Perception in Action

Diary of the project by Toronto Improv Group, Lisa Nelson and Paul Deschanel Movement Research Group 1 Jul 2004English

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Contextual note
These notes were written during the research project ‘Perception in Action’ by Lisa Nelson, The Toronto Improv Group and the Paul Deschanel Movement Research Group, which took place in Toronto in July 2004. The project was initiated by Susanna Hood, Rebecca Todd and Claudia Wittmann, participants in the project were Alexander Baervoets, Dawne Carleton, Margit Galanter, Pascale Gille, Heike Langsdorf, Karen Nelson, Lisa Nelson, Alva Noë, Tina Park, Jeroen Peeters, Lynette Segal, Walker J and Tanya Williams. More information and documentation of the project is to be found at

July 26, 2005

10.00 am. General introduction by Rebecca Todd.
How can art influence science? And what does science bring to art?

11.00 am. Talk by Alva Noë on his research work.
“Perception isn’t something that happens in us, it’s something we do,” he states. We currently lack apt scientific description methods; in the study of perception in philosophy, psychology and neurology, the phenomena are mostly underestimated. What can new technologies in brain studies, but also artistic research contribute to that?

Question is how to define ‘experience’, as a common ground. If one speaks o experience in science, vision is dominant, and second, vision is approached according to a photographic paradigm. How are these experiences activated in the brain? Since neural representations are always more limited than photographic representation of the world, and since the first contains multiple information and the second occurs as a unified image, how should one understand the relation between the two? The traditional answer is the computational view: the brain functions as a photoreceptor that takes pictures (thus, there is no ‘person’ involved). Alva objects to this approach, since visual experience is not pictorial: bodily movement directs our focal attention and brings in a time factor (against the snapshot view).

Problem of perceptual presence. When we see things, touch or grab them, they appear as a unity, so not as a collection of single sensations. Although we see only one side of an object, we not only know that it has volume, we also see that it has volume: the object is experientially present to us.

Again, the access key to this problem is movement, our implicit body knowledge. Different sensorimotor parts function as mediators (e.g. we presuppose a walk whilst watching). Our sensorimotor experience is responsible for integration of our experience, not only in the brain, but in a dynamic organism: a skillful exploration of the world What can dance training contribute to that?

A discussion brings up questions to Alva’s approach of experience and perception. What about development, memory, culture? What about emotion, the way we value certain impulses, the way affective responses to them guide intentional processes? (Rebecca) The body is also intertwined with its environment, the body even is the environment, and vice versa: perception and action in the world are always more than the functioning of our senses. (Lisa) Stays also the question what science can contribute to art: after all, not all knowledge can be gained from mere experience.

12 am. Warm up coached by Susanna Hood and Rebecca Todd.
Take time for yourself. Be in constant motion and find out what it means for you. Try it with eyes open or closed, and experiment afterwards with the opposite of your initial choice. How does opening or closing your eyes influence or redefine the idea of constant motion? Explore the relation between motion and stillness, the timing of stillness, the impulse to start moving again. Explore the relation between stillness and eye movement.

Definition of four different states:
Motion and eyes closed
Stillness and eyes open
Motion and eyes open
Stillness and eyes closed

Shift between the states. Explore different speeds of opening/closing your eyes. Explore whether that moment coincides with a logical movement pattern. Can you shift that relation? How long did it take you to learn the new pattern? (Lisa) Do you have any preference for one of the four modes? What’s the emotional aspect of your perception? (Rebecca)

2.00 pm. Group discussion.
About the findings of this morning and the continuation of the research, the laboratory set-up et cetera. Do we consider ourselves a group or not? Is what we do supposed to be seen, or is it just research for ourselves? (Alexander)

3.00 pm. Lisa Nelson introduces her tuning score.
She defines an ‘image space’ and a space for the observers. The first exercise consists of five actions. Central idea is that you enact your perception, that you convey it not through talking but through proposing a perceptual image, including all your senses.

