The Body in Its Contact with Technology
In this age of complexity and interaction, what possible performative aesthetic models can artists generate in resonance with the changing world of interconnectedness in which we live? This was one of the questions that drove the research I conducted between 2005 and 2016, seeking to articulate a different vision of the performative body in its contact with technology. Several steps marked this work still in progress, notably an interest in research-creation developed within a context of new interdisciplinary performative stages integrating technology. My approach was based on recent ontological interpretations of the performative body—corporeality—as an opening, or crossroad, of influences and relations, an unstable reality, composed of networks of intensities. Here, I describe an artistic process involving what I see as an ontological shift of the body occurring with, and through, its contact with technology. It notably outlines two emerging performative models I developed: firstly, what I call a “collective physical body” and, secondly, a “sound body” or “collective mediated body.”
Here, the term “ontology is understood in phenomenological terms as not just what beings are, but as ways or modes of being; ontology considers how we come to be in a dynamic sense” (Moran 2000: 358). This research took the form of an aesthetic proposition that reveals an emerging form of corporeality resulting from a dissolution of psychophysical borders and the disappearance of a subject/object opposition—through a consideration of technology as an activator of sensory renewal through a destabilization of perception and sensory mappings conditioning the experiential (in the context of a mediated environment and with respect to the performer/spectator relationship). I wanted to develop a “collective physical body”: a new performative model composed of five dancers in constant contact, whose movement and relationships create a “collective sound body” and generate a real-time sound score spatialized in 360°. Each phase of the project explored ways these two entities—the “collective physical body” and “collective sound body”—could be seen as interdependent and interrelated.
Somatics and Technology
Although the scope of this new form of research-creation is large, focus is placed here on approaches that take up somatic exploration as their main element, and that, in the context of my work, were employed as a technique of the body and integrated in my creative process. Somatic practices centre on bodily awareness and involve a series of learning skills related to the synergistic interaction of consciousness, body in movement and environment. They can be described as constituting an experiential study of corporeality. Creative approaches based on experiential awareness free themselves from contamination fears of each art form losing its identity. Research in dance and technology had roots in the often interdisciplinary nature of American post-modern dance and visual arts (1960s–late 1970s). Today, increased attention is being paid by choreographers to relationships between the somatic and technology (1995–present). My artistic experimentation contributes to contemporary artistic approaches which specifically derive from choreographic practice integrating technology while being firmly rooted in the somatic, as Andrea Davidson noted in her analysis of perceptional, sensorial and technically mediated research that “has rarely been formally identified with the specialized field of somatics” (2013: 3).
The specific nature of this experimentation takes the body as the ground for creating transdisciplinary choreography, as well as for testing the effect(s) that technology has on it. This approach assumes that technology must firstly be “lived” in order to be understood (Leroi-Gourhan 1973). It reflects a fundamentally phenomenological approach to technology, through the body, as it is experienced in a technological environment in which performers, as well as spectators, are immersed.
The notion of environment also comprises one of the foundations of the somatic. This not only entails awareness of the body itself as a perceptual environment, but also takes into account the body’s relationship and active interaction with the environment at large. In my work, this is expressed both in terms of highlighting the experiential nature of the body and in exposing the increasing complexity and multiplication of forms of corporeality emerging through contact with technology. This primordial consideration of the experiential—here, a starting point for creating artistic work—can be related back to a definition of aesthetics by ancient Greeks as a reference to sensation and the ability to perceive. My experimentation, thus, sought to develop accrued sensory and perceptual awareness and, also, to invest in a dimension of the relationship somatics/technology that could potentially lead to a transformation of self, of relationship to others and to the world.
The Carnal Body, a Strategy of Research-creation
As part of my practical research, I developed what I call strategies of “sensori-perceptual destabilization” and a “dehierarchization of the senses.” These strategies were aimed at “activating” the physical body in its direct contact and experience of technology. The body constitutes a permanent condition of experience and reference, as it is through the medium of embodied perception that the dancer discovers the world—here, the technological or mediated environment—as well as others and herself through sensation. The performer’s perceptual experience inevitably implies physicality (corporality) as well as corporeality (the medium through which she discovers and appropriates new information, changes of state, and sensations in her inner space and the surrounding performance environment). In the course of these experiments and contact with technology, the concept of a “carnal body”—inspired by the concept of flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s work—was to emerge and embody a sensori-perceptual reconfiguration of the physical body, with subsequent consequences and modifications to corporality, that in turn, generated a particular and modified corporeality.
