lights camera sound actions | time-based contemporary art

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Intellectual enquiry sitting in mystery

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Ideas about consciousness are important in Dissolve, the work I am creating for Niagara Dance Company, and I am enjoying returning to this subject. (As a young artist, I considered it anathema to repeat myself, a recipe for self-sabotage if there ever was one.) I have worked with ideas about consciousness before, most consistently in the 1990s with works like Nature of the Body and a year ago I re-invested in the idea by taking part in the Subtle Technologies workshop at the Centre for Brain and Mind at University of Western Ontario (please see blog post here).

As explained in the early post, Dissolve started from a notion of dissolving boundaries as a defining phenomenon of our time. I knew at the outset I wanted to work with concepts about changes in body mind dualism. (I have worked with this before too, in Earth’s Flesh.)

I first contacted Rebecca Todd, neuroscientist and former dancer (and mentioned in the aforementioned blog post). I told Rebecca that I am less interested in the relationship between emotion and rationality than I am in the idea of a “whole” body/mind offering an interdependent model with which to view life and asked for resources. Rebecca very kindly did suggest one possibility for research (which didn’t speak to me), responding:  “…whole interdependent model of body/mind is something that a lot of researchers think is important but few address directly – largely because people tend to do their research at one particular scale or level of analysis.” I then consulted old friend from Western Front days, Jane Ellison. Jane studied intensively in the early 1980s with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen of Body Mind Centering and in more recent years with Susan Aposhyan of Body-Mind Psychotherapy, who she annually brings to Vancouver.  Jane’s many interesting comments included:

It is perhaps about the brain investigating the mind without consultation with the rest of the organism?….And a thought on the use of “boundaries”.  Susan talks about the fact that at one level the body (including the brain of course) is nothing but fluids and membranes: selectively permeable membranes. So that rather than actually dissolving boundaries, some of which may be useful and necessary, we can work on keeping fluid and permeable so that all the information we need (like Pert’s dissolved molecules) can easily pass through the membranes.

(Pert refers to Candace Pert. I have been wondering what happened to the ideas in her book, Molecules of Emotion, or if she is just dismissed in the scientific community because of her overt spirituality.)

When I went to the Centre for Brain and Mind, I was surprised to find that consciousness seemed to just not be on the menu. I’ve read a bit about scientists’ frustration with the pop-ifying of neuroscience and its abuses and I’m hoping I’m not part of it! In the Buddhist community, I’ve read some good commentary questioning the value of all the work that is being done measuring the brains of lamas and monks.

I recognize that an important part of my interest is what brain science has learned about the plasticity of the brain – and that I attach to this the value of hopewe can change, whether this be on the individual or global level. This belief stands in stark contrast to the “nasty, brutish and short” theme that permeates the religious fundamentalist positions and political realism – the response that nothing can be done, that the violence and destruction of life is “human nature”. This is similar to the view of psychologist Daniel Siegel that mind science offers opportunities to promote more integrative functioning, “integrative” being defined as “honouring differences and promoting linkages”.

I’ve only just come across the idea of The Hard Question by David Chalmers. (Thank-you Wikipedia.)

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C?… It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?

“Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, David Chalmers, Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (3), 1995, pp. 200–219.

The Hard Question is very relevant to my own work. (It also leads me back to commentary from my main virtual Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, a hard-nosed intellectual sitting squarely in mystery.) Our society is deeply uncomfortable with mystery and equates it with quackery, superstition, and all the madness we witness around us attributed to fundamentalist religion (hello Mitt Romney!). I am an artist. As a young artist, I was thrilled by the intellectualism of conceptual art and this blood continues to flow through my artistic veins. When I started teaching Creative Process at School of the Toronto Dance Theatre years ago, my first order of business was to counter the notion that creativity is too mysterious to discuss. So yet again, I encounter how both/and is what makes me tick – I have just realized by writing this post that one way to look at what I do is intellectual enquiry sitting in mystery.

Does this work in the gallery and theatre? I have no idea. I haven’t exactly had a brilliant career filled with either critical or audience attention. On rare occasions when I work within the Toronto dance milieu, I return home disappointed, thinking that there is no interest in engaging with the ideas that are important to my work, that all the dance audience (mostly dancers) sees in my work is movement that isn’t physical enough or choreographed well-enough. The audience here in St. Catharines is very small and different.  If you see Dissolve please find me and tell me straight up what the experience was like for you.



