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adelaide festival 2012


neurons, technology & the extended self

keith gallasch: garry stewart, proximity, adt, adelaide festival


Proximity, ADT Proximity, ADT
photo Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions
GARRY STEWART’S LATEST WORK FOR ADT IS PROXIMITY WHICH WILL PREMIERE AT THE 2012 ADELAIDE FESTIVAL. AS WITH HELD (2004) AND DEVOLUTION (2006) PROXIMITY IS ANOTHER OF STEWART’S VISCERAL YET CEREBRAL EXPLORATIONS OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN IDEAS, THE BODY AND TECHNOLOGY FURTHERED HERE BY HIS PASSIONATE INTEREST IN NOTIONS OF SELFHOOD AND ITS NEUROSCIENTIFIC CORRELATIVES AS DEMONSTRATED IN BE YOUR SELF (2010). I SPOKE WITH STEWART ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF PROXIMITY AND ITS CONNECTIONS WITH ITS PRECURSORS.

When did you start thinking about Proximity? What came first, an image, the idea or the technology? What kicked you along?

For the last several years, I’ve wanted to do something post-HELD (the 2004 work with US photographer Lois Greenfield), something that again worked with the reproduction of images of dance on screens. HELD was just ridiculously bombastic and ironic, a very particular point of view of the utilisation of dance photography from a quasi-heroic perspective. So I wanted to approach similar technology but work in a softer, more poetic aesthetic territory and find other ways to bring the audience into the detail of the body. I was going to do another version of HELD using stills photography but after a creative development where we also worked with video cameras it seemed more interesting to see what we could do with video.

Then I was commissioned to make The Rite of Spring for Ballet du Rhin (Strasbourg, 2011) and I think I must have thought through about 20 possible different versions of The Rite of Spring. At the 11th hour, as we were about to start rehearsals, I decided to have dancers videoing each other. So it became a dialogue between real time dance and real time video manipulation. That became in a way the first stage of thinking further about Proximity as a post-HELD piece.

So I worked with Thomas Pachoud. He’s Paris-based and doesn’t call himself a video artist but a video engineer. He studied computer science and basically lives in a world of writing code and programming in terms of algorithms. It was a bit of a blind date working with him on The Rite of Spring but it went really well. So I said do you want to come to Australia and continue the investigation? We both felt that we wanted to continue working together. We’d just scratched the surface—in ballet companies you get to work three to four weeks. So he came here and we’ve been working together for a couple of months and we’ve just really expanded upon the ideas that we began with.

It’s very nice to think of the works in terms of a series or of different works having a dialogue with each other rather than necessarily all the time making a work and then trying to make a paradigm leap to something completely different. I think Proximity is also informed by ideas from Be Your Self, the work I made for the last Adelaide Festival [and which will be staged in Sydney later this year. Eds].

That work was primarily based on ideas on the nature of selfhood, which came out of Buddhist meditation classes that we have in the company. We have a Buddhist teacher who comes in once a week and a lot of the discussion is about the nature of self. Proximity is really the convergence in some ways of some of the concerns of HELD and Be Your Self and using video technology to make visible the invisible connections that exist between us and the world around us.

A kind of phenomenological investigation?

Be Your Self is very much rooted in phenomenology. Proximity is a little bit more coming out of philosophies of selfhood but is also informed by neuroscience. I’ve been having a few chats with Ian Gibbins, Professor of Physiology at Flinders University, about body maps and the ways we neurologically engage with the world. In the parietal lobe of the brain there are countless body maps; our entire body is mapped in our brain. So, when we engage with the environment and as agents in the world, these neurological maps actually extend into the world. So if I’m driving my car, my body maps incorporate the volume and weight, the friction on the road and the velocity of the car etc. It’s actually quite a real connection with the body, not just armchair philosophical or poetic.

Watching the trailer I was struck by the lines of force or attraction [discussed as “webbing” below. Eds] that appear between the dancers in the video projections shot live by other dancers.

The video acts as an analogy or metaphor for these fields of neurological connectivity. Another idea in Proximity is the notion of the plurality and multiplicity of selfhood and our sense of the way consciousness works. Because we inhabit one body over a single lifetime we have this sense of ourselves as being a unified if malleable entity. But I think that there are competing selves. When I made Be Your Self I was thinking a bit more literally about competing selves, whereas now I think that rather than a whole group of actual competing selves, the nature of selfhood is in the body’s multiplicity. It’s more fractured and there’s more difference than we can understand. I guess the work in some ways is concerned with revealing that and offering the potential for creativity within it, and a sort of fluidity in terms of identity and who we are in the world.

