An Evolutionary Revolution

This week I’ve contributed a blog post to  TCG’s Artistic Innovation blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, as part of the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach. The original blog post is here.  I’m really pleased to have been invited to share my thoughts on the ways in which artists might be performing evolutionary work.

An Evolutionary Revolution

Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of the brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience.

(Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 17)


The themes of this year’s TCG conference suggest a continuum from learning to doing to teaching. My experience is that this continuum is circular – that from teaching we loop back to learning – and that perhaps learning and doing are not as distinct as we sometimes are encouraged to believe. I think there is also something particularly unique about artistic modes of being/thinking that might also warrant another, related conversation about how the cycle of learning-doing-teaching that artistic production represents might relate to notions of evolution. Said another way, I think it is possible that the technically and perceptually challenging works artists make might actually be changing our embodied minds and that artists are evolutionary agents of change, not simply ‘teachers’.


In 2010 I completed my PhD at Lancaster University in the UK under a system called Practice-as-Research that does not exist in theater/performance studies departments in American universities (although some programs are starting up). These rigorous, demanding PhDs require students to create new knowledge through the interrelation between practice (doing) and research (learning). Ironically, much of my PhD disrupted the notion that there is a difference between doing and learning/thinking, largely by employing research in the emerging field of embodied cognitive science. My bias as a (now semi-retired) practitioner (whose research happens by doing something spatial, material and collaborative in the world) gave me a specific engagement with material and meaning that was supported by the work of embodied cognitive science. My proposition was that rather than seeing practice as divisible into a subject- object relationship that might allow critical distance, a key component of much performance analysis, there could be another way which values the embedded practical work of theater makers which represents the ways that doing is bound up with knowledge, innovation and even evolution.


Some of this research was supported by Mark Johnson who suggests that being in the world is an essential part of meaning making; that separating how we move from what we move is a false proposition. He says:

What philosophers call “subjects” and “objects” (persons and things) are abstractions from the interactive process of our experience of a meaningful self-in- a-world. It is one of the primary facts of our existence that we are not now and never were, either as infants or throughout human history, alienated from things, as subjects over against objects. There is no movement without the space we move in, the things we move, and the qualities of movement, which are at the same time both the qualities of the world we experience and the qualities of ourselves as doers and experiencers.
(Johnson, 2007: 20)


He goes on to describe the notion that our experiences of moving through the world build the metaphors (he calls these spatial-movement metaphors) through “image-schemas” in the brain that allow us to make meaning of the spaces, objects, people and concepts we encounter (Johnson, 2007: 30, 141-143, 176). The implication here is that being in the world (doing) creates meaning (learning); following this line of logic further, doing and learning/thinking are not distinct realms, but instead are entangled. Johnson is, of course, being purposefully provocative by arguing against the subject-object binary that makes up one of the major conceptions of modern philosophical discourses. But his research is not merely a provocation; it is also supported by the concept of the embodied mind which tells us that “concepts and reason both derive from, and make use of, the sensorimotor system” meaning that “the mind is not separate from or independent of the body” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 555). The embodied mind was key to arguments in my PhD that experience matters when it comes to understanding the world around us. I also proposed that a reversal of what Johnson says may also be true: without learning/thinking there can be no doing, or at least no way of comprehending doing as anything more than empty experience.


In this blog post, I want to talk about how the ideas above might apply to the provocation I started with that artists are somehow engaged in revolutionary, evolutionary work. To understand this provocation I need to first clarify that I follow Lakoff and Johnson (1999: 557-561) in refuting the notion of evolution as rooted in competition or a struggle for success but instead am articulating it as focused on adaptation and change. Lakoff and Johnson unravel, in great detail, the way the survival-of-the-fittest metaphors that underpin what they call the dominant “folk theory” of evolution have been constructed and show that the underlying assumption relies on a conscious “self-interest”. The metaphors that are associated with evolution suggest that in order to succeed, in order to evolve, individuality is required: to get ahead is to go it alone, in the popular metaphorical lingo surrounding evolution. These metaphors rely on an assumption that humans can objectively reflect on their self-interest, but, “the nature of human conceptual systems makes it impossible for us to be objective maximizers of univocal, consistent self-interest” because most of our everyday reasoning happens at an unconscious level (ibid: 559). In their conception of evolution, and in mine, the notion that we are consciously competing to improve has no scientific basis — it is a poor metaphorical construct. The confused metaphors that support self-interest as related to evolution have entered the mainstream and may impact the way people function at a conscious level as a result, but these metaphors are fundamentally broken so I will avoid them in this discussion. Instead, my focus here is on the way art impacts on our cognitive systems of perception and changes the way we perceive, do, think, learn and teach.


