The digital divide

Drawing the line between mind and brain; thought and experience.

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Photo: Jim Carmody.

I often ruminate on how the human experience is perceived by the mind and how that is different from the physicality of that experience. Sometimes we need to draw lines in order to describe the differences. We are not only defined by the difference between the two, mind and body, but rather by the way in which we connect the two. I used to think all things worked in twos, the ying and yang, male and female. In a way I still do, but what I’ve come to realize is that some people, some situations are more fragmented, and that too much fragmentation can cause one to loose a sense of connectedness, a sense of self. The opposite of fragmentation is probably unification when it comes to the body-mind experience. A project I worked on recently showed me how to value a clear distinction between being predominantly mental, and being focused on my physical body.

I recently toured with the Patricia Rincon Dance Collective in Switzerland. BODYPARTS was one of two touring pieces. I was performing in it and was also the projection designer. When I created the original video projection design for BODYPARTS in 2011, in collaboration with choreographer Patricia Rincon, I was not performing in the piece. I was focusing on how the projections told part of the body’s story, revealing parts of the skeleton a dancer was focusing on with their movement, fading through images of bone marrow cells and arteries. There was live feed video of a dancer interacting with a skeleton, which I integrated¬† live during the performances using the Video Projection Tool. It was a magical and mesmerizing experience. Now my task was to simplify the projections so that I could perform. I re-shot the live-feed video portions and got a new sound mix from sound designer Melanie Chen. I edited everything to create a Quicktime movie that our assigned technician could simply play at each theater.

Of course, not all things went as planned during the preparations for the tour and I quickly found myself in the position of having to switch back and forth between being a video technician and a dance performer. Plus all the video had to be re-masked at each performance space. It soon became clear that performing and projection design required a very different use of my body and of my mind. Working on the projections was definitely a task requiring me to be logical and precise, while my body was still and my muscles were getting cold. In contrast, dancing required my muscles to be warm and fire rapidly and my mind to be flexible between set choreography, improvisation and connecting with the other dancers.

While I’m performing, a significant proportion of my attention is given to being physically in tune with the other dancers, like an instrument. Dancing requires a flexible awareness and a sharp kinesthetic focus that is different from the focus on numbers and physical stillness of working on projection design. These two different states were so fundamentally different in my experience that I found myself needing to make a very clear switch between the two modalities. I also needed to give myself the time to make the switch from being in my head to being in my body. If I didn’t take this time, there was a significant increase in the risk of me making a mistake in the choreography.

During one of the rehearsals, I had just finished making adjustments to the video projections and quickly jumped up and started moving again to review a section of choreography. This was a quartet we called “insert” in which we would insert a limb through the negative space formed by the shapes of the other dancers in a fast-paced sequence, requiring physical precision and attention to everyone’s timing. On this occasion, I didn’t see that one of the dancer’s was late with one of her movements. I moved based on the timing of the other dancers, whom I could see, and my own internal memory of the timing, but I hit my fellow dancer on her head with my foot. Agreeably, her timing was off, and we resolved the timing issue as a group. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I had I taken the time to slow my mind down, get centered in my body and feel the connection with the other dancers, I would have probably noticed her change in timing and immediately made an adjustment in my timing. There is something important that I learned about being present with the connection between me and the other dancers before jumping in.

What is it about being in our bodies that allows us to connect with others and shape those connections? Based on my experience, this is something that does not happen when we are absorbed by a screen. Especially if we are programming or doing a task that requires our full attention. But, is the same issue present when we communicate with other people via Facebook or any form of social media?

I think about how screens have transformed the way we think, the way we socialize, even the way we go about our day. There is something very disturbing when I see kids sitting in the same room, each on their own screen, talking to each other about what they are seeing, but hardly ever looking at each other. They are not learning to read each others body language. There are the advertisements for video conferencing applications such as Skype and Apple’s FaceTime or Google Hangout, larger teleconferencing systems for groups, all providing us different ways in which we can “connect” using a screen. Are we still in our bodies when having a video conference with someone else? If it’s happening in real time, and both people still reading each others gestures? Are we as responsive with our body language as in a conversation in person? Will future technologies address this issue? How?

In the end, I am interested in how this body-mind experience translates to motion capture and dance film as a camera operator/choreographer/director and when it comes to an audience’s experience. Will my audience have as much kinesthetic empathy as they do when they see a live performance? How does this compare to when they see a Hollywood feature film? There are many ways to answer these questions, but it is promising to see that the techniques filmmakers have discovered to enlarge details, change time, and use sound and color correction to craft our viewing experience are techniques now being employed in dance film.

By the end of the tour, my question changed and I began to ask myself how the switch from a logical focus to a fluid somatic embodied focus happens. What happens biochemically during this transition or “switch”? Switching is certainly more defined the more times I do it, and I can switch more consciously now than before. How do my body-mind connections learn how to do this? Questions for another day and another project.

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