Dialogues on Blindness I.

Lisa Nelson

Dance Theatre Journal Jan 2005English
Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 21 no. 1, 2005, pp. 9-12

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The word 'blindness' refers to a range of visual impairments that cause a severe to total reduction of the experience of sight. It is also charged as a metaphor, 'blindness' being a synonym of ignorance or not-knowing. Over the ages, both meanings got also mixed up, whether deliberately or out of convenience, blindness was romanticised and invested with misconceptions. And more recently in cultural theory, the 'blind spot' has become an omnipresent metaphor to reflect upon the limitations of our perception, knowledge and opinions. Yet it is not my aim here to deconstruct the term blindness and apply a strategy 'against interpretation' to it. Rather to explore its potential within the field of the performing arts, through a series of dialogues with artists. Interestingly, a large number of dancers and choreographers have broached the issue in the past decades: through working with blind people, as Anne Kilcoyne and Steve Paxton in Touchdown Dance (since 1986) or Wim Vandekeybus in Her Body Doesn't Fit Her Soul (1993), or through working 'unsighted', as a tool to map out alternative perceptual abilities and their choreographic potential.

Since the mid-1970s, the American choreographer, improvisational performer and videographer Lisa Nelson has been investigating the role of the senses in relation to the performance of movement, with behaviour, survival skills and environmental awareness as recurring points of attention. Out of a research in dance and video, the latter often used as a feedback mechanism and a device to interface looking, she started to replace the activities of the camera and video editing with the body, which resulted in the development of Tuning Scores. These are at once an observatory, a communication feedback system and a performance practice in which movement and perceptual behaviour can be slowed down, in a sense, and investigated in detail.

'Without a camera, how long does it take to see something? How long does it take to look at something? It really is about measuring and the senses are looked at as measuring tools: Nelson explains. 'Other things came into the Tuning Score as well, it was about looking at movement from both sides of " the lens, so to speak. What does it mean to look at a movement? What am I doing when I'm looking at a movement? How does a movement organise or have meaning for me or for the person sitting next to me? What gives meaning to my looking at movement? What is arrested motion or stillness, and what happens when you look at it?'

In summer 2004, I had the opportunity to work with Nelson and play and discuss a simple Tuning Score in the laboratory Perception in Action (documentation on www.pauldeschanel.be. Working unsighted happened to be an exercise for warming up but also a central strategy to study perception and modalities of looking within the Tuning Score, which offered an entrance point for this dialogue in April 2005 in Brussels. We spoke about improvisation and composition, about the design of the eye, binocular vision and retaining visual memory, and many more issues in which the tropes of blindness and working unsighted lingered and from time to time surfaced.

'I've had the chance to work with blind people on very few occasions. Over the years, I've worked with people who've had various handicaps. But actually, I've always felt that dancers are clearly limited in their habits of living in their bodies and their use of their senses, as well as highly vulnerable to changing the way they use them. So I kind of see everybody equal in the sense of limitation. The difference isn't so wide between people that don't have sight or lack an ability to move with control. I've focussed more on the multiple handicaps of the 'normal' or seemingly fully "functioning people: says Nelson, well aware that the issues and practices we were discussing are actually quite different from the world of someone blind.


Exhausting looking

A first issue we were exploring is the rhythm of visual perception, its phasic structure and the difference between looking at and looking for something. Nelson: 'Mostly, dancers don't use their eyes to look at things. You don't have time, you are engaged completely physically and you use your eyes to look for the empty spaces. You look for where you can navigate through more than you look at what's happening in the space around you. And if you're standing at the edge of the space, you're usually looking for an invitation to enter, for an impulse to engage improvisationally, to make an action. You are not simply looking, you're looking for something.'

