People Dancing at Cameras

People Dancing at Cameras

Who doesn’t remember the “Single Ladies” craze? After the release of Beyoncé’s infectious song, numerous YouTube interpretations of the music video erupted on the social networking site. This is the age we live in – one in which dancing for your camera becomes a form of self-expression. As ZERO1 Biennial artist Amy Alexander observes, this tradition of “people dancing at cameras” isn’t merely a contemporary phenomenon. Rather, such a practice has roots in the history of cinema. Along with Syracuse University’s Annina Rüst, Alexander forms one half of the team that’s produced Discotrope: the Secret Nightlife of Solar Cells (2012), an audiovisual performance piece that asks us to reconsider how much risk-taking and idealism we infuse into Silicon Valley culture. Last week, I sat down with Alexander to chat about her project, which will be performed in its fourth iteration during (e)MERGE: the ZERO1 Street Festival.

Alexander and Rüst have developed a project that is at once both interactive and spectacle-based. Discotrope’s centerpiece is a disco ball that the artists have embedded with solar cells. The solar cells are powered by filmic projections that are screened onto the wall – the brighter the picture, the greater the ball’s speed of rotation. These montage-based projections are derived from both historical and YouTube clips, and the artists have spun them together in a frenzied, energetic manner. “Before cinematic narrative language developed, you had a lot of vaudeville-inspired performers just dancing freely in front of the camera,” Alexander muses. “There was a sense of intimacy that slowly faded from film. Soon, the camera became a fly on the wall, and dancers were no longer dancing for the viewers. YouTube is bringing this sense of closeness back.”    

In addition to this, the project includes an algorithmic sound component. Composer Cristyn Magnus has developed a soundtrack derived from the music in the projected videos. While these images and sounds envelop the room, the artists invite audience members to dance in front of the projections.  

In keeping with the Biennial’s main thrust, Alexander and Rüst seek to infuse a sense of play into the concept of innovation. Does entrepreneurship have to be as remote and serious as it’s become? “In the 19th century,” Alexander laments, “inventors had crazy ideas. Nowadays, you don’t have as much impulsive innovation. Everything has to be expensive and done by these big research teams.”

The disco ball’s solar cells are not particularly green. Alexander admires those who work towards sustainable energy solutions, and she hopes that her rather ridiculous attempt at least steers her fellow innovators in the right direction. That said, she believes that the solar cells demonstrate functionality in aesthetic terms. Both artists have envisioned a novel way to power this disco ball, and, in turn, they urge audiences to consider how the moving image travels through and ultimately redefines the space around them.

Can YouTube, then, bring us back to this sense of playful abandon we’ve lost as both filmgoers and innovators? Though Discotrope’s tone is not singularly playful, the artists encourage us to approach challenges with a greater sense of boldness. To Alexander, the social media site demonstrates the potential to inject us with the spirit that we may have been desensitized towards. Our country’s corporate structures and crippling financial environments seldom seem to reward risk-taking, unfortunately making great minds that much more hesitant. For a place so marked by its distinctive breed of audacity, perhaps Silicon Valley could absorb a bit more of the daring, nonconformist thinking Alexander and Rüst have proposed.

Follow Discotrope on Twitter! You can also learn more about Discotrope on their website.

Photo by John Hanaceck, Calit2 UC San Diego.