Do solar cells have a nightlife? According to artist-professors Amy Alexander and Annina Rüst, solar cells aren’t just for making green energy anymore. Solar-powered nightlife comes to Los Angeles, where “Discotrope: The secret nightlife of solar cells” makes its road premiere this month at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and at HM157 in Lincoln Heights.
“Discotrope: The secret nightlife of solar cells” is an audiovisual performance that resembles a nightclub light show. At the heart of the show is the Discotrope, a disco ball where mirrors have been replaced with solar cells. (Discotrope’s low-tech gadgetry is reminiscent of early motion picture technologies like the zoetrope, after which it is named.) When Alexander and Rüst project videos of dancers onto the Discotrope, the cells produce electricity, causing the ball to rotate at varying speeds. But the cells do more than just power the ball - they also reflect the videos projected onto them. The reflections form a kaleidoscopic, rotating circular projection that encompasses walls and large screens around the space - as well as whatever people, trees, furniture or other objects lie in its path.
Discotrope’s projected visuals depict the history of “people dancing at cameras.” As Amy Alexander explains: “Early cinema took its cues from theatre and vaudeville attractions. If you look at movies from a hundred years ago, people danced very overtly for the camera - as they would dance for a live audience. There was a direct connection between performer and viewer, which often walked the line between voyeurism and exhibitionism. This perspective gradually disappeared as narrative film structure developed; the camera and audience became more like a fly on the wall. It’s come back now with YouTube: people set up webcams and dance directly ‘at’ the camera again. But where early cinema dancers were at the mercy of producers and directors, YouTube performers are largely self-directed. What interests us is how they represent themselves - what has and hasn’t changed now that the dancers are literally calling their own shots.”
Alexander and Rüst’s projected visual journey through dance cinema history is mixed live and isn’t chronological: a clip of a nineteenth century skirt dance filmed to show off Thomas Edison’s early motion picture technology might be juxtaposed with a YouTube video of man in a leotard dancing in his living room. Accompanying this visual amalgamation is an algorithmic sound design by composer Cristyn Magnus, which creates a real time, danceable remix using samples of music from the projected clips.