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Automatic Dancing

Automatic Dancing (1112131411)

Concept/Choreography Rachel Boggia (Dance) & Bill Seeley (Philosophy)

Performed as Part of Things that Travel

Schaeffer Theater, Bates College, November 12-14, 2011

Automatic Dancing (1112131411) explores a tension in Sol LeWitt's (1928-2007) writings on Conceptual Art. The multimedia performance builds on material and ideas originally developed for automatic drawing by Bill Seeley in collaboration with his philosophy of art students and, more recently, with Rachel Boggia and Matt Duvall at Bates College for The Collaborative Drawing Project (2007- 2011). LeWitt  wrote:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. Artforum, June 1967).

There are decisions that the draftsman makes, within the plan, as part of the plan. Each individual, being unique, if given the same instructions would understand them differently and would carry them out differently…The artist must allow various interpretations of his plan…The draftsman perceives the artist’s plan, then reorders it to his experience and understanding… The artist and the draftsman become collaborators in making the art…All wall drawings contain errors, they are a part of the work  (Wall Drawings. Arts Magazine, April 1970).

LeWitt's early location drawings can be thought of as uncontrolled collaborative installations, improvisational performances of a choreographed score, artworks whose ultimate composition depends as much on the interpretive judgments of the draftsmen as on the original recipe itself. Automatic Dancing combines LeWitt's drawing methods with Cunningham/Cage's chance procedures to explore the role and aesthetic potential of the performers' share in this process. A random sequence generator automatically constructs a unique location drawing score from a vocabulary of seven marks and two phrases for each performance that the dancers read, interpret, and translate on the fly. Live video capture is used to articulate the dynamic relationship between the phrases and the score. What emerges is an understanding of the way process and the structural properties of a range of media push, pull, and shape artistic production and the consumers' experience of the work.

The scoring technique for Automatic Dancing was originally developed as a hands-on teaching tool for courses in philosophy of art. The goal of the associated exercises was to help non-art students explore the range of ways that artistic media constrain the expressive practices of artists. Students were asked to develop and test sets of instructions for the construction of simple geometric marks and figures. The instructions would be randomly sorted, distributed to groups of draftsmen, and used to make eight by twenty-four foot geometric drawings. Instructions for the scaling, positioning, and orientation of the marks were given relationally, or relativized to the size and orientation of other marks on the page and the current position and orientation of the artists' body, e.g. start at the spot just in front of your nose, look down to the left, and snap a chalk line to the point where your gaze rests, or, use your arm as a compass and draw a smooth but uneven arc from your ankle across to a point above your other shoulder, or draw a long obtuse triangle, neither level nor plumb, that intersects at least 3 other figures on the sheet. The goal in these exercises is to come to understand the constraints set by the medium and method so that one can construct a system that works, a set of formal instructions that yield a coherent composition. The challenge is that the artist cannot amend the system on the fly to accommodate his or her aesthetic intuitions. Once the idea is set it runs to completion.

The instructions for LeWitt's early automatic drawings of arcs and lines can be interpreted as closed formal systems. The drawings would be delivered to the gallery as numeric tables that defined grids of overlapping marks. All of the potential formal relationships are coded in, and can in principle be read off, of these numeric tables. Our strategy for automatic drawing was looser, designed to amplify the influence of the conscious choices, unconscious biases, and different bodies of individual draftsmen. The goal of these exercises was in part to explore the boundaries between freedom and control in the use of automatic and chance procedures. The choreography and scores for Automatic Dancing bear a closer resemblance to LeWitt's formal systems. But the goal is the same, to explore the boundaries between control and freedom in artistic production, to explore the dancers share as a collaborator in the production of the work, and to explore the way the aesthetics of the work emerges from the idiosyncrasies and errors that shape each individual performance.

There is a strong sense in which the dance resembles what we have called automatic drawing. Both are coordinated collective activities in which the artist generates a recipe for performers to follow. We might say the same about installation art - each installation of the same piece is a performance tagged to the uniqueness of its current context. We might even say the same about a sculptor managing a crew of assistants in the studio. We might also say that consumers play a similar role to performers whenever they approach a work – they use the material existence of the work, along with a range of shared conventions it authorizes, to reconstruct its content/meaning on the fly without any real time oversight or guidance. The transparency of process in Automatic Dancing thereby reflects the interpretive process of the consumer in microcosm. We watch ourselves as we watch the dancers use their closed choreographic system of conventions to interpret the score as it emerges on the stage. Of course the freedom of the performer is different in each of these types of case – and these differences are not trivial. However, and this is the philosophical point, an exploration of the collaborative role played by dancers as they interpret a score is a means to explore the related concepts of art, aesthetics, and artistic production…and ultimately the consumer's share in the (re)construction of the content of the work.

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