By Joe Ferguson
According to philosopher and UC Berkeley professor Alva Noë, art and philosophy are tools that allow us to deconstruct our habitual ways of thinking and doing, and then reorganize ourselves with broader perspectives and deeper levels of understanding. He recently collaborated with choreographers and performers Jess Curtis and Claire Cunningham on their work The Way You Look (at me) Tonight. Excerpts previewed at San Francisco’s Gray Area/Grand Theater December 11th-13th. He took time to answer some questions about the science and philosophy behind this provocative collaboration.
Joe Ferguson: Your work with Jess Curtis and Claire Cunningham, Intercontinental Collaborations #6, “investigates the role of movement and sensory dynamics in the perception and performance of others.” Tell us about that.
Alva Noë: One of the things that has been of real interest to us is thinking about perception and cognition and the way in which performers are exercising cognitive and perceptual capacities while performing, and also the way they are engaging with and affording possibilities for the exercise of cognitive and perceptual capacities on the part of the audience.
For instance, Claire Cunningham is a disabled artist—she’s a lifelong user of crutches. There is a way people look at someone when they think there might be something wrong with them. They might want to stare, but they don’t feel allowed to stare. As a result they subconsciously engage in a choreography of avoiding looking and looking with their peripheral vision. That creates a very interesting sociopersonal, perceptual reality for disabled people and non-disabled people who are dealing with the disabled.
JF: Perceptually, what’s happening there?
AN: It’s very subtle. In cognitive science we can distinguish what’s called foveal vision from peripheral vision. Whenever you’re reading or scrutinizing something you focus your eyes on it—that’s an example of foveal vision—but for some purposes peripheral vision is superior. Peripheral vision is extremely sensitive to rapid movement or unusual visual stimuli, and our spontaneous response to that is to turn our eyes to it and look at it and get all the information we need to get from it. This look-but-don’t-look task that Jess and Claire want to experiment with challenges our settled perceptual behavioral habits.
JF: In your new book, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, you describe art as a tool that we use to learn about ourselves. What do you mean by strange tools?
AN: I’m fascinated by two facts about art. First, is the fact that artists are so bound up with making things—whether it’s dancers making dances or painters making paintings or poets writing poems. Art is about doing, putting together, constructing, building, fabricating things, and manufacturing. At the same time, we’re never quite sure what to do with the things that artists make. The standards by which we try to understand works of art are not like those we use to evaluate normal things. It seems to me, artists make stuff not because the stuff they make is so special but because making itself is so special and foundational to human life. That is, human beings are constantly doing stuff in skillful ways. We are fascinated with making tools. We’re constantly organized by the habitual patterns of these skillful activities. Artists make stuff in order to bring out the ways in which making and doing make us—our perceptual habits organize us.
Secondly, is that works of art are strange tools because the normal, organizing function of tools has been disrupted so as to create an opportunity for a certain kind of self-discovery. For instance, in Intercontinental Collaborations, Jess and Claire depict situations in which normal perceptual habits—their own and the audience’s—are disrupted. The act of disrupting them unveils them and brings them into the foreground. It enables us to have a reflective awareness of these habits that is not possible in normal, everyday behavior. In this case choreography can be thought of as a tool for examining ourselves that results in a disorganizing of ourselves, that ultimately helps us create new habits and, in effect, reorganizes us.
JF: You’ve asserted that there are limits to what neuroscience can explain about our appreciation of art. What are those limits?
AN: There’s a tendency to think of aesthetic experiences as episodes triggered in our heads by exposure to works of art. I’m interested in thinking about conscious episodes—including aesthetic experiences—as many-layered, highly-complex events. For instance, think of an aesthetic experience as sort of like the experience of going out to dinner with your friends. You would never say that the only thing that mattered was how the food tasted. The food could have been no good, but the conversation was fantastic. Maybe you really enjoyed the food, but the reason was because your friends really enjoyed it. Perhaps you enjoyed the food because you read an article in the paper that stated you were supposed to enjoy that food. In other words, how the evening was shaped and structured as an experience that you could think of as positive or negative is a really complicated thing. If someone then came along and said I want to know the neuro-correlate of that aesthetic experience—where it happened in the brain—I would assert that perspective is confused. Aesthetic experiences are not stable, all-or-nothing episodes. Our responses are not simple—they’re more of an activity of thinking, looking, talking, and wondering. Art provides a whole domain of experience where we need to either go beyond neuroscience or we need to expand and develop it.