Feeling Space

by Clarinda Mac Low

Last Sunday I was eating Thai food with my friend James when, suddenly, I lost my sense of spatial perception. Everything in front of me looked flat and stubbornly two-dimensional, yet animated and very colorful, like a picture on a video or computer monitor. I grasped my plate, I felt the outlines of my water glass, but I couldn’t connect the sensation of those three dimensions with the flat world my eyes were seeing—they seemed to be two completely separate experiences. This moment of disorientation didn’t last long, but it was profoundly novel and exciting, if a bit disturbing. It was like seeing truth, or the bones of reality. After all, what you see is a translation of light hitting surfaces. This is not the same as the thing itself, or even the sensation of the touch of the thing itself. the three-dimensional sensation of seeing is an illusion, a trick, a brain flip.

On Thursday of this week, I started reading an essay by Rosalyn Deutsche called “Reasonable Urbanism,” about how the concept of social space is constructed, and about the idea of “space” itself. In the essay, she dissects the different methods and schools of thought around the ideas of place and space. I found her questioning of space and place fully as disorienting as the vertigo I experienced with my Thai food. What is a “place?” What creates “public” and “private?” The actual perceived parameters of a space can change just through what we imagine the place is. In other words—don’t believe your eyes.

Slingshotting back to the beginning of the week; on Monday, I went to see three performances at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City. The performances were part of a series of regular Monday night showings of work in process sponsored by Movement Research. In the first piece on the program, by Kayoko Nakajima in collaboration with Elise Knudsen and Mark Messer, one section evolved into a trio based in contact improvisation. I have been watching contact improvisation for about 25 years, and for most of that time it was a consistent part of my dance practice. Watching the trio, I found I could literally not see it. The form was too familiar to me—I could not locate my kinesthetic sense of the movement—I couldn’t “feel” it, so I couldn’t see it.

I was sitting with Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad (also known as the leaders of Body Cartography), and I asked them about their experience of the piece. They also are practitioners of contact improvisation, and even teach it at times. However, watching it in performance, they both had a similar experience—it was hard to see. Olive remarked that, for her, the constantly shifting bodies and the somewhat prescribed methods of getting from one position to the next sometimes removes all the surprise of discovery from the movement. She had difficulty locating her own center among the shifting intertwined centers of the dancers. Otto pointed out that, “It’s hard to put rigor into a form that’s about relaxing.” While the three of us surely know that contact improvisation is not exactly about “relaxing,” it is difficult to identify the communication outward in a form that is so focused inward on the bodies touching yours.

The point being—I had the same experience there of being unable to identify what was in front of me, of being able to see. At this performance there just happened to be a lecture class of about 200 students from an Art and Public Policy class from New York University taught by Dr. Randy Martin. I kept wondering what they were seeing, and imagining how different it was from what I was seeing. Their bodies and minds, 20 years younger, very possibly not at all involved with dancing, perhaps completely new to watching dance, from a completely different era of seeing and perceiving, were clearly extremely different from my body and mind.

As in Ms. Deutche’s essay, it brings up the question—what is seeing? What is a performance when each person’s perspective is so different? Is it possible for something—an action, a situation, a choreography, a set of events—that barely exists for one person to be strikingly visible and vital to another person? Life experience actually changes your eyes, so that what you see is not only determined by how light reflects off an object, but how that object lives in your memory and consciousness.

Ms. Deutsche discusses how spaces take on different talismanic significances for different people—how a place that is tremendously charged for one person is absolutely inconsequential to another. This is also true of events that take place in performance. There are some events that lose their savor through repeated viewing. There are also performance events, and especially performers, who take on tremendous significance through familiarity, history, friendship, mythology… . The charged event or person remains meaningless to the uninitiated. The communication never extends beyond the boundaries of one little world, but is immensely important within certain social parameters.

What does it take to become visible? To be relevant? To take on three dimensions, or even four? These questions may in fact be the crux of this whole performance conundrum. Are they actually even too elementary? I’ll come back to it next week, with some more in depth exploration of a few of the ideas brought up here.

Next week: Wittgenstein, color perception and urban space…and, oh yes, performance.

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