Depth of Field: Jim Campbell

In anticipation the digital premiere of Constellation later this week, we are reflecting on the unique, collaborative creative process that brought the ballet to life. At its nucleus is the imagination of electronic visual artist Jim Campbell who illuminated the stage with 1,000 programmed LED spheres. Read on to revisit a 2012 article that explores Jim’s unparalleled perspective and ground-breaking technologies.

For details about our online screening of Constellation, visit linesballet.org/constellation


Depth of Field

Originally published in 2012 during the creation of Constellation. Written by Selby Schwartz, PhD, former Project Manager/International Tour Manager at LINES Ballet.

If you sit down with artist Jim Campbell in his studio in the Dogpatch, he may gently re-adjust your field of vision — and your conception of visual art. The windows are blacked out against the bright eastern sunlight, and one wall is entirely taken up by something that looks like a square galaxy of tiny round lightbulbs, each suspended by a thin cord. For the past ten years Campbell, who has a degree from MIT, has been creating artworks that use low-resolution technology to “ride the edge of abstraction,” as he says. Now he is taking flat low-resolution images and pulling their pixels out into a three-dimensional field, projecting them across thousands of bulbs programmed to dim and glow in just the right balance, creating the outline of recognizable forms. “I’m taking an image off a wall and bringing it into the real world,” he explains.

Jim Campbell | ©Charles Villyard, courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Low-resolution “leaves more for the imagination,” Campbell says, and moving low-resolution images can create a sense of poetic minimalism as silhouettes sweep and flicker across the constellation of light bulbs. The result is a kinetic sculpture that has its own physicality (the light-bulbs swing subtly as a breeze comes through the window) and also heightens the exhilarating presence of moving bodies. “Because it eliminates gender, costume, even faces, it’s a kind of distilling process of the movement,” Campbell observes, watching the beginning trickles of movement in the upper-right-hand corner of the piece as the outline of an arm twines into view. “But there is a threshold of imagery,” his assistant Craig Dorety adds. Jim Campbell nods, and then shifts one or two of the chairs back and a little to the left. “You’re slightly off-axis,” he explains, meaning that as a viewer moves away from the optimal viewpoint for the image, the delicate balance between legibility and abstraction is disturbed. The bodies become just swirling shadows, unresolved patterns of dark movement — a phenomenon called anamorphosis. If you stand too close to the lightbulbs, on the other hand, a strange feeling occurs: “it’s less like seeing a person and more like feeling a shadow pass by, isn’t it?” Campbell asks. His art explores this possibility — “seeing without imaging,” as he puts it.

Jim Campbell is used to designing technology that will capture movement he finds in the world. This fall, for the first time, he had the chance to work with someone who could “design movement for the technology” — Alonzo King. “We’re both working with the idea behind the form,” Alonzo King points out. Low-resolution images, King reflects, “withdraw the idea of ‘me.’ You remove something, and it makes you freer.” Experimenting with the threshold of legible images, King and the LINES Ballet dancers improvised movements as Campbell recorded them. “We asked ourselves: how do you make these blurred lines as interesting as possible? Because the dancers are so creative, they’re obsessed with content, with presence — they take form for granted,” King says. The result of this collaboration is ghostly and beautiful, a play of dimensional light and shadow. The silhouettes of the dancers spin and unfurl, moving closer to the viewer and then retreating into the depths of the field of lightbulbs. At one point, the dancers join hands, evoking the strong, joyous lines of Matisse’s painting, “La Danse.” This is visual art that asks you to see beyond its images, and to feel beyond what you see.

A glimpse behind the scenes at the 2012 rehearsal process for Alonzo King’s collaboration with electronic artist Jim Campbell.

After its 2012 premiere in San Francisco, Constellation went on to tour the world with performances in Paris, New York, and Sao Paolo. Starting Friday, you have the rare opportunity to watch the ballet from the comfort of your home. Don’t miss our special online screening of Constellation October 2-23! Learn more at linesballet.org/constellation