Social Experiment

September (much like June) is usually a busy time for ambitious performing artists. I was happily inundated with two unprecedented opportunities here in Europe during that precious pre-fall start of the season, both a dubious departure from the usual structure of my repertoire – but still honing in on the motif of my work as a whole.

The ever-burgeoning landscape of art is an amorphous place to live and the overwhelming advent of collaborative work and the use of technology in the field(s) provides artists with more opportunities than ever before.

These technicalities provide not only an abundance of outlets in which to produce and present work – it also augments the challenge of these necessities due to the artist’s requirement to practice adherence to innovation and that dreaded yet vital job to hone their marketing skills. The business of show is a business after all.

Contemporary Artists are plagued with the modern occupation of proposal writing. While it is by no means a new thing, there is an art form to the detailed instructions, the pages and pages of applications, the requests for eloquent intent, and the ever so wonderful budget worksheets. What is of the most import is to provide the platform (biased selection committee) with a compelling statement that fits into the respective place of performance and/or presentation.

The Artistic Society of today lives much more in front of the computer than it does in the studio – unless of course it is a commissioned or otherwise funded and supported entity where artists are rescued by those altruistic patrons of the arts called “employees” and “volunteers”. In many mediums, the art has lost the art of the art itself, and rather the aesthetic value is structured for the audience.

Nowadays the landscape is changing in a way that it always has, but not so vehemently. The word “independent” used to describe the proverbial starving artist, but now it is rife with the explanation of the brave pioneers of art who are revolting against the dying breed of successful larger companies of art in its forms.

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I was invited to show my work at TanzBad  4, a Contemporary Dance festival curated and produced by Berlin based artists Christian Maass and Johanna Withelm. My original proposal was a tanztheater piece entitled “Four Colors” that was an interactive work that questions and exploits racial attitudes in American culture. Per usual, I submitted links to my previous work via video from my Vimeo page – and in not surprising form, they were interested in presenting my video work and regretted that my original proposal did not fit into the program structure that they desired.

I fought tooth-and-nail to make my proposal a bit more compelling, but in the end, I was defeated again by this new art form that I recently discovered and I threw up my hands, desperate to show my work in any possible capacity, but desperately longing to finally have my own work shown on a stage in Berlin.

For the past year I have been working for other companies in different realms. One of the reasons I came to Berlin is because of the breadth of my experience – I am sort of a renaissance man who delves into many disciplines running the gamut from absurd to academic – as long as it is art. I was at a crossroads when I left the states and was struggling with pigeonholing myself into a specific type of artist, but then a good friend of mine (a Painter) told me, “You don’t have to do one thing, do everything!”

My first exhibition in Berlin was of my film work – presented by ArtConnectBerlin at their launch party in July of 2011. I was just beginning to start “serious” work with film media and there I showed my first “Self = Portraits” video entitled Banana. Over a year has passed and I now have almost 40 of those videos that chronicle my sojourn to Berlin.

Video Art is one of the most duly accepted innovative art forms and I began working in this medium as a preventative measure: not to get caught running after the bandwagon where tomorrow happens faster than yesterday- and there is always that edge that you need to have over everyone else because traditional art is antiquated in our society.

Once I attended the TanzBad 4 festival, I understood and misunderstood why and why not my work was not included in the program (the performance aspect). Naturally, I was bitter and completely ungrateful that even though my work was chosen above the many applicants that submitted proposals, it was grating on my nerves to sit in a full-house audience and not having that ultimate goal of people seeing what I really do and what I love the most: tanztheater.

After the show (or during, I should say) I spiraled into a deep depression, right before I was to present another work on Monday (the festival took place over the weekend) where I was to present my work Text: A Play in One Act at the ArtConnectBerlin hosted Art Day at Social Media Week – Berlin.

I come from old-school Modern Dance and I had some trouble digesting much of the work presented at TanzBad. Contemporary Dance eludes me in so many ways – which sometimes I think is the point altogether. It is not my job to present work that is subjective, but I do it anyway, because otherwise art would lose the value of creativity – but I never forget about the entertainment aspect.

