Learnings

The following reflections where prepared by Garth, George, Somaya, Lian, Lizze and Maggie as part of a presentation (Chaired by Professor Lyndal Jones – also a Feldenkrais practitioner) that we presented at SEAM2010. SEAM stands for “Somatic Embodiment, Agency and Mediation” in Digital Mediated Environments – a series of symposiums and workshops presented by Critical Path (Director, Margie Medlin) and University of Western Sydney (Dr. Garth Paine).

The occasion provided an opportunity to reflect back on insights gained over the course of the three Thinking Through The Body workshops, and reflections on how this experience has continued to inform each members practice. In this presentation Maggie Slattery offered a response to each of our reflections – talking about connections between the Feldenkrais method and our creative arts research, and her own experiences as a member of the group, along with Catherine Truman and Jonathan Duckworth (both absent).

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Thinking Through The Body: SEAM 2010 Presentation from George Khut on Vimeo.

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George Khut: Framing, paying and supporting attention

Paying attention to experience has been the central activity of the Thinking Through The Body research project. We created events and situations that directed peoples attention toward an appreciation of the influence of their body – in movement and stillness – on their experience of self and place.

The experience of observing participants at the Sensorium Gymnasium event highlighted for me, the importance of creating the right set of conditions for people to pay attention to what is happening inside.

In works that place such an emphasis on experience in interaction – the ‘work’ as a compositional whole – is no longer reducible to the conventional mechanics of the interaction i.e. these sensors, the sound and appearance of the displays and interfaces etc..

Experiences of self are inextricably linked to experiences of place and context.
Considered in this light, the artwork as traditionally defined, is but a subset of the broader perceptual conditions through which we become present to ourselves: interactive art meets installation art and ‘relational aesthetics’.

While the conditions for appreciating traditional Western visual art or concert music have become so familiar as to be invisible to us now – body-focussed interactions of the kind explored in our research require that we re-examine at these conditions.
At the “Sensorium Gymnasium” event these conditions where influenced by a combination of factors that included:

The active, research-oriented motivations of the invited guests. This resonates with clinical bodywork practice where every session “begins with a question, a motivation to discover something a new”.

The active research-oriented structure of the event itself – an large exhibition space devoted entirely to body-focussed interactions, that provides a whole set of ‘cues’ to visitors as to how to ‘be’, and what we can afford to ‘take seriously’.

Sensations where developed in a highly targeted and strategic way – to frame and give emphasis to specific aspects of our musculo-skeletal and vestibular experience. The prerecorded guided explorations, that participants listened to prior to their interaction with the physical objects and artworks, were adapted from the vocabulary and repertoire of Moshe Feldenkrais’ Awareness Through Movement lessons, and established a sense of receptivity and preparedness, while the timing and ‘composition’ of the artworks shaped the dynamics of the experience: adding emphasis, and a sense of enchantment via carefully coordinated external stimuli, i.e. the bird song in Surging Verticality, the shimmering ebb and flow in the Motion Capture piece or the delicate tinkling sound’s in the Wee Leaf piece.

Beyond their primary function as a way of focussing attention toward specific aspects of each participant’s experience – these recordings helped visitors to ‘land’ and ‘arrive’ in their own bodies, from all the preceding distractions that took place prior to their arrival at the event. Body-focussed interaction and awareness involves an inversion of our normal attentive orientation, from external to internal environments – doing this in a social context like an art gallery or live-art event requires a big shift for most people – a shift that is contingent on a perceived sense of safety and social appropriateness, that is developed through the design of the space, and the attentiveness of the people facilitating these interactions. 

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Lizzie Muller: The power of relinquishing control

As a curator and facilitator, the most profound discovery of Thinking Through the Body was, for me, the power of relinquishing control. I began the process with one eye on the possible outcomes.  How could I wrangle this disparate group of practitioners into a cohesive collaboration? How could I make sure that at the end of the project we had something to show the funders in return for their investment?

Slowly, however, little by little, the Thinking Through the Body process, and particularly the Feldenkrais practice that was woven into that process, began to transform my habitual curatorial method, and to loosen my iron grip on the idea of results. The work that we were doing in cultivating an ability to pay attention, to appreciate and articulate subtle physical experience, developed a new ability, or new discipline within myself, to dwell within the process of collaboration and discovery, rather than casting my attention forward to the conclusion or outcome.

