How to have a body: Five things I learned from Kelly Rauer’s ‘Locate’

Video artist/choreographer Kelly Rauer entwines her two art forms at Disjecta's Portland2014 biennial

Kelly Rauer's "Locate" at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

Kelly Rauer’s “Locate” at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

By SARAH SENTILLES

The first time I saw Kelly Rauer’s Locate, I gasped. I’d been watching the screens Rauer placed in two corners of the room when a figure appeared on the wall between them—and then disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived. I was hooked and couldn’t look away—darkness, light, dancers in red tunics and shimmering tights, in black and white stripes, swaying, lifting, bending, turning, sitting still. It felt like a kind of magic.

Rauer calls Locate a “choreographed experience,” and it is magnificent. She has combined movement, video, and sound to create an immersive, multi-channel video installation on three screens—a triptych that features three bodies. Two of the bodies belong to Rauer and a second dancer, Leah Wilmoth, whom you can see on the screens, and the third belongs to the cameraman, Seth Nehil, who also composed the perfect soundtrack.

Rauer locates her work between dance and video, straddling the two disciplines. “I am always teetering. I have always been in these two spaces for my whole life,” she said. “My mom gave me a camera when I was six, and I didn’t leave the photography department in high school, but I was also on stage performing.”

Though her ability to work in many mediums and across disciplines has caused some visual art critics to overlook her, I think her deep cross-disciplinarity is part of what makes Locate electric, unexpected, and surprising, unlike anything I have seen before. “I don’t just do video for video’s sake,” Rauer said. “I use video to make a performance. I use video to make a photograph. I use video to make moving sculptures.”

When you visit Disjecta Contemporary Art Center to see Portland2014: A Biennial of Contemporary Art, curated brilliantly by Amanda Hunt, leave yourself plenty of time to spend with Locate. I interviewed Rauer there, and for most of our two-hour conversation, a woman sat on the floor in the middle of the room where Locate is exhibited. That’s the kind of art this is—Locate will call you to it, and you will want to stay.

I stayed with Locate because I wanted to understand how it worked. Not the technical parts—which are a feat in themselves (though Rauer makes it look effortless)—but how Rauer uses bodies to reclaim bodies. How she engages the language of advertising, music videos, consumerism, and even pornography and turns it back on itself to make something new, something resistant, something feminist.

Here is what I learned:

Kelly Rauer's "Locate" at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

Kelly Rauer’s “Locate” at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

Take Up Space: The last time I was at a doctor’s office, I counted more than 20 magazines with dieting advice on the front cover. Lose 5 pounds in 5 days. Flatten that tummy. Get those thighs bathing suit ready. The clear message: Get smaller. But in Rauer’s Locate, the bodies are big, larger than life. They loom. Take up space. Expand. “I am very into presenting the female large and big and weighted and confident and comfortable in its flesh,” she said.

Even the clothing Rauer chose—loose red tunics, black and white striped shirts, sparkly velum pants—make the bodies bigger. “The fabric and the material allow the reverberation of that movement,” Rauer said. “It helps send it out. The material allows that momentum and force to be visual.”

Move Side by Side: For many of the sequences in Locate, Rauer and Wilmoth move next to each other, side by side, rather than interacting or making shapes together with their bodies. “I had plans for doing more interactive stuff,” Rauer said, “but I feel like this is more open. I wanted to keep our relationship ambiguous.”

Rauer’s decision created, for me, the feeling that I could add my own body to the performance, that it was not a closed system but rather an invitation. “We’re having our own experiences, and we’re going through this exploration, and, hopefully, through allowing ourselves to really feel and be in our bodies, it is an encouragement for the viewer to dive into that same sensation,” Rauer said. “My hope is that people might be sparked to enter a new kinesthetic space.”

Share: Many images of women in the media are images of women who know they are being watched—and their body positions reflect that, draped over cars, applying wet lip-gloss, wearing jeans and tilting their hips toward the camera. The women—like the lip-gloss, like the cars, like the jeans—are objects to be consumed. Not so in Rauer’s Locate. “Even though you are looking at something really pleasing, there is something off about it,” Rauer said. “So it doesn’t have this slick, reworked, disconnected space.”

Rauer told me she works hard to compress the space between the viewer and what they are looking at so she can create an intimate feeling that resists objectification. “I deny the viewer the distance that makes objectification possible,” she said. “I really try to bring the viewer into the experience of what is being depicted, so there isn’t this stepping back in order to objectify.” Rauer continued, “I am doing these things because I am enjoying it, and I am letting you be part of it. I am sharing it with you. It is an act of share, as opposed to a presentation.”

Kelly Rauer's "Locate" at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

Kelly Rauer’s “Locate” at Disjecta/Photo by Mark Stein

Shake It Off: Watching Locate felt like a relief to me. I had the sense Rauer was acknowledging the violence bodies do and the violence that is done to bodies, yet, at the same time, she was moving bodies in spite of that violence, in resistance to that violence, offering a kind of repair. “I use movement as my own personal ways of expelling tension and moving through things,” she said. Then she pointed to the screens, to the image of her body next to Wilmoth’s, both of them shaking. “With this wiggling, this shaking, I think you release so much when you do that. It is an expunging.”

Untrain: Rauer told me that the central focus of her movement practice for the last three years has been to “undo all of the training” from her body. Part of Rauer’s intention in Locate is “to not be virtuosic.”

“It is not codified movement,” she said. “It is more like, ‘I have a body. I have a body and it moves. I have a body and I am moving it around, jumping, diving, swinging.’ We’re just letting the weight of our limbs swing without controlling them. We’re allowing ourselves to experience the physicality of our own bodies. And that is not what is shown or allowed in all types of representations – a female enjoying her own body.”

While Rauer talked, I couldn’t help but think of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and her insistence that gender is a “stylized repetition of acts,” a performance, and as performance, it can be changed, undone, troubled. Rauer’s Locate reveals another set of possible acts, offering both an unlearning and new ways to move.

NOTES

Locate was commissioned by Disjecta for the Portland2014 Biennial. On April 26, 2014, from 7-10 pm, Rauer will help close the Biennial at Disjecta and open Flock, a new dance center dedicated to Portland’s contemporary and experimental dance artists, with a series of improvisations and responses toLocate. Rauer invited dance, performance, and multi-disciplinary artists to participate in what she’s calling “an evening of happenings.” Don’t miss it.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, scholar of religion, critical theorist, and author of three books, including her recent memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. She currently teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

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