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On Being Represented: ¿a Zen koan?

Anne Dalke's picture
Julieta Pinto, “The Blue Fish,” (from Costa Rica: The Traveler’s Literary Companion: The last minutes before falling asleep and the first on awakening are … intermediate steps from light to shadow in which the ability to see is lost and confusion reigns. Little by little, familiar shapes stand out, and the mind, distressed at leaving mysteriously attractive and unknown areas, begins to calm itself and, by means of relationships, locates itself in space. This is what I do, generally: calm myself by means of relationships, find connections that allow me to locate and ground myself in strange situations. And this is what I did, specifically, this past weekend, when we went to see “Symbiosis,” a brand new dance expressing life in the cloudforest. It was designed by a fusion performance group called Capacitor, which is based in San Francisco; the image to the right is from their web page. (As far as I can tell, “capacitors” are used in electrical circuits as energy-storage devices.) These artists collaborate with members of the scientific community to create performances which (according to their web site) “encourage contact with scientific concepts in ways which allow audiences to see patterns and relationships inherent in nature and the cosmos. Through performance, Capacitor personalizes large, abstract concepts and…widens the scope of basic human experience.” I’ve long been interested in these sorts of intersections between science and art—in particular how science functions as a rich source for metaphors used in artistic representations, as well as the reverse--the different ways that art can illustrate/illuminate/sometimes even alter and stretch scientific ways of knowing (for a prime example of this, see a site in progress:The Art and Science of Ava Blitz. What I found particularly striking, in this particular performance by Capacitor, was the possibility that the form of representation —more than what is being represented --itself determined the representation (here’s the original, and fuller version, of these reflections, in Spanish).

What do I mean by this? Well, we’d spent four hours, the day before, walking in the cloud forest. As I reported then, it was a magical time: filled with silence, with stillness, with what the Ticos call “obscurity.” It also seemed a place throbbing with life—with many layers of life, symbiotic on other layers—but our experience was only of our motion (our own disruptive stumblings along the uneven paths) and occasional brief flutterings of a bird or butterfly.

However, what Capictor depicted—in their very dramatic, very strong performance—was unceasing movement: large figures, all in black, prowling like cats, flying like birds, eating like insects, grooming like monkeys, having sex like all of the above. It was a very sensual, very sexual, very exciting (and somewhat disturbing) performance—well worth seeing. We very much enjoyed being there. But the dance did not at all represent the experience we ourselves had just had, in the same environment which the dance claimed to represent.

So-- four possibilities here (@ least):

(1) The dancers got to layers we weren’t able to perceive. We only saw the surface, and didn’t really experience what there was to experience in the reserve. The blinders of a lawyer and a literary critic were too strong for us to see the reality of the biological world.

(2) Or--maybe the experience of the dancers wasn't either "deeper" or "more authentic." Perhaps, like us, they didn't get very "far," and they filled the “vacio” with their own preconceptions about the hidden, throbbing, symbiotic life of the forest—or with their ideas about what constitutes a good dance. The cloudforest really is not “dramatic” in any easily performable way, and they wanted to make a dance that was dramatic. They certainly made a dance using all sorts of sounds (the music they used was quite dramatic, and quite familiar). And they made a dance using all sorts of movements—a whole cluster of them was East Indian—which seemed to us not to arise from the forest, but rather—perhaps--to be drawn out of the repertoire of movements and sounds they brought with them.

(3) Or maybe we and the dancers had different experiences, which require different representations. Our representation would have been set in green, in obscurity, with only brief glimpses of light. There would have been a lot of stillness, a lot of silence, with only the briefest, and the smallest, gestures of movement possible. Never a whole body; only fingers and toes, occasionally a hand. It would have been a representation that requires lots of patience, a willingness to wait, a willingness to be satisfied with “nothing much” happening.

(4) All these possibilities exist, all of them are true. There’s nothing “beyond” what can be represented. I draw again here on Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, my current referent point for what’s happening in this world, and its thorough explication of how “the act of measurement is deeply enmeshed in creating the very reality it is measuring.” So, too, is the act of representation deeply enmeshed in creating the reality it represents. The next question then becomes whether this is a statement about wht we can know, or about reality itself. To Niels Bohr (as Greene explains),

“This issue was on par with a Zen koan. Physics addressed only things we can measure. From the standpoint of physics, that is reality. Trying to use physics to analyze a ‘deeper’ reality, one beyond what we can know through measurement, is like asking physics to analyze the sound of one hand clapping.” Does this apply as well to art? Is what it represents, from the standpoint of art, reality? And is my trying to use it to explicate a ‘deeper’ reality…

Like a Zen koan? Unanswerable? A question that stops the process of questioning?