michael j. morris


Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of Body
9 December, 2009, 4:06 pm
Filed under: research | Tags: ,

Several people have asked that I share the paper I just finished here on my blog. It is entitled “Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of Body: An Analysis of the Presence of Embodiment in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced.” Below is a link to a PDF of the paper. Please respect that this paper is my property. After further revision, I am considering it for publication or presentation, so while I am more than happy to share these ideas with you, please honor that they are my work.

Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of Body

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Lady Gaga, Ballet, Synchronous Objects, etc.

I haven’t updated as recently as I would have liked. There is so much going on here at the end of the quarter, but I feel that there are several points that I want to quickly share. I confess, there is very little overt connective tissue between these various ideas, but the common denominator is that they are occupying my attention right now, and as I hope is clear through the overall journey of this blog, that which occupies my attention inevitably finds its way into influencing “the work” (i.e. my creative practice, the dances I make, the papers I write etc.)

So there’s Lady Gaga. There’s her new album Fame Monster that is blowing up my world.

And there’s its connection to ballet. On November 14th, Lady Gaga premiered her new song “Speechless” at MOCA’s 30th Anniversary Gala in Francesco Vezzoli’s “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again).” She played a piano customized by Damien Hirst, wore a hat designed by Frank Gehry, was accompanied by dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, who were attired in costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. That alone should be enough said. But you can read more about it here. And see a clip of it below. And an image.

So for my last week of teaching ballet this quarter (to beginner non-majors), I set all of my barre combinations to Lady Gaga, predominantly the new album, as an homage to this contemporary intersection of high Russian ballet and contemporary pop culture, it in itself an homage to the Ballets Russes and the work of Serge Diaghilev. After having taught Vaganova Technique all quarter, it felt appropriate.

I had an amazing opportunity to take a class with Jill Johnson, former dancer with William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet (among a list of other credentials). I relished the opportunity to revisit a way of moving that became familiar last winter working with Nik Haffner and Forsythe’s “Improvisational Technologies.” Today Jill emphasized the relationship between these ideas and classical ballet technique, epaulement as rotations in the body, and working rigorously in abstracting these various rotations and counter-rotations. It was not the same way of moving that I explore last year, but there was significant overlap, and moments of realizing how that experience last year changed the way that I move “naturally.” You can see me exploring some of those ideas in a piece I performed in October here.

I am also working on authoring a new paper, the working of title of which is “Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of the Body: An Analysis of the Presence of Embodiment in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced.” I am working to construct a working theoretical definition of what is meant by “embodiment” from synthesizing writings by Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, Judith Butler, Amelia Jones, Heidegger, and Henry Sayre, among others, and then looking for the presence of embodiment in Synchronous Objects. I have found that there is a fairly widespread uncomfortability amongst dancers engaging with this dance-based research project. I think it has something to do with a sense that the knowledge that we know as our moving bodies has been extracted, transformed into date, and re-presented in forms/objects other than the moving body. My interest in the implication of embodiment throughout the project, in the site of origin (the dance), the collection and translation of the choreographic systems into data, the transformation of the data into alternative re-presentations, and ultimately (and perhaps most viscerally) in the viewer of the project himself or herself. While the paper is still in the works, I feel that there are implications of embodiment throughout the project; this is most acute in the viewing of the project. The project is an object to be viewed, to be understood by a viewer. It is a request for the re-embodiment of the knowledge being re-presented. I am attempting to describe that not only does the site itself necessitate the (embodied) presence of the viewer, but that the way in which the objects themselves are understood are through conceptualizations of time, space, density, movement, etc. that emerge from an embodied experience of the world in which we live. This is supported primarily by Johnson and Lakoff’s writings in Philosophy in the Flesh and The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. I’ll keep you posted on the paper. In the mean time, I hope you go and explore the site.

In the reading I’ve done in preparation for writing this paper, a gem of a resource was a book I came across by Henry M. Sayre entitled The Object of Performance: the American Avant-Garde since 1970. Sayre writes about the shift of importance in the visual art world from the art object to the performative act, and in doing so the shift of “presence” from the artist/object to the viewer of the object. He writes beautifully about the photograph emerging as a respected medium, a signifier of both presence (the viewer of the photograph, and even the photograph as an object itself) and absence (that which the photograph depicts). He also wrote about the action painting (re: Pollock, Krasner, others) as a significant shift, in which the paintings that were bought by museums and collectors were not the action painting itself. It was a thing concerned with the immediacy of the action; the painting acted as a trace, a document of the action, and yet an object itself. Like the photograph. Like Synchronous Objects. It has sparked some fascinating notions as I have engaged with visual art after this reading. Last weekend I saw a series of works by Dale Chihuly, mostly large glass sculptures. It was fascinating and exciting to engage this work as “movement traces,” the documentation of the actions of the glass artists (which, in Chihuly’s work, art already mostly interpretations of Chihuly’s “action painting” designs for the pieces), and even farther as potential “movement scores.” Visual art as movement score. Reading visual art as movement scores as a method for engagement. There is something there.

Speaking of art object as documentation of action, I just ordered a “Tit Print” by Annie Sprinkle. She posted on her facebook today that she just made another batch of them, and had them on sale today. They consist of large ink or paint prints using her breasts as her instrument. I think they’re lovely, a kind of Yves Klein way of revealing the body. And the fact that I am going to San Francisco later this month to interview Annie and Beth and see their upcoming show “Sexecology: Making Love with Earth, Sky and Sea” at Femina Potens Gallery.