In Uncategorized on October 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Emma Kerston and Mary Jo Mullins (Artistic Director) of Niagara Dance Company

I am so delighted to have been commissioned by Niagara Dance Company for their Niagara 2012 Culture Capital project. Here’s a look into the creative process for my interdisciplinary work, Dissolve. In this post I will focus on the choreographic process, but please keep in mind that the work is interdisciplinary. I have been working this way my entire professional life (which started in 1975) and interdisciplinarity for me is about the interplay amongst media and the un-privileging of any one medium. Other media include a cell phone system delivering text (system designed by Gabe Sawhney), video and soundscape (with camera and editing support by Merv Wrighton, Vickie Fagan and Berenicci Hershorn), music for cello (composed by Mark Steiger and played live by Gordon Clelland) as well as lighting and costume design (David Vivian). I am co-creating the choreography with the dancers (Emma Kerston, Mary Jo Mullins and Kirsten Sopik) and responsible for concept, direction and text.

The Culture Capital theme is Crossing Boundaries and I morphed this to dissolving boundaries, which I see as emblematic of our times. All across the globe, in our time of the most rapid change the earth has ever known, boundaries are shifting and dissolving constantly. (I equate fundamentalism as the wave of resistance to this great change. As for me, I relate more to that John Cage quote that made its way around Facebook earlier this year – I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones!)

My first consideration was to affect/dissolve the boundary between audience and performers and I chose cell phone technology as my tool. During the performance, audience members will dial the show phone number, listen to text, select the thread they choose to see, followed by selection of the performer who will perform that selection. Therefore, the unfolding and sequence of movement and music is dependent upon audience selection and no performance will be alike.

I chose four sub-themes, or threads – Body As World, Body Within Borders, Body of Tender Minds and a fourth, which at the time of writing remains untitled. The four threads address spirituality, politics, psychological and biology (and just like the real world they will resist sitting nicely in those neat silos).

Body as World is a phrase inspired by Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy’s book, World as Lover, World as Self (as well as scientist Neil Meckleham with whom I collaborated on my work in 2003, Earth’s Flesh.) She uses a model of qualifying spiritual traditions – world as battlefield, world as trap, world as lover and world as self – with world as self representing mystical traditions of oneness. The dancers read an interview with Macy and brief excerpt from the book – “The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary….” (click here to find this excerpt on the last page). In the studio, on the first day of rehearsal, the dancers improvised to text from Neil’s Masters thesis and Earth’s Flesh, in which he described the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with trees during a walk in the forest. Each of the dancers crafted her own phrase from this improvisation, which I then shaped and modified – almost all of the movement vocabulary in Dissolve originates from the dancers in improvisation.

I wanted to include a thread addressing global migration and dissolving geo-political boundaries, which is such a strong feature of our time. I approached the Niagara Folk Arts and Multicultural Centre for their assistance in inviting a guest to our rehearsal to speak of their experience in their homeland and immigration to Canada. Raed Karborani spoke to us on the second rehearsal of his experience as a child and adult living in Jerusalem. His words resonated powerfully and left us with images of checkpoints and walls upon walls. Instead of a notion of fluid migration, his experience seemed the opposite of Body as World, representing rigidity and insistence upon boundaries enacted as Sisyphus. For this thread, we followed the same choreographic process of developing individual sequences through improvisation. I introduced a rule adding a common gesture sequence of throwing stones and falling when the dancer’s spatial boundary is invaded. This responded to Raed comment to us of how happy he is that his children play games here instead of having the experience of children throwing stones at soldiers for their play.

Body of Tender Minds is about personal boundaries, a psychological concept. I asked the dancers to journal about an issue of personal boundaries in their life experience and then during improvisation I read a short text addressing healthy boundaries. Each of them and I contributed gestures or movements that I assembled into a phrase and then added a variation followed by excerpts into a choreographic “sentence” of three parts. In my research, I came across the American psychologist William James and his concept of “tender-mindedness” and chose to include it in the title of this thread.

Deanna Jones of Suitcase in Point Theatre Company is working with the dancers in two short classes during rehearsal to support their facial animation. In much concert dance, expressivity stops at the neck and I want the dancers to include their faces in their expression. I am asking the dancers to develop very specific inner landscapes. These need not be narrative in the sense of a dramatic plot; the flow of their sensations, feelings and images is quite sufficient – but as choreographer I am looking for precise clarity on what they are sensing, feeling and mentally imaging in performance. This is not necessarily fixed, I want the dancers to bring their heightened clarity so they can communicate what they are sensing and feeling in the live moment on-stage, which of course will vary. We are exploring relationship amongst performers and audience; I sense a building idea of intimacy and limits.

Dissolve will demand a lot from the dancers. The movement sequences themselves are not technically difficult; the challenge is in the unpredictability in performance because of the relationship with the audience who is directing the sequence of threads and therefore what is happening with each of their co-performers via cell phones. The dancers must stay grounded and express their experience to you, their audience.

Narrative is not important in my work (although of course you as audience member may respond to it that way if you choose). My goal as an artist is to show you inter-connected visual images, physical movement, sounds and words that will integrate in an opportunity to lift you from the everyday into transcendent experience supporting your creation of meaning in this complicated world.