'So actually looking at something is quite different: you are measuring distance, your eye is following light, is following movement, you are building an understanding of the organisation of the space, you are noticing things like content, if there's such a thing, arising either from an individual dancer or from the dynamic organisation in the space. Talking as a spectator now, if you're looking at a dance, you're looking for a set of relationships within the dancers' bodies or a compositional dynamic in space. You are invited to look at, but very quickly start looking for, although you're not looking for in order to act, you're looking for in order to have an organised experience. There is a cultural habit in sitting down and watching something, the eyes very quickly choose to see what they already know.'

'I think that looking at has a very short life-span, before the looking for kicks in. Often content overwhelms form, so you have to find your way from content into form if you're interested in getting more out of the dance. Form is time-based, it has to be read over time, to get enough clues in relation to your own seeing. Also, in order to find out what you don't know, you have to look longer, more openly. In the Tuning Score, I can select small units of dance behaviour that can be looked at for a long time. Working rigorously with a tiny bit of material is a rare pleasure. Then what happens is relatively unknown and also has a very odd development through time, and time is a huge part of looking at something. In the end you are able to look at the process of looking.'

Does stretching time also allow you to exhaust the looking for, in order to be able to look at? 'Well, there is a constant feedback, a looping, a phasic rhythm of seeing. That's a natural perceptual choreography, I mean, it's automatic. In looking at a stillness, for example, there are phases of expectation and of desire: you're moving your eyes and attention, you're wanting to move, you're curious what will happen next, you wonder how it got to this moment: you start to reach into causality, your imagination gets engaged, you project what might happen next if there would be a next. It's very fat withanticipation and the desire to organise, to produce meaning. And if what you think you're looking at doesn't deliver, if it doesn't move or provide an answer after a certain period of time, there is a saturation in your looking, perhaps a disappointment of some kind. And so you space out and then you're just looking at again, or perhaps you're not looking at all - you are sending your sensors out and nothing coherent is coming back and you just rest. And then, in a wave, expectation returns. That seems like a natural, organic rhythm of seeing, or of focussing attention. Perhaps what gets exhausted is the focus of attention, where after attention shifts to something else. I feel that's really neurological.'


Closing the eyes

In our minds and dialogue, we are moving into the studio space to discuss what it means to work with the eyes closed. Nelson: 'Closing the eyes is giving a chance to the body to experience looking at through the other senses. The more often you close your eyes, the more familiar you can become with how the other senses measure time and measure space. How they organise and create meaning. Ultimately, that's how the blindwork becomes a tool for engaging the other senses, rather than an end in itself. By learning how the other senses organise and teaching yourself how that happens, you don't have to operate visually by habit anymore, but instead you can operate visually by choice.'

'When you are dancing with your eyes closed and you are using your other senses, you become aware of the need to look for meaning, for organisation. You are off balance in many ways. You are posturally off balance because you don't have your eyes as a balancing tool. And you are off balance because you're not as accustomed to organising the space around you with your eyes closed. The more you do it, you build skills, as a blind person does, you build skills to identify, to name, to understand what you need to know in order to move into or through the space.'

Nelson stresses two points: survival as a strategy to investigate processes of organisation and production of meaning, of which working unsighted as a deliberate choice becomes an integral part. 'I never work with blindfolds. With a blindfold, you make an agreement: you are not going to see, no matter what your organism tells you. For me, by removing choice, it cuts off a certain layer of desire; if you wished to see, you'd have to use your hands to take off your blindfold. But when you can simply open and close your eyes, the organism has the choice to navigate through visual information, or to choose blindness and to navigate through the other senses. To voluntarily choose blindness has a very different consequence in the body than accepting a blindfold, there is an empowerment and an accountability that I find very interesting. Though the consequences are real either way, by continually choosing, you become aware of an underlying imperative of your organism how it desires meaning, how it desires safety, how it survives a situation through choice.'

'That aspect of voluntarily closing the eyes delivers a lot more than being blindfolded: it gives more information to the human being, to the organism, who is working against survival instinct: Survival instinct says that if you're moving you have your eyes open. There are even hormonal changes because of that choice, I think. When your eyes are closed, your body generally gets the signal that you are at rest or sleeping. An animal doesn't walk around with her eyes closed, although there are blind animals that get around very well. They learn as humans do how to navigate. Horses, wonderful blind horses, that's almost inconceivable, galloping and ... But most animals will move slower, you slow down when your eyes are closed. This implies chemical changes that signal the organism to slow down or stop.'

