Molissa Fenley and Company

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Making web dances
Eleanor Brickhill visits Molissa Fenley’s web site, Latitudes
Eleanor Brickhill, Real Time Arts
Feb-March 1997



A web site is not just an address of course, but a nice dry environment, and the world of exertion, physical precision, sweat and lactic acid build-up might seem a long way away. Both conditions however, are ideal for playing in, even though the kinds of games might be quite different. Latitudes http://awp.diaart.org/fenley/, Molissa Fenley’s recent wwweb-site-specific dance project was, for someone like me who hasn’t set foot in a dance studio for months, inspiring because it reminded me that you don’t have to meekly accept some choreographer’s wet dream fantasies, or the simplistic literalness that pervades much ‘contemporary’ dance. The land of the Neuromancer is here to enfold you. Well, at least in theory.

Get close up to a dancer, feel her thoughts, go with her meanings. Progress with her through tiny shifts and private nuances, epic gestures and inadvertent silliness. I think one of the ideas behind Latitudes is being able to zoom in and out of moments in a fragment of history, perhaps to inspect Fenley’s physical tension and texture from close by, as if she had become the memory of a living, breathing human; or to place yourself in her position, to wonder about her reasons for doing this, perhaps to make her cognitive connections your own.

But you can see Latitudes in a number of ways. It first exists visually as a series of ‘phrases’, 1 to 17, each phrase being a strip of seven consecutive frames, shown at the top of the screen. By clicking on to each frame in any order, the viewer can access another level of the work. Behind the first still is Fenley’s handwritten note describing the movement, something she might have used as a shorthand reminder of the phrase’s basic shape. So, kinds of descriptions, ways of describing, become an issue.

Under the seventh frame lies another set of stills which can only be seen consecutively, rendering part of the same original phrase fragment. Once this is downloaded into cache memory, it becomes a sparsely articulated sequence of some 20 frames or so shown sequentially over about five seconds, and it’s the closest you get to actual choreographed ‘movement’ in that it has a pre-arranged order, direction and timing and can’t be manipulated by the viewer, only stopped. This ‘movement’, however, doesn’t correspond directly to the frames because it may have been shot from a different angle, or from a different performance. Further, it doesn’t make use of the whole ‘phrase’, only a part of it.

Under the other five frames lie closer images, either from stills, or of a number of sculptures evoking perhaps a certain kind of contour or spiritual presence. There are descriptions available in another part of the index.

from Molissa Fenley’s web site, Latitudes from Molissa Fenley’s web site, Latitudes
The 17 phrases are tiny fragments of a three minute ‘dance’ which you can see, if you search through the Latitude index, arrayed familiarly as if on a photographer’s contact sheets, showing the full length sequence, frame by frame.

To make lateral connections between these images, remembering close-ups from other phrases altogether, to find different ways of constructing the sequences, making new dances, is partly how the piece works, and it’s absorbing even if the actual kinetic sequences of images and manipulated connections seem to get slower as you get to know them.

Or rather your brain speeds up. You keep wanting more speed, to see the images move, to try and flip through them like those decks of movie cards, manually animated. But these ideas don’t seem to match her own, and the technology requires other considerations.

In an introduction, the curator, Lynne Cooke, describes the work thus: “She forsakes the accoutrements that normally embellish staged performance in order to pare the dance to basics: a simple earth-coloured leotard, neutral black backdrop, and a terse score, Jetsun Mila by Eliane Radigue, which she likes for the way its close-toned electronic sounds seem to move in a continual flow around the listener”.

Well, yes, and then again…no. Individually, each frame is a quiet, contained sculpture, with light and shade clinging and contouring her body as it progresses in a stately way though the sequence. The lines are not special in themselves, and the original dance seems generic, something you might recall from your own history. The most interesting aspect of Latitudes is that it reminds you that there are ways of looking at images which are not linear, that sense is there to be made in any way one chooses. But conscious choice is mandatory if you are to escape that slight “I’m bored already” feeling after flicking through several of the sequences; a fairly self conscious move to investigate possible ways through the work, like following a maze just to see if it gets you anywhere, to find some sort of completion; or like playing games like Scrabble or Patience or cryptic crosswords just to fill in time.

Another of the ideas is that the work itself can never be seen whole, but that “the audience’s relationship is intimate and partial, operating in a fictive space which more closely approximates one of memory than lived experience”. But why dance, when there’s no real action to feel your way through, when the intimacy that is sought after seems to become bland and uncompelling once Fenley’s beauty has been appreciated?

Is it, then, about thinking, and about wanting, about trying to make something complete? Is it that a person, flesh and bone, history personified, perhaps Fenley’s sweet elfin face (or someone else’s) might stand for a series of ideas which we choose to put together with an erratic compulsion?

It occurs to me now, after seeing her performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Wednesday 15 January), that I was touched by her apparent vulnerability, there, solo, on a foreign stage. Sometimes, when she came close to me, I was conscious of her fragility, her mortality, perhaps her sense that the time these moments of experience would last was negligible, a fraction only of the time that they would last in memory. With these different perspectives before me, it seems easier to understand how Latitudes might redress such a feeling of fleetingness.

And finally, the ‘cognitive’ form of Latitudes does not seem to be especially about Fenley, except she uses her own image as grist. The viewer’s mind completes, fill in the gaps, imagines or remembers fragments from the other sequences, tries to fit them together; wonders what to do with the art objects, ‘sculptural counterparts’, those shapely, suggestive echoes of feeling and experience and conception that Fenley includes behind some of the frames. How to work them out, or work them in? There’s your dance.

In a sweet quiet Coda, Fenley makes a story up for us, showing us a possible way to go. Selecting images from all over the dance, she joins them together, making her own special story. And there it is, a soft, breathing-out kind of resolution.


Latitudeshttp://awp.diaart.org/fenley/

http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue17/4659

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