What Is A Body?

7 January 2014

With ‘Thinking with the Body’ behind us, our ‘Foreign Bodies’ exhibition in full swing and a series of ‘Bodily Possibilities’ movement workshops coming up, Natalie Coe reflects on what a body actually is.

Our bodies are the basis for our existence and it is through them that we experience the world. Their mediating role is reflected in our language – for example, in phrases like ‘the heart of the community’, ‘the head of an organisation’ and ‘the brains of an operation’ or in more physical references such as ‘the foot of a mountain’. We often talk of society and nations as if they were bodies, too. But what about manmade objects? Can they also be bodies?

This was the subject of an event at Wellcome Collection on Thursday 19 September 2013, ‘What is a body?’ with anthropologist James Leach and Scott deLahunta, the Research Director of Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. The event was facilitated by Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The speakers’ respective projects on Papua New Guinean knowledge production and UK-based contemporary dance may seem a curious combination, but both investigate bodies and objects as social beings in different contexts. Leach’s research is about how people on the Rai Coast of Papau New Guinea understand bodies to be ‘dividual’ (made up of, or ‘grown from’, other people), and deLahunta has been part of a project developing an intelligent software ‘body’ that is used by dancers to generate dance making by provoking new movement creation in the studio. In both examples, bodies are seen as objects that elicit a compelling kinaesthetic response.

Leach began by discussing his commitment to anthropological methods and the importance of taking the ‘life-worlds’ of others seriously – worlds from which we can learn a great deal. In this case, the Papua New Guineans can teach us different ways to conceive of ‘being a person’ and ‘having a body’ in a place where the conceptual and material world are less distinguishable from each other. It was suggested that the audience generally imagine themselves as individuals who have physically grown from internal processes. This is just one way of understanding a person that has emerged from our own history and culture. In the Pacific, Leach argues, people are seen as ‘dividual’ rather than individual, so people are divisible into the different things and people that make them up. This is strongly linked to the ‘reproduction economy’ in the region, which is primarily intended to produce skilled or valuable people rather than things. Valuable skills and knowledge, therefore, reside in bodies or persons.

Accordingly, when a woman marries and moves to her husband’s home, there is an ‘exchange obligation’ to replace the substance and value of that woman in the home she leaves. The people in the husband’s hamlet gather materials to make an effigy of her to give to her former community, and this is explicitly referred to as a body; not a representation of a body, but an actual body. Importantly, the new wife helps to create this substitute body, so this practice should not be seen as buying or exchanging the wife as a commodity. The wife’s body, like all bodies, is understood to have been ‘grown’ from the outcomes of other people’s labour – their farming or hunting for the food that a body needs. People therefore work in a similar way to grow the substitute body, or effigy, by collecting garden foods to make the forehead and face, dog’s teeth and shells for concealed bones, taro for viscera, and so on. As well as being made by other people, bodies and substitute bodies are physical manifestations of social obligations and the relationships between people. Each body, or person, is therefore different because they have different relationships with others.

That a body is constituted by the deliberate and specific work of, and relationships with, others means that persons are always transforming. This is something we might recognise in our own lives. It is less easy to relate to the strong impetus to labour that this conception of a body creates; labour output is very tangible because it results in a body and because it is made clear who laboured to make that body. This is also what makes the substitute body kinaesthetically compelling: it is recognisable as the person it substitutes, it is the sum of many different relationships between people and it fulfils obligations in the same way a human does. People feel compelled to collect for and create the effigy, as well as to transfer it to the wife’s hamlet (where it is accepted as a substitute body).

It is the compelling quality of these substitute bodies that deLahunta explained was lacking in the original version of the choreographic software that they were working on for Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. As McGregor said, the software ‘needed a body’. Leach’s ethnographic detail was therefore a great starting point for thinking about how they could create software, or a choreographic object, that would somehow mimic a body and elicit a creative response from the dancers.

