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contact & dons

To mix bodies and technologies :
                           new perceptive waves

Mélissa Bertrand

In his book, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (1958), Gilbert Simondon mentions a general misreading of technical objects. According to him, our culture praises esthetical objects to the cost of technical ones because technical objects are misunderstood and excluded by a kind of xenophobia. Consequently, culture encourages a complex relationship based on fear and contempt  :

La culture comporte ainsi deux attitudes contradictoires envers les objets techniques : d’une part, elle les traite comme de purs assemblages de matière, dépourvus de vraie signification, et présentant seulement une utilité. D’autre part, elle suppose que ces objets sont aussi des robots et qu’ils sont animés d’intentions hostiles envers l’homme, ou représentent pour lui un permanent danger d’agression, d’insurrection. Jugeant bon de conserver le premier caractère, elle veut empêcher la manifestation du second et parle de mettre les machines au service de l’homme, croyant trouver dans la réduction en esclavage un moyen sûr d’empêcher toute rébellion. 1

This is a real alienation issue : as men fear machines, they want to dominate them and make them serve him. This analysis brings one of the main problems of the era of new technologies integrated to performative arts and helps us to understand such radical processes as those developed by the Australian Stelarc  who campaigns for a world in which the body erases itself in front of the power of cyborgs and in which people crossbreed themselves with technologies. We still can think that there’s alternatives to this binary relationship, to this constant face-to-face. But the questions raised goes beyond the simple notion of alienation, and we should wonder what are the bodies of our time, what are the bodies that we want to show. Can technologies make us feel – or perceive – bodies without erasing them, distorting them, transforming them ?

This is one of the interrogations at the heart of Isabelle Choinère’s process in her performance Phase 5. To begin with, we can note that Isabelle Choinière is an interdisciplinary researcher, mediatic creator, choreographer and dancer. Since 2005, she started researches on the collective, physical and sounded body. In a very phenomenological approach, she’s looking for an harmony between performative body and technologies as she explain in Archée, in november 2016 In her work, technologies are used in the aim to emerge an immersive space that boosts the perception of the body. We are no longer in a rationality of alienation, but rather searching for other ways to express the body in all its aspects – organic and concrete or malleable, short-lived and elusive.

First, we’ll notice that sensuality and sensoriality are present in this performance that brings together five dancers, with their bodies entangled, constituting a collective and moving organism like Louise Boisclair wrote in Inter, 2008.

Between flesh, entrails and breathings, Phase 5 gives us the opportunity to feel the intimacy and interiority of the body.

But this body also has epiphanic dimension. It appears and disappears, always escaping from our attempt to define it. We can clearly perceive it and it suddenly vanishes, floating, incrustably and uncategorizably.

 

 


Phase 5, Isabelle Choinière, Suyama Space, Seattle, USA, Novembre 2016 – Photography by Leïla Cassar

In front of these naked bodies that wake up and wipe out, move and contaminate each other, the spectator can be disconcerted because, in Phase 5, the carnal and organic dimension is very present even though the body isn’t distinguishable. Isabelle Choinière makes us feel more than she makes us see. She’s challenging our cognitive analysis that wants to bring together again what is exploded, she wants us to enter the intimacy of a visceral form. First, bodies are naked, but not exposed, not reified. They are tangled in a way that makes them unclear, although their nakedness is obvious. As the researcher Andrea Davidson is explaining it, in Archée, November 2016 this destabilization of the cognitive turns these naked bodies in asexual bodies :

« In creating the conditions and a specific mediated environment for establishing an empathic sensory relationship of bodies-to-bodies, lsabelle Choinière develops strategies that both deflect the cognitive act seeking to identify a pure choreographic form or narrative mode, and temper, if not neutralize, the voyeuristic or eroticized gaze between subject and object. » 2

From then on, the spectator enters the private sphere of intimacy which doesn’t mean sexuality. He is in touch with a living form that is unidentified and mysterious, that reminds him of his own body without being identified. The fact that faces are rarely recognizable or observable blurs the perception. Even though the body is very present, it’s not a question of anthropomorphism anymore. However, our feeling of intimacy increases because spectators – in a limited number – are seating very close to performers. The sound and immersive space, of which we will talk more precisely later, is conceived to embrace the audience. For this reason, spectators must seat around the performers, sometimes at only twenty inches from them. Indeed, like in some Claude Régy’s shows, modelled on La Barque le soir (2012) 3, presented again at Théâtre des Amandiers (Nanterre, France, le 10/03/2016), the experience can only work with a limited number of people in the audience because they must be located in a perimeter that helps to feel us immersed. The distance would makes this almost carnal meeting with this faceless being impossible.

