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“‘Well, What If?’ That’s Been My Guiding Principle”: Charles Atlas on His Recent 3D and Live Video Work, Including His Kitchen Exhibition, the past is here, the futures are coming

Charles Atlas, The Years, 2018. Installation view of Charles Atlas: the past is here, the futures are coming at The Kitchen, 2018. Photo: Jason Mandella.

With video installations now filling every gallery and museum, the moving image has become a ubiquitous refuge for lovers of the ocular spectacle. Moving colors and sounds pull viewers into darkened spaces where they contemplate films made to work across multiple screens, films that can’t be contained within the traditional theater model. But before there were graduate programs in video art, before there were dedicated media rooms in museums, there was Charles Atlas. 

Charles Atlas has been a pioneering figure in film and video for over four decades, expanding the limits of his medium, while forging a unique aesthetic that transgresses the boundaries of film, art, performance and music. From his work with choreographer Merce Cunningham in early ’70s to his more contemporary works with the band Antony and The Johnsons, Atlas has consistently challenged himself with new forms, pioneering the use of film with live dance and creating video portraits of NYC’s cultural underground. He easily moves from the large screen, to the theater, to the gallery exploring new technologies with each work.

At the heart of Atlas’ work are collaborative relationships, working intimately with friends and artists such as Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Douglas Dunn, Marina Abramovic, Yvonne Rainer, Mika Tajima/New Humans and most notably Merce Cunningham, for whom he served as in-house videographer for a decade from the early 1970s through 1983. His works celebrate the body and the extreme with equal doses of beauty and campy wit.

Charles Atlas’s current exhibition the past is here, the futures are coming at The Kitchen, organized by Katy Dammers and Tim Griffin, questions the legacy of art blurring the ephemeral boundaries between past, present and future. The exhibition features two new video installations, as well as a selection of Atlas’s earlier collaborations with choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark on smaller screens outside the main exhibition space.

I caught up with Charlie to talk about the challenges of being a filmmaker in the art world, Tesseract, his new two-part work consisting of a stereoscopic 3D film, and how to marry concept and form.

Filmmaker: It’s been a busy year for you. You just premiered Tesseract, your new 3D film and live video performance collaboration with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, and right now you have two major exhibitions up, the past is here, the futures are coming at The Kitchen in New York and Charles Atlas: Scary, Scary Community Fun, Death at the Migros Museum, Zurich. I love your titles. They’re like cinematic haikus. How do you come up with titles for your shows?

Atlas: It’s funny you start with that because titles are really hard for me! Exhibiting at art galleries is a relatively new part of my work, and one thing about galleries is that they always want a title a few months in advance of the show. It’s hard for me because if I’m making new work I don’t know what the work is about yet, or what the title should be. I always wonder, “Is it clever enough, is it catchy enough? Does it describe the work?” So finally, I came up with this idea that the title really doesn’t have to have anything to do with the shows. It can become another way of addressing the public about something that’s on your mind. For instance, when I did the show The Illusion of Democracy (2013), I found myself making these abstract number pieces, yet at the same time, I was very worried about the state of the world. I thought, “It’s so weird that I’m making completely abstract work, something I hadn’t done before, when I have all those political feelings.” I really wanted people to try and keep the two things in mind, so I thought, “Well, I could just have a title sum up what I’m thinking about.” So now it’s a strategy. I mean, a lot of people just see the title and never go to see the show.

Filmmaker: How did you come up with the title The Past Is Here, The Futures Are Coming for The Kitchen show?

Atlas: I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and about how long my work will be relevant. I was wondering if all the work I had made over these past 50 years would be of any interest or use to people in the future. Basically contemplating my own death! [laughs] And thinking about how the world and technology are changing so much. I’m getting to that stage in life where I think about that.

Filmmaker: Do you think about what kind of use you’d like your work to have for future generations?

