Charles Atlas, The Oregonian
Charles Atlas at TBA:10, Portland, OR
Originally published in The Oregonian

For four decades, Charles Atlas has challenged the idea of what a filmmaker does, mostly in collaboration with other artists, including such luminaries as Marina Abramovic, Michael Clark, and Antony and the Johnsons. While his work, at times, has been limited to simply documenting performances, it more typically takes the shape of co-authorship, in which what he shoots is precisely calibrated for the language of moving image. This year's TBA Festival offered several points of entry into Atlas' storied career, piecing together a portrait of one of film and video art's most vital innovators. 

Last Saturday, the artist was on hand for a screening of "With Merce," a selection of excerpts of films and videos made with his most important collaborator, the late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. As Atlas explained during a brief Q&A session after the screening, he joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as an assistant stage manager in 1971. Three years later, he began filming the troupe at the behest of John Cage, Cunningham's romantic partner, who hoped it would spell an end to the company's constant touring.

But the presence of Atlas' camera was seldom limited to mere documentary. Instead, the camera became another performer, as essential to the choreography as the dancers. In various films in "With Merce," the camera is in constant motion, moving through the performance space and threading through dancers, or zooming in to highlight subtle movements. It's a fascinating marriage of disciplines, in which the conventions of filmmaking -- framing, editing, etc. -- are employed to complicate the boundary between performer and audience. Watching these films is a deeply immersive experience, not least because, as viewers, we are sutured into the action, unable to direct our own gazes. 

The previous evening, Atlas revealed another facet of his practice, performing live with avant-garde composer William Basinski at The Works. As Basinski played an atmospheric score that alternated between passages of magisterial synthesizer tones and glitchy barbs of digital feedback, Atlas manipulated a projected stream of layered video clips. 

At times, he superimposed related images in spatially vexing configurations -- say, a scuba diver swimming through, in an overlaid frame, a school of fish -- while, at others, fragmented footage ebbed and flowed in a kind of virtuosic version of channel surfing. If this sort of collaged procession of imagery sounds all too familiar in an age of YouTube and Final Cut Pro, consider that Atlas constructed this palimpsestic mise-en-scène in real time, like a DJ syncing images instead of beats.

"Tornado Warning," a two-room video installation currently on view at The Works, translates the overstimulated disorientation of his live video editing into an environment that approximates the tense anticipation and chaotic catharsis of weathering a twister. The first room is dedicated to the proverbial calm before the storm: In a single black-and-white projection, a trembling white bar splits, like a cell, into two identical bars, then three, and so on, until it has evolved into an elaborate, pulsating grid of lines. 

It's a deceptively simple play of geometric forms that, in their mounting complexity, depict compositional order being pushed to its breaking point. By the video's end, the grid has been "blown apart," segueing into a dizzy cyclone of spinning numerals. 

By contrast, the second room is a sensory-shorting fun house of multiple projections. Enormous spirals swirl hypnotically; snippets of cartoons, war coverage and music video play disjointedly; and images of suspended household items, caught midair in a twister's vortex, spin until they are violently jettisoned from the screen. 

Though the piece was inspired by the artist's childhood memories of tornadoes in his hometown of St. Louis, the installation's capacity to overwhelm approximates the psychological effects of increasingly ubiquitous media as much as the titular disaster. In fact, Atlas' artistic practice has had the serendipitous distinction of developing in parallel with major advancements in visual media. 

Having begun his career shooting Super 8 films, he's now fully ensconced in a digital age, but, as ever, he continues to respond, thoughtfully and poetically, to emergent media and its impact on how we see the world around us.