lights camera sound actions | time-based contemporary art

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.


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