Atlas: No, I don’t. I just always knew since I started working with Merce Cunningham in the 1970s that my work would last, not because of me, but because of Merce. I knew I would always be associated with that in some way. Now that I’m doing more personal work, I wonder whether it’s all going to be gone one day. For years I never looked back. I just always looked forward and then at a certain point, maybe 10 years ago I was like, “No, I better get the best copies of my work that I could possibly get now because some of it is really almost lost.”

Filmmaker: Both installations that are up at The Kitchen use older material reconfigured into new cinematic forms. You’re at that time in your life when a classic retrospective is in order, but somehow I get the feeling that as long as you’re alive you will always be re-working the older material into new forms, that the past is the path of the future for you. One thing that seems apparent to me is that you love the challenge of making new forms and that it’s fun for you. And perhaps in some ways that challenge is the whole reason to do the show.

Atlas: Yes, both of the new installations are completely new configurations of older material. 2003 is an idea I’ve had ever since I did the original show at PARTICIPANT, INC. (2003), but realizing how much work it would take I always kept it on the back burner. When this show came up I thought, “Well, if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.” And In some way The Years is my version of a retrospective. The monitors are set up vertically like tombstones. Each monitor has a vertical scroll of scenes from my work over the years. When I edited The Years I worked on each screen individually, understanding the relationship from top to bottom, but it wasn’t until the piece was installed that I saw the relationships of the images side to side. I’m really happy with that piece. It constantly surprises me, and I like when my work surprises me.

Filmmaker: Something I’ve always admired in your process is your commitment to form and the way you refuse definitions about the content of your work. One of my mentors always said that it’s the artist’s job to put content into the work, but it’s the viewer’s job to extract meaning. That meaning is created between the viewer and the art. Do you ever look back at your body of work and extrapolate on its meaning? Do you see recurring themes?

Atlas: I don’t think of my work that way. I don’t really think in terms of themes. I just try to do things that I haven’t done before, and try to make sure that it’s a challenge and there’s an unknown element. Looking back, I would say that mostly my work is about interactions with other people, collaborations. I always felt from the beginning of my work with dance that my job as a media maker was to make what is an actual three-dimensional thing vivid in my two-dimensional media. I also have this formal, abstract-like OCD, [laughs] that underpins a lot of my work. I learned a lot from Merce, having worked with him for so many years, and one thing was that you ask a question, and then you maybe find an answer or you don’t find an answer but it’s always the question that you wonder about. You wonder, “Well, what if?” That’s been my guiding principle.

Filmmaker: I think that’s one of the most important things the audience needs to understand — that the artist is asking questions, not providing answers.

Atlas: There are also many practical decisions that influence my process. The work I did that was in the last Luhring Augustine show and then adapted for the Venice Biennale (2017) is really the result of having a Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island and being put in a house right on the Gulf of Mexico. The easiest thing to do to not schlep my camera around was to film the sunset!

Filmmaker: Clearly every element of your work is highly designed, from mise-en-scene to camera movement. It’s as if you treat the moving image like a chessboard, this gorgeous queer chessboard, with every move precise and calculated. Do you do all that work yourself? Do you create elaborate storyboards and work on all the design elements?

Atlas: Not anymore but I used to. I used to do everything: lighting, set design, costumes. That’s how I’ve made my living for a long time. I even used to do the Steadicam myself. In those early films with Michael Clarke and Karole Armitage I knew exactly what I wanted and I always designed the costumes and the sets. I used to do all the camera work with Merce, but when we started doing multi-camera shoots I had to step into the role of solely being the director, and for those dance films, I wrote elaborate instructions and storyboards, “Follow this person. Then get this — then take that to this and wait here until this person comes in.” It was very laborious and exacting. We’d do take after take until the camera is always getting better, but the dance is always getting worse! [laughter] But now I don’t do camera anymore. I’ve found people who are better than me to do camera. That’s always been my approach. Find someone who can do it better than me!

