4.3 Touch and Accessing Experience Differently

4.3 Touch and accessing expereince differently | Image credit: Joann Boyer

Image credit: Joann Boyer

Touch of other enlivens experience because, as Bainbridge Cohen says, “when we touch someone, they touch us equally…the art of touch and re-patterning is an exploration of communication through touch – the transmission and acceptance of the flow of energy within ourselves and between ourselves and others” (2012, p. 6). This section describes some of the body-centred processes that Kate Barnett and I used to help me consciously attune-to experience differently by using touch.

Discovery Workshops with Kate
Kate and I designed a series of discovery workshops around what we came to call ‘the spreadability of sound’, as a way of accessing experience differently. I was interested in how I might create an experience of whole body-world sounding. Kate began the first session by leading me through a series of attunement processes that focused on sensing the force of gravity and the particularities of place. Kate suggested that we experiment with the BMC process of cellular touch and invited me to exchange this process with her. Cellular touch draws on Bainbridge Cohen’s claim that cells resonate in relation to one another (2012, p. 162). As more cells within us become “aware of themselves and are responsive, there is a fuller resonance between them” (p. 162). Whilst it is not possible to cite physiological evidence that this is actually what happens to the cells, the process does create a shift in everyday experience whereby the sensory metaphor allows for a more expansive awareness of the millions of multifarious cells that make up the human organism. This shift in attention is viscerally affecting and results in an experience that resonates with what Merleau-Ponty calls the “thickness” of the “perceived object and the perceiving subject” (1945/2012, p. 53) and signifies the performative power of sensory metaphor.

The process of cellular touch usually involves one person lying down as the other person uses their hands to touch their partner’s body in one or more places. The touch is held for a period of time as both parties attune to an experience of cells resonating. The premise is that the more each participant senses into the multiple sensations and perceptions that are available, the more they can include in their awareness. In my experience, the process compounds over time whereby the co-presence of another person engaged in the same activity augments the experience for both participants. After the exploration with cellular touch we moved into the process captured in the following Discovery Workshop (Moving Image 1).


Moving Image 1: Discovery Workshop – Kate & Angela

In this discovery workshop, it felt like Kate and I were traversing new territory to access experience differently. We seemed to be fluidly utilising a mix of Focusing, Alexander Technique and Body Mind Centring® (BMC) methods. In my reflective journal, I made note of the “range of sounds, how breath signifies a shift, the different qualities of Kate’s touch, and the emergence of a strange narrative” (Reflective Journal, August 29th 2014). As Ginsburg says, “the territory is the phenomenal experience. The map is what we think (verbally) that our experience is” (2005, p. 12). Our bodily activities captured in the video highlight the territory for a live evolutionary performative event, and my notes and the following subsequent inter-subjective discussions become the map of that experience.

A year after this footage was captured Kate and I made time to view the footage together. We engaged in an inter-subjective dialogue to reflect on the experience and check for shared understandings. We agreed that the reciprocal exchange of touch that preceded the footage in this discovery workshop disrupted the usual teacher/student power dynamic and situated both experiencers as equal players.  Kate reflected that she wanted “to make things more accessible and equal” (Kate, Recorded Dialogue November 25th 2015).  The act of exchanging cellular touch gave me agency in the process and as Kate said, “ I gave you a particular quality of touch and then when you were inhabiting that quality of touch within yourself you were able to give that back to me” (Kate, Recorded Dialogue November 25th 2015). This relational experience was then carried through into the exercise recorded in the Discovery Workshop.

Kate also noted that she was “approaching it as a dance – otherwise it becomes objectifying” (Kate, Recorded Dialogue November 25th 2015). Kate noted too that using her Alexander training to focus on “the key landmarks of pelvis, shoulders and head/neck” meant that her touch gave me a deeper, more whole-bodied connection (Kate, Recorded Dialogue November 25th 2015). We agreed that the exchange of touch beforehand was helpful in bringing forth the vocalisations in the Discovery Workshop footage.

Another year later, I revisited this footage again to check for shifts in understanding. In the following journal entry, I have attempted to describe the visceral experience of this performative event. It is written more than two years after the initial experience as a way of integrating what I have learnt during the course of my PhD. I used the video footage to re-enter the experience and consciously wrote a detailed description based on my memory of the primary experience, the inter-subjective dialogues I had with Kate, and my now expanded capacity for understanding that experience.