The embodied brain has evolved to allow “people to know where and what an object was as well as what it was doing” (Solso, 1996: 189). Knowing what an object is doing, relies on an ability to understand how an object or being relates to its context and what possible meanings it might have; it requires the ability to make connections between past experiences and the potential meanings a situation could have. I propose, following Solso, that artists have long understood this, consciously or unconsciously, and have built “cues” into our artworks that suggest what purpose a given object (or person) might have. In live performance, these cues are all the more tangible as they exist in space and in time unlike cues in painting, photography or sculpture, for instance, where the cues are more or less fixed to a canvas, frame or plinth. Of course, where an artwork is viewed may alter the way cues built into the work are perceived, but the cues are relatively fixed once they are painted/photographed/sculpted.  Because watching a performance involves “being there”, which is much “more vivid, immediate, and intense than imagining being there”, as you do when reading a book or looking at a work of visual art, the array of cues available to theater artists are much more wide-ranging then they are for other artists (Mancing, 2006: 197). In the case of my 2008 multimedia theater piece Virtuoso (working title), for instance, an audience member does not only see the people and objects on stage and on screen; they also make associations between these elements that create meaning out of otherwise fragmentary pieces of stimuli and their perception is affected by their physical proximity to the work. In Virtuoso (working title) three televisions are placed at the downstage edge of the space that are connected to live-feed video cameras on stage (see image below). Depending on the particular angle of the seating in a given venue, the televisions where sometimes unfortunately obscured for some audience members. This drastically changed the way in which they perceived the work, not only because they were aware that they could not see the televisions very well but also because they knew that other audience members in better seats could see the televisions. Undoubtedly, the physical relationship between audience member and performance area affects the way cues are read, and I specifically played with this in the way the live edits from one screen to another were designed (to try and allow for people even with partial views to get the most out of the work). As the creator of Virtuoso (working title), I built in cues to help an audience member understand the relationship between each element and what they might mean: the choice to match the on-screen/on-stage backdrops with the furnishings of a miniature dollhouse on stage was meant to help an audience member associate the miniature world of the dollhouse as seen on screen with the performed world on stage. Whether or not an audience member made this connection for him- or herself, I was nonetheless attempting to link two distinct domains visually for an audience member. I was providing cues to help structure the perception of Virtuoso (working title) and guide it in the direction of my artistic intentions. What I was doing is nothing unique or special – artists do it all the time, consciously or unconsciously in how they craft their scripts, stage their productions and design their sets, lights, soundscapes and costumes.



Virtuoso (working title), 2008 © Peter S Petralia and Proto-type Theater, Ltd.


Merlin Donald (2006: 4), Professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University, describes art as “a specific kind of cognitive engineering” because it is designed to “influence the minds of an audience”. Donald (2006: 3, emphasis original) is specific in noting that he is talking about art in the sense of “music, dance, theater, various multimedia categories (such as opera and cinema), painting, sculpture, aspects of the built environment, and architecture” along with “most forms of written language” but not any of the “broader applications of the word art”. In the case of the dollhouse in Virtuoso (working title), you could say that I was engaging in a “specific kind of cognitive engineering” which sought to alter the spatial perception of the work for an audience member. Whether or not an artist intends to send a specific message or is exploring a formal or intellectual concept, the art they make is nonetheless created partly for the purpose of being perceived by someone (usually other than the artist); by design, art invites a viewer to understand what it was the artist intended. This is the “specific kind of cognitive engineering” to which Donald refers. I would argue that, intentional or not, all theater invites audience members to understand the intentions behind the work, although how an audience member understands it is not fixed. Donald (ibid) goes on to explain that the brain is constantly striving for “the integration of perceptual and conceptual material over time” and that the “canonical example” of the brain’s ability to integrate multi-modal information is “event perception, which can unify a blur of millions of individual sensations of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and emotions into unitary event-percepts”. Art, in this sense, is different than other forms of stimulus like a flower or mathematics which might function in one area of cognition but do not stretch the brain to make connections across neural areas. In the case of intermedial work such as Virtuoso (working title) and the work of artists like Jay Schieb, Big Art Group and the Wooster Group, the embodied brain is actively integrating the “millions of individual sensations” in order to make sense of the spatial/dimensional relationships it encounters. In non-intermedial work, this same thing happens, although it may be less apparent in work that follows more canonical forms that do not incorporate disparate modes of performance (although it can be argued that even the most ‘canonical’ and ‘traditional’ works are also often multi-sensory if not explicitly multi-disciplinary). I believe that this process of integrating multi-modal information not only allows the embodied brain to know more about the situation it is perceiving; it also changes the brain by encouraging neural connections that might not have existed previously.