Filmmaker: In a recent interview with Yvonne Rainer you spoke about the early days of working with Merce and John Cage, and how you rejected John’s conceot about “leaving things to chance” and embraced Merce’s work ethic which was about strict form and practice…

Atlas: Well, except that the caveat is that now that I have embraced live video, you can’t. [laughs]

Filmmaker: What’s the hardest thing about working with live video for you?

Atlas: It’s a black hole of time. You can just spend hours and hours tweaking. The good thing is it’s live and it happens. Whether you’re ready for it or not, you do it!

Filmmaker: Nothing like a full house and a start time to get you ready!

Atlas: And I’m never ready for it. That’s the thing, you can get ready and ready and ready and ready and then, you feel like it’s never good enough, like there’s always something you could have done differently. Improvisers are my great role models. When I first started doing this live video thing most of the time I was doing complete improvisation. One day, someone who followed my work came up to me after a show — and it was a show that didn’t have computer improvisation, it was a score that I followed and because I really knew how to do it, it wasn’t that interesting to me. She said, “This show was great because it was working all of the time. I saw this other show you did and it was only working part of the time.” I go, “Oh my God, I was having fun, but they weren’t!” I’ve also had the other experience of when I’ve done things live that felt awkward, then you look at it later and you’re like, “I love that, that looks really good!”

Filmmaker: That’s interesting, that split between how something feels versus how it’s received. How the creative action often feels miles away from the end result, the risk and reward quotient.

Atlas: On the other hand, I always have a backup. So if everything goes wrong, I can put on a DVD — well, It used to be a DVD, but now it’s some file — and just play it until I can figure out what’s going on. Nowadays, I try to have a plan. It usually doesn’t go according to plan, but I have one and it gives me grounding. When we presented Turning, (collaboration with Antony and The Johnsons) we were doing these big houses of 3,000 people with a huge screen. I was doing live mixing and at a certain point, I would make a little mistake. I was like, “Oh my God. Everyone can see that!” [laughter] Thankfully the audience doesn’t judge as harshly as I do, but I like to have a plan. I like to rehearse.

Filmmaker: I just did a show at SFMOMA and they were telling me about how you were in residence there with Mika Tajima and the New Humans, and that you totally blew out the power during your performance. That it was the only time anyone had ever blown out the power in the entire museum!

Atlas: Yes. That’s true, we did. [laughs]

Filmmaker: When that happened did you freak out or were you just laughing?

Atlas: I didn’t freak out. I remember it was the kind of show where we were in the museum 10 hours a day improvising while the audience meandered in and out. We were in the middle of a show. and there were people in the theater watching what we were doing, and then the power just went out! They recovered it 20 minutes or so after that. Flipping the switch back on or something like that. Now if it happened at my recent show at BAM, a seated venue with a captive audience I would’ve freaked out. What do you do? Do you say, “Let’s start over?” [laughs]

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the BAM show, Tesseract (2017) a 3D film and live performance collaboration with the dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. This is the first time you’ve worked in 3D film. What was the shooting process for 3D like? In so many ways I see it as a logical extension for your work, as you already have these complicated and multi-layered relationships structured between your performers, your sets, and your viewer.

Atlas:First of all, ever since I was a kid I always wanted to make a 3D film. Especially, when I saw 3D IMAX. There was a Siegfried and Roy film in 3D IMAX that was amazing! They did re-enactments of Roy’s childhood, and you know those children’s books where you open them up, and they pop up in those layers, well that’s exactly what the film was like. Ever since then I knew I wanted to do a 3D film. When the residency at EMPAC came up, they had shown me some stuff they had done with 3D, but they hadn’t gone deep, so it was a learning curve for both of us. I approached Rashaun and Silas because I wanted to work with choreographers who were problem-solvers. I knew I needed that on the other side of the camera. And I picked the right people! They were great to work with because they intuitively knew how to place their bodies and move in relation to the sets and cameras for 3D. The equipment was so heavy! I felt so bad for the steadicam operator. However, the original concept for Tesseract was that there wasn’t going to be a stand-alone 3D film, but that the entire second act of the dance performance, the whole thing like you saw on stage at BAM — was all going to be captured live with 3D cameras and 3D projection.

