Joints 4tet Ensemble 1971–2010 is a set of nine films originally shot on Super 8 colour film in 1971. It depicts close-ups of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s joints – ankles, knees, elbows and wrists – edited into four synced channels, choreographed across ten monitors and accompanied by an ambient soundtrack by the composer John Cage. The ten monitors are of different sizes and types and are installed on a rectangular black floor area and mounted on steel mono-stands and rolling carts, forming a sculpture of electronic ready-mades, arranged like a group of people in a crowd. Atlas originally considered the film footage a sketch, only editing and constructing it for installation in 2010. The artist has an unrivalled archive of unedited footage of Cunningham, alongside other key choreographers such as Michael Clark, which he is continually revisiting.
The title Joints 4tet Ensemble refers to the elements that the piece is composed from: film portraits of Cunningham’s joints were edited into a four channel ‘quartet’, played (out of sync) on the multiple monitors, as a visual equivalent of a classical music ensemble, accompanied by four channels of collaged sound. These are re-workings of ambient sound recordings made by John Cage in the 1980s while on his travels across the globe with Cunningham, during their own long-term collaboration. The soundtrack is representative of Cage’s use of ambient sound as material, an idea he set forth in the seminal work 4’33” 1952, where the score instructs the performer not to play the piece in front of them, but to remain silent for four minutes and thirty three seconds, forcing the audience to listen to the sounds of the environment around them.
Atlas first filmed Cunningham’s work in the 1960s, beginning a lifelong relationship that resulted in a body of work that captured Cunningham’s choreography and his unique persona on film. As such, Joints 4tet Ensemble is a significant work, as it embodies the intimacy of their relationship through the focus on Cunningham’s joints, forming an alternative portrait of the choreographer. The work also relates to earlier pieces that Atlas created with Cunningham which highlighted parts of his distinctive body, for example Fractions I and Fractions II 1977–8, alongside their larger collaborative works of performances, ranging from Torse 1977, an early split-screen 16 mm film of Cunningham’s company performing, to Pond Way 1998, which includes a pointillist backdrop by painter Roy Lichtenstein and a score by Brian Eno. Yet Joints 4tet Ensemble is particularly significant as, rather than a record of Cunningham’s dance company, it is a study of the detail of form and movement of a human body (Cunningham’s) that formed a new choreographic language. As such, it is a work that embodies a number of important cross-disciplinary artistic collaborations of the twentieth century, while also demonstrating Atlas’s intuitive understanding of how bodies inhabit space and perspective, something that is fundamental to all his work.
Atlas has been producing films since the mid-1970s and has consistently experimented with new technologies, creating works that range from structurally formal film to highly theatrical and experimental pieces. He has collaborated with many artists and choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Michael Clark, Leigh Bowery, Marina Abramovic, Yvonne Rainer and Nam June Paik.
Nancy Becker, ‘Filming Cunningham Dance’, Dance Theatre Journal, Spring 1983, pp.21–5.
Matthew Yokobosky, ‘The Real Charles Atlas: An Interview’, Performing Arts Journal, September 1997, pp.21–33.
Colin Perry, ‘Charles Atlas’, Frieze, 26 November 2008, http://www.frieze.com/shows/review/charles_atlas/, accessed 4 April 2011.