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Artist's Statement

Juliet McMains looking through viewfinder of camera

Project Overview 

This series of video portraits of tango artists in Buenos Aires portrays tango as a living tradition that, although in dialogue with its rich history, is also forward-facing, contributing to creation of a contemporary world where gender roles are evolving and innovation thrives. The project brings the affordances of video into dialogue with the art of tango by, for example, manipulating time and space, utilizing unusual camera angles and perspectives, and bringing dancers into unexpected settings to tell stories about how these artists animate the tradition of tango in contemporary life. 

 

Each portrait reflects an encounter between me, a North American dancer/filmmaker, and the featured artist(s). Each artist in the series was invited to participate because they resist mainstream tango aesthetics or culture in some way, inspiring me to believe that I too might break free from the narrow confines of tango’s mainstream aesthetic grip. This project celebrates tango as a progressive enterprise, not as preservation of the past, but as a vibrant and vital tool to live in the present and imagine our future.

Countering Clichés with Contemporary Vision

Since Europeans and North Americans first fell under the spell of tango’s “passionate” and “exotic” allure in the early 1910s, tango has been burdened by the cloying weight of clichés that have defined its international circulation. Chest puffed like a preening peacock, the quintessential tanguero hovers domineeringly over his female partner, who lunges underneath in alternating postures of defiance and surrender, one leg exposed as it slips through the slit in a dress that hugs her buttock like a sausage casing. More than 100 years later, such clichés of stage tango (also referred to as tango escenario or tango-for-export) continue to circulate in touring tango shows and in Buenos Aires tango houses (casas de tango) where tourists flock for dinner shows. Even the global social tango circuit (including classes and prácticas that prepare people to social dancing at milongas) is similarly steeped in backward-facing imagery, fashion, music, and codes that glorify tango’s Golden Age (1935-1955). In part due to international commercial pressure, Argentinians themselves have internalized this collective imaginary of tango as a primitive exotic vestige of the past through a process Argentine scholar Marta Savigliano has described as auto-exoticism in her groundbreaking book Tango and the Political Economy of Passion.

 

Although the majority of tango in Buenos Aires reproduces clichés of tango as a relic of the past,  Buenos Aires’ tango culture is large enough to simultaneously support artists who are working against, without, or beyond these stereotypes. Faces of Contemporary Tango celebrates artists whose work moves beyond the tango-as-museum model to forge contemporary tango culture and aesthetics that are relevant to contemporary life. This series is not a catalog of the diversity present in the Buenos Aires tango scene, although it includes more diversity than you may see at many mainstream tango shows or milongas. The series does, however, affirm tango as a diverse and living art form in dialogue with a modern world where gender and gender roles are fluid and evolving. It also portrays tango in a world where the past does not overdetermine the present and where the projected fantasies of the Global North don’t overdetermine the artistic output of the Global South. 

Juliet holding camera on gimbal while filming Cracked
closeup on face of Juliet.jpg

Why Portraits?

Portraits are about intimate encounters on three levels. First, portraits capture the inner life of the subject, externalizing an intimate and personal truth. Portraits are also about an encounter between the subject and the portrait maker, revealing an intimate exchange between two humans engaged in a vulnerable journey to co-create art. And finally, viewers coming into contact with portraits may encounter ourselves anew in the encounter with another.

 
Why Video?

The art of film (and its modern expression in the medium of video) and the art of tango share many commonalities. Both rely on structures and technologies that bring strangers into uncommonly close proximity. For example, film’s use of extreme closeups and modern streaming technologies that bring actors into our bedrooms can produce a sense of intimacy that is not unlike the effect of the tango embrace that demands the interlacing of unfamiliar limbs and skin-to-skin contact for twelve minutes. Yet the arts forms are different in important ways. Tango relies on physical touch between participants; whereas film can only touch its audience emotionally. In addition, film is scalable—able to reach millions of people simultaneously—whereas the intimacy of tango is powerful because it is contained within the embrace of two.  I began to ask: 

 

Could bringing together these two technologies of intimacy—video and tango—offer a means of sharing the intimacy of tango with a broader audience?

Could I trigger sensations of kinesthetic empathy in viewers through filming and editing techniques?

Can videos of tango communicate more than a visual and aural experience of tango, but approximate the kinesthetic experience of those dancing?  

 

YouTube houses a phenomenal archive of tango videos, most notably demonstrations of tango, where the intention is to capture an exhibition as it unfolded in a particular time and place, immortalizing the ephemeral improvisational choices of the dancers. My project proposes to do something quite distinct from documentation—to create dances that only exists in digital space but evoke tango’s embodied kinesthetic pleasures.

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