As she wraps up the second week of her residency with the B2 Center for Media, Art and Performance in the ATLAS Institute, dancer and performer Brittney Banaei and her collaborators Constance Harris and Laura Conway have completed a vivid and dynamic performance, but they will perform it without an audience. Instead, there will be cameras capturing the work from multiple angles and as soon as they have edited the footage, B2 will share it online.
Banaei is the first artist since the COVID-19 shutdown to have a residency in B2, where interdisciplinary and experimental artists regularly develop and perform works that blends technology, media and science. She is an MFA candidate and instructor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, who describes her research and choreographic work as “exploring culture, history, politics and surveillance through movement of the human body.”
She describes “Overworld,” the project she’s worked on during her residency, as an investigation of the distinction between private and public worlds and the impact of digital spaces on these concepts. The goal is to “delve into the role of visibility and observation on our daily actions and behaviors, considering who has true power in a virtual world. Observers are called to question who determines their actions and to consider their “invisibility” despite heightened external surveillance.
The B2 staff are particularly excited about Banaei’s work. After the center was closed for 16 months due to a burst water line in September of 2018, they reopened in January 2020, hosting two artists before their doors were closed for the pandemic.
With work that is compelling both in context and content, we sat down with Banaei to ask about the inspiration, process and challenges she’s encountered in the creation of “Overworld.”
Can you tell us a little about your background and interests?
I’m a dancer with a background in styles of the Middle East and North Africa. I’m Iranian and American and am currently interested in the effects of the 1979 Revolution and the related surveillance culture on the Iranian diasporic identity. In my scholarly pursuits, I am greatly influenced by philosophy, political science, international relations, and international law. I also like powerlifting!
What goals did you have for this residency?
My first and foremost goal with this residency was to have a positive experience building the show, and then to facilitate an environment in which we are encouraged to take care of ourselves. As an artist, I’m not hyper-focused on product or output. I am much more interested in what we can learn during the process. I’m mostly just excited to have the opportunity to make something with people I love and admire during this complicated time.
That being said, the creative goal of this particular show was to create a multilayered alternative universe that investigates the public/private distinction and how those two things commingle and unfold. Some of our central questions are how does being watched (or not watched) influence identity, behavior, and self-perception? How does our choice to be seen or not be seen translate to empowerment? Are we ever “turned off?” What are the social and political implications of hyper-visibility, especially as it relates to marginalized bodies? In a digital world, who is really calling the shots, even behind closed doors?
What drives your creative process?
Information. I wish I was a “once a day” creator, but I’m a “stew-er.” I read, listen, learn, and think about things (often actually unrelated to dance or art), until relationships, patterns, and connections that inspire me emerge. Then, when I feel like my brain is at critical mass and I need to sort it all out, I start making and moving. The body keeps secrets from the mind, and moving illuminates those secrets. Movement is a really good tool for finding missing links that language can’t quite get to.
What changes in your work when you collaborate with others?
Collaboration is my favorite way to work because it changes the work. Collaboration (most of the time) pulls everyone’s egos off of their axes, and what you’re left with is this automatically multi-dimensional concept from the outset. As the project builds, so do the relationships. We all begin to learn from one another, and we walk away with much more than a project. It’s challenging work, but worthwhile. I also like the faster pace; with the right people in the room, decisions are made quickly and you’re less likely to get stuck. It is also way more fun and productive to problem-solve with other people. I am a fan of all things layered and collaged, so bringing multiple perspectives into the process makes good sense to me.
What are your current collaborators allowing you to explore or do in this project that you wouldn’t be able to do/explore otherwise?
As far as this project is concerned, there are lots of special things about this trio: I feel like Laura has a knack for standing back from two options and finding a third option that combines both. She has an eye for aesthetics and brings technical knowledge around film and media. Constance is a stunning and intelligent mover and very patient (which I am not), so her energy alone lends so much to this process. We met numerous times in the lead-up to the residency, which helped clarify our driving questions for the work. Her openness and clarity inspire the people around her to be more open and clear. I can get really stuck in my head and start intellectualizing everything, and Constance keeps the focus on movement and embodiment. We were also so fortunate to have the last-minute addition of DJ Anton Kreuger, whose music brought new and exciting dimensions to the performance.
Most importantly, these artists are people I love, trust and want to be around. They are funny, kind, brilliant and hard-working—what more could you ask for?
How has COVID-19 changed the way you think and create? How have you responded to the pandemic’s challenges?
This question is really hard. I wish I could offer some inspiring words, but I have definitely NOT been resilient and flexible during this time, nor have I been very positive. I found myself asking “What is the point?!” or “Do I even dance anymore?” And yet I came to realize that, while I tried, I can’t just NOT create. It is a little too easy to isolate during this time, so having a reason to get out of the house and make something with my friends is incredibly helpful.
Art and performance are vital. I know that now more than ever. I’ve moved from a place of nihilism—convinced that artistic life as we knew it was dying—to the understanding that we are actually renegotiating what art looks like and creating new pathways. We are making tunnels, overpasses, underpasses and altering time in order to continue to reach one another and make art. That doesn’t mean we are gleaming with dewy positivity; we are disheveled, sweating and dirty from the work. But we are carving a future with each effort, however uncertain it may be.
So I ask, “Can I make low-stakes art and let the meaning be found in the making?” and “Can it still be a performance if no one sees it?” and “How is the visibility of the body, with its increased duality (digital and physical), contributing to the social, political and emotional development of an emerging era?”
What has working in B2 let you accomplish that you may not have been able to elsewhere?
We are so thankful to the amazing crew we've had the opportunity to work with at B2. Their help (and patience) has made a profound difference in how we’ve realized the vision for this show. We've not only had access to space, lighting, sound and projection equipment, but we’ve also had support from experienced professionals who helped us put the technology to work and realize the ideas we had in mind. Anyone who has ever self-produced, or produced with few resources (dancers, I'm looking at you), knows how valuable this is. This project would have looked much different without it and we are incredibly grateful. We are also grateful to the Department of Theatre and Dance for procuring all the props and set pieces we needed, and David Leclerc for coding our “movement randomizer.”
Creating during COVID has been a little weird, but the experience has been so positive.
Constance Harris is an MFA dance student in the Department of Theatre and Dance. A New Jersey native with a bachelor's in anthropology, Harris has a passion for go-go dancing and nightlife culture. She has over 20 years of experience in a variety of dance genres ranging from modern to Middle Eastern, nightlife entertainment, and vernacular dances based on Africanist aesthetics. Harris's choreographic work currently uses her experiences as a performer in nightlife culture to create loosely structured improvisation-based pieces that find truth and agency within that which unsettles. As a black, second-generation, female-identifying, fluid and cerebral individual, how does one make sense of finding delight in exhibition that has the potential to novelize, exoticize and demonize the self through a voyeur’s eyes? Her work interrogates the grey area of preconceived notions and popular truths versus personal realities.
Laura Conway is a filmmaker, DJ and curator based in Denver, Colorado. She holds an MFA in studio arts with an emphasis on moving image arts from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Conway's filmmaking practice uses absurdity and surrealism to grapple with the complexities of life in late capitalism. As a DJ and musician, Conway's films operate as visual remixes and often start with music as a center point. Employing whimsy to confront power structures, Conway’s films navigate a terrain between the grotesque and the sensual, the sonic and the visual, and the cliched and the still-possible.
Anton Kreuger is a Denver-based producer and musician.
Update: The Overworld video premiered on February 18 via livestream. We’re delighted to be able to also share the team's work with you here.