Lai Yi Ohlsen and Marguerite Hemmings have collaborated through physical and digital forms since 2015. Hemmings’s work positions social dance as a revolution and manifests itself through both video and live performance, while also maintaining a singular realm between the two. Ohlsen reached out to Hemmings in August, 2020 as part of Ohlsen’s Tech Residency at Pioneer Works, where she researched “the choreography of circulation” or “the dance that moving images of moving bodies do when they move online.” The conversation took place as an asynchronous, unedited email exchange as a gesture towards the jagged, pixelated, stream-of-consciousness format of a cypher when it is streamed through social media; it has been subsequently edited for length by Broadcast. The full interview is available here.
While in residence, Ohlsen produced subsequent iterations of her moving body as it was uploaded and downloaded one thousand times through Instagram’s compression algorithm; <1% of the piece is shown here. She invites the audience to download, screenshot, upload, crop, zoom, trim, post and otherwise illicitly choreograph the image as their own.
so first, endless thank yous for agreeing to do this!! always excited to talk to you more about literally anything, but particularly about all things body & body in the world.
to start, if you can share a loose introduction to yourself, your work, how you move through the world. then, as a way of watching you dance through words, can you describe a few videos of you dancing, maybe starting early and taking us into the present? i'm curious where they were, what you were doing, what you saw, what the video saw. and then how the video moved i.e. how did you share it. please think of these questions as frames to loosely fill, but please do not feel obligated to answer them explicitly.
My name is Marguerite, I'm a choreographer, I'm an educator, I'm a dancer, I also write. I'm black, I'm Jamaican. I'm an immigrant. I'm a womxn.
A few videos of me dancing:
Starting with the first video I posted on my YouTube page entitled 'sybarite july 2008'. Sybarite was the first dance showcase in NYC that I submitted choreography to and performed in. I remember making a Facebook page for the showcase, I remember calling it a COTILLION. I was joking. But seriously, feeling like this was a sort of coming out as a choreographer in NYC. The piece DESTROOOOYED, to be honest! It was me and 7 other women, costumes were sweats, loose flannels, vests over the flannels, and duct. tape. over. our. mouths. (for the first song).
The concept was violence and misogyny against womxn in lyrics. And moving inside of patriarchal prisons! Liberation through body and sensuality was also a theme. I used 50 cent's 'Technology' for the first song, more isolated, 'robotic', constricted movement, and the duct tape. And then a Sean Paul song 'Infiltrate' was the breaking out it seems. In the last part of the piece the movement was very 'diggy'...digging in. And you can hear my friends, at the time 😬 (it's all love though), shouting in the background. One of them was holding the camera. The footage is real raw, lol. But I love the liveness of it. Yeah, this footage wasn't professionally taken. It's taken from the left side of the room and over people's heads. I love hearing the parts that people in the audience responded to.
I'll describe two more videos, now one from the middle of my YouTube video catalogue, from 2014. It's entitled: 'Rita Freestyles: Capleton 'Slew Dem'. Ok so this makes sense. I've gotten deeper into a concept of branding. This is after I started teaching classes I called 'Experimental Dancehall'. That was when I really started using Facebook to promote consistently. And when I started taking photos for flyers to promote upcoming classes. This is also when Instagram was starting to be as popular as Facebook, so it felt like double promotion possibilities, double exposure. I remember getting into 'boosting' posts on Facebook. Ok, but the dancing and the video...this was exciting to watch. I see how the communities I was getting into at the time were really influencing my freestyle in particular. I'm definitely pulling from flexxing. Definitely pulling from the going-out scene I was a part of at the time, the Dancehall party scene. I got the long twists in. That I did myself, I remember. Also, I think this was when I was on this intense gut cleanse for the first time too.
It's cool to see my energy in this video. Brings me back to a time when a persona, or an exploration of mine was just starting. It was my relationship with my Jamaican-ness, in public. I've always had it privately, by simply growing up in my family, but now I see myself exploring and defining a part of my Jamaican-ness that I absolutely did not get at home. I see beginnings of my new relationship to ritual and dance, honoring my lineage and ancestors, channeling energy, I see the beginnings of that. This song by Capleton hits, the bass, his voice, the riddim, it's crazy. I was feeling it, feeling myself, my body, my identities. Also this was a time where I was getting deeper in NYC street/improvisational/emergent/black/brown/young styles. I was co-leading a dance collective with younger NYC youth who came from a bunch of underground dance communities at the time. Definitely freed up my freestyle.
