Breakthrough video artist Charles Atlas invites you to step inside his busy mind with his latest large-scale work

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Videographer Charles Atlas opens one of his most ambitious and complex commissions at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn this week. Projected onto both walls of the institution’s 100-foot-long main hall, The Mathematics of Consciousness expands on Atlas’ recurring interests in science, consciousness, and the workings of the human mind.

The footage in the video is taken from his work past and present, including his collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Kembra Pfahler, and TikTok videos showing viral dance trends. They drift across the walls like fleeting memories or thoughts, while patterns of web-like structures tie everything together.

“I buy into this idea that an artist just does work. It’s up to others to decide what that means,” Atlas told Artnet News over Zoom as he finished the project in his studio.

While he confessed he wasn’t sure what exactly the final draft would look like, he hoped it would bring together different elements from the various subjects he’s been interested in over the years.

“I wonder what people will get out of it,” he said.

The installation, which includes a score by Lazar Bozic and a specially designed stage by Mika Tajima where performances, talks and other events will be held, opens Friday, September 9 and runs through Sunday, November 20.

Charles Atlas tests the projections for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

What first sparked your interest in this project? Was it the space or the ability to dig into some of your previous work?

I went to see a show at Pioneer Works—I had never been there before—and I was very impressed with the whole institution. What really piqued my interest was the fact that they had a science division. So I thought, “Oh, that’s perfect, because then I can lean on that. And it turns out that my scientific knowledge is so rudimentary – but somehow it was well documented there.

Things like quantum theory and cosmology, I’ve wanted for years to be more of a part of my work, because it’s something I think about.

Then Gabriel Florenz decided to organize one of my exhibitions, but we didn’t really know where it would be held. During our first discussions, we came across the idea of ​​projecting onto the whole wall [of the Main Hall]because I did a big screening in Chicago at the Merchandise Mart.

It was much bigger, like two and a half acres. It took 32 projectors. We’re doing this one with two projectors. And we’re sort of starting from scratch. I mean, [Pioneer Works] didn’t have a plan of the wall. So we had to do it, and it took about six months.

Then we did a test and we had to modify it live with software, so that it would fit on the wall. It is complicated.

Test screenings for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

You said this project is your biggest challenge. Is it because of its complexity?

Yeah. I mean, I thought it would be a bit similar to Merchandise Mart. But with that, I had a template and all I had to do was fill it out. And, in fact, at Merchandise Mart, the windows are like little holes in the picture. Here, the windows are so far apart that you can’t really make an image on them, and they are part of a whole. So I had to think about it in a completely different way.

It’s like 26 individual windows, each has a certain horizontal and vertical place. So if I have to make changes, it takes forever.

And it’s not just that each window has its own image. There are also images projected against the wall…

And sometimes the image grows from the window to the wall. And sometimes it’s the same picture on the window wall; these are often different images, but the windows complement each other.

Test screenings for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

How did you select the images? I noticed some of your previous work in there, like videos with Merce Cunningham.

There are several categories of images. Those who talk about memory come from my archives, and that’s where Merce comes in. I’ve identified people I’ve worked with and think about. The show is less than a minute each, so it’s really just a thought.

And you have newer things like TikTok dance trends, which people have really embraced. I even took a class where I learned Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” choreography.

It’s a great contrast. This is the current media landscape of dance and media. I have 45 different people who do [the Lizzo dance]. There are thousands [online].

Test screenings for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

The work is intended to recreate the hemispheres of the brain, so there is a right and a left. Did you divide the images so that one side of the main room is more rational and the other more creative? Or is there an overlap?

Some images are symmetrical and others are global. And there are those who talk about the brain or neurons, there are those who talk about math and numbers, fractals and stuff like that. There are some which, I would say, have a connected structure. But they appear on both walls.

The thing is, from inside the building, you can’t really see the whole wall at once. When I work on my computer, I can see the whole wall, that’s how I compose it. But I realized that no one could see it that way. So it’s hard to judge the timing and how long something has to stick around for people to fully see it.

It looks like the visitors will enter your brain in some way.

Well, I hope they think that. I don’t know what people will get. I’m really curious to see what people will think of it.

Test screenings for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

The space will also feature live performances, which is always a big part of your work.

Yeah. Different performances and scientific discussions on the stage created by Mika Tajima. I’m doing a performance just before closing with my long-time collaborator, Austrian musician Christian Fennesz. It is a double improvisation; I’m working on my laptop and it’s playing music.

I haven’t worked with him in 10 years, but I wanted to. He happened to be in New York the day before my show closed. I’m very excited about this.

Have you discussed the types of ideas you want to explore?

We don’t; typically, on the day of a performance, I rehearse all day and he doesn’t at all. So we just find out what each of us does in the performance. It’s so awesome, it always works.

Charles Atlas tests the projections for The Mathematics of Consciousness at Pioneer Works, July 2022. Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk.

What do your last days look like as the opening approaches?

Last night I was up all night, because I have an exam today. And I was saying to my musician friend, “God, I feel young again. I haven’t stayed up this late in years. It was my usual practice to work at night. And with each test, I make new versions [of the video].

Do you plan to tweak the projection during the show? Or once it’s in place, it’s done?

You know, normally, I’m terrible. I like to fix things, even after opening. But if it’s an edition, and someone buys one, then I quit.

And are there any other big projects on the horizon?

The next step is a big vacation. I’ve been working on it non-stop for a year.

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