The sensible proximity is also increased by the fact that Isabelle Choinière wants to make us feel the limit between inside and outside. If sound and space are data that is usually perceived as an outside interference, Phase 5 reminds us that we are in constant communication with our internal organism.  Thus, the artist-researcher worked a lot on sounds produced by breathing, that symbolizes this constant exchange between one and the world. To create this new perceptive space, she sat up a kinesthetic way of learning (conscience of the position and the movement) and a somatic one (corporal perceptions) working by stages. The body has to learn progressively to be attentive to technologies, and more precisely to the feedback they are offering to him, so performers can get out of an utilitarian or enslaving relationship.  Dancers develop a new contact to their environment – the collective body and the immersive technology – working by levels, or rather by tracing papers placed one on the top of the other. Even if it seems obvious, the first step is crucial : one has to feel its physical body, to make its breathing circulate, to work on its corporal pattern. At first, it’s a work oriented on oneself. Then, the dancer has to open to others, touch, experience and feel the breathing of another body, the one that is the closest.

Those first work steps are thus described by the dancer Eliza Harsson, one of the performer of Phase 5 :

« In this rehearsal, we started off with breathing in a child like pose with our partners’ hands on the back. We were breathing in different parts of our back and switching places, experimenting our partners’ breathing. From there, we tried to find a position, so we could all be connected. In the first days it was very challenging because we couldn’t find a position for us to be in. Some of us had all the body’s weight on us, some of us had none of the body’s weight on us. And so, our experiences on the first days were very radically different experiences depending on where we were in the shape and on the sensations of weight and being in contact with bodies and all the emotionality that comes up. » 4

This testimony about the method used by Isabelle Choinière shows us how the body is explored nor as a human body, neither as a feminine body, but as an organism experiencing its environment (space, sound, technologies, contact with other bodies…).

Eventually, we can say that in this immersive and sensorial space, bodies meet in kind of moving and flexible connections and disconnections. The immersion in this sound and technological world is very lively, we can have the feeling that this collective body is working by urges, shivers, frictions, echoes… Contact becomes connections, impacts, electrical tremors. If we talk about collective organism, we still can draw a parallelism that seems at first paradoxical, with the theory of the body without organ proposed by Gilles Deleuze in Francis Bacon : La Logique de la sensation (1981). In this book, Deleuze draws his inspiration from the work of Antonin Artaud (Le théâtre et son double, 1938) to allude to a body that exist in a kind of intensity, rhythm and hysterical convulsions. The body without organs doesn’t lack organs but we should understand that it on the level of forces and sensations, not according to a strict and logical organization, but peculiar to the organism. It’s an extreme vitality that embraces the body. Organs are not anymore determined or this determination doesn’t last : their function (mouth, stomach, anus, etc.) is visible only at the moment they are crossed over by the wave that animates them; that is what Deleuze calls hysteria. Hysteria expresses itself through contractures and paralysis that responds – on a metaphorical and not medical point of view – to the passing of a nervous wave.

Thus, in Phase 5 bodies contaminate each other. We are in front of a ball of physical energy that contracts itself and they release without us being able to identify it. Technologies are serving the exploration of corporeality or of the organism in a larger acceptance of the word, not meaning the body in itself, often associate to a certain person. This is the reason why Isabelle Choinière encourages this reconnection to the visceral, the intimacy, and the interior.

 

 


Phase 5, Isabelle Choinière, Suyama Space, Seattle, USA, Novembre 2016 – Photographie de Leïla Cassar

 

For all that, we can’t say that Phase 5 is only making us feel the corporeality. The artist-creator is also presenting us with what we can call epiphanic bodies. We are endlessly put out of our tentative to define or to understand – physically and intellectually – this corporal and technological form. We can have the feeling that bodies are escaping, vanishing before reappearing clearly.