And lastly, picking the last video I posted, not publicly though. Mmmmm....maybe I'll switch to IG, because I stopped using YouTube as a public platform for my dancing vids around 2016, it's been more for private archiving since. Ok this one I posted on June 4th 2020. It's basically a sped-up video of me in movement ritual at the apartment I share with my partner. I think I just used Photobooth on my laptop, videotaped my whole session, then watched for myself to see what came out. I like just watching what came up. And then airdropped a part of it to my phone with the intention of sharing on IG. Then further, I chose what part feels good to be seen. Then I sped up the section I chose on imovie before I posted it. I think lately, it seems I've been more interested in dance videos as visual art, or like something you can manipulate to make something other than what came out in the moment you videotaped it. This end product on IG is not at all the same energy if you were to watch me doing it in that moment, and that's great. I like being able to have that moment to myself, and then manipulate the image in a way that communicates whatever I feel, or actually for me it ends up being another sort of letting-what-comes-up-come-up, inside of the editing. My editing of videos is intuitive and random. There's a 'letting' going on in the manipulation too. So in speeding it up, it was really satisfying to see what came up there. What happened sonically to the music I was using. And what happened to the ways my eyes moved watching myself, and the feelings that evoked. I would describe this video as a whirlwind, a frenzy. Which actually is interesting considering what I was initially in ritual around. It still deeply correlates to the original 'coming out', or exploration. I'm using video and manipulation to deepen ritual, right now, it seems. Or deepen emoting. Or giving an intense emotion to the watcher, without me, myself doing all of that work, again and again.
okay. well first, your COTILLLLIOOON, i can't. i'm immediately struck by what I've always loved about your work, which is its ability to evaluate the thing while being in the thing. like you're not talking about 50’s “technology”, you're in the ~pocket~ of it, or more specifically "moving inside patriarchal prisons". I'm. Clapp. Ing! i love the sound byte of your friend screaming, it makes it harder for the viewer to feel separated from the moment. i'm really taken by how you set up the second video, persona first, maybe bc that's what video had started to become by that time. and the!! last one!! "...without me, myself, doing all of that work, again and again." i wanna get into that.
the transition between these videos (2008 to 2014) is so so juicy. 2008, video archives dance, 2014, video creates promo out of dance, 2020, video makes second dance out of dance. if there were (go with me here) 3 of you, say one from each year, each doing the choreography from their year, how would you stage them for a performance?
and digging into that most recent video -- "this end product on IG is not at all the same energy if you were to watch me doing it in that moment and that's great. I like being able to have that moment to myself..." this separation of moments is wild. i just took Tere O'Connor's melt class and he talked about rhythm (not necessarily of sound, but of bodies) and its relationship to the making of an image w/in performance, and it feels like maybe your moment and the moment we see are actually still part of the same moment, the same making of an image, but with different rhythms—i only ever see the one i'm meant to, but its inextricable from the one only you can see—they are moving on the same stage at different paces. it makes me think that videos are always just the most available part of a layered rhythm, but underneath there's always more rhythms, prior versions of the performance, or in your case, yourself. and this really sits nicely with your exploration of deepening.
i wanna know more about that actually! can you say more about how video is helping you deepen ritual?? and emoting! i've been playing with this idea that traditions are sacred algorithms, repeatable moments that can stretch past temporal and spatial bounds. how does video as such a copy-able form complicate or embolden ritual's defining property to repeat?
Mm. What you said about past moments being present and available in some way within the moment one is engaging with through video is interesting. It flies in the face of what I’ve seen only as a capitalistic method in which moment and meaning are extracted, as seen in the vines, tik toks, fortnites, and now reels(???). Yeh, I critiqued it all as being just other methods of extracting a moment and a body and a lineage, down to something that can be reused and re-sold repeatedly. But what you and Tere are saying about rhythm, which points to the technology of polyrhythm to me, reminds me that everything is everything. Which for me in this moment means that yes, capitalistic extraction and separation is a thing, but polyrhythm and multiplicity and residue and constellation and connectivity and multiple dimensions and multi-realities are all very much still things that are happening. And it makes me feel a bit more restful in the reality, my reality, of ritual being something that evades extraction, that evades pinning down, and exerts and engages other worlds—worlds that feel good.
So to your question about how video making is deepening ritual for me, this is all it. This is what I feel has been happening behind the scenes with my attraction to making movement videos and editing and sharing them. It speaks to, I think, a natural and divine connection between virtuality and corporeality. Where these things are not so separate nor opposing. That they’re actually quite enmeshed. Like, I feel what you’re saying about sacred algorithm, I feel it in my body. I fully know that my body has already been and is coding, and that I’ve been in ritual to code, to break codes, crack codes, to send messages, to make worlds with unseen and others. So it feels, like video, and exploring ritual through video, is helping me to send the messages and receive the messages from the unseen.
when you share something and it gets shared beyond your share, do you feel a relationship to a copy of yourself? like when it becomes smaller and bigger and more of you are made...does it still feel like you once it is moving beyond your circle?
