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Jason Akira Somma's 'Under Construction'

Jason Akira Somma’s ‘Under Construction’ show at the Park Avenue Armory was an all-encompassing experiential majesty that can’t be properly justified with words. The show was divided into four rooms that each explored the communication between technology and the body, from LCD interrupted videos and photographs, to an infrared room which presented a choreography that could only be accessed with the use of an infrared camera, and which culminated in a performance piece that amalgamated dance, music, and analog technology. The talented artist, his team of dancers, and Chris Lancaster, the brilliant cello player in charge of the music, closed the show with a well-deserved standing ovation, and we were lucky enough to take a peek into the mind of the creator.

MilkMade: What inspired you to merge dancing with glitch art and the infrared technique?

Jason Akira Somma: I was actually a visual artist before I got into dance. I went to an art school that went in tandem with my regular education and I did dance as well, and everyone kept telling me that I would have to end up choosing a direction: you can either go into dance or visual art. [Before going to college] I had this epiphany that I had been treating the mind and the body separately and never symbiotically, so I decided to study dance again but more from the psychology of kinesthetic – what people say when they’re not saying anything, and it changed everything. It changed the way I approach my art because I was mostly video and photography when I was doing visual arts, so when I started doing this hybrid I started mixing these parameters and my deep understanding of the body lent itself well with working with dancers because I know how to speak both languages. In regards to technology specifically, I hate technology – it scares me, and I feel like I run towards what I’m afraid of because I don’t like it to have that power over me. But I love finding the creative potential in the uncertainty within rewiring and hacking this technology to see what its other applications can be besides the surface intended value because I think that’s where the secret of all innovation has existed.

MM: The dances were highly narrative – what was the story you wanted to tell with the four dances? Did the narrative aspect come hand in hand with the technology used or did one specifically influence the other?

JAS: For me the narrative I was working with was extremely loose and it was more a conceptual idea of giving the dancers a focus instead of a harness. Usually the narrative stems from me from ‘what can this medium say that nothing else can say and what story and what idea and what emotion and what part of the heart can it exhibit more than any other medium?’ That’s kind of were it starts. The infrared room was an idea I had had for years and I felt the Armory was a wonderful venue for that because of the architecture and the way it lends itself to that environment. With these dancers in particular so much of their movement stems from technology and its failures and cinema effects so working with them has always been a natural process, so a good part of the narrative also comes from them.

MM: How did you create the technology/machines that you used to glitch out your work?

JAS: The photo prints which you saw were LCD hacks and what I was doing was learning this hack over a period of time to see how it would react, and then I decided what would work best with this format which was the old Dutch master painters with dark lighting and chiaroscuro, so I decided I wanted classic, traditional nude figure studies. So then what I would do is I would take the photo, put it into an LCD screen, place the screen on a scanner, and then I would take an electric Taser and pulse an energy current through the main imaging sensor. What this does is one of two things: either crash the LCD and try to reconstruct the image, or it would blast it and slowly scan the process to get the resolution of it, and that’s how I was able to get these different effects out of it. But in terms of the analog technology I had all the old analog gear and I just unlocked this video technique that I had been playing with ever since I was a kid but I found another way of really controlling it through analog feedback, and I wanted to find a way to make the video signal itself become the dancer. I also like the uncertainty of the fact that some of those are mixers that I customize and construct are being influenced by the conductivity of the body – they’re touch sensors that are going straight to the circuit. I love how unpredictable and how colorful the images are that come out from these analog machines – we’re just influencing electricity. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about it, interacting with this organic matter; all it takes is just that initial electric pulse.

MM: During the performance you distort the projected/recorded image of the dancer in real time. Was most of the glitching based off of intuitive approaches or was there a specific choreography you used that you adhered to?

JAS: Both. It’s important to understand that the ‘Under Construction’ series is supposed to be an informal showing… what you saw was almost a high-end studio visit of sorts. The part you saw with Bones coming out to pre-recorded music was much more structured and rehearsed – there were these specific sections and everything you saw after that was definitely more organic and improvised. It’s kind of like a contemporary multi-aesthetic form of jazz where we all have to carefully listen to each other; the composer is watching the video and the dancers, I’m watching the dancers, the dancers are watching the video. There’s moments where I back off with the video effects, there’s moments where they see how I’m distorting them so they slow down and focus on what they’re doing, and the musician will kick it in to give them drive. It’s this organic dialogue. I think there’s something beautiful about seeing something once and knowing it won’t ever be shown again. You’re selling an experience, and that to me is the future because I think that more and more things get codified and commoditized but you can’t do that with the human experience, that still needs to be live, and I think that’s a very valuable thing.

MM: You call the Flex community the physicalization of the present. What is the importance of the evolution dance is taking as opposed to classical training? Do you think one can exist without the other?

JAS: What people forget is that ballet started in the streets and to me Flex, in particular, it’s one of the most contemporary things to emerge recently because of the multiple styles that exist within it. It’s definitely an emergent-based dance form that’s a byproduct of the Internet. When you talk to some of these guys they’re talking about Fred Astaire, they’re talking about ballet dancers, they’re talking about all of these different dance styles that you’d never expect kids back in the day to be talking about, but the truth of the matter is that they didn’t have access to it. So it’s amazing to me to see how they interpret it and make it their own. It’s the same way hip-hop started but they’re doing it with information online except their bodies are doing it. Can one exist without the other? I think the greatest disservice we do to ourselves is that we think of them as being different.

MM: What has been the most exciting aspect of your residency with the Armory?

JAS: Definitely the environment. That building is so magical. I can’t help but digest some of the history in there. I was informed that Abraham Lincoln trained his first soldiers that went to fight the Civil War there, and I think it’s amazing when you think about that and then here I am bringing all these street kids from East New York and we’re dancing – what a better way to celebrate the historic legacy of that building. The architecture and also the staff; I haven’t been treated the way the Armory treats me in America yet. Usually it can be very difficult and there can be a lot of obstructionism, but with the Armory there’s a never a “no,” it’s always a “let’s see what we can do,” and that sort of progressive mentality is wonderful because it’s amazing that an institution that prestigious understands that that is a fundamental aspect for fostering creativity to maximize the potential of what it is I’m trying to create, and you don’t encounter that very often.

MM: You have immense accolades and keep bearing fruit to amazing work. Does this bring pressure when crafting new things or do you find that it’s easier to create now as opposed to the early days of your career?

JAS: Both. In my artist statement I just had the simple line of saying, “Art is the space between science and spirituality,” because what I’m doing is methodically and scientifically trying these hacks, these investigations, these things that I’ve discovered, and then methodically going through processes to see what works best, and then I like to take it even further as a bigger exploration. The pressure of coming up with new things is always terrifying and I think that’s where the spirituality comes in – it’s a constant letting go, a constant fear of putting yourself out there, and when you put yourself out there and people can critique it and judge you for all these things that you’re not even thinking about you have to let go of a lot of that. The ultimate pressure just comes from yourself constantly, but it’s very therapeutic; I’d be doing it if it were being seen or not and I have been doing it. It is always scary but it’s also completely exhilarating because it’s the uncertainty that’s the driving force in our lives.

Keep an eye out for Jason Akira Somma’s future presentations
Live performance photos by Kasia Grabek

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