Journal Entry September 7th 2016

Emergence of sound and movement feels like an energetic pulse that seems to be initiated, at first, by Kate’s touch. Direct attention to specific places that are being touched, send a sound/movement impulse to that place. A shift occurs, no longer sending sound/movement there but allowing that place to initiate sound/movement. Body shows how to create more space by shifting the position of hips, allow that movement and notice the sound change, open up, become more resonant. Eyes closed helps focus on visceral sensations arising. At times feel lost, so sense into feet, become aware of the vast supporting structure of the earth beneath. Become aware of the delicate touch of vocal folds and notice breath shifts attention, suggests a new direction. Imagine aural tracts opening wide, expanding into the space like large elephant ears. Another shift, the sounds of the room mobilise and suggest vocal rhythmic patterns, a kookaburra’s laugh, a cooee call. Drop into something. Notice a reservoir of sound in hips that has its own desire to move through and mobilise whole organism. Feel saddened by lamentation that arises.

This journal entry more accurately captures what I now recognise as a corporeal intelligence that operates when I am accessing experience in this way. I suggest this corporeal intelligence has resonances with Merleau-Ponty’s expansive concept of the body. As he says,

The ontological world and body that we uncover at the core of the subject are not the world and the body as ideas; rather, they are the world itself condensed into a comprehensive hold and the body itself as a knowing-body. (Merleau-Ponty 1945/2012, p. 431)

I experience this corporeal intelligence as very different to the ordinary experience of intelligence. It oscillates between directive thoughts and a sense of allowing things to emerge. It is a kind of thinking but is different to everyday experiences of thinking. Language is present but words are not used in the ordinary way and there is no use of the personal pronoun. This, I believe, suggests a more immersive account of experience. Corporeal intelligence shows something through a body movement or by taking attention to a particular body part or sensation. The more I notice and respond to this corporeal intelligence, the more I can let go of directional thought and simply allow things to shift, change, expand, condense, and move. For Merleau-Ponty, “it is the body that shows, that speaks” (1945/2012, p. 203). I suggest the performative event captured in this footage is an expression of how life shows and speaks through human lived experience.

This discovery workshop, recorded at the very beginning of my PhD project, documents a process of deep listening and patient waiting for something to arise. Kate and I attuned-to sounds arising and, using touch, allowed sound and movement to emerge. There is something primal about this experience that perhaps utters what Merleau-Ponty might call the “brute and primordial world” (1964/1968, p. 193) of something wild. This footage displays a corporeal intelligence that was far more complex than I had capacity to express at the time of the primary experience. It is only in hindsight that I can articulate the significance of this event for my research.

The performative experience captured in the above footage is strange, imaginative, and highly visceral. Kate and I are responding to omnidirectional, multifarious sensory inputs. This footage is perhaps evidence of Grosz’s idea that “life brings the virtual, the past, memory (but also the future, the new, intentionality) to bear on the actual, the present, the material: it brings out the latencies already there but unactualized” (2011, p. 35). There are snippets of songs that seem latent and sounds that emerge from childhood that eventually make their way into the final performance. For example the ‘Cooee’ sound that emerges here takes on a significant role in the final performance. This particularly formative experience increased my body attunement capacity and established a foundational methodology for consciously attuning-to experience differently.

The vocal sounding that emerged in this footage cannot be considered in isolation.  It is influenced and informed by listening to the work of Meredith Monk (Biography 2016) and Tania Tagaq (2009). Monk’ s work attempts to weave together new modes of perception through what has been called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance” (Biography 2016). She uses the voice as an instrument to create what Service calls “sonic landscapes” and experiences through “extraordinary ululations and incantations, vertiginous leaps, drops, cries and other wordless acrobatics” (2012, para. 4). Monk’s work uses repetition, drones and modal harmonies. Her strange and at times challenging works require patience and a deep attentiveness from the listener because, as she says, “she wants her pieces to give her listeners an alternative vision of concentration and attention amid the ever-diminishing and ever-increasing speed of the world around us” (Service 2012, para. 6).