The night was broken into two acts at the Ballhaus Ost in ___________ Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the northeast part of the city center that is rife with commerce, families and a not-too-late-at-night nightlife (let’s just say that 2 years ago the gays started moving there and you know what happened next – before that, it was kind of a shit box).

The first piece was presented by artists Anne Poncet Staab and Erol Alexandrov (for intents and purposes I will refer to all participants as “Artists” as there was little dance in much of the festival as a whole). It was entitled “Aveugles” (the French word for “Blind”) and before the show even started, I was freaking out in my usual mind-of-a-producer, wondering who the hell was going to clean up all the ping-pong balls that were scattered all over the “dance” floor. But as aforementioned, I was already bitter that my work was not going to be shown on the “dance” stage, despite the fact that I was looking rather handsome in my skirt that I bought just for the occasion.

Contemporary dance has a way of redefining the audience’s attitude towards what I deem “movement art” rather than dance itself. It can create attitudes and opinions and ideals and is usually overwrought with research and technique.

This piece “Aveugles” was visually arresting in many ways. The dancers wore underwear and white oxford dress shirts and their eyes were covered with bandages. They approached the “dance” floor tentatively and dramatically and rolled around  in the most deliberate and slow way, knocking those little white balls hither and tither, until their bodies met and we were blessed with a few seconds of “music” that they used for about 10 seconds of partnering work. In the end, the audience was moving more than the dancers artists were, many of them literally sitting on the edge of their seats and then deflating back, over and over again, disappointed, relieved, intrigued, exhausted, about the anticlimactic elements of the movement art presented before them (this routine continued throughout the entire program).

This survey of the nature of communication and love (as mentioned by the artists) was actually one of the more (positively) memorable aspects of the entire show. It examined the vulnerability and delicacy of “blind love” and actually invoked some sympathy for this timeless act with grace and dignity. After several moments when they finished this moving art, we sat in the audience crossing and uncrossing our legs, waiting for the production staff to clean up all the little ping-pong balls that were now ever more scattered. Pity there was more of a dance to the clean up that there was in the actual performance.

The first half of the program could have used some tweaking (not just the issue with stage clean-up, that also presented itself in poor planning in the second act when the production crew had to clean up  an unfortunate mess of chewed and spit out cucumbers right before the last piece was presented), because it was dreadfully slow. Thinking back on many of the pieces, they were all very visually arresting, but in a way if felt as though the audience was playing the reverse role as if they were in a museum; instead of walking by and deciding which paintings to look at – we were the chosen ones, and we had to wait for the artists to come or go – making the decision as to whether or not we were interesting enough to gawk at.

One of the first things I tell my students when they dare to ask me to explain Contemporary Dance is: “There’s a lot of flailing.” Of course I go on to explain that there is an actual technique involved but one of the the MANY major aspects is that Contemporary Dance is a departure from the conventional methodology of dance and is much more about movement and detailed study of the way body reacts to unspecific environments and usually there is some element of rethinking the role of an audience in the work.

During the performance I wrote in my notebook:

Absence of Dance
Diluted Story
Androgyny vs. Beauty
Random Music Notes
Is this comedic?
Not offensive enough.
Teaching left me learning nothing.
Not Experts Shouldn’t Act Like Experts
Movement Farce

There were many works-in-progress (is an artwork ever finished?) in the program and all except one of the works was a duet of some sort – one that was titled V.I.P. and was presented by a collaboration of artists under the guise of “Nightmare before Valentine”. Four characters, a keyboard, a change purse and a purse… and lots of flailing.

The end-all-be-all of my petulance came from this presentation that started off with a young man dancing to a once-very-popular song by Beyoncé (that shall remain nameless). Like many of the performances, the audience was really challenged as to whether or not we should have been laughing WITH or AT the performance in question – an unfortunate device that could have been avoided with circumspect attention to the element of comedic timing, not an easy task, but the Golden Rule of “less is more” could have provided for a very entertaining and necessary (and also, sensible) laugh.

