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Video artist Charles Atlas plays by his own rules, making art by documenting artists artistically

Video artist Charles Atlas
Video artist Charles Atlas

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This past week, venues across Los Angeles have been celebrating the film and video artist Charles Atlas in the Atlas in L.A. Festival. It’s the first time that such a large selection of his work has been screened here or anywhere else in the United States.

Atlas is considered a pioneer in “media-dance," the art of creating a dance performance specifically for the camera. It’s a type of filmmaking that he perfected during a decade-long stint in the ‘70s as the resident filmmaker for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York, and over the last 25 years he’s gone on to use advances in technology to push the boundaries of his video art, creating live video performances and multi-dimensional works for galleries and museums.

Perhaps because of the high wattage of Atlas’ collaborators in front of the camera, Atlas sometimes remains a bit of an elusive figure — like a great dance partner, Atlas makes everyone else around him look so good that it has sometimes been difficult to see him.

Charles Atlas: I always felt that my job was to take these people who were really wonderful, great performers, and choreographers, and make their work vivid in my medium — so that’s really, and I feel that, second nature how I do it; I don’t have any rules.

One of Atlas’ most famous documentaries is "The Legend of Leigh Bowery," about club performer Leigh Bowery, in which he pushed the boundaries of documentary. During the Atlas in L.A. Festival, audiences have seen a wide range of Atlas’ works — from his legendary dance film collaborations with Merce Cunningham to lesser-known films like "Son of Sam and Delilah," and "Superhoney," which showed at the L.A. Film Forum.

Atlas: Those were two really dark pieces — funny and dark and different. Working was really [about the] AIDS crisis — I can see that from this perspective. "Sick" was a positive word for me, and mixing things that really shouldn’t go together.

When "Son of Sam and Delilah" was first produced for PBS, the only two stations that would show it were in New York and Boston.

Atlas: There was a big scandal about it, [it] was in the New York Times and CNN, and I said it was homophobic, and they said because there are drag queens in it with no explanation — they said, well, it’s ambiguous, people will be upset and they won’t know why — and I said that’s exactly the point of my work.

Since that PBS indignity, Atlas has become a global figure in the art world. In recent years, he has shown at the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, SALT Istanbul and the Walker Center.  In December, he adapted his film, “You’re My Sister” — a series of video portraits of women and transgender women — for installation using 48 of the screens in New York’s Times Square. 

Atlas: Times Square is the heart of New York for me, it’s why I came to New York in the first place before they got rid of them. That’s the place you could see old American movies, old Hollywood movies, and I used to go there four times a week and so it has a special meaning for me. And I was very happy especially to take a community for this piece that was the most underground, outsider community of all: women, performance artists, some visual artists and then mixture and transgender and not transgender women. It took 10 years when we first did it to Times Square, so I felt really good about that. And I think that there some of those faces that could not have been Revlon.

Also in December, the first major monograph of his work was published by Prestel. But don’t mistake these celebrations of Atlas' lifetime of work to mean he’s slowing down. For his next work he says, "I’m going to do two live 3D cameras, six dancers, live 3D projection, live mixing." Even though Atlas has never worked with a 3D camera, it doesn’t seem to phase him.

Atlas: People really want you to do what they’ve seen that you’ve did before. I’ve never been interested in that, and I’ve been lucky a lot of the time that I didn’t have to worry about it I just thought about making the next piece.

This piece was produced by Maya Gurantz. Atlas's work is part of a group show at the Park View gallery in Echo Park until April 5.

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