For me this was very much about developing my capacity to trust to process,  and it led me to develop what I think of as a richer or juicier relationship to the creation and exhibition of artworks, which for a curator is necessarily collaborative. I can now allow myself to BE in relationship to art, artists and audiences, instead of always having to DO.

One of the powerful things we did in Thinking Through The Body, which I think helped cultivate this ability, was that we spent time in all our workshops and particularly at Bundanon describing our physical experiences.  Rather than immediately turning an experience into a resource for future action, we learned to articulate and honour those experiences in and of themselves.

I want to read an extract from a transcript of a recording of one of those sessions of description.  This is me describing part of an experience I had in the warm water of the Shoalhaven River during our residency at Bundanon. This is the pivotal moment when I learned how to productively loose control:

“I turned and walked as slowly as I could into the water, and very, very gradually felt the weight leave my body.

As the water got to my stomach I started to feel my breath and its affect on my body in the water…. Yesterday Catherine taught me to allow myself to relax, semi-submerged in the river, and breathe with my mouth open, allowing the water to flow in without resisting. So I just kept walking, slowly deeper, letting the water run into my mouth.  And then the water was over my mouth, and I knew with the next step that it would be over my nose too. So I took a slow breath and then just kept on walking with my eyes open. The river is so clear and warm here, that I could just keep going. As the water got to the top of my head I let my lungs lift me, and my feet leave the ground. I tipped forward like a jelly-fish, and then I was just hanging in the water, suspended by my lungs.

I had made a transition, from being a solid, upright person pinned by gravity through my skeleton.  Suddenly I was released and floating, with my eyes open; just hanging there. Slowly my head began to raise, and as my nose broke the surface of the water I took a breath in. And I carried on like this. Gently floating up and breathing in, slowly pivoting forward, round the fulcrum of my lungs, and breathing out. 

After a while I reached my feet down to the river bed, and I turned to the bank.  Slowly, very slowly, I began to walk out of the river.  And the walking out was as extraordinary as the walking in. I’d been in there so long that I’d become very used to the weightlessness. As I walked out, first of all my head became heavy; I could feel the weight of my head in my neck. Then my shoulders became heavy, and I could feel the weight in my feet.  It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, it felt like stability was coming back to me. 

Slowly more and more weight was coming into my feet as my body came out of the water. And then there was this dramatic moment where my lungs broke the surface of the water and the buoyancy suddenly disappeared, and I was back on dry land, and very aware of walking; feeling my knees, my hips. I was feeling the gravity come into my body from the head down, or from the feet up, until I got to the lapping edge of the water and I felt gravity working through me, anchoring my feet down into the ground giving me this incredible stability.

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Lian Loke: A world of minutiae

The world inside, a world of minutiae, of fine details, of experiential anatomy and physiology … of sensation. Through directing attention to this interior landscape, we can experience our body anew, shaping consciousness of how our internal world impacts on our sense of agency.

In terms of interactive art-making, the question arising from the TTTB research is how to craft an aesthetic experience with this – the interior world – at the core. It is a slippery material, hard to pin down. In contrast to interactive artworks that are based on the physical actions of a person, the external view of the body. Here we are dealing with internal processes and sensation; being present to oneself.

During the first two residencies, through somatic investigations based on the Feldenkrais Method, we developed a refined awareness and capacity for directing attention to subtle sensation and bodily-based phenomena. We reflected on how this might influence our respective practices. In the final residency we shifted our attention from our own relationship to our practice to the experience of the audience. Our central question for this last residency was the issue of how to translate the subtle and profound experiences of our own somatic experiments into aesthetic experiences for others.

In collaboration with members of the research team, in particular, the two Feldenkrais practitioners, I devised an experimental work, called Surging Verticality, to explore this question. The concept for Surging Verticality emerged through a series of explorations and experiments with balance, shifting weight, visceral sensation, reorientation of the body and body extension, conducted during the previous workshops. The participant experience of their body was the prime object of enquiry in the development of Surging Verticality. How could we construct an interactive artwork that offered audience transformative possibilities for self-perception and experience, grounded in nuances of movement and sensation?

