Curiosity drew me to experience the one-night-only performance by Charles Atlas and William Basinski, a fleeting part of the Contemporary Austin's exhibit "Strange Pilgrims," which explores immersive experiences in art. An immersive experience this certainly was. A friend said the multimedia event felt like a "waking dream." The two artists sat at opposite ends of the stage at long tables, on which were placed monitors and sound equipment. Atlas mixed video live, layering eight channels of video to create imagery projected on a screen behind them, while Basinski played a digital instrument and more for the evocative score that he created in response to the imagery. A new performance will never be exactly as it was that night.
Atlas does not use a linear mode of communicating. Essential to the dream he creates is the layering of film/video images in real time as a form of collage. This layering doesn't appear to work toward a clear or explicit end, but clarity is not always necessary to create an effective experience. Here, the layered projections ran fluidly with Basinski's music, yet the images were often jarring. Sometimes there was a sexual undercurrent, sometimes the imagery repeated sequences of traumatic occurrences: a plane crashing, a car burning, a cartoon bird crashing to the ground or being pounded. These clips were repeated again and again and again, and the repetition was not exactly pleasurable. Yet Atlas was able to project disturbing images while couching them in a cocoon of sorts so they weren't shocking or assaultive. They were interspersed with redemptive moments: images of ocean or water-based activity. Sometimes I couldn't tell if I was looking at real teeming fish life or a beautiful abstraction.
Other web-like abstractions layered on historic film clips reminded me of experimental film from the Sixties. Historic film references were deeply embedded in the work. Atlas' imagery encompasses, among other things, found film and video, performance footage, and references to Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou and other highlights of 20th century experimental film and video.
When I had given up on any sense of redemption, the film clips shifted to performance footage of a fascinating "winged" performer and her shadow(s). The performer was clad in a white, painted skin with red jagged lines, intimating blood, but in an unusual pattern – a ring around the crown of the head and expressive red lines on other parts of the body. Her large wing span and elegant arm movements suggested a batlike figure, and as these were at times layered with animation suggesting wings, it created the illusion of a winged creature we have never quite seen before. This figure was shadowed by itself: Atlas would create a second or third image of the performer, and they would follow the performer, melding into her.
The performance continued to play itself out in my head the next day. I came to think of the performer and her shadow(s) as a transformation of Self. The red marks were not literal wounds, but transformational marks: suffering transcended. The shadows were the molting away of former selves as this new creature continually transforms: emerging and evolving. A strange and beautiful creature, in a world beyond trauma: the artist.
The performance, organized by Andrea Mellard, was part of "Strange Pilgrims," a large exhibition exploring immersive art experiences curated by Heather Pesanti, senior curator at the Contemporary Austin. On view through January 24 at the Contemporary Austin's Jones Center and Laguna Gloria sites, and the University of Texas' Visual Arts Center. For more information, visit www.thecontemporaryaustin.org.
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