Charles Atlas talks to Stuart Comer about his creative development, the intertwining of social scenes and art, and his ideas for the future
Since his first collaborations with Merce Cunningham in the early 1970s, Charles Atlas has defined innovation in the encounter between dance, performance and the camera. He has brought his uniquely playful precision to bear on a staggering range of films, videos, installations and live performances, working along the way with artists including Marina Abramovic, Antony and the Johnsons, Karole Armitage, Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark, Douglas Dunn and Yvonne Rainer. His recent exhibitions in London in March and April were a solo show at Vilma Gold and a collaboration with Mika Tajima and New Humans for the South London Gallery, where the main space was transformed in into an installation and film set for live performance, music, video and sculpture.
STUART COMER How did you first get interested in film?
CHARLES ATLAS As a child in St. Louis, Missouri, cinema was my escape outlet. I loved movies. I’m the perfect audience: I laugh, I cry, I cringe – whatever you’re manipulated to do, so cinema always had a power over me. I would go and see musicals, Hollywood films, anything that was shown at the local cinema. When I finally came to New York after dropping out of college in 1968 I wanted to see every movie ever made. I saw a whole range, everything from D.W. Griffith to European art films to Stan Brakhage.
SC Did your formative cinema experiences help your interest in editing to develop?
CA The independent cinema movement at that time was not about having multiple people doing multiple jobs; it was about the filmmaker doing all the jobs. I would never have been able to employ an editor and do the kind of work that I wanted to do, so that became part of filmmaking for me, just as printmaking at that time was part of being a photographer.
SC What was the first film you made?
CA I think it was Cartridge Lengths. I got a Super 8 camera in 1970 and that’s when I started. I took a camera everywhere and filmed everything. I made films in my hotel room when I went on tour with Merce Cunningham; filming objects and jars of pickles, arranging and lighting them, things you can do in your hotel room. My first proper 16mm film was Walkaround Time in 1972. I had told Merce that there seemed to be a possibility that we could get money from the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] to do something, and that I wanted to film a dance. I asked which one he would want to do, and he said Walkaround Time, which has a set based on a work by Marcel Duchamp [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–23]. I applied and went to Washington D.C. for an interview, and they just couldn’t believe that I was applying since I had only done Super 8 films and they didn’t really consider me a professional filmmaker. They didn’t give me the funding, so I decided I would go ahead and do it with my own money. We did the first part on a stage in Berkeley during a rehearsal at Zellerbach Hall and the second part in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville.
SC How did you first meet Merce?
CA Pure luck. I had a job stage-managing Off-Broadway. One of the actors worked with him, and said they needed an assistant stage-manager, so they asked me. At that point the only dancer I’d ever seen was Merce, because of his association with Robert Rauschenberg. I was totally thrilled with the offer.
SC Were you engaging with Andy Warhol’s world?
CA I was friends with Dorothy Dean, who was part of Warhol’s crowd, but I was never part of it. I was in a separate little clique.
SC One could argue that your work shares similarities with Warhol, Jack Smith or earlier precedents such as Joseph Cornell.
CA They all really influenced me, especially Warhol. I loved Chelsea Girls  in its original split-screen format. I saw it a few times. It made you realize that you could make something out of your own world, something that didn’t seem possible along the lines of a Hollywood model. People have said the same thing about my film Hail the New Puritan .
SC Did Warhol’s world seem at odds with Merce’s world?
CA No. We worked with all the major artists of that time. When I was there, Jasper Johns was the artistic advisor, and so it was all part of the bigger world. In fact, my first job with Merce was blowing up the Andy Warhol pillows for RainForest . I’ve seen the revival of that piece, and they don’t do it right anymore. But anyway…
'I loved Warhol's Chelsea Girls. It made me realize you could make something out of your own world, something that didn't seem possible along the lines of a Hollywood model.
SC Now that Merce is gone, your films are some of the most important documents of that history. How do you view the recent interest in restaging historical performances?
CA It’s fine for people to restage things. I think that’s valuable. However, for me it’s primarily an educational rather than aesthetic experience.
SC What would you say to a younger generation who didn’t get to see a performance the first time?
CA I’m always glad that I can see things such as some of the early Martha Graham pieces, but I know that they don’t perform them the way that the original was, and there are certain things that were vital, and addressed issues that were relevant at the time in terms of style of performing. There are just ineffable things that performers do when it’s created on them, and they’re the first expressers of it, that are often not transferrable.
SC Your work seems to be about community far more than just documentation of a performance.
CA It was never intended to be documentation. They were collaborations. I learned video really only at the invitation of Merce because it seemed easier to make videos than films when he was working. I wanted to make work with choreography, so I learned video from a book, as I’ve learned a lot of things. I’m self-taught as a filmmaker, and then I taught it to him.
SC Video, and the promise of instant playback, obviously offered enormous potential for a completely different way of shooting live performance.
CA The first video package that I got for the company was a three-camera set-up with a live switcher, so we could do live editing. This had a real advantage in that it made you aware of how to get from one shot to another. When we got to the point of making work cinema-style, one camera at a time, we already thought in multiple angles, so we could easily work out where the camera went next.
