Introduction to Thesis

Angela Clarke: Imagine This... 2016 Abbotsford Convent

This thesis is about the making of a contemporary theatre performance called ‘Imagine This . . .’. I performed this original work at the Abbotsford Convent from April 15 – 17, 2016, with the help of director, Kirsten von Bibra, and performers, Myfanwy Hunter and Suze Smith. The performance and this thesis aim to further our understanding of the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity. In this thesis, I reflect upon and distil the philosophical concepts and corporeal practices I used to develop this artistic performance. I describe how experienced, body-centred practitioners, Kate Barnett, Alice Cummins, Jo Kennedy, and Vicky Kapo, fostered supportive learning environments for me to consciously access lived experience differently whilst in the process of developing artistic performance works. The final submission comprises both live performance and theoretical writing. A video recording of the live performance documents the event, and the project is presented in the form of a website so that performance and written material can be meaningfully integrated.

This project begins with concerns about how binary concepts such as mind/body, subject/object, and conscious/unconscious limit our capacity to gain more appropriate and precise understandings of the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity. My concerns come from an inability to reconcile some Western academic discourses about these topics with my own experience and the experience of other artists. What emerges is a corporeal investigation into philosophy and artistic performance that raises the question: what is the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity? Through processes of action and reflection I discovered that there is a performative and intertwined relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity. Based on this discovery, my central thesis is that lived experience can be consciously accessed differently, through corporeal practices, to activate fundamental structures for artistic purposes. I position this work, like Elizabeth Grosz (2005 & 2011), within a lineage that includes Darwin, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. Terms such as life, lived experience, other, world, ontology, and experiencing body, are engaged with primarily in and through this philosophical lineage.

In Chapter One, I present the theoretical frameworks that underpin the investigations that have taken place in this project. I initiate the inquiry with a focus on phenomenology because of its “attempt to describe the basic structures of human experience and understanding from a first person point of view” (Carman 1945/2012, p. viii). Like Grosz, I recognise that phenomenology is not adequate for an inquiry into fundamental structures because phenomenology assumes “the functional or experiencing body as a given rather than as the effect of processes of continual creation, movement, or individuation” (2011, p. 28). Grosz suggests that, “new terms and different conceptual frameworks need to be devised if bodies are to be talked about “outside or in excess of binary pairs” (1994, p. 24). Contemporary artist-researchers too, are now calling for a phenomenology that “manifests itself as a way of living in the world” (Kozel 2007, p. 2).

To catalyse the development of a different kind of conceptual framework for talking about experiencing bodies, in this thesis, I raise questions about binary concepts such as mind/body, and subject/object through the lens of Bergson’s Theory of Creative Evolution. I embrace Bergson’s ontology on the unity and centrality of life, its fundamental self-organising structures, its immersive conditions and its evolutionary processes of becoming (1911/2005, pp. 324 – 341). I discuss how life for Bergson (1911/2005), and for Darwin (1859) before him, is a central organising structure that is an adaptive and generative dynamic. In this ontology, as Grosz suggests, life uses the forces of difference to generate dynamic, open-ended, ever-changing things (2011, p. 43). Following Grosz, I embrace these Bergsonian concepts, question the experiencing body as a given, and place it within the broader evolutionary context of all things. I consider, from this philosophical position, how life, as a central organising structure, might affect the lived experience of artistic creativity.

It is important to note that Darwin, Bergson and Grosz are theorising about the fundamental structures of life rather than lived experience. However, in this thesis, I treat their distinct discussions on fundamental structures together and propose that as a conjoined framework their work formulates an understanding of life that can catalyse and sustain human artistic endeavour. I argue that, even though experience varies, the corporeal, a feature of all lived experience,  is affected by non-human evolutionary forces and that closer attention to this phenomenon can provide deeper understandings of human creativity.

In making a conceptual shift from the experiencing body to Bergsonian life as the central organising structure of lived experience, my project becomes an ontological inquiry because I am now concerned, more broadly, with the fundamental structures of being. Grosz (2005) suggests that to raise questions of ontology “we must return, as Merleau-Ponty did, to the question of wild Being” (1964/1968, p. 170). I recognise the importance of this concept for my project, as a related but different concept to Bergsonian life, because Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of this dynamic have resonances with the way artists describe the creative process. I embrace life, becoming, and wild Being as a suite of complementary concepts that provide a way forward for exploring an immersive account of artistic creativity.

I note that this exploration is made somewhat difficult within a Western philosophical context by the ocular-centric metaphors that Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012), and Husserl (1952/1989) before him, use to describe human lived experience.  Despite their attempts to do the opposite, I argue that these metaphors perpetuate mind/body, subject/object binary concepts and limit our capacity to gain a more appropriate and precise understanding of the lived experience of artistic creativity.

