Imagine that the brain - so heavy with its own importance - is not alone in the generation of knowledge. Imagine instead that the ‘brain’ is distributed throughout the body, spreading across its various systems. Imagine brain functions that nestle in our neural pathways and in our sensorimotor capacities, that thread down our spines, or pump stress hormones through our endocrine system. Imagine that our brain is dispersed and alive within and throughout the flesh and sinew of our body.
Primavera 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) proposes just this. Drawing on the rapidly expanding field of cognitive science known as embodied cognition, which posits that the creation of knowledge might first begin in the body, rather than in the brain, the works in this exhibition occupy the threshold between the body and the outside world. Situated on this threshold, each of the works provides opportunities for the artwork to communicate directly with the viewer’s body.
This exhibition exploits the body’s porosity. It encourages the artworks to connect with the sensory or affective capacities of different bodily systems. Beginning with the most prominent of our openings, the respiratory system, and concluding in the secretive conclave of the limbic system, this exhibition reminds us that perception is ultimately embodied - generated by the dynamic interplay between the mind and the body - and that meaning can be created at any point throughout our vast and varied bodily systems.
As aerobic creatures, we can only survive with oxygen. It is a condition of our existence and as such our respiratory system is the most fundamental of our bodily systems. Air enters our body through our well-evolved openings and becomes part of our physiology, with each breath proving our connectedness to our context.
We humans are so finely evolved to the particular make-up of our air, that a shift in its quality would kill us. Entering the gallery, the architecture becomes like the skin on our body, with the entrance its respiratory threshold. But released from vents in this threshold is a gaseous compound, which in more concentrated amounts would harm the body. This gas, which is part of Our eyes were of no use to us (2016) by Emily Parsons-Lord, is an estimate of the air quality from the greatest extinction event in earth’s history 250 million years ago when carbon dioxide levels were at their peak. A peak that at our current emissions rate, may again be reached in the not too distant future.
Breath is linked to the heartbeat, which provides a Morse-code transmission from in to out. Our breath becomes shallow when we are frightened, showing a reluctance to draw air from the environment we fear. Our lungs contract upon contact with toxins or allergens, as we involuntarily close off the inlets. Our body acts before our mind reads.
Humans are touching, vibrating, feeling, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, vestibular beings. Upon contact we create static, when excited or afraid our pupils dilate and our skin prickles, our bodies are active and reactive. Through our sensory system we feel meaning in our world. Unlike our respiratory system, which is essential to survival, our sensory system is essential to being. The sensory system is a transducer that filters and relays information from the world outside to the mind inside. It is a distributed notion of the brain, with nerves and receptors constantly receiving information, passing energetically along our neural pathways and into our sensory cortex, without our conscious awareness.
As a viewer moves through the gallery space their passage is measured by the sensorimotor, which gauges space in relation to the body’s movement. It is well understood in the field of embodied cognition that perception of space is very much dependant on its relation to the body. Danae Valenza’s neon and sound work entitled Your Motion Says (2016) echoes the visitor’s movement, like an externalised representation of the sensory systems. The work swells up to meet the viewer and diminishes as they pass.
Furthermore, underfoot and washed up the wall is Biljana Jancic’s c reflected flood of silver tape. This spreading tide of floating silver plains forms part of A Beach (Beneath) (2016), and reflects the blue of a vacant projection screen, which beams into a decoy corner and lures the viewer into an architectural end-game apex. Biljana’s work guides the viewer with its resplendence. This work both projects and reflects, bouncing content back to the viewer, handing back agency where the viewer had hoped for seduction.
In both Valenza and Jancic’s work, the body and its sensory system are elevated above the ruckus of our cognitive chatter. Suddenly the viewer is fully aware of their body’s passage through space, its shape and velocity as it toys with Valenza’s motion sensors, and Jancic’s contrary lure. With a heightened awareness the viewer moves forward consciously. Now aware of the body’s small movements in space - the sole of the shoe on the floor, the hang of the arms - the viewer is conscious of the endless biological to and fro between the sensory system and our spatial awareness.
