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Jason Akira Somma Turns Video Signals Into Dancers (And Vice Versa)

Jason Akira Somma is sort of a visual art anomaly who has done some pretty revolutionary things in the space of dance and technology. And New Yorkers can experience it in person because the dancer, choreographer, visual artist, and director is currently showing a wildly impressive interactive performance and holographic installation “Phosphene Variations” at Location One gallery in Manhattan.

The show exists in two parts. On view during normal gallery hours is the hologram exhibition, in which Somma has filmed some of the world’s most renowned dancers and performers (including Laurie Anderson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carmen DeLavallade, Joan Jonas, Frances Wessells, etc.), and has figured out a way to project these holographic recordings onto a screen of water mist. Visitors can then “perform” with these legends by touching various points in the mist, triggering different movements and performers.

Then comes the really crazy part. Every week, Somma invites different dancers and musicians to come perform live in the adjacent gallery space. He records the performance and projects the feedback onto itself in real-time, triggering visual manipulations from an analogue effects system he built himself. The catch? Everyone is improvising and no one knows how the performance will turn out until it’s happened, which is pretty ballsy—not to mention sounds incredibly nerve-racking.

Burr Jonson performing on September 19th.

Though formal dance can sometimes have the connotation of being “stuffy” or “traditional,” you can tell that Somma doesn’t buy into that—and why should he? He’s experimenting in a space where we haven’t seen too much innovation (which is weird), so we’re excited for the game-changing potential this show has in the dance and tech realm. This aesthetic’s going to catch on.

After attending one of the live performances, I stopped by the gallery where Somma walked me through the galleries and explained more about his live performance setup. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

Why did you want to work with holograms? Have you done any work with them before?
I’ve been interested in holography since I was a kid. I saw this optical illusion that scared the shit out of me when I was at a haunted house during Halloween. I remember seeing it and being terrified by this floating head and I ran towards it because I was scared. I got close and I realized that it was was a television set hooked up with a piece of plexiglass at the right angle for light. I remember thinking it was such an amazing idea. I always knew I wanted to be an artist, and I guess it always stayed in the back of my mind.

Later, when I got involved more in dance, I started hybridizing the two. I’ve always wanted to revisit the idea of how we can recontextualize the nature of the body, the simulated room. The ephemeral nature of what dancers and choreographers do, what performance artists do to take it somewhere new. The technique [pepper’s ghost] was catching on, and becoming more and more popular so I thought‚ ‘Well I’m going to have to up the ante.’ And I thought‚ ’There’s gotta be a way that people can just walk through this thing.’ Plus it has to be the next step toward true three-dimensional free-floating technology. In this particular project, I wanted to start experimenting with ways of how the spectator can become the director and choreographer of what they’re witnessing and I chose these sort of icons like [Mikhail] Baryshnakov, Robert Wilson, Carmen de Lavallade… You are now being welcomed to come and participate with these different people. And I’m developing a more interactive possibility than we had in mind at first.

Are the different holograms on loop, or is it random?
There are trigger points depending on where you hit them, and again that goes back to interacting with people and seeing what their natural intuition is. So I have this trigger point, but we’re working on a program to map people’s hands because that would make it even more interactive.

Have people tried to dance with the forms?
Some people get in front of them and they don’t know what to do. It’s really fun to watch them, but that’s exactly why we’re trying to connect them. We’re sort of working with the nuts and bolts.

I never really seen that before.
That’s my motto. People say, ‘I want to see something I’ve never seen before.’ So I think if it feels authentic for me, then it will be authentic for the viewer and that’s really important. I think we’ve lost sight of that, a lot of the culture. People underestimate honesty. We’re not in competition with each other, we’re in competition with ourselves. You have to sit back and realize this is what happens when you collaborate as well. You can create.

Jason Akira Somma’s “Phosphene Variations.” Pictured: Frances Wessells. Photo by David Phelps.

When you were filming the different people for the holograms, did you let the performers do whatever they wanted to do?
I left it up to the process. Robert Wilson’s known for pushing the boundaries of style in theater. He is a huge avant-garde artist, a huge director, he doesn’t want to be directed. I also did not know how much time I would have to film them—I only had thirty minutes to film [Wilson] at the Princess of Kuwait’s house. Weird, right? So you never know what they’re going to want. They’re either going to want to be told exactly what to do, or they’re going to want a psychological place, or they’re going to want a physical gesture, or they’re just going to reject whatever it is that you’re throwing at them. So it was really different, I had to feel out each one. Like Baryshnakov, as soon as he walked in the room I recognized, ‘Oh he doesn’t want to be directed.’ I was having to feel him out. I would give him a psychological place, and he was like, ‘No.’ He’s like, ‘Just tell me what to do.’ Really, in half an hour, how do I get enough content? Gus Solomons and Carmen are known for being performers, so how do I give them improvisational structures? I had a couple of ideas, music for each one I thought they might relate to. Bill Shannon, he was awesome, he put on full-on hip-hop and he just went for it. The videos are set so that the same one doesn’t come up twice, right now. Each one has about four videos each.

Are the Wednesday night performances going to be archived at all?
After each show, we’re going to have a list of the performances and you can click through and see each night [in another room in the gallery]. So the idea that each performer creates a unique visual is always growing. I mentioned to you the polarity of it and the sort of high-tech aspect behind this and what we’re doing [with the holograms]. Sort of like reinventing the past in a different way, with analogue gear.

