After Ghostcatching, Sundance and NY

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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After Ghostcatching

A digital reimagining of a 1999 Bill T. Jones installation piece
Film by The OpenEnded Group
Choreography and vocal phrases by Bill T. Jones
Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 20–27
Salt Lake Art Center, Jan. 20–March 25
Arte e Scienza in Piazza, Bologna (Italy), Feb. 3–13
A 2-D version (see video excerpt of the original “Ghostcatching,” above) opens at the Cooper Union Alumni Film Festival, New York, Jan. 28

When the dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones agreed, in 1998 to be the subject of a work of digital art by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, he told Kaiser that there was nothing that their stop-action cameras could possibly record that would capture any of the beauty of real, live dance. Just to prove it, he performed naked, with the motion sensors that were taped to his body falling off as he became sweaty.

He danced an improvisation based on poses he had created for an earlier photo shoot, where the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi shot him after his black skin had been covered with white stripes by the artist Keith Haring, turning him into a human graffiti drawing. For Kaiser and Eshkar, he improvised poses based on six of these photographs, which lay on the floor in front of him.

“He dared us, he wanted to challenge us. Clearly our techniques couldn’t capture his muscularity, the beauty of his movement,” said Eshkar, reached in New York City, where he was working in his studio with Kaiser on a new project. “Bill said, ‘You’re doing ghost-catching here, offending the great goddess of dance. Dance is like water in your hand.’” They later named the work “Ghostcatching.”

“The piece went beyond what we originally envisioned,” said Kaiser. Jones’s improvisation began to build and take off. “He became overtaken by other identities, like Haring creatures. Bill would reposition his limbs the way a sculptor would, or he got down on the floor and moved around, like a dog let out into a garden in the morning, looking around. There were six or seven of these different identities that we worked with.” All the improvisations were recorded digitally, as raw material for Kaiser and Eshkar .

There were also sessions in a recording studio. The artists, who later teamed up with Marc Downie to form The OpenEnded Group, had read Jones’s 1995 autobiography, “Last Night on Earth” (written with Peggy Gillespie), and asked him to tell some stories from his grandmother that had been recounted there. They also asked him to sing, and ended up using snatches of a Beethoven etude that he hummed, and folk songs he sang. “The idea was that we would gather an alphabet of sounds and motions, piece those together into scenes that didn’t reproduce an existing dance, and make our own dance,” Kaiser said.

The OpenEnded Group creates works for theater, exhibition, screens of all sizes and public spaces. “Much of our imagery reflects what one apprehends with the mind’s eye,” states the group’s website. “We have created a signature ‘hand-drawn spaces’ style. With this, we can conjure up a three-dimensional world in the manner of gesture drawing.”

Indeed, “After Ghostcatching” is no dance video. It presents a human figure only vaguely resembling Jones, sketched in chalk lines out of blackness. The stick figure begins to move through a series of poses, confinedto a coffin-sized verticle space, until other figures are generated from the edge of his elbow or hip, which then venture out into the space with their own, separate ways of moving and chalk bodies that seem to suggest different moods. The animation does seem “hand-drawn,” as loose and free as an artist sketching quickly, as continuous as the movement. Lines become broader, begin to accumulate, the new characters break out of the constraints of the original space and become more themselves—more Jones. There is nothing literal or realistic, here, but somehow, the essence of Jones manages to come through. The Village Voice called the original “Ghostcatching” “a landmark in the computerized rendering of the human form… a kind of digital impressionism.”

In 2010, The OpenEnded Group was commissioned to create a a tenth anniversary re-invention of the original collaboration with Jones. “After Ghostcatching” premiered at SITE Santa Fe’s Biennial on June 20. The word “stereoscopic” was bandied about in connection with the reimagined work. It’s the fancy word for 3-D. “We started thinking that we could do more with the new 3-D technologies that are out there,” said Kaiser. “It has reached a point where it doesn’t give you headaches.

“We proposed making a new version of the work to Bill, and it was a company manager who was especially interested, because Bill isn’t dancing much anymore,” Kaiser continued. “She was interested in this being Bill’s actual motion and voice, and not just what he sets on other dancers these days.” (Jones is 58.) “So we began to work. It’s the same elements as the original, but a complete reinterpretation.”

“We put more of Bill’s motion in. There were parts recorded that we now could clean up because of new technology. We were seeing possibilities in 3-D that weren’t present before. There is more feeling. When Bill’s different identities separate, pull out into space, they hover near you. The movement occupies your whole range of vision.”

The OpenEnded Group is brainy and technical, but at the same time concerned, like other artists represented at the SITE Biennial, with simplicity, and the value of earlier forms. Another piece called “Enlightenment,” ran continuously, day and night, outside Lincoln Center in New York from July 28 through Sept. 5, 2006. Commissioned by the Mostly Mozart Festival to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday, it reorganized the bits and pieces of Mozart’s most complicated piece of music, the coda to the “Jupiter” symphony, turning a classical masterpiece into a new media audio and visual deconstruction.

“Biped”—created, like “Ghostcatcher,” in 1999—was designed as an animated set for a Merce Cunningham dance. Here, computer-generated dancers performed the same choreography, mirroring, previewing or echoing the steps the live dancers were doing in projections that left the humans looking small and rather pedestrian in comparison to the digital grandeur, abstraction and movement projected behind them.

“Other Bodies,” a work in process, will project viewers into the experience of other people’s bodies. “Depth” is a re-invention of the motion-picture camera. The group is working on a new form of dance notation, using technology to enable choreographers to quickly sketch out movements before trying them out on dancers. “Playground” is an art installation using the natural qualities of children’s movement at play to develop projected imagery that reacts to the presence of viewers and their movements through a museum space.

“We don’t always start with a blank slate,” said Kaiser. Kaiser’s background before digital technology was in flim and art history. Eshkar was also a filmmaker, and Downie, in addition to being the group’s major programmer, had studied music extensively.

Kaiser’s idea about “After Ghostcatching” could well summarize The OpenEnded Group’s artistic philosophy: “It’s a meditation on constraint versus freedom,” Kaiser said. “There’s the dance motion of Bill, and the intelligence of his body, but there’s also a sense in it of inhumanity.

“In the world, there’s a certain sense today,” he said, “a feeling of humans disembodied, at odds with other kinds of intelligence, trying to reorganize things.

“Digital art gives you more freedom.”

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