Public and private become bedfellows in Freya Björg Olafson’s “Avatar”. The Winnipeg-based interdisciplinary artist’s work, presented at Tangente, probes a confessional universe in which exhibitionists, curiosity seekers and voyeurs linger in anonymous (and perhaps aimless) pursuit on websites, Internet postings and download bit torrents. Olafson is a pioneer in our country’s dance community, exploiting identity, virtuality and blogging culture (or is that vlogging culture?), showing its best and worst traits. In the great democratic Internet universe everyone can put forward revealing journal entries, offering streams of consciousness, and divulging enlightened truths and pathetic fallacies for a huge online audience just waiting for material.
I’m a sucker for integrating a personal use of the mechanics of technologies into performance, so when Olafson opens the piece with a computer stand caught in a pool of light, as a prism (kind of like one of those screen saver apps) envelops both the floor and a large suspended back screen, I’m engaged and ready. The screen illuminates to reveal a computer-generated travelling shot across a constructed visual landscape; the shot then pulls back on the Earth’s globe and eventually cuts to a field of avatar women. As Olafson’s image pops up, her live appearance follows instantaneously as she pokes her head around the screen and takes to the stage. She sits down at the computer terminal, long, greasy looking hair falling over her face, and begins to set in motion a series of captured PhotoBooth frames of herself in various positions (a run, a jump, etc.). We see similar shots on a film reel of sorts at the bottom of the screen; then, live, she adds more shots, launching the image capture application on her Imac. Once she presses the camera button in the centre of the screen, a 3-2-1 countdown appears, cuing Olafson to jump up and perform more actions of a similar nature.
Shortly afterwards, she dons a platinum blonde wig and applies makeup to create a new set of eyes on her lids, and using broad strokes smears lipstick around her lips to make new teeth and lips. Olafson effectively begin to disappear and a persona alights, a weird confluence of Marilyn Monroe and off-kilter drag queen surfacing to entertain and hold court. The transformation, caught by her webcam, is replicated in close-up on screen.
“Avatar” is a clever mix of hi-tech, lo-tech and no-tech. Olafson does dance in the space, in front of the screen, but it is essentially nondescript shuffling. The technological strides that Olafson is highlighting prompts an essential question about the quality of the live performance and if it is up to par with the innovations that frame the event. Midway through the piece she incorporates a fascinating use of live DIY blue screen, in which she virtually erases parts of her screen self by applying a chroma-key blue paint to her body, which is then superimposed in various spaces in a house (bathroom, bedroom).
Through the use of various data, including a compendium of other peoples’ YouTube images — men and women pumping muscle and striptease videos — piled together in a continual, looped, fast-edited montage, the work comments on both the objectification and the self-representation that is exhibited freely, often in faceless and headless fashion, on the web. After all, users don’t need permission to exhibit their wares. The portrait Olafson exposes is a narcissistic tendency people often develop with the portraits they create or commission of themselves. But in the swirl of all of this connectivity, I found myself questioning whether Olafson is really slamming this brand of social networking and shared encounters, not to mention the legitimacy of these online apparitions, or whether she is exploiting it.
In a final sequence, the gender shift is complete: she uses a voice-changing digital program to deepen her voice. As she becomes he, Olafson’s new incarnation seeks a connection with the audience. At this Thursday night performance, he/she responded to some questions from the timid audience, breaking the fourth wall and, it seemed to me, challenging the way we engage with the elusive Internet and virtual images, i.e., in silence. “What do you look for in a man?” one man asked. Another inquired, “What kinds of music do you listen to?” “How old are you?” asked one intrepid watcher. “Ageless,” Olafson responded.
“Avatar” has lots of crossover appeal. It’s a project that proves that dance artists don’t have to fear the digital revolution. While the technology might seem inhospitable, Olafson demonstrates that there are all kinds of possibilities developing literally at our fingertips, and it’s not about creating cheap no-brainers that merely fill up space online. Her dance content, i.e., the moving body, needs to be integrated more fully and with greater articulation, but she has opened the door to a world that will challenge and expand the traditional approach to watching and appreciating dance, as well as the programming and disseminating of our dances. (A sidebar to discuss private copying and data sharing is for another time.)
Also on the double program, Isobel Cohen’s short 15-minute work, “The Great Escape”, which is the British dance artist’s laugh-out-loud funny and literate take on relationships and contemporary dance. Dressed in a PVC outfit, which is at the core of her witty script, Cohen, currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Cambridge, shines as an intelligent monologist. The dancing is beautifully paced, with fluid extensions, but the choreography displays some less than captivating floorwork and, overall, the brief dance component seems a bit of an add-on, especially after such a nuanced, smart and incisive spoken word performance. I sense we’ve only seen a fragment of what Cohen has to offer. If she ever returns to this side of the pond, don’t miss her or her engaging stories.