Bridgman Packer Dance by Kelly Gottesman
by Suzanne Carbonneau
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
—Shakespeare, The Tempest
Most of us experience daily life as achingly conventional. We eat our cereal, commute to our jobs, watch must-see TV, live the lives that have been served up to us by circumstance. In our imaginations, however, we are so much more, our inner lives filled with drama and incident. How to reconcile these identities?
In his 1991 film Until the End of the World, director Wim Wenders imagined a near-future world in which a technology is developed that can record the brain’s impulses. When Wenders’s characters realize that this gives them waking access to their dreams, they become addicted to watching the playback of their nocturnal visions on hand-held devices. Their dreaming lives, they realize, are infinitely more vivid and fantastical than their waking existences. This addiction proves so compulsive that, in the end, Wenders’s characters completely forsake their real lives for the virtual worlds conjured by their imaginations.
We have, it seems, nearly achieved Wenders’s future. We don’t yet have dream machines, but we have web-worlds like Second Life, whose very name promises re-birth—or at least the chance to have another crack at things. Participants in Second Life (“Your world. Your imagination.”) create avatars who construct a virtual universe where they socialize, communicate, work, own land, create businesses, and otherwise amuse themselves. Second Life now has over eight million avatars, and its marketplace supports transactions valued at millions of (very real) dollars each month. Moreover, Second Life is only one of many thriving virtual communities or “metaverses.”
So, here we are, for the first time in history, no longer defined by our physical and economic endowments, by geography or social circumstance, or by a political system tied to physical location. We have the opportunity to construct lives that, in aligning virtually with our internalized identities, feel more real than reality. We are given the ability to stand outside history and define ourselves. Digital technology has not only freed us to live alternative lives, to conjure alternative identities, to create alternative personas, but it has promised us the possibility of endless multiples of these lives. If each of us can have a second life, why not a third life, or a fourth?
Once assumed to be fixed, the self suddenly has become one of the great construction projects of modern life. In such circumstances, what is reality? Is it the physical world that we have always known, or is it the world that we have constructed in consonance with our self-image—one that reflects back who we feel ourselves to be? We are a people given the chance to do through technology what we have always looked to art to do for us,—that is, to conjure unique worlds. And, indeed, art has been quick to adapt this technology to further the project of presenting other ways of being. Myrna Packer and Art Bridgman are among those artists who are embracing technology in their work precisely to address these questions. Their recent choreography, which integrates live performance and video technology, collapses the virtual and real worlds.
With Bridgman and Packer, there is an added dimension to the question of the real and the virtual. For the simulated images presented are of the choreographers themselves—this couple we have known as a dance duo for almost thirty years. Over that span, they have focused on the duet form to illuminate what it means for one person to link life and art with another, and they have done this in a way that emphasizes physical daring. But in the last four years, working with video artists Peter Bobrow and James Monroe, Bridgman and Packer have expanded their concerns to include video as a technique that extends their physicality even further, into the realm of the virtual. Their trilogy—Seductive Reasoning (2003), Under the Skin (2005), and Memory Bank (2007)—has exponentially enlarged the number of dancers that people their choreography, while actually featuring only Bridgman and Packer. In creating this stage-full of doppelgangers, the choreographers suggest an infinite array of metaverses.
In Seductive Reasoning, for example, we see each of the choreographers dancing with a projection of the other. The metaphors—and questions—multiply as quickly as do the video images. Who is constructing that image of the other—the partner or the partnered? Can we ever truly know another, minus the projections of our hopes and fantasies? And what happens when those images collide with reality? When the video transforms Bridgman and Packer into creatures of fairy tale endowments, we can reflect on dance technique itself as another kind of heroicizing technology. And for a dancer, what does it mean when motion is “improved”—made bigger, faster, longer—by video? Is the stage itself a form of Second Life?
These questions become more urgent in Under the Skin, where the real and projected performers dance side by side and then seem to morph identities before our eyes. Bodies are projected as images, but bodies are also the screens on which these images are projected. Do any of us feel that our identity is simple and unchanging? If not, which of those identities is the true self? Or are there many true selves? In Memory Bank, Bridgman and Packer perform with virtual images of themselves, captured just moments before. Here, we see the transformation of self as happening moment to moment, and we realize that, even as we change, we carry the past with us.
In marrying flesh and image so magically, Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer provide opportunity for us to contemplate our own addiction to dreams. And they bring us to ask: Are we, in our current obsession with creating meta-selves, falling into the solipsism of the imagination that Wim Wenders warned against? Or could it just be that, in freeing ourselves from the inauthenticity of the “real,” we have finally achieved our evolutionary destiny and become our own creators?
For further reading and viewing:
Second Life. http://secondlife.com/
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Bantam Spectra, 1992.
Until the End of the World (Bis ans Ende der Welt). Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Michael Almereyda and Peter Carey. Argos Films, 1991.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007