'From working with people who are blind, I know a fair bit of the protective survival mechanisms they develop, moving in an environment with a mix of known and unknown or unperceivable dangers or threats. In such a situation, sensory experience can be very disorganised. All your cells are functioning and then suddenly come up with a fear reaction, a kind of paralysis, not-knowing what to do. I am interested in watching how I build survival skills in those situations, in the dance. And sharing that through watching my collaborators build survival skills and identifying how people have different appetites for organisation. Within a certain range, there is a pleasure in disorientation, which creates an anticipation of either more disorientation or of coming into focus. That's another phasic experience.'


Learning curves

Building survival skills, observing the functioning of the senses and perceptual processes, looking at movement intention and behaviour: these are just a few elements at stake in Lisa Nelson's Tuning Score. A central element of its feedback system is that imagination, perception and observation are in turn acted out in the 'image space'. Without going into the details and intricacies of the Tuning Score, working with the eyes closed turns up in several instances. You enter the space with the eyes closed to take up a position in which you imagined yourself before entering. Once in the space, you listen for the time to begin an action simultaneously with the other performers. While developing the image further through using actions and calls, one of the options is to work with the eyes open or closed on your own volition. Working unsighted thereby delivers different opportunities to measure your intention in the body, to measure your sense of anticipation and of expectation, and so on.

'Working blind is very nourishing to the person inside,' Nelson says. 'It's very nourishing to operate in relation to other people or to space without relying on automatic behaviours arising from visual cues. But it's also very nourishing to the watchers because it's like casual choreography that's like magical choreography; the way people relate to each other is very tasty. The intention of interacting without the eyes has a delicious timing and you can start to see how organic forms or a kind of organic choreography arises, one that is not so . measured by what we know by visual habit.'

'Ultimately, the game is to use the possibility of opening and closing your eyes as a tool for yourself in various ways. Open eyes eventually enables you to sustain operating from the other senses without the fear of crashing into somebody. Closing the eyes can free you from trying to make something interesting. Another usage is compositional - something that operates from a different organisational system can drop into and change the space without creating non-sequitur.'

'The simple exercise of people attempting to do unison with their eyes closed while using a simple tool of calling 'open' and 'close', can be a rich way of having a dialogue between the watchers and the performers. You have different options and opportunities when your eyes are open and when your eyes are closed. If you ask people to open, you can see how they survive having the exposure of choice-making, because as soon as their eyes are open, we are aware that people have to make a choice. And at that moment of opening the eyes, you see what choice is made, but even more you see the body making it, you see the quality and intentionality of the body in the movement responding instantaneously. You see the positioning of the mind shift and the body looks different because of that shift. Now, when it is someone from the outside who wants to call "open" to see what would happen, a performer might make the next call to close, initiating a direct dialogue between inside and outside. And you're learning to look and wait for the consequences, as it takes a certain time to tune in to theshift between eyes open and eyes closed.'

Working with the eyes closed initiates a complex learning process, Nelson explains. 'At first, moving with the eyes closed, the eyes are held still; people don't even turn their heads, they kind of turn their bodies with the head propped on top. After a while, the eyes can stay active behind the lids, because they contain major balancing muscles of the whole body and need to move in order to balance your movement. Eventually, people start to forget they have their eyes open and actually keep operating from their other senses. People also forget they have their eyes closed and get very bold in space. So there are layers of teaching yourself how to operate with your eyes closed without giving up all of the functions of the eyes, not the least of which is communication. This learning curve is very interesting. The information flows in two directions and in the end the options are clearer, you have a larger vocabulary and you build new survival skills. It's amazing how quickly that happens. In two weeks of working on these things, people get much more comfortable and do all kinds of impossible things. I find that very interesting.'