Then we were asked to ask questions – questions about this boy. This Mexican Gay Boy. My nostrils flared and my ass twitched as audience participation made its way into the context of the performance and I wondered how I would have gauged the reaction if my piece was presented – my attempt to conform to this Contemporary Dance lifestyle.

The challenge to the audience was to let go of inhibitions and to ask the artists (the moderator was an artist, a charming Italian by the name of Alfredo Zinola and the dancer who actually danced named José  Ortíz) provocative questions about gay sex. There were some interesting demonstrations (one of which involved a rather large Coca-Cola bottle) but in the end, while it was a lighthearted exploration that provided some comic relief, it missed the mark on being something that could have been rather meaningful in the context of the show.

15 minutes of a Pause was just enough to chain-smoke angrily.

The highlight of the festival came from the artist duo “WITCHTITS” – that made me ecstatic that I didn’t leave during intermission.

This piece honed in on all the more definitive aspects of Contemporary Dance in a poignant and affable way. The two artists, Alicia Grant and Zinzi Buchanan, utilize a very intimate way of engaging the audience as they “explore their identity and reveal to the audience funny, lame, endearing and shameful facts about themselves.”

The humor and intrigue of this piece was spot-on in its delivery and the audience (for the first time) was only moved (literally) by natural reactions that were far from coerced by the artists, but rather shared in a very pithy way. Though they delved into some flailing of their own (abstract fucking and shitting as they call it) it was not pretentious or uncanny in an unattractive way – and the laughs that ensued were deserved and well placed. A good show all around.

WITCHTITS

The rest of the program was a welcomed treat as the second act was remarkably more upbeat than the first, although there was still a tremendous lack of dance and music, but in conception and execution, all of the women’s works were powerful and arresting, and altogether entertaining.

There was still a little heartbreak with “Heartcore” presented by yet another artist duo Marlen Schumann and Jana Rath when the largest amount of music appeared in their piece. To the tune of Nirvana, they played and posed with cucumbers…and while overall this piece was one of the ones with the most “dance” I cringed at the experience of witnessing one of the best bands of all-time being the soundtrack to artistic yoga dance with phallic overtones. Sorry girls, but I think Kurt’s coffin might be sitting a little crooked now.

The final act was another art installation meets performance piece and was again two women doing what they do best – exposing an emotional exploit through an artistic medium. What stood out to me the most was the use of wigs worn over the face, something Martha Graham would have protested wildly, but it was an amazing effect nonetheless.

Again comedy showed up, albeit awkwardly, and music popped up inexplicably, and we were treated to a very theatrical piece that somehow went haywire during an unfortunate on-stage costume change that took place behind a makeshift curtain that was held up by an army of girls that looked like they had better things to do.

Before the show even started, there was also an art installation that took place in a separate entrance that was to be experienced through a hallway, which many times in the evening I found myself lost in trying to find the bathroom. Funny thing, the performance installation consisted of two (or maybe there were three) girls running in front of you and rearranging chairs, sometimes changing the course of your direction, and right before it is all over, one of them runs into the bathroom and I was left thinking, “Did she just get her period?” or “Did she eat some bad seafood or something?”. But I am more cynical than most people.

Anyway – I must give credit to the group, it was a brave little piece, as I would never try to interact with a Berlin audience so blatantly before they have had their Sect.

My video art was displayed in the foyer, next to the bar (where it belongs) and there were two other screens that were also playing films. One film, appropriately titled “Chosen Creature” by Cilgia Carla Gadola was (in my opinion) a clichéd version of the reason why dance film is not yet readily accepted by a broad audience. As I entered the foyer, I rolled my eyes at the first thing I saw that was a girl flailing in the woods. Why is this a thing? Is there some Mother Earth parable I am missing here? I have seen more dance films with girls running through forests, or playing in the dirt in the woods – can we move on from this please? Girl, put your clothes on, get inside, take a shower and get back to the ballet barre and do some pliés – it’s better for us all that way. Great cinematography though.