1. The observers are looking at the space. Looking, that is with all the senses.
2. Imagine yourself in the image space. Navigate with closed eyes to that position. A second person does the same.
3. Performers wait for the right time to propose a single action. They measure this act of listening.
4. The observers keep looking and measure the time it needs to take the whole image into focus. An observer that has finished the action calls “end”. Remark that visual rhythm is slow, much slower than musical rhythm. Be aware that the ‘image’ seen, is not a merely visual proposition either, it consists of all the senses.
5. After a while, a fifth step is introduced. An observer can call “replace”, after which observers replace the performers, on whatever spot in the space. Also several observers can replace one performer. Then steps 3 and 4 are repeated until someone calls again “replace” or “end”. You can call “replace” when you see a possibility to develop the image, or out of curiosity what other people perceive. Where is the weight of the image?

July 27, 2005

10.00 pm. Group discussion about the format and issues of the research project.
Rebecca Todd introduces the background of the Toronto Improv Group and the questions that lead her to the proposal ‘Perception in Action’. Working method so far has always been twofold:
1. Reading of cognitive science literature and discussion of elements taken from that. 2. Warm-ups and work with Lisa Nelson’s tuning score.
Central question is how 1 and 2 relate, more precisely: are the latest developments of neuropsychology in the ecological tradition of J.J. Gibson still resonant with Lisa Nelson’s recent findings in research on the tuning score?

Rebecca wraps up her interests with this project. Starting from the tuning score as a common experiential body of movement, she wants to explore questions of intention and emotion in perception through the tuning score, and second find out more about working processes in between science and art. She adds that whatever the theoretical results might be like, if there are any at all, there will be at least a “sensorial feast” left. That’s her very desire.

The suggestions that follow lead to a heated discussion. To the content issues, Alva Noë’s ‘perception as action’ is added. But it is the very definition of research and a critical praxis that leads to a conflict. Alexander wonders whether it wouldn’t be apt to develop a specific score on the basis of the question at stake, a proposal that obviously doesn’t fit into Rebecca’s understanding of research and the set-up of the week.

Lisa Nelson points out that the tuning score is anyway conceived of as a feedback system, which hinges upon ‘internal feedback’: it’s formula is not ‘doing then talking’, but do all this research within the score.

The tuning score is about the observation of behavior:
- not just of dancers, but of people, or of dancers as human beings
- of incidental movement
- of observation itself, so of perception
Every movement is meaningful: depending on the situation, we decide for ourselves what we find meaningful. Also warming up is an observation of intentions, decisions, choices,… based on the question whether it conceals a pattern. What might be observable? On the intuitive level? On the level of the different senses (and we do have more than five)? On a larger scale, looking for complexity?

11.00 am. Warm-up.
After ten minutes personal work, the warm-up is centered around touching and being touched, especially through exploration of the sensation in the relation between face and hands, whereby both can serve as ground or figure, as passive or active.

12.30 am. Discussion after warm-up.
Alva Noë talks about the difference between sensation and feeling. Sensation is passive, happens in specifics spots, is fragmentary. Feeling is active and is integrated. Also in philosophy, sensation is considered as a feeling without content, it isn’t juxtaposed with a representation that surpasses it.

2.30 pm. Talk by Rebecca Todd on mirror-neurons.
How do we understand someone else’s intentions?

Developmental psychology describes three stages:
1. Joint attention
2. Development of language and communication
3. Development of a ‘theory of mind’, that is the “abstract, cognitive ability of understanding that someone else has a mental life separate from one’s own.”

So far, mirror-neurons where only discovered in monkeys, there is no proof that there exists a human equivalent. Concerning their structure: where and when do they fire? In the pre-motor cortex, where the impulse to prepare for action takes place. Timing is a difficult matter, since neurology lacks precise methods to investigate that. The resonance in chimpanzee brains during the observation of other’s behavior is some kind of mental simulation of their movements. Inner mimicking allows to realize complex intentions of others.

Rebecca’s expresses her interest in this matter with two questions:
How do we communicate in a non-verbal way our intentions, and how do others perceive them?
Why is imitation so fundamental and widespread?

3.30 pm. Work with Lisa Nelson's tuning score, based on 'imitation'.
One person points out an image space, calls "go", makes a proposition and calls "end". Other people enact a 'playback' of what they've seen, or of what they remember. They can do it with eyes open or closed. By 'playback', the principles of imitation, simulation and feedback are brought into action.

