“I’m addicted to TikTok, just so you know,” said the 73-year-old filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas, speaking by Zoom on a recent afternoon. “My algorithm seems to go toward dance and drag queens. I’ve never seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I feel like I know everyone that’s on there.”
Atlas was taking a break from working on his most ambitious piece to date, which is set to appear at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn this September. He’s been obsessed with filmed images of dancers at work for years, capturing the iconic experimental choreographer Merce Cunningham and others in a series of game-changing, if somewhat under-recognized, video pieces. And so it makes sense that he’s grown attached to TikTok, which seems to bring with it a new dance trend each week.
The Pioneer Works installation, titled The Mathematics of Consciousness, will involve a technically complex series of projections cast against a 100-foot-long brick wall punctuated by two rows of windows. Atlas doesn’t complete his pieces until just before they go on view, but the piece may ultimately include images representative of each stage of Atlas’s career: archival imagery of performers like Leigh Bowery and Cunningham, sequences of numbers that rapidly ascend, abstract imagery, and more. In that way, it could almost function like a career retrospective for Atlas, who’s never had one.
One rendering of the piece featured a brain that doubles and splits open. Another displayed eight TikToks of people shaking their hands and hips to Lizzo’s song “About Damn Time;” they were there as placeholders in a rendering of how the final piece would look. The Lizzo TikToks are examples of the way that filming dance has become far more democratized than it used to be, something that Atlas said he welcomes.
“When I first started making films and videos with dance, it was a very expensive proposition,” Atlas said. “You had to rent a camera. You got a space, you had to do lighting. I mean, it was really a big production. Now you take out your camera and do it. I love watching people dance, so that makes me very happy.”
Atlas started making his videos of people dancing back in the mid-’70s, as video art began to rise in stature as an artistic medium. At the time, many artists, like Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, were using video to create austere statements about perception and the passage of time. Instead, Atlas utilized the medium’s ability to capture events as they really happened to mirror choreographies by Cunningham, who made prominent use of chance and everyday movements. (Between 1974 and 1983, Atlas was the in-house filmmaker for Cunningham’s dance company.) Altas called these filmed choreographies “media-dance”; they often feature overlaid bodies, repeated imagery, and imaginative editing.
During the ’80s and ’90s, Atlas’s works continued to look a lot different from what other video artists were making. His 1986 video Hail the New Puritan, a faux documentary starring dancer Michael Clark, who plays a fictional performance artist, encapsulates the queer culture of the era, with appearances from Bowery, Lanah P, and others. It was the first time Atlas’s work featured a gay sex scene, and hardly the last. Atlas worked under the pseudonym Jack Shoot when he made the 1998 experimental film Staten Island Sex Cult, which features professional porn actors and un-simulated sex scenes; it earned him an Adult Video Network Award nomination.
“I remember when Bill Viola”—another of the era’s famed video artists—“was having a show at the Whitney, and I was downtown, editing gay porn on my computer,” Atlas said.
Then Atlas’s work took a sharp turn in 2006, when he was about to have his first solo show in London. He broke free of the single-screen format he’d long been used to and began creating large-scale installations featuring his films. “I decided I wanted to make something that didn’t look like my work,” he said. “So I didn’t want to have bodies in it, or I wanted it to be as abstract and inhuman as possible.” He’s stuck with that sensibility ever since, and his Pioneer Works installation will continue that line of inquiry.
His work, he continued, “used to be about testing the limits of what you can put on television, etc. Now, I’m more interested in—it sounds corny—the eternal truths.”
Some of these existential questions were spurred by the pandemic, which, in 2020, left Atlas feeling unmoored after a big show in Italy was ultimately canceled during lockdown. Because his partner is immunosuppressed, Atlas has spent almost all of his time since then in his New York apartment, where he has been cut off from his network of collaborators, which has at various points included Yvonne Rainer, Marina Abramović, and more.
“I realized how much I depend on other people and seeing performances and working with performers,” Atlas said. The time alone moved him to further his interest in mathematics and science, two fields that he had previously approached intuitively rather than through deep research.
When Pioneer Works first approached Atlas with the idea to do a show, the initial plan was for it to be a survey. Then he and curator Gabriel Florenz “came up with the wall and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s challenging,’” Atlas recalled. “I said, ‘Yes.’ And then I regretted it.”
As Atlas spoke, however, any sense of regret was not palpable. He seemed gleeful, if slightly nervous, about the whole affair. Just how many people was he working with for such a technologically difficult installation? He timidly held up one finger and giggled. (“I was gonna hire an assistant, but I realized that I am really OCD,” he said, noting that he’s always done his own editing.) Did he know how it would all look in the end? Not really, but he welcomed the chance to find out.
Although the filming and editing for Atlas’s videos are usually only done by one person—and one person alone—he often relies on the help of others for the soundtrack and any installation elements. For this one, the musician Lazar Bozic provided the score, and the artist Mika Tajima worked with the design firm Chadha Ranch to create a stage for the piece that can be used for performance events held in tandem with the show. In an interview, Tajima likened her stage to both an acupuncture needle and a javelin, a weapon that, as she pointed out, has lent its name to a missile being launched by Ukrainians in the current war with Russia. “In response to Charlie’s mathematical unknown,” she said, “I’ve incorporated the bodily unknown.”
Tajima has worked with Atlas previously on an epic commission for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She’s one of the many artists to have been absorbed into Atlas’s network, and she said that his tendency toward collaboration has a political dimension.
“Charlie has this political edge in his work, always,” she said. “He’s thinking about democracy and freedom…. He’s bringing everyone into his universe, and we’re just a part of it.”
But Atlas is often fairly plainspoken about his work, even when it is doing something highly complex, and he did not talk about his work using any of the artspeak one might expect from an artist invested in what Tajima described. Asked to explain what The Mathematics of Consciousness is about in its most basic form, he put it simply: “Everything is physics and quantum relationships.”