The carnal body can be described as a meeting place which creates a sense of co-belonging to/in a shared world. The dancer’s constituent “flesh” is not considered as an obstacle, but rather as a meeting place, because the “flesh” is the element that allows for a transduction between bodies—physical and mediated—and it founds the very dimension of experience. Reconfigured under the action of technology, the carnal body becomes the meeting place of the physical body and a potentiality capable of generating a dynamic of transformation.
In the context of my experiments, in which technology is perceived as a form of physicality inducing a reorganization of perception and modification of physicality, the creative process led me to invest in a synaesthetic mode of composition. Strategies of destabilization were conceived of as a means of provoking these new modes of perception. Specifically, this involved a de-structuring of corporeal and perceptual codes in which, each of the senses “de-composes sensitive reality into components that are then recomposed, related” (Berthoz 1997: 288). The practical research developed a “collective body” composed of five dancers evolving as a tightly-knit mass of bodies in a state of self-organization. In this collective form, the body organizes itself around sensation, with self-organization also being a means to achieve a trance-like state, produced by a loss of bearings. This loss of bearings allows for the creation of a physical and psychological space in flux as a form of corporeal intersubjectivity‒intercorporeality.
“The Collective Body”
Conceived of as a hybrid entity, the “collective body” is a moving three-dimensional sculpture featuring five partially nude dancers who are in almost constant contact. This form takes as its reference tactile, kinaesthetic, and proprioceptive sensation, as well as a creative dynamic rooted in the experiential and transversal—an evolving perceptual form with continual sensory-perceptual reconfigurations. Tactility was used as a means to disrupt a logic of sensation based on a separation of interior/exterior. The collective physical body was also attributed with a sonic dimension. Here, a soundscore is produced in real-time by the dancers and is closely related to the different dynamics of their movement. The sound body also has the particularity of generating a collective sonic dynamic, therein constituting a collective sound body whose entity resembles a “sixth dancer,” with its particular dynamics, temporality and relationship to space.
These sensory overlappings can be seen as making reference to intersensory chiasms (Merleau-Ponty 1945). Based on the concepts of intercorporeality already outlined, this phenomenon operates the equivalent of an ontological opening of the physical body, which also finds resonance in Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh: through the lived “body itself” and kinaesthetic sense. Phase #5 stages the presence and “chair” of this human mass: in both its material and interconnected dimensions.
The Mediated Collective body: The Sound Body as Part of the Collective Body
The sound body is one of my strategies of destabilization and does not reflect a more general approach to sound evidenced in field of contemporary performing arts today. When speaking of a sound body, I firstly refer to a dimension of the body that is generated in real-time by dancers and that corresponds to an enlarged choreographic concept and a state of openness characterizing corporeality. To put this idea into play, dancers had to develop an expanded consciousness of themselves as much with their movement as in the production of sound in real-time and, further, in the relationship these two entities closely interweave.
The sound body I developed is an emanation, a dilation of the physical body and constituting a vibration serving as a sensorial reference for the dancers with which to compose. Here, the sound body is not a double, but a new manifestation of the physical body issuing from a kinaesthetic learning process brought about under the influence of technology as an element of exteroceptive destabilization. This “transformation” of the very nature of the body requires a time of apprenticeship and assimilation. It is the product of a real integration of the process of modification that can lead to a transformation of self.
What is interesting about this perspective is that, while working on the sound body, I could also intervene on the dancers’ sensoriality and perception. On the one hand, this led me to abandon modalities of composition that have already been tried and tested; on the other, it enabled a deeper construction of movement in a constant state of transformation. With this perspective, sensoriality reorganizes itself, interiority changes and evolves. Interiority becomes mediated and thus transformed through the destabilization created by an external technological agency.
This form of mediatized interiority that reorganizes itself echoes Berthoz’s (1997) theories on the de-composition and re-combination of the senses just evoked. It also creates a “new reality” for the performer (and the spectator). This modification of interiority through its mediatization allows for a renewal of the perception of gesture and of the body moving in space. It is one of the elements that enables one to go beyond sclerosis that characterizes much choreography and constitutes, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of research on technologies: the renewal of perceptual organization in order to create new movement scores.