The provocation I am making that art, particularly theater, changes the brain is based on the notion that the brain stores information distributed across cells, and that meaning evolves by the brain making associations between those cells (“neural networks”) out of the fragmentary information it stores (Solso, 1996: 256-260). By encouraging associations between information stored in disparate parts of the brain (between perceived spatial-sound and physically-experienced space, for instance), artists create new neural networks that may lead to the creation of new schemas that will aid in later perceptive activity. Donald (2006: 6) says that technology allows artists to “alter the distributed cognitive networks of society and change the nature of the work that is done”. Employing technology in theater, in other words, extends the cognitive work that artists are able to do by going beyond existing limits of the human body/brain and thereby fundamentally changing the resulting artworks. Further, “most art is metacognitive in nature”, which is to say that “art is self-reflective” in that it encourages the spectator, witness, and/or participant, to reflect on the intentions of and process of the artist (ibid: 5). Self-reflexivity is a key feature in evolutionary processes as it allows adaptation and change to occur (i.e., we learn through experience and reflecting on our experiences allows us to evolve and change). This self-reflexivity could not be more apparent than it is in intermedial work where an audience member is encouraged to consider the theatrical process and the inherent materiality of the objects and media in the performance.


The very nature of performance invites an audience member to try and understand what it is they are experiencing, no matter what form the performance takes. In a sense, the learn-do-teach cycle maps onto the realm of the audience as experience-consider-discuss. Donald (ibid) notes that self-observation is a natural quality of being human and that this is why art has been so important in defining key moments in history (think “symbols and allegories” that define periods of culture). Thus, Shakespeare’s plays are identified as central aspects of the Elizabethan era, the cave drawings at Lascaux remain as markers of Paleolithic humanity and the intricate carvings on the tombs of Pharaohs are the enduring symbols of Ancient Egypt. Donald is not, however, contradicting Lakoff and Johnson here; he does not suggest that being self-reflexive means we are objectively looking out for our own self-interests. Art allows for self-reflexive behavior that encourages new ways of understanding what it means to be human, and over time, this allows our embodied brains to evolve.


I am suggesting that the attendance at and participation in complex sensorial performance projects stretches the brain’s facilities, allowing new neural connections to be made that literally alter the way we perceive. The specifics of how art impacts cognition are not entirely clear, however. Donald says,

art attacks the mind, not usually through its logical or analytical channels, but more commonly through its senses, passions and anxieties. Under the distant guidance of the artist, the brains of the viewers gather the disparate piece of evidence placed before them, while they draw on their own experiences to reconstruct the artist’s intent. The challenge for the scientist is to interpret the cognitive source of the audience’s perception of the worldview intended in the work. This can rarely be reduced to the solving of simple static stimulus, or to any moment frozen in time. It almost always entails the integration of many complex perceptions over many viewings. Such interpretations are inherently dynamic in nature, and mostly, they engage large-scale neural integration over time. (Donald, 2006: 13)


The problem with isolating just how art alters human cognition does not mean that it does not alter cognition. Donald (2006: 15-16) identifies mimesis as the key evolutionary adaptation that made art possible; by learning to carry out the “four central mimetic abilities” of “mime, imitation, gesture, and the rehearsal of skill” humans evolved the crucial ability to reflect on ourselves. This self-reflexive ability is supported by a “powerful working-memory space” in our brains, which separates us from other species including our closest primate relatives (ibid). In my view, this definition of mimesis encapsulates the conference theme of learn and do; teach is implicit in the demonstration of the impact of the mimetic cycle. The ability to rehearse our skills but remain adaptive is perhaps the most important aspect of human evolution: we do not simply learn lines and rehearse staging; we learn to adapt those elements when something goes wrong. In my experience of being a theater artist the thing that has gone wrong, that has required skillful adaptation, has been the thing that has led me back into that circle of learning-doing-teaching: just as I think I ‘knew something’ that I could count on, I discovered that I had so much more to learn. This is the great joy of being alive and engaged in being an artist; there is no end to what we can learn, and the more that learning occurs, the more the doing changes.


The proposition I make here, then, is that theater artists are doing lasting cognitive work when we make theater. I am not a cognitive scientist, nor am I a neurologist, but it seems possible that as artists we have a unique opportunity to shape the experience of thinking/doing that our audience members engage in, and that we may be doing more than just challenging, entertaining and provoking with the work we make. In a climate where funding is slim, arts programs are being cut in schools and audiences are not always eager to be challenged, we need to be brave in our role as evolutionary guides. As we reflect on our practice as artists (reflection being a form of learning), I think we should consider the great responsibility we have to make work that challenges, excites and inspires an evolution of the world in which we live. It is easy to feel disempowered by reports of theater’s marginality in society, but I think this is often used as an excuse to be timid in our artistic choices. Our role as evolutionary agents of change suggests we have more power than we might sometimes think. Let’s use it.



One Comment

Rebecca Mae Makus April 30, 2013

God I love it when you say exactly what I’ve been feeling.