The body in the machine: the screen as performer

Andrew Fuhrman: Atlanta Eke, Body Of Work

Atlanta Eke, Body of Work, Dance Massive, 2015

Atlanta Eke, Body of Work, Dance Massive, 2015

Atlanta Eke, Body of Work, Dance Massive, 2015

“Jacob? Jacob, is there something wrong?” Atlanta Eke stands front and centre, dressed in silver spandex tights and long-sleeved silver crop-top, squinting through the lights up at the control booth where video production designer Jacob Perkins is mixing the live camera feed. “Yes, there is something wrong,” comes the reply, faintly heard, from behind the audience.

It’s a moment of brief uncertainty for the audience. Is there a problem with the technology? Has the camera broken? No. Suddenly the swirly synthesiser atmospherics give way to wild drums and ominous chords. Eke dons a space helmet, improvised from a plastic bin lid, and hurls herself back into the fray. The something which is wrong is the appearance of an invading army—aliens which look like large, bouncing blue balls.

But something might have been wrong with the technology. Or it might have been that the technology itself was wrong. Or the way that the technology was used was wrong. There is something problematic about the way Body of Work combines video and live performance. So much of what is written about dance and video—or about screendance, dance as mediated by a camera—is aimed at identifying and articulating the essential difference between what happens on the screen and what happens in performance. Is there some elusive quality of liveness which the screen lacks? What about when the video of the dance is broadcast simultaneously with the performance? Are we talking about fundamentally different orders of affective experience?

And yet the distinction between screendance and dance as such is becoming increasingly blurred; cheaper and more sophisticated video technology is allowing experimental choreographers to more completely immerse the screen within the liveness of performance. The screen is being transformed: a body to be choreographed, like all the rest.

Body of Work premiered at the inaugural Keir Choreographic Award in Melbourne, 2014, where it won first prize. It was then re-performed by Eke for Dance Massive in March, expanded and tweaked, but with essentially the same look and feel. And as with much of Eke’s work, it can be difficult to do more than describe that look and feel.

Atlanta Eke haunts the interzones between performance art and contemporary dance, often using live music, elaborate costumes and props, theatrical and live art provocations, and very little that looks like formal dance. It is dance which feels conceptual and politically charged, but where the concepts and politics are elusive, or can only be intuitively discovered.

Set against a background of science fiction clichés, Body of Work insists that choreography is a problem of time as much as it is an art of space. It is therefore a formal exploration of the relationship between the screen, the camera, the audience and the performer, and how each works on and is worked upon by the others across time. In this quartet the screen, and even the camera, become non-organic performers: dancing bodies with certain formal equality with the human performer.

During one of the work’s key scenes or movements, Eke stands before the camera and applies white face paint, as though the lens were a mirror. She then records a short loop of herself posing. That video clip is then replayed on the screen while another short loop is recorded of Eke miming an interaction with the first clip. That second clip is then replayed and another interaction is recorded, and so on. In her interactions, Eke caresses the previous recording of her image, tracing her outline, fondling the pixels.

Later she gives this recursive process a horror movie theme. She begins not with an alluring image, something to be cosseted, but with something monstrous. The first video clip is a close-up of her vomiting green ink. While this image loops, she places herself before the screen as if a cowering victim, hands raised, then reclines cat-like, and so on, each new pose carried backwards, deeper into the screen.

The first thing to note is what an impressive technical feat of choreography this is. The framing and the live editing of the loops is pulled off with remarkable precision, and yet it has the swagger and flow of something improvised. The tone of the piece is set by Daniel Jenatsch’s live musical accompaniment, which is all rough-edged art jazz and lo-fi parody of B-grade sci-fi scores.

But what happens to all this easy virtuosity when the dance is over? Does it endure? Body of Work suggests that it does. Here we see a past that is always present. As Eke traces the outlines of her own body, as it once was, she is tracing the outline of a memory. She is not showing us the memory itself, but she is showing us that it exists. She is showing us the surface of a past which is, to use the terminology of Gilles Deleuze, always virtual, or virtually contemporaneous.

This way of looking at the past throws an interesting light on questions of ‘presence’ and ‘liveness.’ Eke describes her piece as “a dance with time that dissolves the distinction between human and machine. It is a dance of synthesis, a hybrid, a cyborg where opposition is irrelevant so that the question remains; who choreographs and who is choreographed?”

And who is this cyborg figure? Is it Eke herself, shining in her silver spandex? What is the relationship between Eke in flesh-and-blood and Eke on the screen? Choreographically, it is a relationship of interdependence. The screen shows us something that has been performed, but it is also a part of what is simultaneously being performed. Is the cyborg figure the total rhythmic ensemble? A hybrid of flesh and screen and camera? Thus the work is the body, and the body is, in a generative sense, of the work.

If the form of the work is cyborg, what does this mean for the content? Does it bring Atlanta Eke’s politics back, by way of a video loop, to a postmodern feminism? To the “cyborg feminism” of the 1980s and Anne Harraway’s “ironic dream” of a common language, but re-performed for today in a postmodern context?

Screens and live video feeds are everywhere in dance and theatre today, even on the biggest stages, where directors and choreographers are keen to exploit the natural promiscuity of the camera eye and to dazzle their audiences with the latest media wizardry. Just as the camera has, over the last hundred-odd years, worked to transform live presence into cinematic presence, directors and choreographers are now transforming the screen as active performer, with its own bodily presence, a corporeality which is not necessarily different in kind to the human body. It’s a brave new world, and again the question must be asked: “Is there something wrong?”

Body of Work, concept, choreography Atlanta Eke, video Hana Miller and Jacob Perkins, music Daniel Jenatsch; Dance Massive 2015, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 16-18 March

Dance photographer Gregory Lorenzutti will have his first Australian exhibition, “Dance is My Landscape”, in Melbourne this June at Dancehouse in Melbourne. Exploring the moving body and the ability of a skilled artist to capture the fleeting, beautiful moments that are created through dance, “Dance is My Landscape” will feature more than 100 photographs of dancers from around Australia and Brazil. “Dance is my Landscape” is a free exhibition. It runs 12-14 June. All exhibited pieces will be available for purchase.

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 6-7

© Andrew Fuhrmann; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 June 2015