Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart Snow: The Intermedia Collaborations of Kathleen Kelley and Sarah Rose Nordgren

"We started from really basic questions about form: 'Can you dance with a poem?'; 'What would it look like to choreograph a poem, using the words as bodies?'"

Sarah Rose Norgren and Kathleen Kelley of "Smart Snow" make choreographed installations, or interactive virtual and material texts, or dance-poetry dioramas, or at least this is what I've been telling people at parties since I saw a preview of their video "Territory" last year. Sarah Rose and Kathleen met in high school, and today they work as collaborative partners, long distance, across multiple media. They join us here to talk shop, and to tell us about the way they came to work together and with multimedia texts. Check out a special trailer for their video "Territory" and the installation "Digitized Figures" here:

Smart Snow 2016-2017 from Kathleen Kelley on Vimeo.

SM: Can you tell us a bit about how Digitized Figures and "Territory" first came into being? Was there video work out there that you were modeling, or did this project feel like something totally new? 

KK: We began working on Digitized Figures in 2013, so it was a long process before it premiered at the Gowanus Loft in Brooklyn in October 2016. It began as a way to formalize our collaboration and try to do something that pushed both of our creative practices by truly merging video, text, and movement. There definitely wasn’t video work that was like what we wanted to do, so we were really just starting from scratch. We started from really basic questions about form: “Can you dance with a poem?”; “What would it look like to choreograph a poem, using the words as bodies?”; and “Can you write a poem that moves like a dance improvisation?” For me, the conceptual themes emerged from this kind of structural approach. It was a very nuanced collaborative process, and we were always trading ideas, video, and back and forth.

Territory was a much more discrete project, and was completed during a week-long residency at Montclair State, where I teach. Visually, we had been looking at a lot of Bjork videos at the time, especially Hyperballad, for inspiration. We had also been talking about the theoretical concepts for years, so we knew how we wanted to approach it and what we wanted it to look like and feel like.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: As a collaborative pair, you merge backgrounds in poetry, dance, nonfiction, choreography, and video editing, to name a few. I recently learned you've also been actual friends since high school. Can you tell us a bit about your collaborative working process? How did your friendship also become an artistic venture? 

SRN: Yes, Kathleen and I have known been collaborating (sometimes formally, sometimes informally) since we were teenagers. We really came of age together as artists, so we’ve developed a shared language over the years that makes collaboration feel both natural and exciting. The fact that I’m a particularly physical writer and Kathleen is a particularly verbal dancer/choreographer allows that crossover to flourish, as does our shared interest in theory and our deep trust and love for one another.

KK: I think that Sarah Rose and I think and dream in a lot of the same ways. Even as teens, we recognized it, and our sense of creative connection has been this ongoing narrative that has been there for our whole adult life. My creative practices always feel like they are in conversation with Sarah Rose, even if I am working independently. On a practical level, we have barely ever lived in the same city, and so Smart Snow has become a way to maintain and nurture our collaborations.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: After being fully funded on Kickstarter, Digitized Figures appeared as an installation last October at the Gowanus Loft. For those of us who couldn't be there, what was it like turning a poetry dance video into an experiential space? What might you do differently in the future? 

KK: We had always dreamed of Digitized Figures living as an installation, so we were so excited to bring it to life as its full self. We had done a work-in-progress showing of the installation version of it a few years before in Boston, which helped us immensely in identifying some important production details. When we finally got into the Gowanus Loft, we were able to make it come to life in a wonderfully rich way. Utilizing the video and the live performers created a calm yet extraordinarily evocative world in the loft. I am really proud of it, and I was so happy to have it live in this way.

I don’t think I would have done anything differently with DF, but I do think that we are going to stay away from live productions for a little while and concentrate on creating film works with more discrete working timelines. Digitized Figures was a monster of a project that took so much work to make happen. We were lucky to have many hands helping out, including the Gowanus Loft staff, a team of interns, Krista Anne Nordgren (Sarah Rose’s sister and the programmer of our interactive touch screens), and Sarah’s incredible partner Brandon.

Still Image from "Territory"

"'Territory' is an exploration of the dual urges...This tension exists on the artistic, psychological and social planes as well as on the material, biological plane."

SM: Because the editing in "Territory" is so seamless, I often forget how small your subjects are (model trees and rocks), and that the dancer is first projected into the diorama and then filmed close-up. Can you tell us more about all the parts of this video? What do dance and poetry have to do with dioramas? 

