Jason Akira Somma splits his creative life between dance and visual art, earning awards such as the Rolex Arts Initiative for Dance, while showcasing his work at venues including The New Museum and working under the mentorship of Jiri Kylian. Somma previously turned the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson into holographic, interactive dancers at the Location 1 gallery, and now he has taken over The Park Avenue Armory in New York City, with a posse of flex dancers to bring his audiovisual pieces to the next level.
As part of The Armory's Under Construction series in mid-October, Somma created four ongoing studies of glitch art and physical movement by distorting footage and images of Bones the Machine, Regg Roc, and more Brooklyn flexers. The main event of the evening was Live Performance Happening, a real-time collaboration between a group of six flex dancers, electro-acoustic cellist Chris Lancaster, and Somma, with his massive repertoire of video channeling tools. The equipment, juxtaposed against the baroque-style rugs and gold-framed portraits, included a couple of old Sony camcorders, an Edirol A/V mixer, and an aging Panasonic projector. Somma announced, "Everything you are about to see is happening for the very first time—for me too." The lights went dark as Lancaster looped, layered, and distorted cello music to accompany the performance.
Alongside the live show, Somma opened up his other three projects to guests of The Armory: Video Impressionism, a screen showing Bones rapidly contorting his body as more analog glitches the screen; LCD Hacks, a surreal photo series achieved by running jolts of electricity through physical monitors; and Infrared Room, a pitch black chamber filled with performers only visible through infrared scopes.
Much like the crackling contortions of the flex dancers, Somma's time at The Armory was an experiment in how far he can bend his pieces before they break. We spoke to the genre-bending artist about his Under Construction showcase, the upsides of analog, and the difference between working with the flexcommunity and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
You and Bones have great chemistry, and he's one of the main parts in each section of your Under Construction exhibition. How did you two meet?
Quite a few people have commented on our collaborations as though we have a "psychic connection." If you watch us work together in the studio, we rarely exchange words.
We're definitely on the same creative page, and he has many talents (he did all his own tattoos). I met Bones the Machine a little over 2 years ago at my solo gallery show at the Location 1 Gallery. I dedicated one of my weekly performances to the flex community and he was one of the dancers. I was immediately blown away by his stage presence. He silenced the entire audience as soon as he began. He had them cheering, then gasping out of shock, and then cheering again.
You've also worked with performing art legends like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson. How was the process of applying your glitch art to the flex crew different from working with establishment dancers?
I often speak of how the professional is actually the amateur and the amateur is actually the professional. An amateur's world is completely objective while the "professional’s" world can be greatly subjective. The flex dancers are the perfect example of this notion. I have worked with prestigious institutions and with remarkable dancers. However, the flex guys are by far the easiest people I have ever worked with. They just dive right in and immediately look at their environment and my tools as an extension of themselves without overanalyzing it.
Many times I'm not even done setting up before I catch them already interacting with my gear. They are extremely collaborative, and I've encountered the least amount of ego drama working with them. To me flex is the physicalization of the present. Their movements are inspired by technology, technology's failures, special FX, cinema, internet, etc. So naturally, it’s a perfect fit for what I do. I really don't see what they are doing as "street" or "urban" art. They're the most contemporary form of performance in my eyes. They're true artists doing what they do out of necessity, and their enthusiasm is amazingly contagious. Working with them feels like home.
Your Under Construction showing was comprised of of four separate, individual artworks. What was the resoning behind showcasing them together?
The Under Construction series at the Armory is an opportunity for artists to showcase the things they have been developing during their artist residency. Primarily in hopes of getting people to come who would then showcase the work properly. In my case, I am looking for galleries and alternative venues to give this work a home. As a result I wanted to take advantage of the fact that it is a "showing" in which I can present different works together that might not normally be shown together at the same time, and see what feedback from it is. And what a better place to invade than The Armory!
Of course, there is a through line within my work, of the body and technology, which I believe was quite apparent. Every piece I showcased was an exploration of how we perceive work physically both on a scientific and conceptual level. They were all careful studies of various "constructed hacks." There's nothing greater than watching an audience becoming intrigued by what they are seeing, and to want to know more about the process.