The influence of the Feldenkrais Method yielded new approaches to creating conditions for audience experience. We worked with key ideas of restricting stimuli, dampening or heightening various senses, slowing down and directing attention to supposedly simple aspects of being – the breath, the use of the gaze (internal/external), ways of relating to gravity in movement and stillness. These methods can amplify internal processes and subtle relationships between parts of one’s body, leading to the possibility for a new consciousness in the experience of one’s body. In Feldenkrais, reducing the physical demand on the body can lead to increased perceptual capacity and kinaesthetic sensitivity.

The passage of breath or energy through the body may generate currents of sensation – pleasurable, confronting, unfamiliar – that may evoke memory, metaphor, transformation … becoming … The poetic can bloom from sensation. As one audience member who participated in Surging Verticality reported,

            Lightness
            Lightness of heel
            Meditative
            Heat
            Centred
            Completely present

As makers we cannot control the particulars of how people experience the artworks we offer, but we can manipulate the conditions for engagement that give rise to the possibility of a multi-faceted aesthetic experience …where we become more present to ourselves through sustained attention to the subtle nuances of our bodily experience.

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Garth Paine: Internal/external, action/non-Action

For me, TTTB was an enquiry that sought to reach beyond the pragmatics of interactive art making, the technologies, the programming and the implementations, to an exploration of how the practice of interactive arts augment, transform, and re-situate perceptions of lived experience.

I initiated two experiments during the TTTB project which sought to play with small gestures that require fine motor skills, encouraging a located awareness, directed inside the body – moving the participant from external, social, public engagement to a reflective, intimate personal space.

The experiments took the form of the WiiMirror piece where tow people hold Nintendo WiiMotes, one become leader, the other follows. The aim is to maintain silence, as any difference between the rotation angle of the two WiiMotes generates sound. The surprising discovery in this experiment was that participants found it easier to do when back to back. When the visual cues were remove, participant became much more highly sensitised to their relationship to the WiiMote, and to sound, which was the principle media communicating the state of the relationship between the two participants. They then found it much easier to maintain silence.

The second experiment utilised a Motion Capture (MoCAP) system, to sonify the breathing and relaxation state of the participant. This piece took the form of a simple space in which a massage bead was provide for the participant to lie down. They wore a motion capture jacket, which allowed the sonification of their breathing pattern, and the measuring of a lengthening of their torso, a produce of relaxation. As they relaxed, the music produced from their breathing pattern was re-spatialised to move from their feet to slowly envelop them, depending on the degree to which the torso lengthened (an illustration of relaxation taking place).

These two pieces sought to encourage a situated awareness within the body. To invert the established interactive media arts paradigm of an active and external relationship to the artwork, determined by the technology, to an internal awareness of the energy state of the body. In so doing they acted as a platform to consider the apparent dichotomy of Active / Passive role of the participant in the artwork. For instance within the MoCAP work, participants asked over and over again, “What am I supposed to Do? “ – to which I responded – “absolutely nothing”. This caused confusion – how could one interact with an artwork by doing nothing? The answer lies in the inherent activity of the body – the breathing patterns, the lengthening of the torso etc. but for me, more importantly it brought agency back to the individual, and made the relationship they had with the work an inherent one, rather than a consciously constructed one.

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Somaya Langley: Subtlety

Rushing from one thing to the next, a list of things to do as long as your arm (and then some…). Unless shouted out from a megaphone – most things barely manage to penetrate our consciousness, as we multitask our way through hectic days. For anyone involved in the arts, this is probably a familiar mode of operation. In fact, anyone operating in the contemporary 21st century western working world is likely to find this an apt description of life.

Thinking Through the Body provided the opportunity to slow down to a pace where focus shifted from lists of things to do, to actively participating in one activity. Thinking Through the Body gave us the permission to be simultaneously “researching” and “being present” – only being conscious of and existing in each single moment.