This sensation is linked to the use of technologies to manipulate sounds but also the fact that technologies are not visible. The mike that all the dancers wear, sticks to their nose and can’t really be seen. The sensors that give the wifi signal to the technicians are also hidden behind a black headband that hold the dancer’s hair. Thus, technologies are used to create an access to a new perception of the body but they are not the main subject of the performance and the way they’re disguised let us face our sensations. We are sort of excluded of the process of sounds transformation and we only see the result, that is to say this imbrication of flesh bodies and “bodies of sounds”, an idea invented by Isabelle Choinière.

To understand this concept, it’s interesting to analyze more precisely the approach developed by the artist/researcher. While the dancers all wear a mike that receives the signal of their breathing and all the other sounds they are producing, five speakers are placed in the room: one above them, at the center of the roof, the four other surrounding it. The space is marked out by the sound projected by the speakers that create a sort of virtual dome. Isabelle Choinière starts by working with the dancers’ body, then uses the technologies, and eventually goes back to perceptions, all this includes a very developed notion of space. To make this process successful, dancers first have to be in a state of insecurity, loosing their landmarks in a sensorial haze. Even though there’s a pattern of creating a temporal evolution, the performance works mainly with research and improvisation based on multi-sensorial principles of auto-organization, which is described by Glenna Batson, in her article  L’éducation somatique dans le milieu de la danse (2009) 6. Dancers must constantly leave the comfort of a steady choreography to make physical and sound experiences. Hence, the classic idea of choreography is abandoned in favor of an explorative and freer pattern, including movements, production of sounds, and an emotive and psychological dimension. It’s an interdisciplinary; contemporary and performative conception of choreography that also implies the realm of neuroscience and physiology.

Since 1994, with her show Communion Isabelle Choinière is working on the emergence of this perturbative space linked to sounds. She already mentioned her concept of "corps sonore ”, that is analyzed, in collaboration with her, by Enrico Pitozzi about La Démence des Anges another show by the searcher/artist : « Ce corps sonore n’était pas un double, mais bien une nouvelle manifestation issue d’un apprentissage proprioceptif – donc fondé sur ses propres sens – amené par l’influence de la technologie comme élément de déstabilisation ».  The aim of this approach, that guides the work of Isabelle Choinière, is to put an end to repetition, to let unexpected phenomena happen, to make us aware of our sensations. With the bodies of sounds we evolve toward a wider conception of the body as the physical and anthropomorphic one. The body becomes corporeality, spatial projection and movement; it’s presence is evanescent.

  



Video: La démence des anges, Isabelle Choinière, 1999-2005

 

Let’s expand a little bit more on the effect produced by this body mediated by technologies, this sounds, swaying, elusive body. First, there’s a consciousness of the body by the performers thanks to the distribution of sounds in space, because the sounds are produced by themselves even though they drift in the space. The passing through technological interface – specially created for this research/creation – helps them to consider their body in a different way. This interface, is composed of two I-Pads and a program allows the technicians to select, to group or to separate the sounds, which works in WIFI. It also serves as spatialization of sound giving us the feeling that it’s coming from one spot and going to another one. Sounds can also be amplified, reduced or modify directly. This movement of sound on the stage produced by the interface make us feel that the body isn’t only material and concrete, it also fills space, it can spread away and create connection with other people without the physical contact, almost by vibrations. Our senses increase in this round relationship between body, space, sounds and technologies. There’s no more conflict but a common quest because technologies reveal the virtual. They underline the fact that perception is this tiny and vast crossing point between one and the world, between inside and outside, between the real and the virtual which are tangled. This experience reminds us of our relationship to the world that can be thought of a multitude of transitional areas that overlaps and echoes. This method is invented by Isabelle Choinière and so synthetized according to her words in Archée, novembre 2016 :