Proximity, ADT Proximity, ADT
photo Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions
The multiple selves don’t necessarily need to be in conflict do they, if they’re creative?

It’s like an ecosystem. We’re all interdependent, making up the totality or depth of an individual. One of the principal sub-concepts behind the work is the notion of the visual. How do we see, particularly when we’re using technologies such as video and photography. We make choices about what we reveal. We frame objects in the world which then creates a set of relationships, some kind of dialogue that’s culturally underpinned. Inherent in the corollary of framing is what do we omit. Also, how do we evaluate what we’re seeing?

These are like neural networks extending beyond the brain.

Yes. The interesting thing about some of these video techniques is that as you’re watching, as an audience member, they affect you neurologically. The effect we call “webbing” for me is really the cornerstone of what Proximity is about, these algorithmic points that connect the bodies in the space and what we see projected is all the complex rhizomatic network of webs that connect bodies. The way that those lines work—because of the algorithms that have been created [by Thomas Pachoud] to make them—gives you a sense that they have pressure and tension. It’s really interesting because it’s a complete illusion; it’s just a visual effect. But you feel like when you’re looking at the images of the dancers on the screen that they’re really connected to each other within these lines. You somehow feel that force and tension yourself. It’s that phenomenon where, when you watch dancers leaping through the air, you empathise with that and neurologically you quasi-experience it.

The mirror-neurons effect. How does the use of the cameras relate to this? Some dancers will have cameras onstage?

The dancers are operating the cameras. There are three of them, two on the stage and one above. The dancers are moving them about and setting them up in terms of focus and positioning. They can actually film themselves once they’ve set up the camera. So someone might be filming someone’s solo and then they’ll leave the camera and go and stand in front of it themselves.

And they appear on a screen and might be multiplied?

There are a whole lot of effects that we’re engaging in over about 70 minutes. I’m trying to find as many different ways as possible to engage the audience in the experience of the ideas I’ve been talking about. I didn’t just want to make a dance piece with really great video. I’ve noticed working with technology in the past that it’s so time consuming and difficult that you can actually get caught up in just that. But like every work it needs to have dramaturgical rigour; that’s really the driver. The technology falls under the service of it. So I’ve also been concerned with not just taking the audience on a conceptual journey but also an emotional journey.

How do you approach that?

With great difficulty. It evolves over time. I tend to have reasonably lengthy rehearsal periods and this one is over four months. I struggled with the idea of having text in the work. In general I like the audience to enter into some kind of mystery that they don’t quite understand. On the other hand, I think with a work that’s using video technology it can easily fall into just an aesthetic. So some of the ideas are expressed in text that’s printed and embroidered onto the costumes and then that’s filmed, magnified on the screens for the audience to read. It’s giving out just enough information.

Is it literal text or lateral, poetic, informational?

At the moment it’s more an expression of neuroscience—factual rather than poetic, about how, in pedestrian language, you might describe the effect of body maps and mirror neurons. But they’re just clues.

And that emotional journey for the audience?

Well, that was the big challenge with Be Your Self. For me, that was the most difficult thing I’d ever made because it was centred on subjectivity and also the way in which emotions function and are conveyed. Suddenly I felt like the work was heading down a dance theatre track, which was very worrying (LAUGHS) because I think you really need to know what you’re doing to handle that. It’s not something I’m adept in, you know, expressing very particular emotional and psychological states through the body in the way that people like Lloyd Newson, Pina Bausch and others are so brilliant at. For me that was really difficult and I spent a lot of time making material and then discarding it because I felt like I’d seen it before. That just chewed up a lot of rehearsal time and in the end I had to make decisions about a way in which to represent those ideas that in some way didn’t smack of modes of expression that I’d seen in dance theatre for years.

Do you feel you’re pushing yourself into new territory?

In some ways, I think, because I’d made Be Your Self, it had eliminated a lot of conundrums in regard to notions of selfhood. I’d already worked through my problems with that.

You have no idea what the work is going to look like when you set out. No idea whatsoever. And of course, as with everything in life, you lay down some kind of structure, some sort of direction, which is really important because that gives you an energy that propels you. But as soon as it starts to manifest, this thing that you thought you were going to make, it turns into something completely different. And certainly this piece has been no exception.


Adelaide Festival, ADT, Proximity, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Feb 25-March 3; www.adelaidefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 10-11

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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