Are there always two parts to the live show?
Yeah. I wanted them to be happening, I wanted them to be these separate elements coming together to create something unique that could only be done once. You’re only going to see it once, it can never be the same twice. The nature of the technique itself is also impossible to replicate twice because of the variables and the science behind it and the influence on the color.

And they’re all improvising?
Well that’s the thing, they all are. Some of them are coming in with their own work that will be re-appropriated by putting it in this context. But the heart of it was to encourage letting go and just inviting them to have a performance unlike their normal show. That’s what it is for me too.

I love the colors.
It’s been so fun, and this process is just… I can never get those [colors] through any of the applications or programs I could use. I’m getting bored with our computer program, our algorithm is limiting, but what you’re seeing here is pure video feedback. What you may see me doing in the show backstage is literally just putting the camera back on its own projectable surface. It forces this sort of mitosis process, which is similar to structures that you see in nature. Then, by forcing the footage through my mixers, I build colors and patterns. But I wanted to find a way to make video feel the same way as when I would film professionally. I want to have the same freedom to react quicker. I know there’s controllers and patterns for this, but still there’s a tiny bit of life missing by being limited to an algorithm. That will change in the future obviously, but in the meantime I love the idea of making the video signal itself become a dancer. It’s just turning the technology back on itself. Almost making each TV set a different product. But I found it was my appropriation of my dance training into the technological aspect of whatever I was doing. The videographers had trouble doing it. I’m making the signal do completely different things.

And is the kaleidoscopic and mirrored effect just the nature of the feedback?
Yes and no.



Video stills by Jason Akira Somma.

Because that aesthetic has been a theme in your other work.
It’s been a strong theme. The mirroring effect is something I add to adjust the architecture of spaces I’m working in, because sometimes a direct feed just doesn’t resonate the same way. I use it as a tool to sort of tie in the space. It’s also to make the performer feel more comfortable in what they’re doing. Also, I just love the way it creates this infinite pattern so it allows that color to exist. And there’s something about the deity aspect of it as well, sometimes I get these images of Hindu gods that have emerged from it, which I think is interesting. A lot of people have mentioned in some of the shows we’ve done, and a composer I’ve collaborated with a lot will talk about having had a spiritual experience, and I thought that was really interesting.

Would you call yourself a hacker?
Probably not. I mean, something at the heart of it, having this idea of recyclism is one of my concerns where it’s definitely a hack. To me it’s about where you draw the line between being a gimmick. That’s what I think is really interesting right now for me, is that so many people are diving into this circuit bending phenomenon. I guess it’s just an argument of semantics.

It’s a very valid question because this, actually, has no circuit. This is from scraps, pieces that were found in trash, this is not a found device that was then exploited, it’s been created from scratch. I guess that’s the only reason it’s still hacking. I’m taking different parts and everything, building a circuit from scratch.. it’s like when does it come between hacking and engineering?

Somma’s custom setup.

Can you walk us through what you’re doing during the live performances?
These things—people always ask about these things because they weigh a lot—are time-based correctors. They were used back in the day of live broadcasting to keep the signal clean. I found myself doing something similar to video in the way that each one of these is generating a different series of effects as well. The thing I like about this is that I’m using it for a purpose it’s not supposed to do. It’s supposed to keep the signal clean and without this sometimes I get so aggressive with the distortion the video signal that will go black, but it tries to correct itself. So it becomes an extra sort of pedal. I try and figure out why each one yields different results. That’s why I have two of them working in different palettes. Another fun thing I discovered is putting two of these structures on top of each other and wiring them so one would send a signal to the other and then it would send another signal back to the first one. It was two of these beams trying to correct each other, and what happened was this infinite rainbow. It was so crazy. I was with a painter friend of mine and when he saw it he was like, ‘Wait, what is generating that?’ This video came out of it, there was no camera feed or anything, and I love the idea that the two machines were trying to correct each other. I mean, we made technology, so there’s always going to be a human aspect in it. That’s what’s splendid for me to explore. Someone asked me one time why I worked with technology and I said, ‘Because I hate technology.’

I was talking to one of the performers, Kira, and I asked her about the process of improvising. She said she would make a choice and the rest was ebb and flow.
Yeah, that’s exactly the way it goes. A big part of it is just making sure everyone’s comfortable and okay. It gets difficult when you’re doing a show on this scale where we’re trying to alternate performers, cause we’re bringing in people who haven’t done this before. And to know that you’re not alone on stage. I always tell people, ‘I don’t want you too look bad, because it’s going to make me look bad.’ That’s the simplicity of it. And then it just requires a certain ego you have to suspend and let go of, and that has not been easy in group dynamics. There have been times when parties involved were clashing, and I try my best to allow the room for people and the audience to see that this could not be happening just by myself. I showcase the artists involved very prominently for that transparency. I may have spearheaded it and put it together, but it is very much all of us. I think that’s what makes it so beautiful and unlocks the potential of what we’re creating together.

Do you think this kind of interactive performance will become bigger and bigger, kind of opening the barrier between visual arts and dance?
Yes. For that matter, all mediums are doing that as well. Kids growing up today are sharp, man. They’re really good, and parents discredit them because they can’t understand them on a vocal level. That’s why we really need to start having this dialogue now.

Dancer: Alison Clancy Live. Video projection: Jason Akira Somma From Studies in Feedback. Photo by: Mat Szwajkos.

Dancer: Alison Clancy Live. Video projection: Jason Akira Somma From Studies in Feedback. Photo by: Mat Szwajkos.

LIVE PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
· Wednesday, Oct 10th- Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Monstah Black

“Phosphene Variations” runs through October 10th at Location One gallery. All live performances start at 7 PM.

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