Upon first watching Bill T. Jones’ digital installation, “Ghostcatching,” I disliked it.
I knew that immediately.
What I had more trouble figuring out was exactly why I had such a strong averse reaction. This piece is completely different from anything I’ve ever come into contact with. In all honesty, I found the entire piece—the movement, the sound, the organization—jarring and incoherent. Aesthetically, I was somewhat bored with the squiggling after a while, and the only thing I could think about was that “pipes” screensaver from old desktop computers:
But then again—I don’t know art. I know my own taste and my personal preferences, and—as you can see from the design of this blog—that often includes light, airy, outdoorsy, pretty things.
What do I know about dancing squiggles with booming voices talking about cornbread?
Nothing at all.
So I decided to investigate. What was the purpose of this piece? Whose vision was this, and what did it represent? Perhaps, if I understand the process, I could appreciate the piece rather than spend my time zoning out because it reminds me of a screensaver.
After checking out both the Lincoln Center Institute’s article and another article from OpenEndedGroup, I’ve come to better understand how this piece relates to slavery and the effect it had on black families. The cornbread story in the Lincoln Center’s second “Article” tab was especially fascinating, and I could begin to see rudimentary images of slave labor take form.
Once I had an idea of where the artist was coming from, I was interested to learn about how this piece was made. Apparently, it was a collaborative effort, tying dance to motion capture in order to form the animations. This is where I began to see connections from “formal” education into artistry, as physics and technology were needed to turn an individual dance sequence into an animated narrative.
In addition, there was one shining beacon of my “Ghostcatching” research that I found in this excerpt from the OpenEndedGroup article distinguishing product from process—or rather, highlighting how indistinguishably interconnected the two actually are:
Watch children drawing and you’ll see this for yourself: they are performing, though mostly for themselves. Their strokes are dramatic gestures tied to dialogue, narration, and song (the soundtrack may be sub-vocal, but notice the moving lips). As the drawn improvisation develops, new lines are scribbled in, and old ones erased or crossed out, one scene following another.
Explaining the process through the actions of children helped immensely with my understanding of why the installation’s sequence flowed as it did. I could imagine a child tirelessly scribbling while creating an entire mental narrative. It did not necessarily need to be cohesive. Instead, it could move freely and suddenly take off in another direction. Although I may not be fond of the aesthetics of “Ghostcatching,” I was able to shift my paradigm to better understand the artist’s intention. Even despite my aversion to its structure as a piece of digital animation, I can appreciate the sentiment and—moreover—the presentation of this installation.
This is the first experience I’ve had where I’ve disliked a work of art and yet have still managed to understand its value. Realizing that aesthetic appreciation and symbolic/thematic appreciation don’t necessary have to go hand-in-hand has been a liberating experience.