July 28, 2005

10.00 am. Group discussion about method and content of the research.

After the yesterday's conflict between Alexander and Rebecca, frictions are discussed in order to be able to move on. If emotion was considered an interesting research topic, than this is the real stuff.

10.30 am. Lisa Nelson talks more about some aspects of the tuning score.
- It is as a magnifying glass or diagnostic tool: it concerns translation of one's own observations into action, more precisely as a feedback to and within reality.
- Survival on an environment entails idiosyncratic and common behavior, physical and cultural aspects. Our senses do influence our bodily organization, but are also culturally identified. Survival takes place everywhere, also during this very research: during exercises and warm-ups, during discussions.
- The tuning score allows the development of movement ideas and possibilities that are normally not taken into consideration.
- For the development of her tuning score, Lisa was inspired by the cognitive psychologist J.J. Gibson, especially his book 'The senses considered as perceptual systems' (1966). Rather than present another talk, Lisa will introduce some of Gibson's ideas during a warm-up.

11.30 am. Warm-up lead by Lisa Nelson, starting from ideas of J.J. Gibson.
Lisa proposes a series of tasks around 'blindness':
Walk around in a steady rhythm and be aware of your visual perception. Then select and object, a spot, another person whilst walking, close your eyes and try to reach it.
Walking and running blind. This exercise is repeated with a partner who keeps eyes open and 'protects' you in whatever way is required. After a while, actor and protector can change roles on a regular basis. Eventually, protectors can swap.

1.00 pm. Work with Lisa Nelson’s Tuning score.
After this long preparation, we worked for fifteen minutes with the tuning score, proposing images in the space. This time, after a long tuning of the senses, the 'images' happen to be particularly explosive and narrative, or with Lisa: "juicy".

2.30 pm. Tuning score.
The basic principles of the observation of an image space and the proposition of feedback-images in there, are extended with a series of new calls. At the end of the session, the list looks like:
- replace
- end
- reverse
- pause
- sustain (the timing is to be decided upon by the performers)
- resume
- repeat (the measure of the loop is to be decided upon by the performers)
- reduce (performers have to leave out everything they regard as extraneous to the image; if necessary even leave the image space)
- resituate (concerns the viewers: they can choose a different spot in space, or walk around to have a better perspective on the image)
- report (performers speak aloud what they experience, what they did right before, what plan they have in mind, the failure of it, or just gibberish)

After discussion, some new calls are added after proposals by Alexander Baervoets:
- reposition (to displace one element in the image, to connect the observation more with a compositional practice)
- inside (only the performers can make new calls: the image becomes more autonomous, as an organism)
- include (to undo 'inside'; this turns out to be unnecessary call)

These calls lead to a new dynamic, as the tuning score suddenly becomes a tool for editing or composing. It all becomes lightly, as a game, but the question remains what 'tuning' means in there: each intervention should relate to a particular perception of an image, the timing it entails and so on.

A second problem is the way the split between observers and performers is now made explicit with the 'inside' call: isn't the tuning score an inclusive space anyway without a strict hierarchy between observers and performers?

4.00 pm. Discussion on the tuning score.
Lisa Nelson tells more about the history of the tuning score, how it came into being. The very start was the proposition of one single image, visual measuring and the "end" call. The extension of the calls grew out of a desire to twist the traditional relation between observer and image. Therefore calls aren't simply interventions imposed from outside. Still, the visual rhythm, which is externalized through the calls, is much faster than the internal processing of the individuals that are part of the image. Lisa's doesn't see a problem in this delay, on the contrary: the speed of the calls might elicit more intuitive movement propositions. Problem is when these movements are not specific enough, when their intention isn't clear. The speed of the calls induces a continuum of actions, interventions and observations, leads to a dynamic system (comparable to traffic patterns), a process without resolution, not to say a transition from a digital to an analogue paradigm.

5.00 pm. Talk by Alexander Baervoets about his work.
He touches upon different themes: the importance of Merce Cunningham for his choreographic work and the replacement of symbolic time and space by real time and space in dance. Still, there is the impossibility of abstraction on stage, since you always work with real people. This calls for a humanization of Cunningham's principles. Another theme is the disappearance of the choreographer: how can his choices be as limited as possible and play along only on the level of the frame, so not of the material? Choice of people and of strategies. Keywords are alternative strategies of composition, environment, condition, process and improvisation.