I go on to discuss how Merleau-Ponty eventually manages to find a way to describe a more integrated “circular course” of lived experience (1964/1968, p. 138). I also introduce the Möbius loop model, suggested by Grosz (1994), as a more appropriate metaphor for rethinking mind/body binaries. I then examine a range of artists’ descriptions of the creative process. This uncovers a corporeal thematic that suggests artists are accessing experience differently. I say this because many artists make note of a heightened sense of visceral phenomena that manifests during the creative process. The analysis of artists’ creative experiences and the corporeal thematic that emerged leads me to wonder if a Bergsonian ontology of becoming might provide a more appropriate framework for understanding the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity. I also wonder if artists’ ways of accessing experience might bear any relation to Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of wild Being and the intertwining – the chiasm. The correlations I perceive between these philosophical concepts and artists’ experiences of creativity, reveal an under-developed research trajectory that suggests a way forward for my research investigations.

I close the chapter by suggesting that this kind of investigation requires a first-person approach to research because the things in question need to be enacted and happening in real time. I discuss the need to be inside the investigation, experiencing the phenomenon of artistic creativity in a first-hand way so that a more appropriate and precise understanding of an enacted process can be uncovered. I suggest that research might then proceed with the following question: How might the concepts of wild Being, the intertwining – the chiasm, and becoming first, support ways of consciously accessing experience differently, and second, operate in service of artistic creativity? I propose that one way to address this ontological question is to take a Performance Research approach to the inquiry.

In Chapter Two, I present the methodological frameworks I used in this inquiry. I propose that Performance Research is ideally suited to an ontological investigation because there is a strong history of body-centred investigations in the fields of theatre and performance studies. I trace that lineage, including activities in theatre and performance that have occurred outside academy, and discuss how this frames the artistic context within which my investigations have taken place. I introduce Josephine Machon’s work as a key text in this project because of her formulation of what she calls the “(syn)aesthetic style” of performance. Machon’s work is useful because she finds a legitimate way to analyse and articulate a style of performance that substantiates the corporeal, or what she calls the “visceral” sensations and perceptions in and of performing bodies (2011, p. 4).

I go on to discuss how my research enacts an exchange between performance and philosophy by testing philosophical concepts against my own experience, in the act of making creative works. I claim that my investigations have forged an experiential relationship between performance and philosophy that activates a new form of performative philosophical expression and as such, makes a contribution to the emerging field of Performance Philosophy.

Discoveries are made through processes of live knowing which I describe as the activated or practical form of knowledge. Live knowing has its roots in what British philosopher Gilbert Ryle explains as the difference between “knowing how and knowing that” (1945, p. 1). I describe how live knowing is the means whereby I can enact and communicate my research insights. I suggest live knowing is an encounter that disrupts typical systems of knowledge and provides opportunities to create visceral shifts in experience and understanding.

Through action and reflection in processes of live knowing, I discovered that Bergson and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical concepts required further refinement because they were not entirely adequate for giving an account of the experience of artistic performance. As a result, I have synthesised Bergson’s and Merleau-Ponty’s respective fundamental concepts of life and wild Being to isolate a new phenomenon which I claim is the basis of creativity. I term this phenomenon wild life. In this thesis, I describe how the phenomenon of wild life is revealed, accessed and activated in artistic performance practice through processes of accessing experience differently. I define wild life as a performative dynamic that is primal, wild, libidinal and generative. I propose that wild life manifests as a multi-sensory, corporeal intelligence that is a constant structural feature of lived experience. Based on my investigations, I experience this performative dynamic as unpredictable, surprising, open-ended, and singularly creative. I claim that wild life is governed by the evolutionary forces of difference, adaptability, and generation; that wild life can be accessed, through corporeal practices, to catalyse and sustain artistic creativity.

In Chapter Three, I describe the corporeal practices and the multi-mode methods I used to access this wild life dynamic. I introduce the practice of attunement and the three body-centred techniques I employed to engage with this practice: the Alexander Technique; Body Mind Centring® ; and Focusing. In particular, I describe a practice that is commonly used in all three body-centred techniques that involves activating sensory metaphors to more consciously attune-to multi-sensory, whole-bodied experiences. This is a body-centred process that has resonances with Bainbridge Cohen’s notion of “somatization” (2012, p. 157). I explain how I used sensory metaphors to create experiential shifts that were viscerally affective. I also discuss other key methods that include first-person, discovery workshops, and reflective practices and how I used these methods to record experiences that suggest a more multifarious, multi-dimensional, omnidirectional, immersive account of lived experience.

In Chapters Four, Five and Six I describe the application of these methods to my performance practice and how I have engaged with the concepts of wild Being, the intertwining – the chiasm, and becoming respectively using corporeal practices. I do this by first attuning to visceral phenomena, second by focusing in-between, and third by imagining immersive conditions.

