<p>In the middle of the dancefloor lie several elongated television screens stacked in a small pile, surrounded by wires. The speakers pulse in semi-unison, a fury of rhythmic beats that border between white noise and music. The screens flash in synchronized stripes of color. This forms the set to award-winning choreographer Antony Hamilton’s new dance piece, Universal Estate.</p>
In the middle of the dancefloor lie several elongated television screens stacked in a small pile, surrounded by wires. The speakers pulse in semi-unison, a fury of rhythmic beats that border between white noise and music. The screens flash in synchronized stripes of color. This forms the set to award-winning choreographer Antony Hamilton’s new dance piece, Universal Estate. Described as a “world of light, sound, objects and movement… where retro-futurism meets contemporary nihilism,” the piece looks into our relationship with technology and humanity’s need for constant creation. I sat down with Hamilton to discuss Universal Estate, his take on the current media culture and how that translates into his work.
Two performers move the objects into different forms, creating a perpetual, endless organisation of material things that we create and take apart. Hamilton’s fascination with our relationship with media is the central driving force for Universal Estate. He mulls over our complex relationship with the items that populate our lives, humanity’s tendency to constantly make things, creating more and more objects that inhabit every minute aspect of our lives. “I am fascinated by the idea that we create this meaning in our life, that desire and a requirement to have new things that we love and how quickly we are able to create a new story that we don’t need this thing anymore and what happens to those items,” he says, gesturing to his phone lying neglected on the floor.
We live in a never-ending cycle of creation and destruction, continuously looking for upgrades and ways in which we can “better” our lives with new and improved technology, throwing out the old the minute they become redundant. We have smartphones with six cameras, watches that track our every breadth, speakers that can hold conversations and so much more. However, we cycle through these products at an alarming rate. The UN estimates that 50 million metric tons of e-waste was generated in 2018. Additionally, companies purposefully create products that don’t last – Apple purposefully slows down our phones when a new one hits the market. Consistent upgrades have become a basic rule of life, aggressively encouraged through advertising and supplemented by our desire for shiny new things. But where do these technologies play in our narrative? What ramifications do these quick turnovers have on us? These are the questions Hamilton is trying to answer in Universal Estate.
The screens used for the piece were found in an e-waste collection depot, where piles of unwanted television sets, computers and other electronic waste, most of them barely five years old go to die. They were collected and repurposed into custom made pieces to fit the project. “Art to reimagine and repurpose these things that seemingly have no value to us anymore, [creating] value in things that are invisible to a lot of people,” he says. The reimagining and repurposing of something that is already there, he reckons, is the beauty of using waste in art.
I pointed out the nostalgic qualities of the screens – they were bulky and took up a significant amount of space and looked vaguely reminiscent of television sets from the 1980s. Hamilton reckons our current obsession with ‘nostalgia culture’ is related to the tactility of these objects that fascinates us. In a time where technology is becoming increasingly immediate, a distinct line between our bodies and the objects we use seems rather attractive. He finds a warmth and comfort in objects that do not come close to replicating real life – the grainy quality of film cameras or VHS tapes and larger-than-life sound quality of records.
As a dancer, he is hyperaware of his physical presence in the world, attentive to the way he moves and how he interacts with everything. “There is a primitive drive to use our hands [in] the world that we build,” he says. “Our bodies [are] central to the space that we take and the way we think of ourselves.” He believes that the world is designed and made for the sense of tactile engagement. From keyboards to door handles, objects in our everyday lives “encourage a kinesthetic relationship to the world.” Despite the idea that we are looking towards a future where everything is online, including our consciousness, Hamilton believes that our bodies will still play a central role. He says, “It is a good time to remind people that we are still here. We are not yet, if we ever will be, transitioning our consciousness onto a computer interface.”
“I am always attracted to making art that is about liveliness, seeing people and real bodies… [it is a] critical time for art forms that revolve around live forms because of the way our lives are mediated… Getting an experience that brings actual people into a room and a space together is more critical, valuable and awaking for us now than [those] in the past,” Hamilton says. With Universal Estate, he started with an aesthetic vision, imagining a space that is populated with items that human performers will inhabit. Unlike his previous works, he chose to focus on a lack of accuracy in this piece. The imperfections and constant turmoil in the performer, their inability to make decisions are to be witnessed, as there is no boundary between performer and audience.
Hamilton likens our desire to continuously upgrade ourselves as a basic human function that we have been trained to do. Just like the functional actions we are trained to respond to (such as turning a handle to go through a door), we accept that we need a new phone every two years, a new laptop every five. “I like the idea that the world trains us, informs us, decides our actions and motivations rather than us making that decision.” He ponders, “Who is in charge? Are we being guided by the world around us or are we shaping it to our desires?” We often don’t think about the particular systems that humans have developed that shape the way we behave. On one hand, there are the very literal, practical systems such as traffic lights – red means stop, green is go, and the blinking red man means that you’re now in the race of a lifetime to see if you’ll get to the other side before he stops blinking. On the other hand, there are more subtle forces that control us – electricity and screens. “When most regular people, like myself, look into a television screen and see a visual noise signal, it kind of comes across as a kind of magic… and in that sense, I almost think of it as a religion, imagining God inside the technology, all powerful, knows something I will never understand, and controls me … because I can’t help but look into it.” There is a sense of apathy about not being able to change anything in Universal Estate. “There is definitely an image in the work about humanity’s inability to really choose [our] destiny… a lack of hope to define a future and follow through with it,” Hamilton says. He perceives a culture of ineffectualness around him, a culture where people fear they would be left behind if they do not participate in the changes happening around them. With Universal Estate, Hamilton hopes audiences would reflect on their relationship to their own possessions, the time and space that is taken up by things that consume their lives.
Universal Estate will be running from 12-24 March at Arts House as part of Dance Massive, a two-week event celebrating contemporary dance in Australia.