SRN: This project was a confluence of ideas and influences that have been percolating between us over several years. Kathleen and I have a shared deep love for New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and some of our best artistic brainstorming conversations have taken place there over the years as we wander around the various nature dioramas. Theoretically, the project was also influenced by Elisabeth Grosz’s book Chaos, Territory, Art in which she theorizes the importance of sexual selection (as opposed to natural selection) as the root of artistic practice, a compulsion toward expression and “excess” that we share with other beings in nature. In order for that expression to take place, there must first be a “frame” to mark the space -- much how bowerbirds prepare their stage before they perform. I’m also obsessed with Roger Caillois’ concept of “legendary psychasthenia,” the name he gave in 1935 to the condition of “temptation by space” that he observed in insects that mimic their environment. So “Territory” is an exploration of the dual urges to, on the one hand, frame and individuate and express, and the urge toward self-annihilation and absorption into one’s environment. This tension exists on the artistic, psychological and social planes as well as on the material, biological plane.  

In making the video, we wanted to again layer analog and digital environments, as well as our respective mediums of text, dance, and video. The diorama and the camera frame serve as the “frames” for the dancer’s environment, and the projected text becomes part of the “space” that she must interact with as she’s pulled between the poles of absorption and differentiation.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: In the literary world we often think of "publishing" as something that happens when a text goes live or gets printed in hardcopy in a lit journal. What does the act of publishing mean for digital works like this one? Does publishing require different acts and venues for each if you? 

SRN: I think we’re still in the process of figuring that out. As a writer, I’m used to signing over First North American Serial Rights for publication -- having a piece “come out” somewhere and then generally not again until it appears in a book. The video world is different, and is centered more around the festival circuit. The existence of YouTube and Vimeo also complicates and changes the traditional “publication scheme.” Recently, I’ve been delving into the international network of Poetry Video festivals and resources, and it quite exciting to discover how much is out there.

KK: For me, “publishing” is not that useful of a concept because dance and video both tend to work on the idea of “sharing” instead. When I make a dance, it tends to have several works-in-progress “sharings” before its premiere, and even after that, I often bring the dance back with changes for new venues and events. Video seems works similarly, in that it is more about people seeing and sharing the work in various contexts, versus it being published. Really it feels like the publishing happens when I take the Vimeo password off it! For Territory, we will probably do that once it shows in its first festival.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: Are there future projects ahead for Smart Snow? 

SRN: Always! Right now we’re mostly focused on getting our existing projects out into the world and discovering how people respond to and interact with them, and we also have individual projects that need our attention. However, we’ve already begun brainstorming about what might come next. The plans are still in the early stages and will keep gestating over the coming months, but viewers can likely expect to see something involving deep sea creatures and experimentation with high-tech fabrics.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

"I am really interested in continuing to explore this sense of environmental lushness that you can achieve through tech."

SR to KK: How do you want the next work you make to feel?

KK: That’s a great question. I just finished a whole research arch that took me from grad school until now, and I am trying to figure out where exactly to go next. I am really interested in continuing to explore this sense of environmental lushness that you can achieve through tech. I see it as a response to the sparse postmodernism that I see so much in dance. I want my next work (and all my work) to feel rich, lush, and evocative.

Still Image from "Territory"

KK to SR: How is your use of language evolving since some of your creative practice has shifted to making with non-linguistic tools (bodies and images)?

SR: My text composition process has been slightly different for each of the videos we’ve made, but it’s definitely a shift from how I compose on my own. In writing, the language (and its structure) is all you have, so it has to carry the full burden of meaning and impact all on its own. Composing the text for Territory, for example, the text got to be more impressionistic as it had the other elements of the video to interact with. In that sense, I think it the process was a little more comparable to writing song lyrics where you have the music and the words supporting and carrying one another. I’ve seen this influencing my personal work too, as I’ve been experimenting with writing essays that rely partially on image. It’s still early, but I’m excited to follow and see where it all leads.

SM: Thanks, Smart Snow.

Smart Snow creates art that pushes the forms of dance and poetry into new technological territories. As women working at the intersections between art and tech, Kathleen and Sarah Rose are interested in the mirrored relationship between technological and evolutionary processes and the “natural” and the “human” inside of digital spaces.

Sarah Rose Nordgren is the author of the poetry collections Best Bones and Darwin’s Mother (forthcoming fall 2017), both from University of Pittsburgh Press. Her poems and essays appear widely in journals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Copper Nickel, and American Poetry Review. She lives in Cincinnati. 

Kathleen Kelley is an Assistant Professor of Dance and Technology at Montclair State University and the Artistic Director of the intermedia company Proteo Media + Performance, which specializes in art that explores intersection between technology and the body. She is a 2015-2016 LEIMAY Fellow and recent performances include the interactive installation Digitized Figures at Gowanus Loft, a commissioned premiere in the Split Bill Series at Triskelion Arts, and showcase performances in the SOAK Festival, the CURRENT SESSIONS, Nimbus OFFLINE choreography series, and HATCH series. She has a BFA from the University of NC-Greensboro and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sarah Minor runs the visual essay series here at Essay Daily.

No comments:

Post a Comment