SC You have an exhilarating sense of framing, really holding the rhythm of the performance in an incredible way. Is that something that you discovered immediately or did it develop over several years of working with Merce?
CA I learned everything from Merce. He developed my eye so that I could see what he saw; as time went on I didn’t need to consult him as much in the editing as I had at the beginning. It’s dance, so it’s about rhythm and he was a master of rhythm, and I picked up on that.
SC 1971 is pretty early on in the development of portable film cameras and video. How did that influence you? This was a period in which the moving image was being brought into a more immediate relationship to live performance.
CA First we had cameras on tripods and we never took them off for the first three pieces. Then we became confident enough to start moving the camera; once you do that everything changes. We made extensive use of moving camera, choreographed within and around the dance, and so it was obviously a different way of participating with the dance than you could do on stage.
SC The piece you recently showed at Vilma Gold in London, Joints 4tet for Ensemble [1971/2010] is an interesting reconfiguration of that moment. It’s a living piece in itself, a kind of reshaping of what was happening in the early 1970s.
CA Merce was a major person in my life, my mentor and someone I was very close to. Joints 4tet for Ensemble is made using films from 1971 when I’d just recently gotten a camera, and the first thing I ever shot with Merce. It was really casual; we just did it, and I never showed it. When I was thinking about Merce after he passed away, I remembered those first Super 8 films I had always liked, so I looked in my closet, found them, transferred them to video and just started making a piece. It was about memory for me. Using John Cage’s soundtrack of ambient recordings from four different cities – places he and Merce had been together – was kind of emotional in a very abstract way.
SC Something else that Joints 4tet… raises is the idea of the close-up. I’m thinking about some of the earliest video collaborations you did such as Blue Studio: Five Segments [1975–6] in which you no longer keep all the bodies within the frame.
CA In the early films we didn’t do many close-ups because it was about the total body of the dancer. The close-ups we used were meant as a means of disorientation, but mostly we wanted to orient things. Close-ups are the language of cinema and television, and when I started working with other people I used them in a more intense way.
SC In the work you made with Michael Clark, that sense of disorientation becomes a big part of the way that you represent the performance. You lose your bearings as a viewer and get wrapped up in a psychedelic abstraction of bodies, limbs, costumes and backgrounds. How did that develop?
CA I did Hail the New Puritan a few years after I’d stopped working with Merce in 1983. Naturally I used everything that I knew from Merce, but in such a different context. I wanted to explore things that related to my life; less about the studio, more about what’s outside the studio. Meeting Michael, Leigh Bowery and all of these people on the scene in London in the early ’80s, I knew that this was what I was looking for. I worked really hard on that film because I felt I was in a lucky position. I was determined to make something out of it.
SC How did you meet Michael?
CA We have different stories about that, but I really got to know him when I was collaborating with Karole Armitage. She brought Michael over to be cast in one of her pieces when he was about 20. I put him in several videos before we did Hail the New Puritan, and I just adored him, as I still do.
SC When did you first come to London?
CA I first did a workshop here sometime in the early ’80s, sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation for choreographers and directors at Riverside Studios. Then a producer at WGBH [a public broadcasting station in Boston] had some money to do something specifically in London, and she asked me if I wanted to make a film here. I said if I could do it with Michael Clark, I’d do anything for any amount of money – so that’s how Hail the New Puritan came about. But before that, Michael had asked me to do lighting for him because I’d been doing lighting, sets and costumes for Karole. I’ve been doing lighting for him ever since.
SC Hail the New Puritan breaks the mold because it’s as much a documentary about a certain subcultural moment in London as it is about the performances that happen throughout the film. One possible precedent is A Bigger Splash, Jack Hazan’s 1973 film about David Hockney, which is also a fascinating portrait of a particular London milieu, as fictional as it is documentary. The characters perform themselves, and there’s an interesting link between the two films. How did you develop your approach to Hail the New Puritan?
CA I was just taking Michael’s work and making what I could with it. My model was A Hard Day’s Night  – I wanted to do the dancing version. In fact, the scene in which they’re running around a grassy field with the stick, that’s taken directly out of A Hard Day’s Night. Once I left Merce I could more directly use my influences from Hollywood musicals, and working with Michael was perfect because I could go haywire with irony. It was a beautiful combination.
SC What about the other people in that circle, such as Leigh Bowery or Cerith Wyn Evans, or the New Romantic movement in general?
CA New Romanticism was over when I arrived. I remember thinking London was so much more fun than New York. Everyone I knew had absolutely no money, was on the dole, spent all their money on costuming themselves, were shoplifting, and there was nothing to gain and everyone was really friendly. It wasn’t like New York at all; there was no networking, no ‘I did this first, you stole my idea!’ kind of competition. I had a great time. It was about a subculture, and it had nothing to do with the official art world, because the official art world wasn’t on the same wavelength.
SC Even when Anthony d’Offay Gallery staged the performance with Leigh in 1988?
