“Combustible Residency," a new program at the San Francisco performance-art hub CounterPulse, is designed to allow artists the time and resources to create their work using “state-of-the-art lighting and sound tools.” That sounds dry, though the results aren’t.
Clearly the two pieces on display in this inaugural presentation, Freya Olafson’s MÆ—Motion Aftereffect and Kinetech Arts' startlingly beautiful MESH, show deeper concerns about technology, the human body, and what has happened or is happening to our souls.
MÆ—Motion Aftereffect is full of interesting ideas and a comic spirit, but it never takes off as art. At its best, it has the feel of a pleasant Saturday Night Live skit: When Olafson, donning a pair of virtual reality goggles, screams “Oh my God” over and over again at an experience we can neither see, hear, nor access in any way, or tries to replicate the obscene gyrating of video game vixens, she keeps just missing in her mimicry.
You understand what she’s getting at -- the alienating nature of the tech revolution and our hapless responses to it. But the piece is in many ways merely a demonstration, an idea tied to a mission statement.
On the other hand, Kinetech Arts’ Mesh slips into disturbing and shocking territory that continually confounds our beliefs about technology and human agency.
Choreographer Daiane Lopes Da Silva’s work begins with a simple and direct image: a woman, covered in what feels like the afterglow of poor television reception, slowly twists and turns her way upstage until she disappears under the backstage curtain, a victim of some kind of electronic malfunction. Or were we just lacking the right antenna, a stronger internet connection, proper wiring that would have held her in place for us? It's the first of many questions that begin with the distortion of a body.
And so when dancers Hien Huynh and Mariia Sotnikova burst onto the stage, moving with a wild precision and feral strength, you think okay, all right, the natural order of human dominance has returned. These people are fully present. Their bodies exemplify control, order, and power. But the feeling lasts for just a moment. In the world of Mesh, human force is a finite resource, while technology mutates with the swiftness and potency of a virus.
By the time performer Juliet Paramor enters covered in sensors, her body projected on to the back wall in the form of a kind of anthropomorphic abstraction of a skeleton, the idea of the human has a precarious feel to it. It’s as if she’s being reformed into technology right before us. It’s a mesmerizing effect and you have to keep on reminding yourself that there’s a human being on stage generating these images, or that she even matters.
The most powerful aspect of Mesh is the way we’re forced to understand that these transformations aren’t the product of a 21st century revolution, but are rather part of a long line of transformative technologies. Anchored to the back wall is a mesh mask that seems comically analogue compared to all the computers and sensors in use. And yet Kinetech deploys this little piece of crafts-shop arcana to impressive artistic and philosophical use.
After one of the dancers slips into the mask, we’re confronted with a disarming conjunction of images: we get the computer-generated skeleton, the dancers’ actual bodies, and their shadows expanding across the stage -- the result of no more than a hand-held light. As the computer visual fluctuates in size from a tiny image projected onto the dancers’ torsos to a giant intersection of converging lines and angles that envelops all the bodies on stage, the simple light does the same to the mesh mask. It too has the power to overcome human agency and freedom.
The whole effect is ridiculously beautiful and more than a bit terrifying. Here is art that takes an idea and harnesses it to a rigorous aesthetic practice. And because of that, you can't stop thinking about it.
'MÆ—Motion Aftereffect' and 'Mesh' runs through Saturday, Sept. 16 at CounterPulse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.