Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Why is "Bad Art" so dangerous?

Last night I went to Move the Frame's "Kinetic Cinema" at Chez Bushwick- a showing on the first Monday night of each month (curated by someone interesting in the dance, film, or dance film world) of a handful of films that fall under the broad scope of the "kinetic cinema" label.

The program itself was interesting - some good some bad as always - and hopefully i'll find the time to post about it tonight as well. But what was even more interesting to me was the discussion that followed, especially as it pertained to a specific piece - Ann Liv Young's "Snow White Paris" (2006). (Video of another work here.)

The film, less dancefilm and more archival shot/artifact, was excerpts from a performance of the piece. The story behind it being (we found out in our discussion) that Young had been chosen to show a work at a dancefilm exhibition, and gave the single-stationary-tripod-shot-at-a-distance film of the performance to the curator, and asked him to edit it down to the desired time. While I'm usually against this type of shooting of dance (because it neither conveys the performance nor invents something that's interestingly/impressively "new", and because for the most part it happens out of more of an oversight, budget constraint, or lack of options than aesthetic/artistic decision) I enjoyed watching the artifact for a number of reasons. First, the movement (in my opinion), while neither hugely innovative (it was in the genre of pop cultureisms reclaimed as movement, being performed to snippets of hip hop/pop songs) or shot in anything nearing good quality, the dancing itself was viscerally strong and thus interesting to watch, and the set was aesthetically innovative enough to grab my intention for the entirety of the piece - about 10 minutes. While I certainly wouldn't have called it a "dancefilm" per se, I did enjoy it more than some of the installation-like pieces that were created to loop in galleries that seemed to go on and on (as loops in galleries do...) -which exist in my mind not quite "dancefilms" either.

In the discussion following the screening (there were maybe about fifteen of us there) two women in particular raised the point that they were offended somehow by the inclusion of Young's piece under the title of dancefilm, as it (they argued) clearly was not. One woman (I don't know her name) described her feelings towards pieces such as these saying something along the lines of, "I always cringe when I see a piece like this in a dancefilm festival, because I think about the one person sitting and watching it who's never seen dancefilm before who's just so turned off by it...we have to really uplift the genre of dancefilm and start defining what's 'good' and what's 'bad'." The other woman in agreement echoed her opinion, suggesting that this was an example of bad dancefilm (which made her have a "viscerally enraged" - her words - reaction). When Tony suggested that maybe it wasn't productive to exclude anything from the umbrella of dancefilm yet, he seemed to be quickly dismissed. Other suggestions for "uplifting" the genre of dancefilm included taking more cues from a study of film, as it has been being taught for years and years, which seemed to me a suggestion to take "what the film world has already decided is good and bad" into our aesthetic code, simply because it carries a history and legacy.

As I thought about it more that night, I was struck by the memory of why dancefilm first seemed attractive to me - Ezra Caldwell, Kathy Westwater, and Sara Smith speaking at a Sarah Lawrence dance meeting about how their film work had reached thousands more people than their stage work, and cut budgets nearly in half. Though dance tech certainly isn't the same thing as dancefilm, I also recollected many of Tony's teachings through the last two years - the use of dance tech and media as a gurellia tool to circumvent what was deemed impossible by the traditional dance world, artistically, viscerally, economically, and in time and space.

To me, dancefilm has always been a freeing platform partly because it doesn't have to be "good" - film is a relatively new technology for the dance world, so it's somewhat understood that choreographers are still developing and refining their skills as they produce each new instalment. It's not that dancefilm should be unkempt, or should have a pass from being judged on the same levels as both film and live performance just because it's young and choreographers are still figuring out how to work a camera and FCP in a sophisticated manner - as i've said a million times: bad work is bad work. But it does seem that there's a little more leeway given in film - a prime example was Jillian Pena's piece "COMPROMISE" (2005) where the illusions she created were sometimes eclipsed by the lack of technical sophistication, but she more than made up for it with the charm of her work.

It also seems to me that part of the excitement of dancefilm/tech/media is that there are so many different aspects of it, and everyone is still making sense of what is what, what it can be used for, and why it's effective, or not. There's straight up dance film - dances made for the camera and nowhere else - but then theres web dance, performance connected through webcast, projection/film/dancefilm within performance, dancefilms based on a work that was originally performance, dance performances based of what were originally dance films, and everything in between. And yes, artifacts of performance in the form of video. Doesn't that fit the bill too?

I don't know Young or the cannon of her work well enough to argue whether she was being clever and provocative by insisting that, yes, this was a type of dancefilm, or just uninterested in the conversion of her work to a film medium but wanting to be shown in the original festival, but the fact that she sells DVDs of all her performances on her website points to the former.

Regardless, I am still impressed by this trend i'm noticing, mostly in older (30's/40's) group of dancers to really be quite damning of "bad work". Why? It's one thing to not like a work, consider it bad, or really think that it's poorly made. It's another thing altogether to advocate that "bad work" (of any medium) shouldn't have a place or voice. Again, why?

Is it a fear that the bad work will spread and contaminate our own? Is it distain for those who have not learned what we have already discovered about the mechanics and aesthetics of "good work" (if it can even be defined...it can't)? Is it an embarrassment because it reflects our own past? Really - someone tell me - why is bad work so threatening? If it's bad, so what. No one died because you didn't enjoy it. No one couldn't afford to feed their family because it got negative responses on youtube and got rejected from a film festival. And, surprising though it may be, your own work probably didn't suffer from seeing it - if anything, maybe the experience of seeing a "bad work" clarified your understanding of what does work and is successful in dance.

So what is it?
Could it be that we - as the woman who first spoke out against Young's piece felt - really feel that the dance and dancefilm worlds are so close to making it out there in the big wide world, so close to being accepted by the mainstream population, and we worry that if someone sees a bad piece, it will just be another tip of the scale out of our favor? Are we really still under the impression that if we continue to just make ourselves better that someone will finally like us?

Wake up, people.
Continuing to make "good dance" will do little to nothing for the dance economy, and even if it would, it wouldn't be achieved conversely by outlawing "bad dance."

Anything that claims to be dance has a place in our community, and likewise for dancefilm.


Kaitlin C said...


Have you seen this? It's a growing collection of and forum on dance for the camera...or as it's referred to here, screendance.

Sarah A.O. Rosner/The AOMC said...

ooh very cool!
I hadn't seen this yet - thanks for the link!