Similarly, Tania Tagaq’s work uses non-verbal sounding. Her strange, visceral vocalisations bring forth an encounter with a primal way of accessing experience that is fully embodied, affecting, and wild. Tagaq performs a self-taught form of traditional Inuit throat singing. According to Tagaq, the technique “involves circular breathing where you are expelling air but you teach yourself how to make sounds on the inhalation as well” (Tagaq interview, 2009). The first thing you learn is to “growl like a dog….it’s a growl but more of a vibration using the word huma” (Tagaq interview, 2009).  The movement of air operates on the vocal cords like a bow does on the string of a violin…”like you have a bow in your vocal cords” (Tagaq interview, 2009).  Tagaq’s body and her art seem inseparable and for her “the music is sacred”….“the more you take in the more you can put out” (Tagaq interview, 2009).

Listening to the work of these artists and engaging in the embodiment work I experienced in discovery workshops first, increased my attunement capacity and second, provided visceral entry points into my creative work. The following section describes how the attunement work directly supports artistic creative activity through the development of a vignette for performance that I simply called “Sounding”.

In the Sounding vignette, I worked directly with non-verbal communication through vocal sounding, and I utilised the methods of accessing experience differently that I developed with Kate during our discovery workshops. These methods include augmenting body sensation, dilating awareness, and engaging in a deep, attentive listening process. In performance, I focused on the sensation of touch between the vocal folds to initiate movement. There was an agreement between the musician, Myfanwy Hunter, and myself that I look up and draw something from above through sound and that at some point she would join in (Figure 3). The performance was improvised.


Figure_3_Initiating sound through vocal folds_Angela Clarke

Figure 3: Initiating sound through the touch of vocal folds

The sounding work with Myfanwy allowed for a live performative investigation into immersive conditions. In performance, the silence became as important as the sounding, and I directed attention to visceral sensation so that I might harness and heighten any corporeal impulse. I applied musician David Darling’s idea that “you are always playing a duet with the silence around you” (Making Music, 2016).

In this vignette, I actively attempted to foster the conditions that would allow vocalisation and sounding to spontaneously emerge. One audience member noticed that, “the voice grew from the body and came back to it” (Audience reflection 15 April, 2015). I allowed sound to travel from my vocal folds to my feet and became aware of the soft surface of the Möbius loop upon which I stood. I became particularly aware of the arches of my feet and how they were filled with the squidginess of the Möbius loop. This heightened visceral awareness gave me a sense of elevation, lightness, flight, and upward motion. At times the sounds that emerged were surprising and unexpected. As one audience member said, “the sound pieces were new and unexpected, and either discordant or had moments of being rhythmical, and I guess forever changing and therefore novel and absorbing” (Audience reflection, 17 April, 2015).

Using a (syn)aesthetic performance style, I also focused on developing a “chthonic response” whereby both performer and audience member can “tap into primordial, pre-verbal, communication processes” (Machon 2011, p. 22). This is evident for one audience member who noticed a visceral shift in their own experience – “it was your primal, abstracted sounds that opened me up” (Audience reflection 15 April, 2015). Another suggests “what you were doing felt primal and expressive and right” (Audience reflection 17 April, 2015).

In this vignette I explored how life can, as Machon says, generate “a wholly sensate form of expression” that is corporeal and “communicable in its own unique form” (2011, p. 22). The live performance event attempted to bring forth Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh of the world” where there is “a pregnancy of possibilities” (1964/1968, p. 250). The evolutionary and improvised nature of this particular vignette attempted to enact, in real time, how life uses the material conditions of lived experience to create, to invent, to remember, and to respond. As Grosz says, “life can be understood as the becoming-artistic of the material world” (2011, p. 39). In the performance of this work I was able to experience a visceral, life-world connection that affirmed a link between lived experience and artistic creativity.

The sounding vignette (Moving Image 2) can be seen in the following excerpt taken from the live performance event in April 2016.


Moving Image 2: Performance Vignette – Sounding


In the next section, I detail formative BMC sessions with Alice Cummins, again noting how touch plays a significant role in the development of my attunement capacity. The focus here is on the way touch activates a visceral understanding of how coordinated, full-bodied movement is made more conscious by initiating movement from the centre of the organism. Attuning-to central movement affirms for me how lived experience can progress a creative idea through visceral sensation and perception.


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