While the exercise that I developed for the Performance Space residency, was not directly associated with the topic I’m briefly speaking about now (apart from the fact that I chose not to integrate technology into the exercise at all – given that I’m primarily a media artist, this for me was a step in itself). What did became the most apparent to me throughout the series of residencies and workshops was by focusing and drawing attention to small detail, I was able to detect much smaller changes and able to notice minute differences in my body, its position, its movement and its response to a suggestion or stimuli.

Essentially, subtlety.

This shift in perception, that I feel was made possible through Feldenkrais (Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration) lessons lead by Maggie and Catherine has a profound ability to refocus on aspects of the body that I’m usually not aware of. My body, our bodies (amongst other things) are one big integrated sensor system. Which seems an obvious statement to make, but in everyday live, and not being conscious of this…

The subtlety that I feel we became aware of were on a number of levels, that included very subtle movements that in turn opened us up to a much greater awareness of subtle changes in our bodies. The moment that this concept of subtlety really took hold was in the second workshop during a morning Feldenkrais session. Catherine was leading an exercise that had us lying on the floor and we were moving one arm in the air. What I realised was that these tiny movements brought my attention to one fact: my arm was stuck. Almost frozen at a certain point in this movement. In any other circumstance, I would have had no idea about this. I certainly wasn’t aware of it previously. And it suddenly became so heavy that it was nearly impossible to hold it up. However, move it a millimetre to the right and that sensation subsided.

The way that this notion subtlety developed through the course of Thinking Through the Body was particularly observable during the development of the various exercises by each of the TTTB members, at our final Performance Space residency. The approach also seems simple and obvious, however I feel that this was also profound. For each exercise that we developed, Maggie recorded a small introduction as a lead-in for the participant of the exercise to hear, before their experience. While only several minutes long, I feel this space provided to refocus attentions prior to participating in the exercise, really allowed for the opening up to the range of experience that the works were providing. (This is particularly noticeable in Garth’s Motion Tracking work, which he has just spoken about.)

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Maggie Slattery and Catherine Truman: A Feldenkrais Perspective

Engagement with interactive art and the Feldenkrais Method is synonymous in relation to the unique evolution of the human brain. All depends upon the basic quality of the supralimbic part of our brain, which is able to sense and abstract and often even express in words what is happening in our bodies.

This engagement necessarily elicits knowing through sensation, which involves a certain vigilance of intention and attention, whereby awareness is consequent of using thought to improve action and action to improve thought, overriding the constraints of habitual tendencies. Emergent language is internal, of self (aesthetic & emotional appreciation.

During TTTB’s first two residencies, group members were able to explore whether, as makers, we can more clearly articulate being in the experience of making, with awareness of how our thinking affects our action; when new thinking leads to change in action, and how this may open new ways of approach in making, and therefore audience interactive response. We aimed to engage with these questions experientially, through awareness of the body, of sensation; to have an intention to “make” without knowing the outcome, without focusing effort habitually toward what is immediately useful.

The effect of investigations for generating new approaches to interactions during the first two residencies was evident at the culminating residency in Performance Space. Newly emergent collaborative processes involving Feldenkrais-based interventions took place with each maker, affecting the formation of installations in both concept development and processes for audience interaction. As makers, three layers of interaction were intertwined and became interdependent: with oneself; with others in collaboration; and with the audience through their experience of the work.

About the Method…

The Feldenkrais Method® is an educational system based on movement, which aims to expand and refine the use of self through awareness.

The Method employs two approaches, one of which involves verbally directed Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) lessons. These lessons, devised by Israeli scientist and Martial Arts expert Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904 – 1984) affect an increase in sensitivity necessary to the higher functioning of the supralimbic part of the human brain.

In ATM®, through verbal instruction, the conditions are provided for learning to feel an internal process of a movement. The lesson is presented in such a way that the person feels in themselves a growing feeling of comfort and sense of self as their intention becomes more clearly expressed in action.