But that is not all. This same dynamic brings changes, and thus the creation of different types of performative behavior, such as modifications of performative stage projection that I tested according to principle of molecularization. So, by working on the dimension of the sound body, one intervenes on a process of sensorial renewal that must be accompanied by working on movement and on the process of performative projection. This type of sensorial renewal can only be achieved through constant practice over a period of time. Working on the collective body and the sound body, the effects of destabilization are combined, which has the effect of accentuating them.
Performative forms that emerged were complex and unpredictable, because they arose from interaction itself: from the five bodies exploring variations in pressure and pulse, and from the creation of sound in real-time, which acts on the rhythmic dimension of the performance and the transdisciplinary choreographic structure and gesture which compose it. Subjected to this unusual creative tension of a gravitational and rhythmic nature, performers develop new adaptive methods. For example, the dance historian Annie Suquet notes that contact dance places dancers in a situation of being “thrown into spatial configurations where verticality is no longer dependent on movement. In these situations of rapid disorientation, a blackout of vigilant consciousness occurs, and reflexes take over” (2006: 425). This is a strategy where a loss of bearings is produced.
Inspired by concepts underpinning Paxton’s contact dance improvisation and his tactile body, exteroceptors also played an important role in the elaboration of strategies applied to the physical and mediated collective body. Exteroceptors are neuronal structures in the skin (récepteurs cutanés) (Berthoz 1997: 33) or mucous membranes. Their role is to capture stimuli from the external environment. They are stimulated and in turn cause changes in physicality. Skin, Berthoz explains, “contains numerous receptors sensitive to different aspects of contact with the outside world” (36). While certain receivers are only sensitive to caresses, others detect signs of pressure, intensity (light, sound, etc) and heat. They can also be sensitive to the manifestation of a mediated body in the form of sound (sensed as vibration, or eventually as particles of light).
This topic is broached in accounts by Enrico Pitozzi, who observed the process of integrative organization between these different bodies—flesh and sound—and the effect of sound on the body of the performer:
. . . around the capturing of the sound of five different dancers that—composing their movement in the space of action like a real sound mass—oproduced what we could define a collective resounding body, inside which the dancers could feel a shared sensorial experience, on the level of movement and on the level of sound production in real time. The elaboration of a soundscape responds to the mass-movement of the performer on stage, of an intense graininess that seems like a cloud of sound, a dense and articulated atmosphere of sound particles. . . . The “resounding body” is, in other words, an emanation, a dilation of the real body into the shape of sound; it is a vibration. The body becomes an eardrum, a resonator of sensorial dimensions that becomes scenic sonority. Therefore the body is almost molecularized, subdivided into elementary particles and recomposed in the shape of sound. (2010)
The strategies of destabilization that I experimented with, through the simultaneous composition of a collective physical body and collective sound body, led to conscious and unconscious levels of organization that determined not only the emergence of other types of movement, but also of other types of performative behavior.
During the last phase of the work, the audience was situated a half meter away from the carnal collective body. This proximity induced a “tactile vision” for the spectator. Immersed in a living form, he/she is in the form—in the collective body—and in contact with the intensities that animate and underpin it. The spectator is also in this flesh because of sound sensed as vibratory particles that move around him/her and traverse his/her body and space with a destabilizing effect. Combining the effect of the collective physical body and the collective sound body creates a form of audio-tactile perceptual reception for spectators.
We can speak therefore of a tactile aspect of the working of sound. The sound elaborated according to the strategy of moleculerization and spatial disposition operates with very high and very low frequencies and tends to articulate itself through a continuous wavelength that installs a constant relationship with the bodies that are listening. This proximity between the body of the performer (visibly and auditorily) does not, however, take the audience into a situation of extreme sound: the communication passes because of the different chromatic levels of sound, different levels of vibration. The spectator is therefore immersed in the continuous vibration, of a segment of sound as a gesture, and it is on this scale of variations that the attention must fall. What is being affirmed is that the parameters that the spectator must put into action are not simply optical-visual or auditory-sound, but the process of composition of the choreographer Isabelle Choinière requires a synaesthetic glance and mode of listening, an active and contemporary relationship of the senses. It’s necessary to configure the bodies in another way in order to receive these signals. It isn’t enough to have eyes to see the invisible or to have ears to hear the inaudible. (2010)
In observing the influence between performer and spectator, Pitozzi accounts for the synaesthetic effect produced, which resembles the effect of Merleau-Ponty’s second intersensory chiasm and which, also, reflects the third parasensorial chiasm and the phenomenon of intersubjectivity of which Merleau-Ponty speaks.