 « Le corps sonore sur lequel je travaille est donc une émanation, une dilatation du corps réel qui en constitue une vibration à laquelle les performeuses se réfèrent sensoriellement pour composer la partition. J’insiste sur le fait que ce corps sonore n’est pas un double, mais bien une nouvelle manifestation du corps physique issue d’un apprentissage kinesthésique amené par l’influence de la technologie comme élément de déstabilisation extéroceptif. » 7

This epiphany of corporeality concerns mainly the performers that are trained by Isabelle Choinière to define their different perceptive steps. The empathy developed during the first exercises of position and breathing – that we mentioned at the beginning of the article – allows a first wave of intercoporeality, that is to say the possibility to project oneself in a stranger’s body, to enable echoes between different bodies. The dancer feels her body and the body of one of her closest partner. The point is not to forget one’s body but rather to expand one’s perception. This work goes further to form a collective organism with the group. Eventually, the last step is the acceptance of the mediated body, of the transformed body and of the body revealed by new technologies.

The dancer Tahni Holt talks about a “thickness” of the performance because of these multiple sensorial layers:

« The addition of the level of the stimulation of touch, the level of choreography, the level of the feedback of sounds that I’m receiving, it all creates a thickness that I haven’t experienced in other performances. It’s thicker because there are more stimulations happening at the same time. Being touch by myself on the floor, and by four other people, the reverb of sounds and the kind of movements that I’m suppose to make create this thickness. » 8

The dancer Tahni Holt talks about a “thickness” of the performance because of these multiple sensorial layers:

This thickness is linked to the sudden understanding of the various forms of the body that makes it moving. The all work on sound and space enable the creation of an area that is disconnected from the daily life and in which our body can extend itself, making unclear our usual perception of the body. The environment produced by sounds that link bodies and technologies helps the appearance of this perceptive shift. This extended body, this “mediated one”8 as Isabelle Choinière described it in the class she was giving this autumn in UQAM, is compatible with the flesh body. We can remind us that the flesh, according to Merleau-Ponty, is a meeting point and that, in this context, it’s all about the meeting of the real, physical body to the mediated one. The two of them are complementary because dancers should feel their physical body at the same time they feel their body extended in the space, tangled with other’s in a wider perception.

This loss of landmarks also affect the audience. Spectators, seating close to the performers, are also covered by the virtual sound dome. The proximity of bodies and the fact that it’s hard to delimitate them make the spectator able to project himself, to create links of intercorporeality with dancers, and even with some other members of the audience as one of them, Oscar Velasco Schmitt, explains it :

I started to feel that I was breathing with the person next to me. Not only I could hear the sounds that were coming from the speakers but also the sounds that was coming from the humans that were near me. I definitely felt included and at some point I was also losing my sense of self, as I was watching this. 9

We can feel in those words that a phenomenon of projection and empathy is developed during the performance and that it’s all about experimenting corporeality for one’s own. As the primary source of sounds (the performers) is as close to the spectator as the second one (the speakers), he goes back and forth between his physical body and his virtual, immaterial, extended body. Hence, he should lose himself and disconnect from his habits to be part of the performance in his own way.

Another spectator, T.S. Flock, art critic, tells us about the perceptive turn offered by technologies in this Phase 5:

I would say it make more accessible perception that we could have. I think we are capable of having that awareness of this different ways of being even though we’re might not be able to empathize with a single organism – I mean we can barely empathize with other people… So we can personify other organisms but often, when we use that term of “personification” we’re assuming they’re not like aware or even that they are not organic. It’s silly because even if you’re personifying a tree, or a tower, or any static object, they are all things that are changing in time and they are also containing so many things that are living and changing with themselves. So, as long as we’re a being that evolve in time, we can all have this awareness. Unfortunately, because we’re even just a little aware of our emotional and physical being, it becomes more difficult for that. But the technology facilitated that.  10

Thus, it’s a return to sensations, to a more primary self that is closest to the body and its perceptions. In this performance technologies are far from being non-organic. They have us to return to this initial “awareness”. This is precisely this sudden understanding of a body different from the material one allows us to speak about epiphanic bodies. This use of technologies underlines the existence of a larger definition of the body than the one we’re used to. But this new awareness still elliptic and it’s linked to our capacity to escape from our logical search of the defined and the known forms.