Filmmaker: You mean the 3D filmic element would be happening live?

Atlas: Yes, live. But that turned out to be a bit too far. We did some experiments, and the 3D switcher was just so expensive that it was simply out of the question. I always knew that I would take the material and make a 3D film out of it, and so it was Victoria’s [curator Victoria Brooks] idea. She said, “Why don’t you do the 3D film first?” So then I got to make the 3D film, and we started over conceptually with the live video component for the second act. I knew I wanted the film and the live piece to be in the same space. I wanted it to be about two different kinds of 3D, as the whole piece was about geometry and other worldly dimensions. That’s how that piece evolved.

Filmmaker: For the second act you projected onto a scrim in front of the dancers. Which to me made so much sense in terms of delineating the traditional space of performance, then disrupting it with a cinematic doubling of actions. And of course, lighting plays such an important part when you’re working with a scrim. I love the beginning, where you have this darkened stage with only a rectangle of red light on the floor, and then something shifts and the cinematographer appears within the rectangle, and then everything starts to unfold from there.

Atlas: My thing with doing live video with dancers is to not upstage the dance, and also to not have a thing where you have to choose between what to look at — the dancer or the video — so this decision to project on the scrim was a way of forcing the viewer to watch both at the same time. The thing about working in the theater is that all of the things you do that are very precise work from exactly one seat, and then everyone else doesn’t see it that way. Whereas with film, you control the point of view so you always know what the viewer will see. One of my principles of shooting dance is that I always put all the cameras in the middle, never on the sides, because my feeling is that if you’re sitting way to the side in the theater and someone does an arabesque you don’t see their backside, but that in your mind you see the perfect arabesque as if you’re sitting right in front. If you were to put the camera on the side, what you would see, what gets projected, is the dancer’s behind, and that destroys the viewing illusion.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting. You’re organizing your optics based on perceptions of perfection, or at least perceptions of ideal positions.

Atlas: In the theater, you make all these allowances for not sitting in the center, front row seat. At least that’s how I think about it.

Filmmaker: Were you happy with how Tesseract turned out?

Atlas: Yes, really happy with it. We’re doing it at the Wexner in the fall and then in London next year. We’re hoping to get more dates in Europe but it’s very challenging, technically, to get sponsors. No one is equipped with 3D equipment.

Filmmaker: I know you’re currently shooting and rehearsing for your upcoming performance, The Kitchen Follies, which runs concurrently with your exhibition at The Kitchen through May 13, 2018. What can we expect?

Atlas: The Kitchen Follies is one of those ideas I’ve had for many years. It’s a performance art variety show with live video. Each night will have about seven different acts, 10 minutes each. I’ll be doing different live video approaches for each act. The performers are all people that I know and have admired. Some of them I’ve worked with before like Dancenoise, Johanna Constantine, and Stanley Love. Other performers I’ll be working with for the first time are The Illustrious Blacks, dancer Laurie Berg, Solo Termite, who’s a musician, and Jodi Melnick, a dancer, who will be collaborating with the musician Julianna Barwick. And Tyler Ashley is the host.

Filmmaker: Now that your work incorporates so much live video do you think of yourself as a performer?

Atlas: Well, I was always a behind-the-scenes person, but I have to admit that I’m a performer now. I’m getting better at it, but I’m not a natural. I’m a reluctant performer.[laughter]

Michelle Handelman makes moving image installations that push against the boundaries of gender, race, and sexuality. Her recent multimedia installation Hustlers & Empires, a film commission with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, premiered March, 2018. She is an Associate Professor in the department of Film, Media and Performing Arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC.

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