CA It still wasn’t. Anthony was interested in Michael, and Leigh was part of Michael’s world. I think he really wanted to do something with Michael, which he did later, but Leigh was ready to do it at that point, and so that’s how he got that show.
SC To what extent was Leigh part of your collaboration with Michael?
CA Watching Hail the New Puritan now, I realize that if I’d made the scene in Leigh’s apartment shorter, the narrative would flow better. But it’s like going to a party and the most interesting person there is the one you spend the most time with. The cast took the idea of playing themselves to the hilt, and that was the essence of the film. They played outsize versions of themselves and knew just how to do it, pre reality TV.
SC A lot of your work has focused on ideas about transgender and in-between states of identity. Do you think that was triggered by Leigh in particular?
CA I’m gay, so it was triggered by my life. At that time, drag seemed relevant in a special way. It was trashy, funny, homemade and nonprofessional. I was also taking my camera out to clubs, and I have lots of documentation from the ’80s, from the Pyramid in Portsmouth and the Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. I loved all the performers that were part of that scene, and I used them in my films, such as Son of Sam and Delilah . It’s other forms of sexual expression, and I believe in them.
SC Music and sound has obviously played a key role throughout your work, most recently with Antony and the Johnsons, Christian Fennesz and William Basinski. How has that developed?
CA Travelling with Merce, I got to hear a lot of music, because John Cage was the musical director of the company and he always invited interesting people – Pauline Oliveros or David Tudor, for instance. I have picked people to work with who I really love, but I’ve taken the Merce approach; you do music so much better than I do, so you tell me what you want to do, we can come together in some way.
SC Has using live visuals for these collaborations shifted the way you work?
CA Live visuals are a new development in my work since 2003. When I was working on the Rainer Variations  I felt like I was doing needlepoint. It was so craft intensive that when there was an opportunity to do something else I decided to take it. When Douglas Dunn approached me to do something with him for a new piece Muscle Shoals , I suggested doing something with live video, because it had just started to be possible to do that rudimentarily off a laptop. I am currently working on a project using live video mixing with Mika Tajima and New Humans at the South London Gallery. It’s funny to me that having worked with Merce and John Cage for years, I had rejected the whole idea of aleatory procedures – I thought it wasn’t for me but now that I’m working with live video, I’ve become a Cagean; there’s lots of chance in the live performances, and that’s engaging.
SC There’s an amazing history of visuals that were done especially for live musical performances, certainly in London, going back to artists like the Boyle Family in the 1960s. That work has never had the status of art work per se, but it’s a way of working that seems prime for reconsideration.
CA With Mika Tajima we did a three-day live installation in 2009 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I did live mixing for 15 hours or so, and I made an edit that was 15 hours long. I gave Mika a copy of all the rushes and I took a copy, and we’re both able to make our own edits out of it. It’s not documentation, it’s a process. It’s a great way to work.
SC You have increasingly shown your work in art galleries. When did you first start working in this context?
CA The first show I had in a gallery was in 1999 at XL Gallery in New York. I had come back after having worked a lot in Europe, and I felt I was losing touch with my roots. I didn’t have much to do, so I had this show of installation and portraits, then the gallery that I was showing at folded. I didn’t seek a gallery after that because I had started to become busy all of a sudden again, and had more than I could handle. When Lia Gangitano invited me to do a piece with Participant Inc. in New York, I decided to do this installation involving live video portraits, Instant Fame , incorporating the live work I was doing in a gallery setting. Then I became increasingly interested in making installation work; I like the challenge of working in a particular space.
SC Television has also been crucial to what you have done. Could you talk a little about your history with broadcasting?
CA After becoming a film buff I was a TV addict. The idea of having my work on TV was a thrill. I think the first commission was in France, for France 3. I did a piece with Karole Armitage called Parafango [1983–4]. In the ’80s there was much more art being produced for TV, which happens so much less now. I was a beneficiary of that because I was able to work internationally, as my work was more about movement than language. These commissions supported my work, until my work started to get darker and ‘inappropriate’ for TV. Then the funds for producing art for TV began drying up; they were focused on bigger audiences, and my work was being shown in the art ghetto on a Sunday night.
SC Does the Internet hold any promise for you?
CA Not as a place where you can get something produced. As an outlet, it has potential. I’m working on a film with Antony Hegarty [of Antony and the Johnsons], which will be a documentary feature, and I’m thinking about how we are going to distribute it. However, I’m afraid that the first chance anyone has to get hold of it they’re going to put it up on the Internet and everyone is going to download it for free and we’re never going to sell a DVD, so I don’t know. It has a promise and a danger.
SC Now that you have lost a lot of the people that you’ve worked with, is there anybody, apart from Michael, that you’d really like to collaborate with?
CA I’ve had a lifelong collaboration with Douglas Dunn and we occasionally do projects together. I continue to work with Michael after all these years, not as a filmmaker, but as a lighting designer. I welcome the idea of collaboration. I’ve had some that didn’t work out, but mostly they work out really well, and I can recognise the red flags when they appear. You really have to respect, trust and love the people you’re working with, and then it works out.
First published in Issue 139