ATM® lessons reduce all stimuli to their bare minimum, thereby reducing to its lowest value any change in the muscular system and senses. In that way, there is an increase in sensitivity to its maximum, resulting in a capacity to distinguish the finer details that previously had escaped notice. 2. An ATM® lesson is a form of non-competitive, self-initiated engagement and inquiry, which promotes autonomy, and possibilities of experimentation. The lessons familiarize the individual with difference and change, yet there is a sense of progression and an affirmation of identity determined in movement. There is development throughout a lesson centred on the self through a movement sequence in time and space. Exertion and latent tonus is decreased, and perceptual capacities, kinaesthetic sensitivity, is increased. 3. Learning through personal experience of nuance is the foundation of imagination.

The TTTB project integrated Feldenkrais with the processes of the maker and the participant of interactive art, to promote changes in self-image produced through becoming aware of changed body image. Feldenkrais as a process and methodology is collaborative, creating interactive experiences (lessons) that bring attention and ultimately awareness to our felt experience that then allows us to grow and develop.

Two main research questions were articulated in introducing Feldenkrais® ATM lessons in context of Thinking Through the Body (TTTB):

Can elements of ATM® be applied in the creation of interactive artworks to broaden the scope of the artwork and expand the individual maker’s experience of the work?

Can these aspects of engagement and learning be translated into an interactive art work to illicit similar outcomes from participants of the work?

The Process of making two artworks

The extraordinary conditions provided at Performance Space for the final residency of TTTB were affected by many factors: the theatrical setting and nature of the studio space and its surrounds; the availability and development-for-use of technology; the way in which we were able to work with each other collaboratively in cultivating the interactive conditions for audience engagement with each artwork.

The prototype interactive artworks ‘Pendulum’ and ‘Surging Verticality’ emerged through collaborative processes to become greatly different from their original concept. Two lines of influence affecting the development process emerged through a Feldenkrais involvement in the formation of each piece to elicit maximum sensitivity in the experience of the participant. This involvement aimed to increase the intimacy of each piece for the participant, and influenced the creative process through 1) directed attention at concept development and design stage to the impact of the interactive conditions for audience engagement; 2) creating artwork-specific ATM® lesson to maximise the participant’s sensitivity to finer details of their movement in the context of the artwork, the state of their body, and their sense of wonder about their felt experience of their body.

‘Pendulum’ and ‘Surging Verticality’ both involved motion, including balance, which is dictated by simultaneous interacting influences: muscle tension, external forces, joint limits, path constraints, expressive purpose, intention, and the context of temporally adjacent activities. Muscular motion, weight, position in space, etc., are perceived. The organs concerned with this – the proprioceptive nerve endings and their co-ordinating centre in the labyrinth – are diffused all over the body.

Our motion efficiency, and our self-image, relies on our capacity to detect small differences of sensation, which leads to development of new patterns. The smaller the stimulus present, the smaller is the change that we are capable of detecting. Easy and smooth action, felt as pleasurable, is obtained when the aim is achieved by the smallest amount of exertion. 2.

In bringing a Feldenkrais influence to the making of and participation in the interactive artworks ‘Pendulum’ and ‘Surging Verticality’ we relied upon the capacity of the makers to appreciate the need to create conditions for ‘participant autonomy’, for inviting simple, focused observational experiences, for engaging with attention to sensation, with maximum sensitivity.

Conclussions…

TTTB has uncovered a way of exploring and eliciting sensitivity to the profoundly personal dimensions of body-focused experiences in interactive art experiences.

The essential quality necessary for engaging in experience with awareness is curiosity, meaning the sense of exploring our surroundings, our environment. Throughout TTTB, including the Performance Space open studio preparation and event, a prevailing sense of wonder and surprise played a very important role. We all became makers in the collaborative processes inherent at Performance Space.

The learning processes undertaken by the group throughout the project, including Feldenkrais ATM®, opened our individual work to development opportunity, allowing for vulnerability, experimentation and ultimately opportunity to include considerations about the nuances in audience participation in interactive art experience previously outside of our awareness.

The influence of Feldenkrais as a somatic learning approach enabled a bridge between maker and participant. The Method promotes a way of directing questions without evoking a sense of “right” or “wrong”, both in the context of an ATM lesson and beyond, including the making of an interact artwork and as part of an interactive artwork. At Performance Space this condition of co-enquiry allowed makers to freshly consider aspects of the visitor’s experience and to reshape their interactive work as new awareness emerged.

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