One of the other films was “Flugsand”choreographed by Jessica Kammaere-Georg and shot by Alex Papadopoulos. I was in disbelief. It had actual dance in it, and it was marvelous. It examined the artistic process in a very visceral and vicarious way – exposing much of the visual content in the realm of an actual dance studio. I applauded on the inside.

Then there were my little shitty videos on the other screen. I was happy (read: megalomaniacal) when I saw a few people staring at the screen and one in particular was sitting down in front of it with the headphones on, listening to the (vital) music that played along with it. I appreciated the venue in which my films were playing and for a moment I was proud to be presenting my work in this format where people had the choice to view it or not – much like in a gallery. But I had a surprise!

A few hours before I left for the show I was extremely distraught about the fact that I haven’t been able to afford to pay my web hosting fee for my website and if I was blessed with the opportunity to network, I could not give out any business cards (not that I could afford those either) with my information. I decided to add another element to the showing of my films.

I have created my own business cards in the past in many different ways – mostly by creating little cards with drawings and using unorthodox materials such as fabric and duct tape. My last set of business cards were made on little pieces of index card paper that I drew my signature references to geometry with pen and ink pictures of circles and lines and squares, mixed with little drawings of sperm and eggs. On the cards I included real fingerprints from myself in red ink from a stamp pad i had laying around. On the cards I wrote my full name: Louis DeVaughn Nelson, and then crossed it out and penned “DeVo” as the replacement, along with my email address and my (now defunct) website address.

To me it was a statement about the inherent growth process of an artist and their ability to accept or thwart rediscovering themselves. I made those cards just over a year ago when I presented my work at the ArtConnectBerlin launch party.

This time, I had something a little bigger to say – that I was again transcending to another plateau that was not only derivative of my pilgrimage to Europe, but the auspicious journey into finally presenting my own work in a new world, after spending the past year performing and working under other entities.

I had spent the summer working with The English Theater Berlin as an actor – a craft that has always provided me with bittersweet endeavors, and I vowed to myself that although I have always loved acting and I think I’m pretty good at it, I must quit because it is one of those fields that I somehow always regret going back to because the characters that I portray do not fit into my overall aesthetic as an Artist. Without going into much detail, despite the fact that I am a writer first and foremost, all of my roles in Berlin have had a biased edge in the typical stereotypes that are associated with men of my similar heritage. I digress.

I found some printed versions of my headshot (from when I first moved to Berlin and could afford to do such a thing) and I cut them into oblong versions of what a business card might look like. The cards turned out to look like puzzle pieces – an obvious metaphor. Some of them were pieces of my face or eyes or lips. On the back of each “card” I wrote a very intimate and personal statement about myself (a “secret” if you will) and then posed a question to the bearer of the card that related to my original confession. I only wrote my stage name “DeVo Nelson” along with a reference to Facebook – along with my signature.

I had the cards with me to pass out to anyone that I met that might have wanted to exchange information in such a traditional way – but I wanted to make a test to see who would actually respond to these confessions and questions anonymously, without having met me in person.

I scattered the little cards about the place and in a pile on the bar next to the installation area and I took most of the cards and arranged them on the television where my films were playing.

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It was an exhausting process to come up with these deep, intimate thoughts, and I had no real expectations to the results, only that maybe I could turn it into some other form of art – perhaps in a performance piece. Also, it was a statement – about the technique of communication that is constantly being discredited by the structure of our world that relies so heavily on technology (a prominent theme in my work).

On the description card of my films I wrote:

There is a certain intrigue that stems from the psychology involved with human relationships. These movement narratives exploit the latent content of sociopolitical ideals regarding hopes, fears and desires. The id and the ego are of superlative importance in manifesting the outcomes of social interaction. What we want versus what we need are critical in defining who we are as people and how we make connections with others. 

After I finally peeled myself out of bed on Sunday (I couldn’t bear to go to the second night of TanzBad) to have the first and only rehearsal for the Social Media Week performance on Monday, I was feeling a little bit better and worse about my artistic life – hoping that the intent of my piece Text: A Play in One Act would be well-received by the nerdy crowd at the conference.