One of Annie's Tit Prints

Yves Klein "untitled"

Finally, a little rant: I am exhausted about hearing about making art or dance “accessible.” I take issue with this word. Because it rarely refers to making art experiences available to the population. It most often implies that the art be constructed in such a way that the viewer can “get something out of it.” It is not about making the art itself accessible as it is about making a specific experience (or kind of experience) of the work accessible. I think it has emerged from the collective anxiety of audience and artist worrying that they have somehow misunderstood the art experience. And my issue is this: “accessible” implies that there is something to be “accessed,” something encoded that must be (able to be) decoded. It assumes that art is essentially communicable, that its purpose or intention is that the viewer understand or “access” the experience that the artist has of her or his own work. And I think that is simply not the purpose of art. My theory is also that we live in such a visually complex, communication driven culture that we spend our lives trying to “figure out” what we’re supposed to understand from images, advertising, commercials, etc. etc. etc., that we come to the art experience with that same pressure. It is my opinion that the art experience is perhaps the opportunity for reprieve from this way of engaging and understanding. The purpose is not to access the encoded meaning, but instead to engage with that with which you are presented and make it meaningful for yourself. Construct meaning rather than access meaning, using your experience of the dance or sculpture or literature or music, etc., as the materials by which you construct your meaning. In this sense, I am opposed to making art “accessible.” I am in favor of making art available. But I would like to do away with this language/concept that there is anything to “access” in art. It is there. You experience it. You make that experience meaningful for yourself using the materials before your as the materials of your meaning.

There. That’s my little rant for today.

Back to reading/writing about Synchronous Objects.



Thoughts on Embodiment

As mentioned in a previous post, I am currently (slowly) making my way through Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. The progress is slow because of how many ideas each page provokes. Thus, I recommend it.

Here are some thoughts brought up today:

The dualism of “the body” and “the mind” is an abstraction of the reality that these are not separate entities but essential components/qualities of person-hood and experience. “Pure reason” (free from bodily concerns such as emotion, etc.) is an abstraction in that human reason does not in fact exist in processes free from the body. In an age that seems so increasingly “disembodied” by philosophy and technology, it is a refreshing reminder that none of those experiences or thoughts take place apart from the body itself, anchored and driven by its processes. Disembodiment too then is an abstraction, and for me, a threatening illusion. 

An idea that I am sure will be expounded upon is the idea that bodily processes (including emotion) are not separate from thought/reason/logic/concepts/propositions, but are something like the initial playing field in which those things develop. Meaning (or how we make sense of life, ourselves, this world, etc.) is emergent, not hierarchical, growing up out of the physical experiences, bodily reactions, etc. Even when we are not conscious of it, our emotional reactions are intrinsic and basic for our thought processes. They are the stage on which our ideas and reasonings unfold.

With this breakdown of the body/mind dichotomy into a body-mind or mind-body (I also like the term “soma”), there is a breakdown of the abstract classifications of “subject” and “object”, “self” and “environment”, “person” and “object”. Experience is the basis of our understanding or meaning-making, and experience is an active, moving interaction between the self and the environment, the subject and the object. These two things, although perhaps abstractly distinct as ideas, are never truly discrete; they are constantly connected in moving experience.

The centrality of movement in experience is the subject of the first chapter in Johnson’s book, and I am loving it. It gives whole new layers to dance as a field when movement is seen as central to life, experience, and meaning-making. There are two quotations I would like to share. The first is by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. She says:

“In the beginning, we are simply infused with movement–not merely with a propensity to move, but with the real thing. This primal animateness, this original kinetic spontaneity that infuses our being and defines our aliveness, is our point of departure for living in the world and making sense of it . . . We literally discover ourselves in movement. We grow kinetically into our bodies. In particular, we grow into those distinctive ways of moving that come with our being the bodies we are. In our spontaneity of movement, we discover arms that extend, spines that bend, knees that flex, mouths that shut, and so on. We make sense of ourselves in the course of moving.”

The second quote is by Johnson himself. He says:

“Movement occurs within an environment and necessarily involves ongoing, intimate connection and interaction with aspects of some particular environment . . . From the very beginning of our life, and evermore until we die, movement keeps us in touch with our world in the most intimate and profound way. In our experience of movement, there is no radical separation of self from world.”

This idea of challenging “person and world” and replacing it with “person moving in world” is profound for me. Just as the mind does not exist apart from the body, the person does not exist apart from the environment. And that unity of existence is negotiated in movement, in time, etc.

Curiously, this reflects my present cosmology, in which the unique, discrete, distinct individual is merely a singular expression of a common Oneness that is existence. My current belief system is one in which all things that exist share a common substance (which might be existence, energy, Love, divinity, etc.), and that common substance finds unique expression in the individual (separateness), in order that our truer nature (oneness) might be reveled through action, relationship, and love. Our existence becomes a process of accessing and recognizing our oneness/commonality, beyond the details of our individual person, while also honoring those individualities and personal details as unique expressions of that commonality.
Something about this idea of “person in environment” as constant state of being (rather than “person” and “environment” as discrete states of being) seems to relate to this cosmology.

I am full of thoughts. I hope you are too.