Six figures, placed equidistant apart, walk in unison down a street. Another figure emerges from behind to cut a diagonal across the formation. More “bodies” enter this streetscape, joining the flow of motion. Others pause, standing still to check the time, before moving on again. When it rains, as it does here, umbrellas bloom open. This is not, as it seems, your ordinary street scene, though it could be. Rather, it is the work of digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar whose motion-capture installation Pedestrian—created using technology that literally “captures” human movement—is part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Motion Studies, a three-month multidisciplinary exhibition that aims to explore the larger concept of the body in urban space. Through a series of programming that incorporates ideas about dance, movement, and urban space, Motion Studies is dedicated to pondering our corporeal reality amidst the urban landscape.
Urban living requires a constant negotiation of space—a practice that is quite subconscious and goes unnoticed in our hasty efforts to run down the subway stairs for the train, dash across a busy crosswalk, or weave in and out of the congestion of a crowd. Postmodern choreographers of the 1960s were drawn to this kind of everyday movement and incorporated such seemingly ubiquitous, pedestrian movement as walking and running into their dances. They subsequently revolutionized the art form and challenged audiences by redefining what traditionally constituted dance. Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” (1965), which called for a “no to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformation and magic and make-believe,” among other things, helped codify the ideas and ideals of postmodern dance—tenets that reverberate throughout the dance community to this day.
Fittingly, Motion Studies launched in September with the LMCC’s annual Evening Stars dance series, and featured the work of Elizabeth Streb (whose STREB company is based in Williamsburg) and Twyla Tharp—two choreographers whose works literally embody some of the larger themes of the overall Motion Studies programming. Streb’s work is intensely physical, a mix of the acrobatic and athletic, and it is often set in everyday urban spaces—Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, for instance. Tharp’s "The One Hundreds," which first premiered in 1970, features dancers and non-dancers alike, executing pedestrian movement phrases.
But at the crux of the Motion Studies programming is the multidisciplinary exhibition which, rather than being a static, formal gallery or museum experience, is meant to spark a dialogue across artistic disciplines (dance, visual arts, multi-media) and fields (urban planning, performance theory, policy making). “We can no longer isolate disciplines. Of course, we can, but it’s much more interesting to think in a more complicated manner,” explains Moukhtar Kocache, LMCC’s Director of Programs and Services.
And each piece featured in the exhibition, which runs through December 12, is a testament to this blurring of boundaries between the arts and the LMCC’s goal of initiating a multi-leveled conversation about movement and urban space. Included in the exhibition are Eduardo Difarnecio’s visceral “markings” of rhythmic, grounded salsa dancing—images that were created by placing coal on the bottom of his feet while dancing. This interdisciplinary work documents the otherwise ephemeral dance, while the visual residual is meant to serve as a kind of memorial to his father. Similarly, Pia Lindman’s video painting, Viewing Platform, a series of superimposed images that show streaming crowds on the WTC viewing platform, also allows us to see the performative in the memorial. There is a double voyeurism at work here too. The viewer is essentially looking at people looking. The fact that they are on a kind of stage, a macabre one at that, underscores the sense of memorialized ritual and performance.
The Kaiser and Eshkar installation Pedestrian (their motion-capture work can also be seen this month in Merce Cunningham’s Fluid Canvas at BAM, October 16 - 18), elicits patterns within the otherwise banal, seemingly random movement of the everyday. Also calling attention to the beauty of urban movement is Kimsooja’s A Needle Woman—Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, New York in which she stands amid the crush and rush of bodies of the world’s “mega-cities.” Her stillness is juxtaposed against the relentless urban flow and it is striking to watch how the bodies weave around her, patterns emerging against the brick, concrete and steel of the city backdrop. While dance can appropriate this kind of pedestrian movement for performance, what these two installations illustrate is how we can also define pure pedestrian movement as a kind of performance in and of itself. Suddenly, the social interactions and space negotiations of daily life have a performative energy.
This is precisely the topic of “Formations of the Everyday,” one of Motion Studies’s accompanying public dialogues that will be of interest to dance enthusiasts (November 12, 7:00 p.m.). Kaiser, along with urban anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and Bill “Crutchmaster” Shannon, whose provocative, and necessary, use of rocker-bottom crutches and skateboard has made him something of a leading figure in both the disabled artist community and the world of avant-garde dance and performance, will discuss everyday movement as urban performance. Wayne Ashley, co-curator of the exhibition, explains that the panel will try to reach an understanding of the “category” of the “everyday”—“how to get at it, see it, how to represent it and how to discuss it, and when it becomes important and when you even see it because a lot of everyday is just that,” Ashley notes. “But some of the most powerful things about social life lie in the unconscious and the not knowing,” he continues, “so part of what these people—Barbara [Kirshenblatt-Gimblett], Bill [Shannon] and Paul [Kaiser]—are interested in is creating experiences and events that draw your attention to the mundane so that you start talking about it.”
Motion Studies is a timely exhibition. Reflecting on the body in urban space has contemporary significance. We’ve witnessed the body’s vulnerability to the cityscape in the events of 9/11. More recently, though a far less grave event, we’ve had to contend with the blackout of August 2003—a day that unfolded in a panoply of everyday movement as avenues filled up with people in minutes, figures pouring out of office buildings and onto sidewalks to walk, meander, and stroll homeward. Like one large piece of improvised, urban choreography, patterns of space negotiation could be seen. As we continue to unconsciously define our sense of space in the urban environment, art and the ritual of performance—as the Motion Studies exhibition illustrates—can bring attention to the everyday, creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary.
Motion Studies runs through December 12 at the LMCC, One Wall Street Court, 2nd Floor. In addition to “Formations of the Everyday” (Nov. 12, 7:00 p.m.), other dance-related public dialogues include “New Cultural Models in Times of Crisis” with choreographer William Forsythe (Oct. 4, 3:00 p.m.) and former Tharp dancer Sarah Rudner’s discussion of The One Hundreds (Oct. 8, 7:00 p.m.). For more information about Motion Studies and related programming, visit www.lmcc.net.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.