cover_story (2006-37)

Angela Hill of AH Squared.

The Art Issue


Our first multi-media “experiment” takes shape on a lucid, periwinkle evening in early May. The idea is to participate in a creative improv session of sorts, an exploration of the common languages within the languages in which we are fluent. For me, that language is manifest in ink. For someone else, it’s jazz. Another person feels most articulate while dancing, another while shooting film, and so on.

There’s little direction going in, and for several moments in the beginning we just sit. The dancer is the first to move, her bare feet sticking a little to the living room’s hardwood floor, but she recoils within a few steps. “It feels strained,” she says.

Someone taps tentative rhythms on a leather-bound drum, while I stare at the empty page sticking out from the typewriter, a 1920s Remington inherited from my grandfather, I’ve brought to work on. The idea of writing here feels clumsy, imprecise. I’m used to working in solitude, in response to something that exists in memory, not my immediate environment. I concentrate, feel my mind walling itself off from the other artists, fingers forcing prose.

The jazz drummer calls a time-out. “No one here is being judged,” he says. “No one has anything to prove. Whatever happens, happens. ” We take a moment to breathe, and I think of the Noh, a type of Japanese theater in which motionlessness is cherished as a dance in and of itself. If the script calls for “dance” and the actor is standing still, he is dancing. However we fill in this absence of motion and sound and space tonight, even if it’s with awkward silence, it will be an honest expression. 

The guitarist starts absentmindedly picking at a melody, watching us watch him and one another. The drummer listens for a moment, then begins filling in the spaces between the guitarist’s notes with syncopated rhythms. I push keys on my typewriter, suddenly more interested in the sound produced than the nonsensical syllables they’re stamping onto the page. At some point, the dancer picks up drumsticks and begins trailing them across various objects in the room, while the photographer focuses his lens on a brass symbol’s vibration.

Sitting on the piano bench, I read a stream-of-consciousness phrase aloud. Everything seems to have its equivalent in different media: the word “blue” is a low-octave minor chord on the piano; the dancer’s footsteps are echoed in a drumbeat; pictures taken on a broken digital camera show rainbow colors surrounding each of us like auras,

Hours pass. There are long stretches of synchronicity, a harmony that seems to operate outside the parameters of our respective instruments, tempered by moments of disconnected noise. By midnight, there’s a piled-up sculpture, or maybe a shrine, of instruments and crumpled poetry and shoes and candles arranged in symmetrical patterns in the center of the room. In the wordless aftermath we stare at it, equal parts pleased and puzzled, unsure of what it means.

Experimentation in multi-media art, meaning art that encompasses multiple modes of expression, is not a new phenomenon. It’s impossible to pin down exact origins, but multi-media’s roots lie somewhere in the aftermath of World War II, when art began advancing in unprecedented, and unpredictable, directions.

With the Pop Art movement that emerged in the late ’50s, the concepts of art and entertainment began to overlap. The two commenced mimicking one another, with artists aligning themselves with popular cultural images (comic books, advertisements, etc.) and, in many circumstances, repeating them. Film, video and performance, media traditionally dedicated to pop culture, were soon embraced by the artistic community, which combined the new media with more traditional artistic forms. Multi-media art was born, and in the decades that followed it grew increasingly sophisticated as new, user-friendly technologies emerged.

Norman Magden, department head and professor of media arts at UT, is one of Knoxville’s earliest multi-media pioneers. He began working with multi-image environments in the ’80s, creating visuals for a jazz-electronic ensemble, and he describes his initial involvement with live dancers as “accidental.” As a professor at Northern Illinois University, he was approached by a dance troupe working on a multi-media piece with the theme of whale endangerment. Magden signed on, and began working with the group on a regular basis.

Today, Magden is seated in his office on the fourth floor of UT’s Art & Architecture Building. He desk is surrounded by bookshelves stuffed with hand-labeled videotapes and electronic odds and ends, and recalling his earlier multi-media experimentations, he seems equal parts scientist and artist.

“In the performing arts—theater and dance—the use of multi-media, meaning something beyond the dancer or actors, was generally still considered ‘sets’ or ‘background’ or ‘props,’” he says. “I would have discussions with the dancers and say, ‘I don’t do sets. I don’t do props. I don’t do backgrounds. If I’m going to continue with this, the media has to be an integral part of the performance.’”

