Artist-driven Curating and How it Could Help Galvanize a Screendance Movement

Fist200x285.jpgAt the Screendance conference at ADF two weeks ago, I presented a paper that put forth an argument for the value of “artist-driven” curating in developing and galvanizing an art form.  I wanted to propose a way of raising awareness about screendance among dance communities that would help dancers feel like they can enter this art form that is new to them with a set of useable skills and knowledge already in place. In forming a strategy, I drew upon Paulo Friere’s concept of praxis from his pivotal book on liberation education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. For Freire, the way to raise consciousness among any group of people is by posing problems. This process of asking questions and raising problems, activates both students and teachers in a dialogue that brings about reflection and leads to future action.  Freire calls this pattern of action-reflection-action praxis, and it is through praxis that people engage in cognitive discovery of their lives that is transformative and empowering. From third world peasants to American dance artists, this process enables people to transform their daily realities and create lives full of meaning.

In my Kinetic Cinema screening series I posed a question to my guest curators from the  NYC dance community, “What films and videos have influenced and inspired your work in dance?” Each curator came up with a completely different way of answering that question, and the works they chose revealed their own unique thinking patterns and artistic processes. Some curators, such as Malinda Allen, chose to curate autobiographical evenings, chronicling their artistic development through pivotal works that have inspired them. Other curators, like Levi Gonzalez, chose to show work that was new to them, and investigate the commonalities and differences between screendance and dance performance. Still others such as Jonah Bokaer and Kriota Willberg, have studied the history of film and video art extensively, and for their programs they decided to delve into very specific areas of research such as feminist video art and the female body, or “bad dance” films.

Judson Dance Theater, photo Elaine Summers
judson-elainesummers-200x13.jpgKinetic Cinema is an example of what I have dubbed “artist-driven” curating, in which artists get together and share works that have meaning to them, often in informal intimate settings. The value of this type of curating is that it sparks artistic dialogue and exchange between the “makers” in a field, which can then lead to new art movements with distinct identities and progressive agendas. There have been numerous artist-driven curating collectives in the past that have had a huge impact upon the development of dance and film. A classic example of artist-driven curating is the Judson Dance Theater that formed in the early sixties as a collective of experimental dance artists interested in pushing the boundaries of post-modern dance. They were given the meeting room of the historical Judson Church to conduct their investigations and present public performances. The work that resulted from these programs went on to fuel the modern dance community for decades to come, with generations of dancers and choreographers spring-boarding off of the ideas and breakthroughs of the original collective.

François Truffaut

truffaut200x150.jpgOn the film side, Jean Luc Godard would never have developed his unique and influential style without his competitive and close relationship with fellow French New Wave director, François Truffaut. Although they were very different in many ways, their artistic visions were honed and shaped by the intense dialogue and exchange of ideas they had with each other over many years. The French New Wave was born out of the critical discourse started by writers and cinephiles in the film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. These writers were seeking a new type of cinema that didn’t exist in France at the time, one that married their love of low-brow Hollywood genre flicks, with more experimental, intentional, and referential nuances found in high art, all brought together by their strong vision of the director as auteur. When these writers began acting upon their critiques, and creating work of their own, the French New Wave was born, and gave rise to a new era of filmmaking that completely changed the art form in much the same way the Judson Dance Theater group did for dance.

There have never been more ways for individuals to share and distribute their media content than there are today. With the rise of the internet, and the social media of Web 2.0, today’s artist-driven initiatives are less inhibited by distance or financial limitations. Some recent examples of artist-driven projects for screendance on the internet are the social network founded by NY-based dance media artist, Marlon Barrios-Solano, blogs such as this one, and email lists such as the media-arts-and-dance listserv moderated by Simon Fildes. These online forums are bringing together an international community of dance filmmakers who can interact and share work and ideas with each other easily and instantaneously. The result will be a more unified and cosmopolitan screendance community, where new entrants can feel part of an existing movement.

New art movements and genres don’t get made overnight, but in the case of screendance, it is crucial to raise awareness and interest in the dance community. Through curating initiatives that pose questions and engage artists and audiences in dialogue, we can facilitate praxis. This process involves leading artists to examine, critique and analyze dance in media, and also to make work of their own, thereby transforming and shaping the genre and, by extension, the world. Artist-driven curating is one proven way to galvanize an arts community and further the identity of an art movement. These artist-driven initiatives, while often underground and informal, serve as springs that feed into larger institutions, such as dance film festivals, museums/galleries, performance venues, and universities. It is in these small, seemingly insignificant ways, that we can move screendance into cultural prominence, and make dance relevant in today’s mediatized world.

