Q&A: Charles Atlas on 'The Waning of Justice,' Merce Cunningham

Taylor Starek

The Columbus College of Art and Design's Contemporary Art Space will celebrate its first exhibition of the semester with Charles Atlas' The Waning of Justice.

The exhibition is made up of autonomous video footage partnered with images, sound and graphic effects. Originally created for Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York City, these all-new works from Atlas unite imagery of sunsets with those of Lady Bunny, a New York drag queen, across two rooms.

Hear him discuss The Waning of Justice with Johanna Fateman, a member of the post-punk band Le Tigre, at an event at the Canzani Center on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 6:30 p.m. An artist's reception will follow in the Contemporary Art Space, and the exhibit will run through Friday, Dec. 11.

Atlas, who is a celebrated film and video artist, is widely known for his collaborations with the late Merce Cunningham, a choreographer and dancer hailed as one of the pioneers of modern dance.

We asked Atlas about working with Cunningham, his new exhibition and creative inspiration.

What is it about film/video as a medium that you love? And what first attracted you to it?

Well, I was first attracted to film as a child. I used to go to the movies, and I loved movies and when I went to college I thought I wanted to make movies. But at the time there was no place to study, and it was before the independent film movement. Eventually I came to New York, and I bought a camera, and the first opportunity I had to make films other than personal films was with Merce Cunningham. In '74 he asked me to collaborate with him on making videos. I didn't know video; I only knew film, but I learned video from a book. That was the beginning of my work with video. I worked interchangeably with video and film. All of my work has been in time-based media. I've tried to be as broad as I've been able to imagine.

What was it like to work with Merce Cunningham? Does working with him still influence you today?

Oh, yes. I was really young when I started working with him. Even though we started collaborating when I was in my early 20s, he treated me like an equal, which I didn't feel like at the time. That was his way of collaborating. I collaborated with a lot of people since. He's the gold standard. I worked with him from 1970 to '83 and then again from '99 to [when] he passed away 10 years later. And I realized after the early period how much he had influenced me in many ways in all of my work.

What is it that you hope to convey with The Waning of Justice?

I don't think of my work as conveying anything. I think of it as being presentations that people can come away with what they want. There's a lot of suggested material. I don't want to say what it is. I want people to determine for themselves.

Why two rooms? Are they meant to work together?

I thought of it as one piece, and it's a channel video. Usually when I'm doing installation work I like to custom make my work for the site. So this one, it was made specifically for the gallery I was showing it in, which was Luhring Augustine in New York, which had two rooms. So I thought of the whole space as one, even though the pieces are a bit different. They can be thought of as separate, but in my mind they are all one piece. It's amazing that CCAD is duplicating that as closely as they can. It's kind of astounding. I'm really impressed with them.

Why did you choose to incorporate Lady Bunny?

Lady bunny is a figure on the New York performance scene. She's a drag queen. She was one of the founders of [the drag music festival] Wigstock. I've known her for 25 years and wanted to make a portrait of her. This was the first opportunity I had. I knew from the beginning I wanted to have her or someone like her to contrast the things in the other room, which were based on sunsets that I filmed when I was in Captiva, Florida.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I don't wait for inspiration. I just do work, and then the inspiration comes or it doesn't come. I accumulate images and inspiration. There's usually something given, like a space or a certain kind of material. I just keep going until I finish.

Have you ever been creatively drained? How do you refuel?

Well, I've gone through a lot of periods where I didn't have enough money to produce work, but I still kept working. I still keep working-that's one of the things I learned from working with dancers is about daily work. Dancers, in order to keep their bodies [in shape], they have to train every day. I was working with Merce, and I used to work seven days a week because he did. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

Photo courtesy CCAD