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  • The Real Charles Atlas: An Interview
  • Matthew Yokobosky

For over twenty-five years, Charles Atlas has built a reputation for creating stunning works in video and live performance, through his collaborations with dancers and performers including Merce Cunningham, Douglas Dunn, Karole Armitage, Michael Clark, and Marina Abramovic. From January 16–March 9, 1997, his most recent work, a video installation titled The Hanged One, was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The exhibition was curated by Matthew Yokobosky, Associate Curator of Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The interview was taped February 1997.

The Hanged One (1997) seems to be a culmination of your work in several media—video, set design, lighting. What was the process that you used to fully realize and integrate these media, because in other situations you’re asked to work on a video or you’re asked to design a set or lighting, but The Hanged One is an example of a situation in which you are creating all of the elements.

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Figure 5.

Charles Atlas, The Hanged One, 1997. Video installation: 15 laserdiscs, color, sound and silent, variable running times; 15 laserdisc players; 3 video projectors; 12 video monitors, monitor stands; audio cassette tapes, audio cassette players, audio amplifiers; speakers; programmed theatrical lighting; velvet and tulle curtains; gazebo; glitter wallpaper; motorized, metal chandelier with mannequin legs; vibrating mannequin legs on metal chair with timer, pedestal; human skeleton legs; rope; ivy, fake hair, clothespins. Installation view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997. Installation photograph: David Allison. Photo: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

Well, partly the creation of The Hanged One was a culmination of a process which began many years earlier, when I created the video installation Times Five, for Merce (1983). And it was also a result of my artistic choices—visually, aesthetically, and thematically. Times Five was a five-channel video installation, which utilized material that I had created during the years I worked with Merce Cunningham. I think at that point, 1983, we had been working together for about ten years. I was trying to combine the work we had done in film and video dance [including Blue Studio: Five Segments, 1975–76] with Super-8 footage that I had casually shot on tour, in addition to some historical material from the Cunningham archive.

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Figure 1.

Charles Atlas, Blue Studio: Five Segments, 1975–76. Collaboration with Merce Cunningham. Videotape, color, silent; 16 minutes. Photo: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

So it was a ten-year piece.

Yes. A memory piece. It was done at a time before computer editing and the way I planned the editing was on graph paper. Before I began the physical editing of the [End Page 21] videotape, I laid down the same base material on all five tapes. It consisted of twenty-second color fields, alternating with ten-second countdowns: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and then I’d go to a color field again. Then I went back to this big chart (graph paper), and certain things would be edited out of synch and others would be in synch across the five channels. It had a kind of a musical feeling. This work was created at a time before the advent of synch boxes. So the synch was: say “go,” press play on all five videotape players at once, cross your fingers and hope that they all ran in synch. The result was this piece where numbers were popping, colors were sometimes happening, and sometimes the dance material, the Super-8 footage, or the historical footage was on the monitors.

Did it have sound?

It had sound. It had the audio from the various dance pieces, but sometimes I kept it silent depending on what else was happening visually. Times Five was my first real installation experience; later, I did a version of it at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. There it became a 20-monitor installation that was very mixed up, very Cunninghamesque.

And how were the monitors arranged?

On one...

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