Mmmmm yeh, it doesn’t feel like me, or that it’s mine anymore, it feels like I became an energy or a mood lol, that I can then also look at and partake in, detached. It’s like after a performance, if strangers come up and talk to me about it, I don’t feel like they’re talking to me, it feels like they’re talking to the image of me performing. That’s why I always feel so disconnected in those convos. I also tend to ‘disconnect’ from past versions of myself (that others have consumed/watched/witnessed) quite quickly. But don’t get me wrong, I love and can obsess over past versions of myself, there’s definitely an endearment and mostly loving relationship there.
I think I’d want to try feeling like those past/future/shared beyond-me versions are still me...because I know on some level they are. Also if we’re speaking inside of conversations around ‘ownership’ and ‘rights’. I think it’s important in this era to feel a right to your own image.
Also I think it depends on what I share. If it is a performative thing I shared (a thing I put out to be consumed), I don’t feel attached. But I’m imagining if I shared a photo of myself when I was 5 years old and then that photo being shared beyond me, I would feel attached to that. And protective. I also imagine it would be different when it’s not my image, if it’s text I wrote or a collage I made...I wonder how attached I would feel in that case.
Wow, "image of me performing"!! it makes me think the video is a performance of the performance.
and then yeah, re: rights, it's the image itself and also its context right? when it’s your body in real space and time, you have more agency over its place, though still in very real ways you’re subject to notions of power that have more to do with your placement. in digital space you become kind of weightless....and the power structures are even less visible
movement pieces always feel their realest* to me when i look at someone moving and think, that could only be a body. like there's no way that could be anything but a person using their body! i'm always skeptical that a body can maintain this property when it becomes an image....do any come to mind for you?? moving images of moving bodies where the image still captures the body-ness of the body?? (very o k if the answer is no, I find it rare...)
*owning this as a totally subjective term
This question of if moving images can capture the body-ness of the body is really important to me. I’ve been studying what it is about, the ones that do feel body-ful to me. Very curious on how watching can be a somatic experience. I tagged a few pages above and want to list some techniques I feel they use that help translate the body through film:
- Cyphers ... it feels like a big part of why I feel the body-ness of videos with cyphers in them [a communal gathering of performance, often in a circle formation] is because I myself have embodied memory of what that energy feels like, live. So seeing a well-shot, hype ass cypher activates that memory in my body. I actually think that’s a part of the technology of the cypher, it helps store that incredible energy in your body to access anytime. And that’s why experience with cyphers is such a critical part of any dance learning: it activates timeless, endless body memory and energy. And shooting a cypher in a way where the viewer feels like they complete the circle is clutch in transferring the body-ness. @badgyalcassiee and @ysabellecaps are great with this
- shooting close up, and the camera person moving with them. @miketyus is great with this
- editing effects and lighting that goes with the movement and
- the music! Also something that activates body memory. I figure this would be diff for diff people
- also movement that looks like it feels good and healing and stretchy. I’ve been following a lot of #floorwork vids because that’s something that feels good when I do it, so when I watch it, I kind of feel it vicariously.
- sheer energy of the mover. This is the more rare and probably exhausting example...when someone is dancing solo in a vid and you just feel them and can’t explain why. They’re just odee channeling energy in that moment, so much so that you feel chills like you were there in person. @dreyamac has done this for me (specifically Dior by pop smoke) And so has @izzyodigie (specifically her Eggplant remix solo vid). A lot of it, for me, has to do with musicality of the mover, and embodiment of the energy of the movement/song.
It feels like it’s all about the mover being able to activate body memory in the watcher so that the watcher can feel body-ness even though they’re not in the same room with the body moving.
I’d be curious with folks who have less live experience dancing full bodied, when and how are they moved when they watch an image of a moving body.
the TECHNOLOGY of the cypher!! :’) thank you for your tags and your details. i’m having this image of the kind of classic throw-it-up-in-the-air-watch-it-come-back-down moment (@ysabellecaps, of course, nails it in, rake it up, SMH so good) that hip hop/commercial dances looooove. i feel like we all throw that energy up into the energy of the cypher, and when it comes back down to us and stays…
i’ve been reading about the concept of “deconstruction” in Far Eastern art. Reading from shanzhai: desconstruction in chinese by byung-chul han,
“The Far East is not familiar with such pre-deconstructive factors as original, origin or identity. Rather, Far Eastern thought begins with deconstruction...A Chinese masterpiece never remains the same in itself. The more it is admired, the more its appearance changes. It is regularly overwritten by connoisseurs and collectors. They inscribe themselves into the work by means of inscriptions and seals. In this way inscriptions are layered upon the work like memory-traces in the psychic apparatus. The work itself is subject to continual change and permanent transcription. It is not static. Rather, it is fluid. The trace makes it fluid. The trace is opposed to presence. The work empties itself out to become generative, communicative locus of inscriptions. The more famous a work is, the more inscriptions it has. It presents itself as a palimpsest.”