That meant the role of the performers would have to change slightly. Without compromising the integrity of the dance itself, they would have a certain role to play within the multi-image environment. The two elements would work in tandem.

“My point of view has always been not about dance or about ensembles but about imagery—the idea that imagery can have its own life in a performance and not simply be an adjunct to the performance,” Magden explains. “The dancer and the imagery are on the same level. The dancer is part of the image; the image is part of the dancer.”

Over the years, the professor’s vision emerged as reality. His most recent multi-image projects, often involving dancers from the UT Dance Company, function as sensory funhouses, wherein images of the performers filmed beforehand from multiple angles are projected back onto the performers as they perform. “So there’s this illusion of not knowing the real dancer from the projected dancer. You think you see more dancers on the stage than there really are, and so on,” he says.

Magden says he sometimes thinks of the performances as moving paintings, with translucent layers and shapes that are constantly in motion: “The real dancers appear to be transparent, and the transparent images have dancers in them, so there’s this inability of the viewer to identify reality.”

The perceptual challenge is both physical and philosophical. “When you go to a play or a dance, to most viewers reality is what’s physically there, but reality is not always about what’s physically there,” Magden says. “There are other things going on—the way life moves and thoughts and images—so that’s another part of what I try to do. I try to create a performance that stimulates a larger sense of reality, some of it being puzzling.”

His work also erases the dividing lines between genres, melding dance with film and music. “We are a categorical society,” he explains. “We love categories because they make it easy to define things. But I like to think that life is more interesting when there aren’t boundaries and categories, and I apply that to my art.”

Though multi-media art may be challenging and complex in some respects, some suggest it’s actually easier to digest than art that relies on a single medium to communicate its message.

Perhaps it goes back to the mid-20th-century artistic movement to integrate popular culture. If art is a response to society, it now has a considerable paradigm shift on its hands—the commercial, pop-culture instinct to connect the maximum message with as large an audience as possible.

“People are so used to being bombarded with information, just bombarded all the time,” says Angela Hill, co-founder of AH Squared, a multi-media partnership between herself and her husband Andre Hayter that combines dance, music and technology. “I think we take in more information than we realize.”

Hill points out that people process information in different ways. She refers to psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests there are several means by which people perceive and understand the world: verbal-linguistic, musical-rhythmic, body-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, to name a few. So it makes sense that the most effective way to communicate a message is to convey it from as many different angles, through as many different media, as possible.

Of course, such an approach has its flipside: information overload. It’s a problem we overcome in day-to-day life through selective processing, or discarding messages we deem irrelevant and retaining what may be of use. “With our work, though, we’re not asking everyone to take in 100 percent of everything we’re doing,” Hill says. “There are layers of information, working in concert with one another.”

AH Squared’s performances usually involve the use of motion sensors that allow dancers to trigger predetermined music and sound in a spontaneous way. Hill, a longtime professional dancer and dance instructor, describes herself as the more physical, left-brained half of the partnership, while Hayter, a musician, is more technology-minded. “Together, we balance each other out really well. We’re listening to each other, yet at the same time kind of editing each other, bouncing ideas off each other and giving each other feedback,” Hill says. “Everyone has different strengths and abilities, and collaborating with someone who has different strengths and abilities than your own is going to make your art stronger.”

AH Squared’s first project was a 2003 performance called “Art Moves” at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Hayter built an interactive sculpture equipped with infrared motion sensors that triggered text and sound as Hill moved around it, and during intermission, the audience was encouraged to interact with the sculpture as well. Another performance was in correlation with Circle Modern Dance, with the intent of describing the experience of being in Europe during the last presidential election. This time, Hill wore the motion sensors herself, triggering music with her own body.

Hayter, an innovator by nature, has designs on the technology’s future. “A long-range goal for me is to figure out a way to create a system that would let dancers not just interact with the music, but actually create the music as they’re dancing,” he explains. “They’re no longer slaves to the music. Most of the music I’ve played most of my life has had a very improvisational nature, so I’m very interested in exploring those ideas.”

As for Hill, she says that although she’s excited about seeing where AH Squared can go creatively, she’s not yet ready to abandon the traditional principles of her art: “I think there’s always going to be a place for purity and simplicity. There’s still nothing I love more than dancing on a hardwood floor in the Laurel Theatre with a single musician. That still does something for me that nothing else can.

