Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Natalie Bookchin's "Mass Ornament," affect, and physicality

I was particularly interested in Natalie Bookchin's project, Mass Ornament, in which she complied countless youtube clips of people dancing alone in there rooms and synched them to create a unified mass dance reminiscent of the Busby Berkeley-style dancers. The video can be seen here: Her work can be read as a postmodern adaptation of the modernist rational conformity of the Busy Berkeley dancers. Bookchin described her fascination with the phenomenon that both the dancers and the audience were really millions of people alone in their rooms with their computers, but together they amounted to a temporally discontinuous virtual mass ceremony. Despite this alienation, certain apsects of Mass Ornament challenge Jameson's notions of postmodernism. I believe that youtube videos of people dancing, when compared with Busky Berkeley, represent a re-inscription of affect rather than a loss of affect. In the modernist dance troups of the interwar period, the female body was reduced to the synchronized movement of limbs, with its parallels to the reduction of male bodies to machines under fordism. This world of hyper-conformity was based on an erasure of affect. By contrast, youtube videos of people dancing, though blurred by bad quality and separated by "the screen", represent more affective portrayals of individuals. The dancers are often in their rooms, surrounding by the objects that make up this intensely private space, and I'd argue that the perceived privacy of their room--the feeling of being unwatched even as you record yourself on a webcam--allows a degree of affect and naturalness in the dancers that Busby Berkeley performers actively sought to mask. In this case, the alienation caused by the Screen and by the temporal disconuity between artistic production and consumption actually enables an unexpected degree of affect to come out. (The same is true with her project "Testament," which contains many emotional accounts.)

Another interesting component of Mass Ornament was the role of the body and voyeurism. Bookchin synched the dancers to '50s-style music, but she overlaid the soundtrack with sounds of bodies thumping and cameras being jostled. This reminded the viewer of the corporeal reality of the dancers (as opposed to the denial of physicality with machine-like Busby Berkeley dancers). Further, it presented an odd mingling of physical and virtual sounds: one was not only accutely aware of the dancers' bodies, but also of the physical presence of the webcam itself. All of this is presented in a slightly fuzzy internet-level quality, again reminding us of the virtuality of the presentation. In this way, the piece was very self conscious of its use of the internet as a medium, and of the convergences and tensions between physical and virtual space. One aspect of the video seemed to propose that these youtube dance performances could be read in terms of Lacan's mirror stage: several of the dancers are shown dancing in front of a mirror. Maybe, by seeing oneself not in a conventional mirror, but in the virtual mirror of a youtube video, one identifies with this external idealized self--a self that is forever inscribed in the public sphere; a self that not only escapes the physical confines of its room, but is as immortal as the virtual data it has become.

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