives enabled by the camera mounted on the drone itself were engaging enough, the truly compelling aspect of the installation are the staging of intricate hand dances performed in response to such queries as “Show me what you can do.”
The presentation of hand dances more than anything served most effectively in my opinion to invite a consideration of dance as an interface for critical engagement. By focusing on a simple appendage, Francis’ work does more than any of the other exhibits for getting the viewer to consider the dance form of choreography as an interface in and of itself.
Another very honorable mention goes to Collective Settlement’s excellent installation, drawing a line with my body straight to you, wherein three television screens serve as an asynchronous presentation of the legs, torso and face dancing in the form of a human “body.”
In my opinion, one of the biggest things about dancing as a staging for participatory art is the fact that the average person is not all that enthused about having to dance for a camera, especially when they don’t know who’s watching them on the other side. Collective Settlement’s clever framing of dancers of all backgrounds and proficiency levels performing contemporary and culturally-inflected dance forms was a fascinating installation to behold.