July 29th, 2005

10.00 am. Talk by Margit Galanter on first person science.
The term 'first person science' was formulated by the philosopher Eugene Gendlin. He discerns two models of science:
1. atomistic model
2. ecological model
He proposes a third paradigm:
3. first person science. This model is centered around the articulation of an experience: the process itself is specific, regarded as a point of departure rather than as a hypothesis.

If an experimental set-up in science (e.g. in neurophenomenology) consists of three position, that of (1) subject, (2) interviewer and (3) external observer, than Gendlin's interest is to twist this traditional hierarchy intrinsic to it. How to create an equal relation between the three instances, regard them all as part of the same system, regard them all as subjects? First person science aims to integrate the three positions.

For more reading, see [].

Jeroen Peeters links the issue with literary criticism, especially of poetry, since it is the only form of art criticism which systematically uses the first person noun, also in newspapers. This has got to do with the fact that most poets do write criticism as well and thereby make their poetics explicit (and the other way around). Not that the use of the first person noun immediately leads to a first person approach to culture, theory or criticism, but it shows a particular awareness of these matters: how language and concepts have a resonance with cultural impact.

11.30 am. Talk by Rebecca Todd on emotions in cognitive science.
If every perception is a form of criticism, then is evaluation emotion? On emotions, there are several debates in philosophy right now. Traditionally, cognition and emotion are separated: how do we relate to that nowadays? Do universal emotions exist, based on survival? Are emotions culturally influenced?

In neurology, one can discern several kinds of emotions, or classifications of them:
- innate emotions (fear, anger, sorrow, anticipating eagerness, play, lust, maternal nurturance)
- great A emotions (seeking or appetitive approach behavior, fear and the withdrawal system, rage, panic)
- appraisal processes (perception, evaluation, memory, decision,...). Are appraisal processes separable from emotional experience?

What is the development of emotion through time, of which phases does it consist? (implicit emotion, background feelings and environmental awareness, focal attention, reflexive awareness). Is an emotion an event? Is every perception an emotion?

For more reading on emotions, see [].

12.00 am. Talk by Karen Nelson on emotions in Buddhism.
Based on the book 'Destructive Emotions' with dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama.

According to Buddhism, emotion is something that induces perspective in the mind. "Emotions are based on the illusory experience of a solid self." They can be gross, subtle (concerning the ego) or very subtle (that is fundamental, concerns conscience as such). In total 84.000 emotions are described in Buddhism, which can be brought down into a series of five: hatred, desire, confusion or ignorance, pride, jealousy. Which on their turn can be boiled down to three main emotions: attachment, aversion and ignorance or indifference.

For more reading on emotions in Buddhism, see [].

2.30 pm. Warm-up.

3.20 pm. Work with Lisa Nelson’s tuning score.

Heike Langsdorf proposes to take reduction as a starting point and use more simple movement material for the propositions: walking, standing, sitting, lying. Other movements can stem from them, but they should emerge out of an urge.

The specific interest of the new calls "report" and "inside" is discussed once more. One new call is introduced: "open" or "close", which concerns the eyes.

July 30th, 2005

10.00 am. Group discussion yesterday's exercises, procedures and on line documentation.

11.30 am. Warm-up and exercise on weight, balance and resistance.

Explore figure-ground relations with your hands.
Explore resistance and the reactions of your muscles whilst working with arms and legs.
Explore this issue of weight and resistance with a partner.

2.00 pm. Talk by Heike Langsdorf on her latest research project with C&H.
With public space (in Berlin) and everyday life as playground, C&H proposed interventions in certain places or situations.
Goal was not to propose a performance, but to achieve an intervention in full awareness of the situation and its conditions. Rather than asking for attention, to provoke a shift in awareness was central.
Documentation and interviews were an integral part of the project. See [].

2.30 pm. Talk by Tanya Williams on Living Room Context.
See [].

3.00 pm. Concluding work session with Lisa Nelson’s tuning score.