I should clarify a few assumptions and opinions I have about dance and “screendance” which came up in discussion after my presentation at the Screendance conference. First, I am coming from a dance background, and ultimately, I want my work in screendance to have a positive effect on the art form of dance in general. I learned while at the conference that this isn’t a common position among everyone in the screendance field. Karen Pearlman, a dance filmmaker and co-artistic director of PhysicalTV helped us all tremendously by making a Venn diagram to illustrate the hybridity of screendance at the last Screendance conference in 2006. (see below)


Screendance Venn Diagram by Karen Pearlman

What I learned at the conference is that practitioners of screendance can come from one of three different art areas: dance, film, or visual arts. Everyone’s location on the diagram is different and can move around, sometimes overlapping more with dance and visual arts, other times more with film, etc etc…

I shade towards the dance circle, and am biased about wanting screendance to do something for dance in general. Not that it should always serve to directly promote live performance, but rather that I think a vibrant screendance movement can have beneficial impact on live dance performance as well.  I also feel that dance as an art form has suffered and is suffering from a lack of resources and cultural capital (meaning attention and value from the culture at large). I believe that one reason for this poverty of cultural capital for dance is due to the art form’s lack of visibility in media (meaning mass reproduced and distributed moving images). After the birth of film in the late 19th century, cultural capital has shifted away from the live performing arts and towards mediated arts, such as film, television, and now broadband video. Unlike music and drama, dance has not developed a recorded media industry around it, and this has left dance artists (for better or for worse) with very few opportunities to reach a mass audience, have an competitive economic engine, or come out from behind the banners of other genres such as music videos, movie musicals, or even commercials.

I’m not interested in being part of a huge dance media industry, however I do see some benefits that other art forms have gained as a result of spawning commercial media juggernauts. Take music for instance. Over the course of 50 years of pop hits and mega record sales in the “Rock & Roll” (and then just “Rock”) music genres, there was a huge influx of kids learning to play guitar, forming garage bands, and talking about music. Today, even with the music industry floundering in the digital file-sharing age, the indie music scene is flourishing better than ever with 35 million users on MySpace (many of them musicians or music lovers), magazines, books, radio shows, tv channels, films, documentaries, and blogs that feed a vibrant discussion that most Americans can engage in. Imagine if dance had this kind of relevancy to peoples’ lives…Maybe there wouldn’t be so many dance critics being laid off, maybe more people would be interested in the difference between modern and post-modern contemporary dance, or maybe dance classes would be as popular as sports in public schools. Being a choreographer would be as cool as being a rock star…. Actually, this is already starting to happen with popular dance competition shows like “So You Think You Can Dance”… But I digress…

So, now you know my agenda, but I’m never going to be a media mogul. I will leave it to other shrewd bean counters to figure out how to squeeze out the dollars and cents from an art form ripe for the picking.  I’m an artist who sees limitless artistic potential for dance in screen-based mediums. Alongside the commercialization of dance screen, I want to see a vibrant exploration by dancers in the dance/film/visual art hybridity called screendance. This is where artist-driven curating comes in. I believe screendance can empower dancers who decide to enter into it. The movement for screendance has been slow to happen in the dance community, and dancers in the United States at least, have not seen media as a tool for artistic empowerment and growth. Despite the rise of dance film festivals around the world, I haven’t seen a comparable rise in awareness and understanding about screendance in my own dance community here in New York. The Dance On Camera Festival happens in January when the APAP conference is consuming the attention of most dancers. Even dancers who do get exposed to screendance, and then decide they want to try making a video or film of their own, usually hit a wall when they realize the massiveness of such a task. It’s an incredibly steep learning curve to jump from stage to screen, requiring a completely new set of skills and collaborators who understand dance, and there is little support or resources out there for dancers who want to make this leap. What is lacking is funding for production and creative development, distributors, classes, mentorship, critical writing, and even a central repository of knowledge or easily accessible catalogue of films to look at.

Things are definitely improving however, and as I listed above, there are numerous new artist-driven initiatives that are springing up on web-based media platforms. I hope that local movements also continue to grow and multiply. I would love to see artist-driven curating collectives spring up in other cities around the US and the world. It doesn’t take much to do, you just need a space, a projector and some friends to get started. Pick a question and try to answer it visually. Share what inspires you and talk about why. Have a dinner party and cater the films. In whatever fashion, we all have the ability to participate in the discussion, and help shape this unique art form of screendance into a vibrant cultural phenomenon.


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