Whilst our skeletal system is structural, supporting the weight of the head, and standing in defiance of gravity, it also yields to the impulses of the muscles. Embedded within Steven Cybulka’s wall work entitled Divisions (2016) are the influences of others. Adelle Mill’s monitors engender the structure with muscular movement, while Mira Oosterweghel’s suspended apparatus are like cortisol, stretching and rubbing an anxious pressure against the hard edges of the wall. The skeletal system is necessarily intertwined within other bodily systems. As the framework for being, it must also be integrated and adaptable, bending to accommodate new muscular growth or responding to the twitches of nervous energy.
So finely tuned is the skeleton that the crick in our neck or the tiny fracture in our toe will trouble the whole. Likewise Cybulka’s architectural reconfiguration, a wall like any other, seeming so pedestrian and certain, and yet with the artist’s minute adjustments to angle or gradient, its effect is profound, destabilizing and coercing in equal measure.
Like architecture the skeleton does not dictate but instead responds. Necessarily mobile and kinetic, it is engineered to enhance movement as well as to propel our evolutionary drive. Our pelvic bones have widened to accommodate birth; the heel has enlarged to accommodate bipedalism. It is a structurally adaptive technology. Likewise Cybulka’s wall gathers all of the physiological systems in this exhibition and arranges them, containing some and exposing others according to their operation, and wrapping them protectively in the spiral form of the cochlear, a form so repeated through and across our physical beings.
A mirror neuron is one that fires in the same manner regardless of whether we are performing an action, or watching that action being performed by another. The existence of mirror neurons has profound cognitive implications, suggesting that when we recognise a movement, our body enacts that movement on a neural level, connecting us with each other unconsciously. The body is, in effect, an echo chamber for that which surrounds us.
Across four large screens in Adelle Mills’ work Axiom of Maria (2016), four performers interpret a score. The score asks that each performer initiate a series of movements, which are then transmitted slowly and without strain from one to the other. Gestures and actions are gathered and saturated along the way, gradually losing detail. The work references the ubiquity of smartphone technology, and its incursion into our body, with the motif of the phone present in the piece like a dull beacon. Every time the phone gesture turns up information gets lost, through a sense of physical drop out - an absent stillness - as the dancer’s movement is disrupted and their attention diverted.
As each movement is transmitted it is reconfigured physically and neurologically within the performer’s body. Likewise, the viewer’s body tracks the actions, firing mirror neurons and unconsciously experiencing each movement. As neural transmissions occur the corresponding muscle groups are activated, twitching with currents that instruct the impulses to lift or bend or tense. In the space, with movement felt across the screens, the viewer’s body lifts and lowers accordingly, swaying and contracting as our bodies reflect and connect with what’s before us.
The nervous system is the centre of perception. Networks of nerves engender our understanding of reality, making meaning for us in their hyperactive, energetic resonance. Nerves are hot, painful, jumpy things. Wild and wilful, they transmit sensation and information in a fraction of a millisecond throughout the entire body. From the nerves in the fingertips to the machinations of the brain, the nervous system allows one to register pain or delight, memory or repulsion. It is possible to hear the nerves’ busy thrum, deep inside and singing throughout the body, their hot speed and frantic energy easily imagined as noise. In fact, it is said that within the supposed silence of the anechoic chamber there is a high-pitched tinnitus-like trill that is the sound of the nervous system.
Pia van Gelder’s Recumbent Circuit (2016) is activated and controlled by the body's energy transmitted through contact. Embedded within the skin, the nervous system is electric, and in turn has an innate capacity to conduct electricity. Called electrodermal activity (EDA), it is this that van Gelder uses to generate an electrical charge. The conductivity of the skin works in tandem with the nervous system, each informing and influencing the other. If, for example, the largely unconscious autonomic nervous system is activated, it affects the skin’s conductivity. So just as the nervous system informs us about our physical environment, so too does the body’s EDA become a measure of our emotional or physiological well-being.
Participants recline in van Gelder’s Recumbent Circuit work, resting limbs on copper conductor pads. The skin conducts our own radiant energy that becomes part of a circuit, which generates sound. Recumbent Circuit actualises the energetic activity that occurs through contact, channeling the body’s bio-circuits and articulating the points of pressure between body and instrument. This work functions, like the nervous system, as a carrier of our own energetic information that, in its frenetic impulses and arcing outflows, offers perspective and insight into the endless call and response between body and context.