Art and Technology is one of those special genres that is pioneering a lot of the way artists work in today’s culture and I had a lot of experience in this realm when I worked for a university library during the height of the digital age of libraries coming about circa 2006. I was pitted as moderator between librarians who live for tangible books and the preservation of history and the future of knowledge – and the kids who want to be able to get any and everything online.

During my time at the university I was thrilled to be involved with so many different activities where technology was making all the decisions for us and the dissemination of information (in all regards) was (and is becoming more and more everyday) a virtual war-zone.

My first stint with this culture came during the MOB Festival hosted by CIANT International Centre for Art and New Technologies last November in Prague where I was awarded a prize for my Film “YouBahn” that was a visual study on how transportation technology affects movement and culture of the body.

With Text: A Play in One Act, I again proceeded with another attempt to satirize the culture of technology in our world by extracting texts from SMS conversations, Facebook chats, Email and Gchat, and put them in a staged presentation to expose the missing fractures of communication that are housed in the most utilized forms of communication.

While the intent was in line with much of my work, I was heavily weighted down by the prospect of presenting my first play in Berlin and having all the dialog being verbatim conversations that were not entirely created by myself. While all of the dialog in the play consisted of conversations that I had with other artists (about art, about the artistic process, etc.) there was little creativity in my otherwise dramatic work that I have been sitting on for quite some time that I’ve been hoping to find an avenue to produce/present here.

The play was “interesting’ – that horrible adjective that makes its way into so many descriptions of artistic work. I am always nervous about presenting my more academic ideas (though – they get the most recognition) because I fear that people will take my ideas and statements much too seriously and try too hard to examine what it is I am saying along with trying to formulate some masterminded idea of their own. Just sit back and enjoy the show!

I did receive some telling questions after the show (in which I had to perform in because one of my actors flaked out on me) – and I talked about some of the issues with other attendees of the conference. I was lifted up by the fact that people knew what I was talking about – how “keeping in touch without touching” is such a prominent part of the culture of communication in the 21st century – and I am glad that what I presented was extremely awkward sounding and looking (all of the actors read the lines from computers or hand-held devices) because the simple point was: technology is not the best way to communicate thoroughly.

Since I had some of my business “cards” left over and it was a networking event, I decided to leave some of my cards at the front entrance – this time – a little less inhibited by the content and also this time expecting more of a response considering that this was what the conference was all about – Social Media.

I was utterly exhausted by the time I left that art day of the conference and I was slightly inspired by one or two of the presenters but realized quite quickly that there is still a big divide between art and technology due to the generation gap (yeah, I said it) – and it was only the younger crowd that was more engaged in interests regarding the juxtaposition and merging of the two. When someone mentioned Second Life, I knew it was time to hightail it out of there.

On Tuesday I received my only response to my business cards.

It read:

i will be old enough to know, that i´m still to young to die.

– answer on your card from friday

 

greetings from [name]

I noticed before I left both events that many of the cards were missing and I even noticed that several people were looking at them and reading the text on the back. I even saw one artsy girl collect several of them and place them into her crafty Etsy looking purse. And also a friend of mine arranged the cards into a collage on the table at the Social Media Week event, took a picture of them, and tagged me in the photo on Facebook.

I was thrilled to get that one response, but I am left wondering if I have made my point or not. Is technology improving social connections or is the only model we have to compare it to (the way it used to be) too far removed from what we have now to formulate any type of reasonable comparison or analysis?

I couldn’t tell you any of the names of the people I met at both events, besides maybe the organizers, and the only way I can even try to extract those names is by conjuring up the part of my brain where the email association resides.

I will persevere in my struggle to present my work in the tangible form. For now – I will have to deal with strangers who I cannot see who are readily exposing themselves to my work – on their own time, in the privacy of their own home – with or without clothes on. I just hope for the sake of my intent that i am touching them in some way.

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