Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dancing About Architecture

Yesterday I gave a talk about my video Ex Local Authority as part of Kinetic Fields at Chisenhale Dance Space. The curator of the event Gianluca Bonomo wanted to investigate common grounds between avant-garde and dance filmmaking. As well as me Maxa Zoller gave a presentation about the history of experimental film and video in relation to ideas of space and movement and Gitta Wigro talked about dance film. It was an interesting experience relating ones work to another discipline and the enthusiastic audience, who I guessed were much more familiar with dance and choreography, responded with genuine curiosity and interesting questions.

Below is a transcript of my talk.

When Gianluca suggested that my video Ex Local Authority might be shown in an event concerned with experimental film and video and dance film, I was rather surprised because on the face of it my video has little or nothing to do with dance film: it contains no human movement choreographed to music, in any conventional dance sense.
Gianluca has spoken about other works in the Stillness of Movement section but in my own video and those by Fil Ieropoulos the relationship with notions of movement and choreography are perhaps more diffused and abstracted. Fils videos, like mine, concentrate closely on very particular phenomenon of every day subjects, however the 'choreography' in his work takes a kind of ecological approach, using the diegetic or ambient sound - the sound of the space at the time of shooting - collecting and shaping it into a rhythmic and textural dance.

click on the image for an extract from Local Authority (QuickTime 7 required)

There is an expression I’ve heard used occasionally which goes along the lines of “writing about music is like dancing about architecture...” usually followed by “ impossible” or “ a really stupid thing to do...” I did a search on this expression and found its origins attributed to a number of musicians, among them Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Frank Zappa and John Cage. The last surprised me the most because if anyone was likely to recognise the potential of applying actions associated with one creative activity as a way of expressing another, it would be Cage, I thought. And besides he often wrote about music. Whoever the originator of this expression was, they displayed a rather restrictive, somewhat conservative lack of capacity for lateral thought, a sort of “place for everything” apartheid of expression (so I’m guessing Costello... whose puns are worse even than Zappa’s).

But 'dancing about architecture' appeals to me as, rather than being impossible, it's a useful way of thinking creatively and spatially about choreography, movement and the moving image. It’s stating the obvious to say that dancers rely on the existence of physical spatial environments within which to move: dance so often happens within, around and about, architecture. Filmmakers also rely on architecture as the setting for the reception of their work: whatever or wherever the screen, it is almost inevitably in a room or at least architecturally located, and movement through architectural space is the default setting for much cinematic subject matter.

Ex Local Authority is dancing about architecture in another way. The video is made from static - but not still - images of a 1920s council tenement estate. The images consist of framed architectural features viewed through the trees in a courtyard. The relationship of stillness to the moving image is a complex one, but suffice to say that in many ways there is no such thing as a ‘still’ within the context of film: in a medium which moves through time. Although we might think of a static image as having qualities of 'stillness'. The video used to Ex Local Authority was shot on a static camera on a locked-off tripod and the motion in most scenes was the branches and leaves on the trees moving slightly in the breeze. Using editing software I was able to move the image from being absolutely still at one point on the timeline, to moving it back and forth along the timeline. The simple process of how I achieved this will be demonstrated later, but it works in such a way that it’s not immediately clear in the video which are the static and which are the still images, until the movement up and down the time line becomes more frenetic. Additionally one of the integral elements in this process was to simultaneously create a soundtrack from the midi music that I had laid along the timeline.

When I made this video - and others using a similar technique - I was aware of the similarity of this process to a practice common in 16mm experimental filmmaking of reworking extant film footage by repeating and changing the dynamics of movement, often using an optical printer. I was interested in the way that processes from the analogue moving image medium of film could perhaps find new life, and new efficacy, in digital media.

The reanimation of existing sequences often work to quite different ends in experimental film. As an example the following extract from Malcolm Le Grice’s 1968 film Little Dog for Roger takes a sequence from some found home movie footage which Le Grice copies in a way that exaggerates and transforms what would normally be considered to be errors, such as frame slippage, dirt, scratches, sprockets, thereby foregrounding the intrinsic material qualities of the medium. This is a classic structural materialist film technique.

frame sequence from Little Dog for Roger by Malcolm Le Grice

So, as well as the film material we still see the dog running around, we still follow its movements reanimated as it leads us on a merry materialist dance. The next example is less interested in the material properties of film and more in the movement of figures in space. In this extract from the 1993 film Passage à l'Acte, Martin Arnold reworks a family breakfast scene (taken from a 1950s film version of To Kill a Mockingbird) by reprinting small segments frame by frame, building up repetitive movements to the point where a everyday activity becomes infected by repetitive tics transforming an otherwise domestic normality into a mad dance.

frame sequence from Passage à l'Acte by Martin Arnold

Arnold’s technique is painstaking, the materialist signifiers of the film media as seen in Little Dog for Roger are largely absent and we begin to imagine that so intense is this mad dance that it expresses some deeper psychological violence. The movement is seamless it is human movement and while the ‘unnaturalness’ is clear we still imagine that they could be ‘real’ choreographed human not machine created movements.

Such effects are not quickly achieved. The passage from re-photographing film to producing visible movement involves a significant time delay. From one piece of film, the backward and forward movement of one frame after another has to be re-shot, slowly pieced together, then chemically processed, perhaps printed again to achieve a viewable copy. The time taken between the manipulation of the material to seeing the result can be days. In Martin Arnold’s case, considerably longer.

