Body + Camera 2019: The Un/Certain Body

On Sunday, Mana Contemporary staged their annual Body + Camera festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, where they screened a variety of short films based around the central theme of moving bodies in moving imagery. This years title was The Un/Certain Body, reflecting upon the incertitude of the human form as seen in the entries from their open call submissions process. The all day screenings were further broken down into smaller categories, with the Chicago leg (having previously been screened at their Jersey City and Miami locations) featuring several live presentations of work and artists talks. As I did not have a whole day to spend screening experimental films, I decided to attend the section entitled, Public Place, Private Worlds, featuring short films focusing on ‘…navigat[ing] private lives in public spaces and distort[ing] the physical form of everyday reality.’

Though not entirely billed as such, it came off largely as an experimental dance film screening, which wasn’t really what I had been anticipating. Perhaps I should have expected it, as the festival is put on in partnership with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Montom Arts, but they do describe the event as a ’dynamic forum celebrat[ing] the intersection between the moving body and the moving image, focusing on risk-taking and independent artists, and featuring contemporary experimental projects that stretch mediums to their edge.’ Though there were a few films that were more movement, less dance—Jillian Mayer’s Day Off 1; Erika Roux’s Psyche and Cupid; Xiaqing Zhu’s Mutual Measurement—the dance based works overwhelmed the others. Maybe because there were more of them, maybe because the section ended on a bunch of dance heavy features—maybe because the ones featuring dance appeared, in many ways, less straightforward, more ambiguous, and yet simultaneously, more narrative. Most of us experience movement as part of our everyday lives, even if we do not think about it for being what it is—it is always labeled as exercise, or transportation, walking. I would venture to guess that most do not think about how they actually move through space, as it relates to their body.

And yet, many of the films that employed dance as movement, tell stories of the common, the relatable, the ‘normal’ that is experienced daily, and turn it into something else, something which is somehow out of reach. Consider Camiel Zwart’s Platform 13: a beautiful, poetic, moving story involving a Japanese train conductor, a lady with too many suitcases, and the suggestion of time travel. Over a million people in Chicago alone use the the L train—granted, this is not the same experience as a Japanese train station, but I’m sure even their commute experience is nothing like the one suggested in the film. This piece was definitely the most well received, if I remember correctly, it was the only one to receive applause. Maybe I am wrong—perhaps people do not want to focus on the odd, out of place movements of average human bodies in unusual circumstances, whether they come from Mayer’s taping of a person experiencing VR, or Roux’s endless, minute adjusting and framing of hands, or Zhu’s insertion of her body into public, artificial structures around Chicago. We do however, as was mentioned before, all move: the navigation of space is an intensely personal negotiation, one informed by our past experiences and where we perceive our place to be in the world. Rather than focus on the odd, singular movements specific to one person, the employ of dance in these instances offers us a chance to view our daily, at times mundane, routines in a different light, to rethink what we think we already know. Certainly, by the time we have been transported from the modern day Japanese train station to a disused, crumbling one, and then once more to a neon hued, futuristic station via The Great Wave and our train conductor, we have ‘distorted the physical form of everyday reality.’

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