Roundup: Hybrid Encounters. Art meets Science

An encounter is more than just a sensory event or a registration of some thing outside ourselves. An encounter involves two parties and some sort of resistance that is recognized as an in-between, as a potential ground for dialogue. Whilst both partners of the interaction integrate the encounter and its content within their frames of thinking, points of mutual understanding can emerge. The new format of “Hybrid Encounters” tries to make performative this sort of negotiation of sense. These encounters provide  a way to be as audience member part of a dialogue-situation between artist and scientist, offering insights to the problems and rewards of interdisciplinary exchange.

Prof. Dr. Arno Villringer is a renowned neurology scientist specialized in stroke research and interested in the plasticity of brain signal interrelations. When confronted with the performance of likewise renowned dancers Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, who specialize in the area of experimental, expressive performance and choreography, his initial reaction was on the lines of “How did you do it…? How do these movements arise in you?”. Surely an understandable reaction, signaling interest in that which cannot readily be explained. What had happened?

In their performance ”Figuring“ Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski set out to make visible the intricate correspondence of gestrues spontaneously synchronizing. “We try to investigate, when a thought and a movement well up”, extracting these moments of uncertainty, when any new gesture might be possible. Sitting atop a small stage on two simple chairs, both artists initiate a kind of disconnected interaction, that involves only nonverbal gesture, while never establishing eye-contact with the other. The gestures display smooth, discrete and quite cautious movements on and around chairs, that last for a few seconds and are then severed by a pause. A rhythm is thereby established and coordinated only by listening for each other’s movement. By slowing down gestures, one could interpret this display as a kind of laboratory situation, in which the interrelation of bodily movement close to each other is investigated, by artificially severing the continuous movements. Each moment can now be questioned, the establishment of synchronicity observed in small steps. And in fact, ever so often, and ever so slightly, some trembling movements of the dancers seem to align rather spontaneously. The performance includes no arc, no narrative, no energy is lost or generated – it is the performance of a meticulous investigation of small entities of movement.

But again: “How did you do it…? How do these movements arise in you?” Imitation would be an area that the neurologist Arno Villringer would be very much able to locate within the neurologic complex of brain activity. “So do you feel like imitating?” – “No”. Art and Science struggle for an initial point of reference – so the partners in dialogue settle on treating the performance itself as the first attempt at communication. What was it that was communicated? By slowing down the gesture of dance, the performers knowledge and ideas of body-coordination are made visible and questions of the entanglement of thought and body become feasible.

Finally. An obvious point of neurological interest is found: the interrelation of thought that wells up into emotion and affect and bodily rhythm. Arno Villringer now explains his interest in a neurological field of research, that suggests the judgment of ones body as “ones own body”, as agency, is actually not as solid as we tend to think. Rather, it hinges on a convergence of ones expectations of movement and intention with the actual perceived movement. In most cases, these expectations are confirmed, which is why we are sure of us being where we are, acting, doing. But when these habitual structures get disappointed, one could actually lose his sense of embodiment.

Departing from this, Arno Villringer offers reflections on a not-so-fixed, habitually determined version of the concept of body. This reflection leads to an exchange with the dancers about their rather radical thesis of a complex, culturally and socially constructed body. The idea of “body as an event” expands the concept of body to its environment. By slowing down muscle-memory habits of moving one can initiate a relation to a past, to a body composed of sedimented knowledge. A cartography of rhythms comes to mind; the thought that perception of place and time, here and elsewhere are shaped by multiple rhythms spanning across different dimensions of experience. They are stored not as conscious knowledge but rather as a sense of ones body – the body imagined as an interface to the world.

From here on, the dialogue starts to evolve around the concept of becoming aware. The two artists offer to think awareness not as a dialogue between severed areas of mind and body, but as an event that only after some time of reflection can be categorized into the classical inside–outside metaphor. This gives a more diverse concept of awareness, a more nuanced access to “what is happening”.

To this, Arno Villringer replies with an interesting metaphor describing the loops of consciousness. What we generally know as conscious thought is actually a kind of internal process of domination, where one neuronal activity imposes onto another one. An internal reaction to a reaction, a superimposition that Villringer describes as “loops going up”. Within this spatial metaphor, the two dancers project can be described as a performative attempt at “lowering” consciousness, "going down" to the level of unconscious reflex. To use this as a starting point for the reflection on culturally and socially inherited habits is surely an interesting experiment - one that can profit from an interaction with the sciences.

This encounter, then, was a success. There was initial resistance, a thing seemed to stand between the partners in dialogue, a thing, that was worked on from both sides, struggling for some common ground the other one would be able to interact with. This common element was the concept of body, which itself is experienced as resistance to most of our thoughts and aspirations. By working in dialogue on this object of resistance from different perspectives, a more nuanced picture could be given. An interaction of Art and Science could thus spark a reflection on bodily resistance and the chances it offers, to tap into a most intimate relation with the past and our learned habits.

- Benedikt