“I don’t want to say multi-media is the future of arts,” she says. “It’s just another model for working, another model of creating.”

Hill’s unwillingness to predict the direction art is headed is probably wise, but it raises an intriguing question. Just how far can the multi-media trend push outward? Perhaps, on the wings of technological advancement, infinitely. Perhaps the next major artistic movement will be called “maximalism,” with artists competing against one another to overpower our senses. 

Or maybe someday it will collapse back in on itself, reminding us that minimalism maintains its own set of timeless virtues. Lest we forget, a single, resonating note on the cello can be as moving, can communicate as much information, as an entire symphony orchestra. Is art really more compelling when it’s coming at us from all sides, all senses, at once?

Some artists, it seems, are already gravitating toward the simpler-is-better mentality; experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson comes immediately to mind. Anderson, known for producing what can only be described as multi-media extravaganzas during the ’80s, reemerged in the 21st century as a stripped-down ghost of her former self. Those who caught her performance at the Tennessee Theatre last November may remember its poignant simplicity, with Anderson reciting poetry and script onstage with no accompaniment other than her tape-bow violin. Perhaps what she needed to say just didn’t require an extravaganza.

But for the rest of us, what next? Where do we go from here? Variations of these questions have been weighing heavily on Joy Davis’ mind lately. The bright-eyed local dancer and recent UT grad produced something of an extravaganza herself in late April, a multi-media event entitled …Shift… that involved 18 dancers, 12 live musicians, one digital sound artist, a visual art installation hanging from the trees, and a 16-foot tall by 32-foot wide geodesic dome. In a highlight of the performance, Davis suspended herself and another dancer from the dome via a bungee and rope system, from which they performed an airs-above-the-ground duet.

It was as thematically ambitious as it was physically demanding. Davis’ recollections of the performance’s motifs surface in run-on sentences: “Very much the idea of circles, cyclical, concentric, the dome as protection, spirals…. This whole really winding, flowing movement is the tie because it addresses anthro-pology, it addresses time, it addresses DNA, it addresses love, it addresses spirituality, this one symbol or idea, and then we literally moved from a round structure to a linear structure and then came back around.”

She’d been planning the performance in her head for several months before the mental blueprint commenced its slow transition into reality—a creative environment that, unlike the freeform landscapes of one’s psyche, usually closer resembles a tangled logistical matrix.

Davis explains, “As the different aspects of the show began to solidify in my mind, I realized that there was no way I could do this by myself. I can’t build a dome. I can’t cut and edit music…. That realization, or awareness, brought me to understanding how important community is.”

Davis began talking about the project to professors and friends, some of whom were skeptical. “Pretty much the response I got was, ‘Are you really going to do this?,’” she recalls. But gradually, she found herself surrounded by a creative sub-community that was willing lend its own unique range of abilities to the cause.

Today, even though the original …Shift… performance is over, Davis is convinced that its cast and crew’s potential for creating multi-media art is still gaining momentum. “I’m thinking about this collective gathering, this nucleus of people, a physical alliance, to have some sort of database almost…,” she trails off and reorganizes her thoughts. “I don’t know. I just have this really intense desire to bring all these people into one space and just be like, ‘Look around.’”

It’s an understandably complicated desire to express in words. Why do we feel the urge to create art, this thing that serves few practical purposes by traditional standards, at a time when the world around us is being eaten away by war, poverty and disease? Why bother entrenching oneself in a creative community when we’re reminded every day of dissolving social structures—broken families, broken governments?

Perhaps it’s because creativity fosters awareness, of ourselves and the world around us, and awareness is a kind of self-preservation. Creativity is a common language we all speak, regardless of the words and colors and sounds and movements that comprise our own individual vocabularies. Maybe the desire to push our respective languages, or media, together is a reflection of our desire to say something in synch. The single note on the cello is the symphony orchestra, and vice-versa.  

Davis pulls a book from her bag and opens it to a passage by the novelist Charles Williams: “Imagine that everything which exists takes part in the movement of a great dance—everything,” she reads, “the electrons, all growing and decaying things, all that seems alive and all that doesn’t seem alive, men and beasts, trees and stones, everything that changes—and there is nothing anywhere that does not change. That change—that’s what we know of the immortal dance; the law in the nature of things—that’s the measure of the dance….”

When she closes the book, her voice is charged. “That, to me, is the definition of art. Art is everything.”

The Art Issue (continued)