In Chapter Four, I explore the resonances between Merleau-Ponty’s concept of wild Being and artists’ visceral descriptions of the creative process. Using first-person methods, I utilise touch, attuning-to the support of central movement, and embodying imaginative sensory metaphors to activate visceral shifts in lived experience. I found that these corporeal practices helped me to access a primal, libidinal, corporeal intelligence that feels different to ordinary experiences of intelligence. I recognised these experiences in artists’ visceral descriptions of the creative process, and found parallels in Merleau-Ponty’s concept of wild Being. As a result, this research has helped me to avoid mind/body binaries and attune-to the immersive evolutionary conditions of lived experience. I also found that utilising these corporeal practices supported and sustained my creative efforts. I claim that this way of accessing experience is about attuning-to the different degrees of conscious awareness that are available as a constant structural feature of lived experience.

In Chapter Five, I focus on Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the intertwining – the chiasm. I discuss how this concept resonates with the way artists describe the intertwining body-world connection they experience during the creative process. I constructed a body-size Möbius loop and performatively experimented with this object to consciously access experience differently and to see if I could experience this intertwining connection. By focusing in-between things, I discovered that when I was in motion with this object I could more consciously attune-to the intertwining body-world forces that propel, bind, and separate things. I found that the boundaries, edges, and borders of things are porous and intertwined which makes them affected by immersive evolutionary conditions. Focusing in-between things is a corporeal practice that fosters an ability to attune-to what Merleau-Ponty calls the “thickness” of the “perceived object and the perceiving subject” (1945/2012, p. 53). My experience with the Möbius loop resonated with artists’ viscerally immersive descriptions of the intertwining body-world connection during the creative process. I claim that focusing attention in-between things while encountering objects such as the Möbius loop in live performance, makes it possible to eschew subject/object binaries and more readily attune-to the intertwining – the chiasm as a fundamental structure of lived experience.

In Chapter Six, I focus on how the evolutionary forces of difference in, what Grosz calls, the domain of becoming, might express the real through artistic performance. Using the concept of becoming employed by Bergson and affirmed by Merleau-Ponty and Grosz, I found that, for artistic purposes, it was useful to attune-to lived experience as a dynamic, generative, and open-ended process of becoming. I claim that this process is a radically imaginative act that actively disrupts mind/body, subject/object conceptualisations of lived experience. Utilising concepts of the fundamental structures of life within a lineage that includes Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Grosz, I approached lived experience as a creative process of becoming by actively imagining immersive evolutionary conditions during artistic performance. I experimented and documented the ways in which this approach to lived experience is affective and operates in service of artistic activity. I note of how some theatre practitioners work with this kind of dynamic to unblock the physical body and voice rather than developing acting techniques. By adopting some of these frameworks I was able to imaginatively harness the forces of difference to enact an artistic response to visceral phenomena in real-time, during live performance events. To do this, I consciously employed imaginative sensory metaphors that create shifts in lived experience, and used improvisation techniques that respond to visceral phenomena in real time.

In Chapter Seven, I synthesise my research and put forward the performance ontology of becoming that I developed in response to the question: what is the relationship between lived experience and artistic creativity?  I build on the work of Grosz, in Time Travels (2005) and Becoming Undone (2011) and translate her ontologies of becoming into a framework for performance that allows me to get closer to the fundamental structures of artistic creativity. In my ontology, lived experience is conceptualised as a fundamentally creative process, intertwined with worlds and pushed by the evolutionary and generative forces of life. I describe how my contemporary theatre performance, structured in twelve vignettes, utilised corporeal practices through acts of live knowing to foreground ontology and focus on how fundamental structures of life operate in service of artistic creativity. Using examples from my work, I discuss how the phenomenon that I call wild life manifests as a creative dynamic that artists can access by closely attuning-to visceral phenomena, focusing in-between and imagining immersive conditions.

In conclusion, I note that developing an ontological position in support of my performance practice is an ongoing process of becoming. I claim the Möbius loop model, put forward by Grosz and activated performatively by me, helps to avoid the problems associated with mind/body, subject/object, and conscious/unconscious binaries. Furthermore, this model encapsulates Merleau-Ponty’s idea that it is “the intertwining – the chiasm” that makes us invent, create, bring forth our subjectivities, inter-subjectivities and materialities (1964/1968, p. 136). I claim that the (syn)aesthetic performance style I used provided opportunities for me to access experience differently, and activate fundamental structures of life for artistic purposes. I propose that the performance of ‘Imagine This . . .’, the formulation of an ontology for performance practice, and the isolation of a new phenomenon that I call wild life are original contributions that account for the performative and intertwined role that life plays in the processes of artistic creativity. In closing this thesis, I claim that the performance and written work presented in this project furthers our understanding of how the fundamental structures of life operate in service of artistic creativity.


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