 

 


Phase 5, Isabelle Choinière, Suyama Space, Seattle, USA, Novembre 2016 – Photography by Leïla Cassar

 

In Phase 5, the undetermined shape of bodies enables us to perceive their limit. Thus, our attention is drawn to the way in which they affect each other, in the manner the voices echo each other and the muscles are either bound or released. Everything seems to be ordered by a phenomenon of repercussion. There’s almost something viral in the relationship of contamination of a part of the body by another one or by a sound. More than the bodies themselves, what we care about is their unexpected assemblage according to a new perceiving logic. There is a ontological shift : the body isn’t anymore a simple physical one, but it also has something moving, elusive, dynamic, extended, and one that embraces the multitude of potentialities. One could say Isabelle Choinière and her team succeed to create an immersive environment in which technologies and body are revealing to each other in a positive relationship of perceiving discoveries. Earthly body (physical, material, anthropological body) and corporeality (projected and virtual body) complete each other thanks to the phenomenological relationship developed by technologies. Poetry, digital technology, connected body and wifi connection are working together in a logic of exploration of our link to the world. The organic and intimate aspect is also felt as the evanescent dimension of what we called epiphanic bodies.

  

 


Phase 5, Isabelle Choinière, Suyama Space, Seattle, USA, Novembre 2016 – Photography by Leïla Cassar

 

  

Notes

1. Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, Paris, Aubier, 2012, p.11.

2. Andréa Davidson, « Mediated bodies and Intercorporeality: Isabelle Choinière's Flesh Waves », revue l’Archée, consulté en ligne le 18/12/2016

3. Claude Régy, La Barque le soir, d'après Båten om Kvelden de Tarjei Vesaas, créé en 2012.

4. Eliza Harsson, artiste et danseuse basée à Portland, danseuse dans Phase 5 d’Isabelle Choinière, interviewée au cours d’une répétition au Suyama Space, le 18/11/2016, par Leïla Cassar et Mélissa Bertrand.

5. Giles Deleuze, Francis Bacon – La logique de la sensation, Paris, Edition du Seuil, 2002, p.48.

6. Glenna Batson « L’éducation somatique dans le milieu de la danse » In: International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (I.A.D.M.S.), 2010, consulté en ligne le 17/12/2016. Publication originale en anglais en 2009.

7. Isabelle, Choinière, (2013) For a methodology of transformation: at the crossing of the somatic and the technology, to become other…,In: Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, vol. 5, n° 1, Bristol, Angleterre, Intellect Journals: 95112. En français et en ligne.

8. Tahni Holt, danseuse basée à Portland, danseuse dans Phase 5 d’Isabelle Choinière, interviewée au cours d’une répétition au Suyama Space, le 18/11/2016, par Leïla Cassar et Mélissa Bertrand.

9. Oscar Velasco Schmitt, 39 ans, ingénieur dans les technologies, basé à Seattle, Etats-Unis, interviewé après la seconde présentation de Phase 5 par Leïla Cassar et Mélissa Bertrand.

10. T.S. Flock, 35 ans, critique d’art, Seattle, Etats-Unis, interviewé après la première présentation de Phase 5 par Leïla Cassar et Mélissa Bertrand.

  

Biography

Mélissa Bertrand is a master degree student in Theater at La Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris), in exchange at the Univesity of Mondreal (2012-2017). She also assists as an unregistered student to some class given at University of Quebec in Montreal, where she met Isabelle Choinière. Directed by Josette Féral, she’s working on the way body and technologies affect each other on the contemporary stage and how they create new textures, sensations and perceptions. After two years in “classes pérparatoires aux grandes écoles”, she obtains a bachelor degree in Modern Literature and in Theater Studies. At the same time as her studies, she’s a stage director in her own company and cares about contemporary writings.

 

 

 

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Cette publication a été rendu possible grâce au soutien financier d'Hexagram, du groupe de recherche des arts médiatiques (GRAM), de la Faculté des arts de l'UQAM, ainsi qu'à une subvention, pour une quatorzième année consécutive, du Conseil des arts du Canada (CAC).