This really upended a lot of what I’ve been thinking about re: originals and copies and how we value each through a Western lens. The idea that all of us doing renegade IS renegade*, not just copy of it… and furthermore that we’re inscribing ourselves into the work...do you have thoughts here?? it also reminds me of this essay, future of the creative image, where jalal toufic talks about “untimely collaborations”, that is collaborators we haven’t met and might not meet. he says “any artistic or literary work is related to the future.”
how do you relate to the future in your work?
The idea of untimely collaborations brought tears to my eyes. Thinking of how I’m collabing rn with my adult nieces and nephews....with my great grandparents...
I’m really grateful for this concept of ‘deconstruction’ that you shared. It feels so so so so so good. I feel like I’m constantly grasping for words and descriptions like this. ‘The more it is admired, the more its appearance changes’. ‘The trace makes it fluid’. I’m thinking about Octavia Butler’s character, Lauren Oya Olamina’s, and her self-channeled religion, earthseed, and the main tenet that all that you touch, you change, all that you change, changes you. God is change. This idea that we shape God. I’m also thinking about ritual again. Where repetition never supposes to be exact nor same. I’m thinking of ‘the changing same’...as coming from LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka ‘s imaginings about how black music moves through time. I’m thinking of performance and why I’ve had to take a step back from it these past couple of years. How unconscious inscriptions from audience onto me have changed me in ways I need breaks from. the example of renegade is so juicy when thinking about copies and originals and inscribing ourselves onto the work. Thinking about it in relation to the text you sent, this dance absolutely began with deconstruction from the moment Jalaiah Harman shared it and made it a challenge for other people to do. But then what happens when a someone else inscribes themselves on it, and allows people to believe they were the creator of it? And capitalizes off of it? And what happens when the person who created it is in a black body and the person inscribing is in a white body? And that’s where copy vs original starts to feel needed again to me, even though everything in me doesn’t resonate with that rigid binary. It shows how hard it is to be openly fluid, creative, exchanging, adding on, inscribing onto and into, in a world of hierarchy where power/resources are based on those hierarchies.
And this takes me to the answer to your question about untimely collaborations in my work. I’m currently collaborating with a future where cultural appropriation doesn’t exist because white supremacy and fixed supremacies have been defeated and everyone knows they are enough and they have enough.
Which feels deeply embedded in the work I’m doing with gen z movers and artists. They’re already in that world. Jalaiah is definitely already in that world.
Sent from my iPhone
what shapes come to mind when you think of how that world moves? feel free to draw again, or describe
(by : ') I mean....you just wrote an ANTHEM, I hope you/i/we put those words more places )
actually, small edit to the question: what formations* are these futures moving in?
last exchange before we close this one out :' ) thinking towards futures and reflecting how we exchange movement online -- what do you think comes next?? what kind of shapes and rhythms are we setting the stage for w/ the dance we're doing now?
Right they're absolutely not the same. they're a million futures. endless futures. But i think that practice, that invitation to see and watch these compilations, called out a sort of sad byproduct of the ways I/we engage with video/body/image/social media. The rush to make something 'the same' or to 'figure it out'...or be able to get it/consume it without fully seeing or digesting or experiencing. It called that out for me, and also reminded me of the other forms of engagement and limitlessness and multiplicities that I may not be aware I'm in the presence of when I'm engaging with the viral and social and re-choreographed and recorded and and downloaded and uploaded etc.
Yeh I think this helps point me to what's next...it feels like we're ritualizing or calling into existence a deeper recognition and awareness and practice of 'the changing same'. deeper practice of 'untimely collaborations', of our constant 'deconstructions'. It feels like this deeper awareness that we're all in this web of constant deconstruction and influence over and onto each other sets the stage for an acceptance of infinity, infinity of choreographies, formations, rhythms, shapes, algorithms. I see specific shapes and rhythms for me and my movements. and i also see infinite space for everyone's/anyone's imagined shapes and rhythms and movements. I see those all existing. I see mutual aid. I see local and intimate choreographies. I see surprising global collabs and freestyles with and between these local choreographies. I see us being in a deeper practice of shaping what's next. and changing it if necessary. Very multiple. Yeh it feels like we're in ritual around lifting the veil around our multiplicity and multi-dimensionality. And in ritual around systems-changing. systems-hacking.