In many digital practices which inherit their form from analogue media, there is still a time lag at the processing stage for compositing, rendering and often computer based animation is still carried out at the level of the single frame. With my video however, this was not the case as this demonstration of how I animated the sequences shows:

click on the image for Local Authority demonstration (QuickTime 7 required)

So rather than having to make new sections of digital image, which might then have to be rendered, or re-photograph images frame by frame, with this technique the movement of the image was a direct result of my own physical movement, my dancing with the mouse, playing the video like a musical instrument as I improvise a soundtrack by scrubbing along the timeline. The subtle & not-so-subtle movement of the playback head affects & produces movement in the image.

At the point of realisation, performing the video, I was less concerned with the image, to the point where it could almost be considered to be a side effect/affect of the performance of a music track, a direct improvisational dance, following the physical movements used to improvise the sound.

The dynamics and co-reliance, the correlation or co-relationship of movement, stillness, space and time, are fundamental to both moving image art and dance, with the addition of music and sound, which can have an equally integral relationship.

In discussions of computer based moving image technology, one often encounters notions of the virtual, the cyber, the moving image as an ethereal immanent entity without material form, as though the computer provides some kind of virtual post-physical space and visible form only occurs through the magic of software. But the computer is a machine; it relies on electrons to make it work; it has moving parts and there is still as much of a direct trace of the physical source in a moving image made on a computer be that visual or process based. In Ex Local Authority in using the computer as a kind of real-time optical printer - the moving images were output to digital tape in real time as I performed - I am reasserting the physicality of the relationship between movement and image. I am suggesting that through the use of the computer the physical place can be made to dance in direct relationship with a human activity; moving images that are the result of real time manipulation are essentially performative. My processes have a lot in common with the way VJs work with the live manipulation of moving images and music simultaneously. Although so far I have resisted using a lot of the software.

In spite of this talk being dominated by more formal concerns, the primary impetus of Ex Local Authority was to evoke the uneasy daytime stasis of a 1920s Housing Estate, a stasis that is an illusion of stillness disrupted by the erratic but determined movement. The possibility of an almost imperceptible transition between movement and stillness suggests that both or either are ‘illusory’. It is a kind of image/movement/sound synaesthesia; it is also, perhaps, dancing about architecture.


Anonymous sam said...

Thanks Steven!

Tremendous piece of vlog entry, and so very generous. Didactic, reflective and very inspiring indeed. Very interesting references to Arnold and Le Grice, whose work I not yet had the chance to experience.

Great also, to have some comments on direct language #12. This very fine piece has intrigued me since I first saw it: speculations about the movement(s), searching for some clues for underlying rhythm or other conceptual logic(s)... but very enjoyable every-time, nevertheless.

The reflections concerning "dancing about architecture" are indeed, to me, very inspiring.
To my knowledge, there has been made only one conscious, conceptual (choreographic) attempt to break the laws of gravity, by some british choreographer woman, who performed and filmed her piece for a 1-2 minutes free fall zero gravity session in an Airbus -(or Antonov ) plane used to train astronauts in - part of some EU space/art program, about two years ago.

In this respect, I find parts of "local authority" very challenging, regarding the space-time aspects. In some parts of the piece, the branches seem to levitate, as if in zero-gravity. Thus, the steadfast heaviness of the brick backdrop is is the firm grounding, contrasting the "erratic but determined movement".
Yes. it is an architecture. One you are building, going into space(s). Ground breaking!

I must admit that I had superficially seen the piece before, but it sort of drowned in all the other videos from your site that I was watching then. Thus, it was a fine opportunity to see it again, this time contextually embedded.

It is quite ground breaking work! Not sure, though, that its radicallity is comprehensive yet for everyone. Wish I could have been there to hear you present. Seems that there are quite some interesting sessions on art cross-over(s) going on these days. What kind of questions arose from the audience in response to your talk?

Monday, May 15, 2006 6:42:00 pm  
Blogger Steven Ball said...

Hello Sam,

Some very nice comments, thank you. Yes the DL video is actually a 'performed' version of the LA 'demo' video. Performed in the sense that I used the same improvising a soundtrack process on the demo video as I did on the original video material from LA, if you follow. So I took the demo as the material from which to improvise a soundtrack and therefore a new video. So I have a fragmented reworked version of the 'demo' that I may one day find another context for. These things can go through unlimited iterations.

As for Le Grice, he is my 'boss', in a very mundane sense as the director of the project that provides me with employment. He is also one of the most well-know British experimental filmmakers, in many ways a 'pioneer' of the form. Arnold a younger, but nonetheless significant, Austrian experimentalist.

The space/time aspects of LA are indeed the crux of the matter. The way that time, on a time line in digital editing which is analogous with analogue video where length of tape = duration, can then be expanded and contaracted with the flick of a mouse, indeed conflates notions of spatio/temporal representation and reproduction. I agree it's challenging in a sense and an aspect of digital moving image production the implications of which still haven't been appreciated or unpacked in any meaningful way. I think I'm edging towards something though, perhaps it is 'radical', I don't know.

As for the responses to the talk. It was interesting. The audience was made up of mainly, I guess, dancers and choreographers. So the fact that we were talking in terms of things that they could relate to in some way (space, time, movement, music, etc) in their own practice, but were talking about a practice with which they were unfamiliar (experimental film and video) meant that there were a lot of interesting questions. Some of them were around questions of definition about how we define dance film in terms of experimental, to which I answered that surely we are not trying to do anything definitive, but rather to open up discussion around common elements and potentialities. One woman asked me if I wasn't in danger of becoming too much tied to my computer, to technology, and of that having too much of an influence on what I produce. I told her that I didn't necessarily view this as a problem. That most artists are reliant upon some technology and necessarily work within its parameters, and that it's not too far-fetched to consider the human body as a technology with which a dancer or choreographer has to work.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 12:17:00 am  

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