There are creatures in the sea that throb and undulate so much like the human heart that the first wet steps of our aqueous foremothers seem inevitable. In their search for the origin of the heart’s beat, scientists look to sea anemones and their archaic fibrillations for clues. Watching them (on YouTube) waltz through the darkness, without ego or direction, aglow with the dance of their own being, I sometimes feel disturbingly divorced from some vivid, essential rhythm in myself.
Which is why John Singletary’s multimedia series, Anahata, feels so important. Anahata is a word from the Sanskrit meaning unhurt, unstruck, or unbeaten. It has to do with balance between opposing forces, like the mind and body. Instead of striking one another in a collision, the opposites cohere. In yogic practice, the anahata is the heart chakra, the site of compassion and unity. In Singletary’s series, video, choreography, and the photograph collaborate in a tableau of unity. Ritual dance meets modern ballet, ballroom masquerade meets the aboriginal disguise—past and present improvise to an unheard music, uninterrupted by difference, and compelled onward by the common heart.
Interview with John Singletary and collaborator Justin Kutner
Justin Kutner: Tell me about yourself, and how you conceived this project.
John Singletary: I’m a photographer, multimedia artist and musician living in Philadelphia, PA. The project began with a mix of feelings, premonitions, and visions of imagery. I felt a sense of trust in this, however, it was simply too early to truly understand the form it would take. Sometimes over-intellectualizing a project before it begins is potentially detrimental to forming an organic dialogue with one’s work and sometimes there are things I just don’t want to know too early on. Personally, I feel making art is a sensual, fluid and experiential process that’s not about words.
JK: Can you describe the production process and how it evolved over time?
JS: Making the work was a very collaborative effort. In many ways, our approach is much more influenced by the production aspects of cinema than what one often thinks of as traditional “photography.” We would have about ten people on set and my primary role was that of a creative director. I am fortunate to have a really talented and dedicated group of people around me: costume designer Cait Stewart, dancers Amber Malmstadt, Keila Perez-Vega and Nate Carter, photographic tech Andrey Kolyada, choreographer Megan Hannon, digital tech Yousef Mahmoud and installation manager/primary collaborator David Markham-Gessner. I couldn’t have foreseen how special the contributions of these people would be. It was not about me as a lone artist, rather a group dynamic, a collective energy and the sense of electricity that comes from a group of people working together in flow state as a single entity. It was essential to trust in the process, lead with a clear vision and also know when to get out of the way and allow these artists to express themselves fully within an established framework.
JK: The imagery you’ve created is 2D, but there’s a fair amount of installation work involved. Can you describe why that’s important to the work? Can the imagery exist without it?
JS: Yes the prints work independently of the installations; however, it’s a different experience. A print offers a window into a world, while an installation allows one to construct the world in a way that’s far more immersive and immediate. This is something David and I co-authored and it’s important because the work has a lot to do with transformation; it has to do with grace, our own personal, yet connected experiences and a sense of internal light. We had a very clear intention to transform an austere gallery space into an environment that is luminous and charged with the same energy as a church, or a sanctuary.
JK: How did the viewer’s experience of the work come to mind?
JS: Honoring intensity of the the shooting experience and process was an essential consideration in creating the final modality of presentation. As a group, we would spend upwards of 18 hours at a time in a process-oriented sensory deprivation studio with models glowing in bizarre bioluminescent costumes. It was like a surreal baroque disco scene out of a fever dream. I think shooting in such an otherworldly environment gave the performers a sense of internal permission to embody the characters in ways that would have been harder with all the reference points to “reality” in a more traditional studio setting. This sense of an alternate world was something we wanted to carry into the exhibition space. A straight show of prints would have felt anticlimactic in comparison.
JK: What do you hope to change, or achieve, with this body of work?
JS: There is lot of political art being made these days and for good reason, considering the state of our government and the way our cultural structure is at the moment. A lot of artists are addressing social issues, gender politics, etc., and there’s a place for that; it’s just that effecting “change” in an activist sense is not as important to me. The work draws heavily on mythology, symbolism and in many ways is an exploration of the stories we create as a species to help us understand life, relationships with one another and our connection to something vast and mysterious. I have my own interpretations of the pieces; however, I want the narratives to be open enough for the viewer to find themselves and their own deeply personal stories in the images. I hope our spaces transport the viewer and inspire a sense of wonder. The most I could hope is that someone walks out of a show feeling a little less alone.