With the Infrared Room, I loved the idea of literally presenting the viewer with two forms of reality right before their eyes—one that could be perceived with the naked eye and one that needed technology to reveal the light spectrums surrounding us that we don't have the physical capacity to perceive. What was so wonderful about that study was seeing how it brought the viewer to a deeper awareness of their own corporeal being, and how much takes place around us that we might not even be aware of, simply because we don't have the cognition or receptors for seeing those realities. So I guess in some ways my separate studies were also studies on what would resonate with the audience.
What draws you to analog glitch art, as opposed to data moshing, pixel sorting, and the myriad other computer-based glitching methods?
In short: being hands-on instead of being hands-on-keyboard. The majority of my work is centered around influencing electricity, while the other methods mentioned are more in regards to algorithms and programing. I feel as though there is more room for uncertainty and autonomy when one is directly manipulating the hardware, and I am able to yield results faster. While the overall process is significantly longer, the tangibility and connectedness to my body is somehow cathartic. It makes me feel more like a painter and puppeteer.
I also feel as though you are creating a dialogue with the technology, and what these experiments can unlock could possibly be applied to other things outside of the technology's intended purpose. The element of my corporeal body interacting with the technology allows for me to be more present. Many of my techniques I use today I used prior to digital media’s fruition. With my LCD Hacks, I applied an old method to something I did in high school with Polaroids where I would use an electric taser gun on a polaroid that was still developing to trace the electric currents and patterns. Schools would never exhibit them because I was using a weapon. With the LCD hacks, I did the same thing only pulsing the electricity through the image processing sensor. I guess, in one way, it also stems from growing up on that cusp of analog transitioning to digital environments, and seeing the way organic matter reacts in both scenarios. I don't place a hierarchal structure to any method, but I definitely feel as though enough people have the other methods covered, so it's my duty to explore other realms.
You said during the performance that most of your equipment was found on the side of the road. Take me through the process of adapting it into a usable tool for your exhibition.
We live in an interesting time of post-consumerist waste. Especially in regards to technology. According to Moore's Law, technology exponentiates every two years. This statement has been more or less true, but few take into consideration the cultural influences and its repercussions. Very few technological inventions have the proper time anymore to have their potential fully explored let alone scratch the surface of what could be unlocked. When technology is injected into the capitalistic structure, it's purpose becomes re-appropriated as a tool for inundation rather than autonomy.
When I find things on the street being thrown away, it's like looking at a sad blank canvas. So I bring it home, take it apart and see what is salvageable and what is not. Then, I scout for interesting parts that might no longer be in production, and see what catalyst I can put them through to yield different results. After a while I begin to create an interface that can be constructed for some sort of intended purpose or extra tool to create a larger palette for my work. It's like creating a new painter’s brush or inventing a new color of paint. Sometimes I feel as though I'm trying to create the future I was promised, but wasn't delivered through the many things that influenced me in my youth.
The live theatrical performance is similar to a performance we covered in 2012. How have you changed as an artist since then?
It's a tricky question. When one asks how they have grown as an artist, one is actually asking how one has grown as a person. I'm weary of any artist who separates their art from themselves. The boring answer is clarity. I feel as though the elements are more closely knitted together, and we have created a lexicon for this kind of work so it's easier to understand what we are engaging in. While my overall process is based on chaos I have gotten significantly better at replicating and isolating what works better for what type of kinesthetic value. I have also begun to finally train someone else to do what I do, and when you teach it's always amazing how much one learns about themselves.
You opened the performance section by saying, "Everything you are about to see is happening for the very first time." What is the allure of creating a performance that only happens once?
The present state of mental and aesthetic consumption in this emergent-based time we live in is truly terrifying. While I don't judge it because it's an innate part of our evolution, I do get concerned about longevity and things having their proper time to be digested. Things are becoming easier and easier to codify and replicate, while removing the viewer from the process. I remember as a kid the blanket excuse for "magic" and cinema special effects was "it's all mirrors," and today, people rationalize everything with "it's all computers." The blood, within people, is becoming stagnant. The most valuable thing one can offer is the human experience. Knowing that what you are coming to see can never be replicated again is an attempt at rekindling that magic. Uncertainty is the driving force in life. The fact everything is analog is another side that aids in the "magic," many people still can't believe it's done live.
Visit Jason Akira Somma's Vimeo channel to check out more of his video art experiments, or hold out for planned second showing of his Under Construction showcase at The Armory this spring.