Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Mobile" vs. "Stabile"

Returning from the Calder exhibit at the Whitney (where i was so graciously taken by Darla's art-loving parents) I find myself very excited about a new term I learned at the exhibit - a "stabile".

Alexander Calder, now famous for his ceiling-attached slightly-moving abstract modern art, had a great deal of works that were both stationary (as in not moving at all, ever) and semi-stationary (for example, a wire sculpture that doesn't re-arrange in relation to itself, but does move via the vibrations and indirect movements of those walking by and looking at it). I was reading on one of the walls that Jean Arp coined a term for this type of Calder's work - "Stabiles".

Defined as "an abstract construction that is completely stationary" the text at the exhibit noted that the point of deeming these works "stabiles" was to relate them to their moving counterparts, mobiles. In doing so, Calder was showing that these stationary works were mobiles too - only with these, the movement, shifting perspective, and kinetic nature of the art came from the viewer's movement, not the sculpture's.

Neat, right? I think it's a lovely concept, and one that's immediately relatable (at least for me...) to dance and dance film. While i think the most logical connection is to look at pieces where the audience is asked to move and change perspectives, there's not really my cup of tea and, having never made one, it would be a brief and unthurough analysis. However, i think that looking at dancefilm through the structure of "mobile" vs. "stabile" can be quite illuminating.

Here's how it makes sense to me:
If we're looking at it analytically from a kinesthetic point of view, it seems we have four options.
1.) camera stationary, dancers stationary
2.) camera moving, dancers stationary
3.) camera stationary, dancers moving and
4.) camera moving, dancers moving.
While there are certainly a million shades of gray (what happens when you have multiple dancers, some moving some not? are we defining movement spatially? viscerally? etc) almost all situations are at least comprised, at a base level, of these four options. In that case, since the camera takes the role of the viewers perspective, we could also look at it with this parallel:
1.) camera stationary, dancers stationary - "Super-stabile" (or whatever.)
2.) camera moving, dancers stationary - "Stabile"
3.) camera stationary, dancers moving - "Mobile"
4.) camera moving, dancers moving. - "Ultra-mobile"
While, at first glance, this might look like a spectrum from least to most movement, I don't think it is. As i've often argued, the way to kill a dance is to film it from a stationary tripod. Which is not to say that you can't create a stationary shot that really conveys a sense of movement, it's just to point out that sometimes a moving shot can convey movement in a more visceral way (take, if you will, the camera movement for kiss in the elevator in Bazz Luhrman's "Romeo + Juliet" - tiny clip w/i the preview - versus the (okay, semi-)stationary footage of Beyonce's "Single Ladies").

Though you could spend time arguing that one conveys movement better than the other, i'd be satiated just agreeing that they convey it differently - one wants you to see the dancing for all it's aesthetic and visceral glory, and one wants you to experience that glory viscerally as the camera moves for you.

This has been on my mind of late, because we're getting closer and closer to being able to film Julia's solo for the new piece ("Glass Tree in Harlem"). The basic question has been (as it is whenever i make a dance film): what is the best way to film this as to make an art of it in it's own right? I don't want to make an artifact of the performative version - i want to make a dancefilm - and so an intersecting and re-working of the performative version's aesthetic into an aesthetic that combines the technique of both dance and film is necessary. So how to do it? Is it better to show the movement from full front? Better to have the camera move around Julia since much of the piece is still or small movement? Better to have both Julia and the camera moving? Or is that too much, to shaky to be viewed seated?

I've begun to assemble a sort of mish mosh of shots, some still others moving. I think my vision for it (at this point, we're still pretty young) is to have most of the phrases (the piece is composed of 30+ four-second phrases and two longer phrases) shot still from the front, at various different perspectives (for example, one mid range full body shot, one close in resting on the floor, etc). THEN, for the two longer phrases, i'm working out the mechanics of a shot that combines choreographed camera and dancer movement. If we can pull it off like it is in my mind (maybe 76% chance?) it will be GORGEOUS, and i'm pretty excited for it.

Since we'll also be utilizing slow and fast motion as well as reversing in the editing of it, I'm hoping to do a test of this shot sometime soon so i can start playing with it on final cut and seeing if it's possible. I'll post whatever I make!


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

and by "still shot" in the Beyonce video, i mean the points in the video which it's semi-stationary, although it does a lot of zooming in and out. The rest of the video does an interesting job of utilizing movement to add to the dancer's very front-focused choreography.

sarah said...

This is interesting because I was doing similar experiments with mobility and stability in the studio earlier this year. I posted two examples on my website (dancer stationary/camera moving, dancer moving/camera stationary), but I had an archive of footage where the camera and the dancer are both moving.
I was really just experimenting with one combination to see how many different ways I could view it through the lens and which would be the best representation for the movement. What I learned: I could play with cameras in the studio all day. Also: You're right. Stationary cameras not only take away movement aesthetics, but they also create a virtual "fourth wall" for the audience to break through. Not only are they already behind the proverbial third wall because they are members of the audience, but the camera lens and the TV screen create this additional barrier that a stationary camera only enhances.