An evolutionary revolution

This is something that I cut out of my PhD in the process of making corrections after my VIVA. I have been thinking about the ideas in this excerpt again, so thought I’d post it here to see what people think. Obviously, some of it won’t make sense since the chapters aren’t in this excerpt, but I’m interested in what people think of the ideas. I know it relies too heavily on Donald, but I’ll work on that. Thinking of turning this into something publishable on its own.

It is rough, btw…so be gentle.

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)


Throughout this thesis I have suggested that by employing embodied cognitive science we learn something new about the way space is experienced and understood in performance. Over the course of conducting my research, I have discovered that there may also be a substantial evolutionary impact created by the technically and perceptually challenging works I have described: our perception of space might not only be theoretically or philosophically altered by art; our embodied minds mind actually be changing as a result of experiencing these performances. 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 (ibid) 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. If self-interest was the primary driver in how we adapt then drug addiction and over-work, for instance, would not be such prevalent social ills.  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 in which we perceive.

In Chapter One, I briefly touch on the evolution of the human hearing system and note that the oldest part of our hearing system is largely concerned with locating a potential predator or prey in space. I also note that the brain evolved to allow for more complex usages of sonic data that reach beyond simply surviving. This pattern of evolution is consistent throughout all of the perceptive systems of the body; 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. Artists have long understood this, consciously or unconsciously, and have built “cues” into their artworks that suggest what purpose a given object (or person) might have (ibid). 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.[1] 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 theatre artists are much more wide-ranging then they are for other artists (Mancing, 2006: 197). In the case of 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 and their perception is affected by their physical proximity to the work.[2] 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 the miniature dollhouse on stage was meant to help an audience member associate the miniature world of the dollhouse 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.

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”.[3] 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. In each of the pieces I discuss in this thesis, the artists are inviting an audience member 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”.[4] In the case of intermedial work such as Whisper and Virtuoso (working title) and the telematic rehearsal process of Tomorrow’s Legs and Berries and Bulls, I have asserted that the work the embodied brain is doing is exactly as Donald articulates it, but with specific relation to space: the embodied brain, in my examples, is integrating the “millions of individual sensations” in order to make sense of the spatial relationships it encounters. 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 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.[5] The works I cite also all use technology, which Donald (2006: 6) says, allows artists to “alter the distributed cognitive networks of society and change the nature of the work that is done”. Employing technology in art, 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. This is clear in the case of Tomorrow’s Legs and Berries and Bulls, where the process of working telematically altered the resulting dance by changing the way space was used in the public performances. Tomorrow’s Legs and Berries and Bulls would not have even been possible without SKYPE given the geographic distance between the collaborators. In the case of Whisper the technology literally touched each audience member physically via the headphones, but it also gave them access to a world of sound that was not audibly present without the aid of technology (i.e., the headphones). By constructing Whisper to work only on headphones, it also meant that I was challenged as its director to encourage performances that were subtle enough that the microphones could amplify them, but that an audience member without headphones would hear little or none of the performance; the technology altered the creation of the work and the resulting perceptual experience. In Virtuoso (working title) the technology was at the heart of the way the performers moved through the space: their relationship to the camera dictated nearly every move they made, thereby creating choreographed movement that would not have happened otherwise.

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. 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).[6] Thus, Shakespeare’s plays are identified as central aspects of the Elizabethan era, the cave drawings at Lascaux remain as markers of Palaeolithic humanity and the intricate carvings on the tombs of Pharaohs are the enduring symbols of Ancient Egypt. Art allows for self-reflexive behaviour that encourages new ways of understanding what it means to be human, and over time, this allows our embodied brains to evolve. My interest here is not primarily about the way art marks history for future generations, but instead about the way art effects cognition contemporaneously.

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.[7] 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). 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. You could say that in every example of practice that I have described in this thesis, the thing that has gone wrong, that has required skilful adaptation, is the configuration of space.

The proposition I make here, then, is that by experimenting with new configurations of space and by articulating those new configurations in the way I have throughout this thesis, lasting cognitive work is being done. By considering the possibility that stereo-surround sound channelled through headphones might move space into the head of the listener, I am not only making a playful metaphorical provocation: I am also suggesting that this provocation might change the way an audience member of Whisper interacts with and understands other sonically induced spatial environments. It may even impact, subtly, on the way that audience member interacts with real spaces. Similarly, by using the pixel, a screen-based referent, as a tool for understanding the complex both and relationships of the screen space and the stage space in Virtuoso, I am suggesting that cognitive shifts might be at work in terms of the way mixed scaled, intermedial work is understood spatially. Virtuoso (working title) might even be starting the process of changing its audience member’s relationship to screen space. And in my suggestion that there is a materiality to the in-between space of the telematic rehearsal room in Tomorrow’s Legs and Berries and Bulls, I am proposing that human-computer interactions are fundamentally shifting the meaning of space, especially in relation to rehearsal processes. I am not a cognitive scientist, nor am I a neurologist, but it seems possible that the work I have done in this thesis might suggest that the way space is perceived is changing (indeed our embodied brains are changing) and that as artists we have a unique opportunity to shape the direction these changes take.

[1] 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.

[2] In the case of Virtuoso (working title), for instance, the televisions are placed at the downstage edge of the space. 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, for one, played with this specifically 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).

[3] 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”. He provides a detailed overview of the various stages of evolution in relation to art in his books Origins of the Mind (Donald, 1991) and A Mind So Rare (Donald, 2001).

[4] 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.

[5] See footnote number 103 for more on schemas.

[6] 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.

[7] For more on mimesis in relation to art/evolution and the way art has become “thoughtful” in relation to cognition, see Stafford (2007).


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