Conclusion: Technology as a Potential Tool for Self-transformation
One of the characteristics that distinguishes my research from that of other choreographers and theorists looking at the question of the performative body and its relation to technology is that it neither adopts a philosophical interpretation of technology—or technological devices, prostheses—as “extensions” (Simondon 2001), nor does it adhere to Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of rhizomes (1980)—a variation on the idea of extension. It also does not embrace a postphenomenological or posthuman vision of the body, nor an aesthetic concern and elocution of the body as being “readable.” My approach does not take a third-person perspective of what is external, or of the environment. It understands it from an internal, sensory point of view; from a first-person perspective. This perspective also contributes to my understanding of intercorporeality because what lies “outside,” in fact, constitutes part of our sensory and perceptual interiority. This understanding contributes to an understanding of the mediated body in the light of phenomenological experience which can enrich performative and sounding expression. In turn, a phenomenal mediation, considered as another form of embodiment, participates in this enrichment.
According to the approach outlined here, technology is a destabilizing element that creates a new sensory organization, in which interiority becomes mediated, and thus creates a new experiential reference, a new “reality” of the performer and spectator. It is a state of reorganization/intermodification that is in constant motion. One of the goals of this work was to create a series of conditions to broaden the scope of the dancers’ awareness and action in order embrace technology as a physicality, and, by extension, live a different and enriching experience of embodiment. This type of experimentation can serve as an example of new encounters between the somatic and technology which somatic practitioners like Shusterman or Batson might have intuited without knowing what the next forms of somatics might take. Pointing towards the endless cycle of the movement of life and art in their respective permutations, might this configuration of sensitive, mediated and inter-connected bodies not be an auspicious sign of performative art in the twenty-first century?
 The author presents the question of technological and human evolution as an absolute combinatory that implies an interdependence of the body’s evolution in response to the need to adapt to its environment, and the evolution of the environment to meet the needs of the body. Leroi-Gourhan, thus, builds his argument from the point of view of the body and experience: “The machine appears as a device that frequently incorporates not only the common tool but above all, one or more gestures” (112-13).
 They were inspired by Oriental philosophies.
 See Bernard 2001; Quinz and Menicacci 2005; Pitozzi 2010.
 Annie Suquet was as a resident researcher at the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation in New York for three years while working for the Revue RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics (Harvard University).
 See, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FeSDsmIeHA
 Researcher-professor at the University of Venice, Italy who studies new contemporary performative stages. He began to study my work in 2005. http://www.iuav.it/Ateneo1/docenti/docenti201/Pitozzi-En/index.htm
Berthoz, Alain. Le sens du mouvement. Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1997.
Davidson, Andrea. “Somatics: An orchid in the land of technology.” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. Special issue: Somatics and technology 5.1 (2013): 3-15.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Milles Plateaux; Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1980. Collection Critique.
Leroi-Gourhan, André. Milieu et techniques: Évolution et techniques. 1945. Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1973. Collection Sciences d’aujourd’hui 2.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.
Moran, Dermot. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, 2000.
Pitozzi, Enrico. “Corpo sonoro collettivo. Verso una tattilita uditiva”/“A Collective Resounding Body: Aiming towards an Auditory Tactility.” Digimag 51 (February 2010): 91-96. 4 Oct. 2017.
Quinz, Emanuele, and Armando Menicacci. “Sclérose de la répétition. Conversation avec Hubert Godard.” Quant à la danse 2 (June 2005).
*Isabelle Choinière is an artist, researcher, author and teacher of new contemporary performative practices, with a Ph.D. from Planetary Collegium, Plymouth University, UK (2015). Her main works to date include Communion (1994-1999); La démence des anges (1999-2005); Meat Paradoxe (2005-2010); Flesh Waves (2013) and Phase #5 (2016-), productions that have toured internationaly in major festivals. They have also been referenced as case studies for research groups in universities around the world since 1994. Choinière’s research has been published widely in English, French and Portuguese, along with her activity as a guest chief-editor for a double issue of Technoetic Arts (2015). In 2018-2019, she will publish Through prism of the senses: Mediation and new realities of the body in contemporary performance. Technologies, cognition and emergent research-creation methodologies (in three languages). She is an associate professor at the School of Media, and Postdoctoral researcher at the Arts Faculty, with Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). She is a member of international research groups such as FIGURA and Planetary Collegium Research Network.
Copyright © 2017 Isabelle Choinière
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