DeLahunta gave some context to their plan for choreographic software by explaining the choreographic method of ‘tasking’, one of the main ways Wayne McGregor works with his dancers to generate new material. Tasking is giving a dancer a choreographic instruction or problem to solve, often involving mental imagery instructions – for example: ‘Imagine you are carrying a giant heavy bell (image below); now imagine yourself underneath it, describe the shape with your body, convey the shape/feeling/sound it provokes’. This process is not about getting the dancers to act things out; it is a way of providing stimuli and enhancing their imagery skills to generate unique ways of moving. The researchers, therefore, wanted to create a software tool that could augment this work. The first iteration became known as the Choreographic Language Agent (CLA).

 What is a body?

CLA took what was happening in the mind and attempted to re-create it on two screens, so instructions were put in and the software generated them on-screen for the dancers to create movement material from. It worked in generating movement and in helping researchers understand choreographic thinking, but the tool itself was found to be missing something. The CLA was on a computer outside of the studio space, so – ironically – it took dancers away from the creative environment and disrupted their choreographic process, rather than working with it. When Leach spoke to McGregor about what a body actually is he explained that you cannot be in a space with another body without feeling a response to it, and that is what they wanted to capture with the choreographic software. This led to the idea of having an ‘11th dancer’, a body that is in the studio with the dancers that follows choreographic instruction, elicits a kinaesthetic response in the dancers and compels them to move.

The latest version of this software is called Becoming. Its 3D, 63”-screen interface was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition with some 3D glasses that visitors could use to try it out, just like the dancers do in the studio (image below). An image on the screen grows, changes shape and colour, and moves in an organic way. Sometimes, the shape begins to look like limbs or even a human body. The size of the screen has the effect of feeling like a body in the space too. It is also intelligent, in a way; for example, it ‘knows’ where the sides of the screen are, so the shape it produces from inputted instructions can get stuck against the side and be pulled down by gravity.

 "Becoming", the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

“Becoming”, the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

These fascinating and thought-provoking case studies from Leach and deLahunta initiated a lively audience discussion. One audience member questioned whether the substitute body and the Becoming software were actually anything like a body, given that they do not respond to or interact with people. Leach responded by distinguishing between bodies and people; describing something as a body does not mean it is a person. The way the software mimics a body is to make it useful and generative for choreographing. Becoming is also interesting as an ‘object of thought’ because, in addition to provoking sensations, it encourages the dancers to apply an analytical perspective to what they see and the decisions they make. Consequently, it is a good source of research material for scientists thinking about what thinking is.

The facilitator, Emma Redding, raised the issue of who ‘owns’ the movements that emerge from the choreographic process, given that there is extensive creative input from all the dancers. Perhaps the example of the concept of ‘a body’ in Papua New Guinea is relevant here because the effigies produced are explicitly non-traceable once they are given away, and no one claims any part individually; instead, the ownership lies in the relationships between people, so it is distributed between all involved. This is interesting in light of David Kirsh’s research on distributed creativity in the choreographic process. In support of this, none of the speakers has encountered dancers claiming credit for movements within a piece because the process is so collaborative. It would be very difficult to pinpoint who came up with each movement when everyone works in response to each other. This is valuable to remember in a culture in which there is still the notion of a genius choreographer single-handedly creating a masterpiece. The questions also generated discussions about gender, technology, and the absence of statues and representative art in Papua New Guinea.

Although the event did not attempt to definitively answer what a ‘body’ is, the speakers presented the workable and succinct definition of “something that elicits a kinaesthetic response in another body” using two very interesting examples from opposite ends of the globe, which was useful in helping us to think about the broadness and subjectivity of the question. As Leach pointed out, anthropology constantly reminds us of the irreducibility of experience – so, ultimately, it may not be possible to define what a body is after all.

Check out Muriel Bailly’s previousblog post about where science, dance and choreography meet as she looks into the ideas behind the Thinking with the Body exhibition.