With external input the feedback loop of the endocrine system kicks into play. Fear, gland and hormone response equals action. Suspended in the gallery space, there is a body hovering unnaturally, uncomfortably. In Precarious Life (2016) one of Mira Oosterwegehl's ladders traverses the impossible heights of the double height room. A figure might climb the ladder. The weight of the suspended body is evident in the strain of rubber on rope. The body hangs, potential and volatile. In the endocrine system, whether you are experiencing danger or viewing someone else in danger, adrenaline releases in the same manner. The endocrine system does not differentiate between subject and object. The heart rate will increase, the adrenal gland then releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. From these pulses of hormone the body is poised to fight or take flight, internal machinations mobilising glucose and fatty acids, increasing energy reserves, and tensing the muscles - a liquid incentive, with a physical reward.
This physiological mirroring of another’s fear in our own body might be an ancient evolutionary lesson. For it is fear that gives shape to experience and insight into our environment. The endocrine system extends widely, influencing almost all parts of the body, just as Oosterweghel’s sculptures are signifiers of activity, dangerous and fearful, within the tamed space of the white cube.
Curled within the protective walls of the skeletal system is the exhibition’s limbic or emotional nervous system. Articulated through the disembodied technology of Oculus Rift – an apparatus that allows the wearer to be ‘fully’ immersed in the virtual world with a 360-degree ‘reality’ enclosing them - this technology supposes that we might easily live according to the Cartesian mind/body split. Oculus Rift, like other versions of virtual reality, suggests that reality might not actually require movement, and that our sensorimotor capacities may not actually be relevant to the experience of reality.
But what of the autonomic responses engendered by virtual reality? It is now commonly understood that the limbic system - which is comprised of the parts of the brain that are responsible for connecting the body’s instinctual responses with our intellectual processing - is the site triggered and ultimately affected by virtual reality (VR). The limbic system is evident in the head twitches and the nausea so typical of VR experiences, along with the dilation of the pupils, the stimulation of the sweat glands, the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in large muscles, the heart rate increase, the bronchial tubes’ expansion and so many more. All of these physical responses occur within our bodies without our cognitive awareness.
Ruth McConchie’s Oculus Rift work Salines (2016) begins in the real: situating us in the gallery spaces, she then pulls the viewer away from the physical world, down through the watery subterranean spaces beneath the MCA. The world then opens to reveal a vignette of the site’s ulterior histories. Both real and imagined, the social histories of The Rocks and its surrounds collide in a non-linear implosion of time and space.
Studies in rats have discovered that virtual reality specifically affects the Hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for the consolidation of information including short and long-term memory and spatial navigation. Researchers have found that when subjected to a VR experience, rats’ hippocampal neurons begin to fire erratically, and in some cases shut down, meaning that rats were unable to establish a spatial map of their location. Despite the ‘real’ appearance of VR, the rat was unable to orient itself using the hippocampus’ myriad sensory and spatial inputs, which highlights the essential role that the movement of the body plays in cognition and learning. The viewer may be disoriented by Ruth McConchie’s Oculus Rift world, with their attempts at disembodiment thwarted by the limbic system’s insistent response. Whilst navigation may not be possible in McConchie’s world, feeling certainly is.
Condensed within the skeletal enclosure, McConchie’s work could seem like an end point. The body is apparently disembodied. Our movement is stilled by the apparatus. Our interactivity is reduced to clicks and nods. But it has not: we sweat, dilate, expand and constrict. Our body is adjusting and sensing, trying to find meaning on a cellular level. And then, McConchie frees us. Sinking us into the imagined.
As the viewer unwinds their way through the cochlear spiral of Steve Cybulka’s wall, experiencing each work anew in reverse, the body may have shifted. Awareness may have moved closer to the surface - to the layers of skin that divide in from out. Perhaps with each work the autonomic responses might connect more consciously with the cognitive ones, in a reminder that experience is ours to make, and that transmission between our body and its context will continue to ceaselessly occur.