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An Experiment in [de]Constructive Interference

Adam J. Thompson, founding director of The Deconstructive Theatre Project [DTP], uses the theater as his laboratory space, giving literal meaning to the idea of experimental art. Dissatisfied by the idea of this very nebulous *inexplicable nature of art*, Adam uses the theater-making process to investigate why and how art has such a profound effect on us. To make art that moves in order to probe what it is about our brains that make us have such visceral, emotional responses to these experiences. Intrigued by the idea of science as a tool to create and understand theater, I sat down with Adam last week to talk more about The DTP’s latest project: The Orpheus Variations.

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This last year, The DTP reimagined the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld as a story of memory and the past: “Our idea of the underworld is not that of a physical place that you go to, but it’s a place the comes up around you if you spend too much time in the past.” The Orpheus Variations tells the tale of a man packing up his house which has become impregnated with memory after his wife disappears. To explore Orpheus’s past—a world that at present only exists as memory—Adam and The DTP team have created a piece that acts much the way the brain behaves as it both processes and recalls an experience. Memory is stored in several different subregions of the brain, which comes as no surprise given that our brains break down our present sensorial experiences and process them in different compartments: the occipital lobe [sight], the temporal lobe [sound], the olfactory bulb [smell], and the parietal lobe [touch + taste].*  When we remember, the brain must piece together the sensory fragments of a particular experience to create that memory.

To design a piece reminiscent of memory, the Orpheus cast uses props, sound, and lighting to construct the constituent elements that become stitched together in real-time using live sound mixing + video feed. The result is a cohesive filmic narrative that is projected above the actors as they are synthesizing those elements. The audience is thus fed two different impetuses at once: the live composition of the film by the onstage actors + the film itself. “We tried to create a relationship between the live performance—the construction of things—as the experience, which is messy with things happening all the time and without grand narrative, and the film as the memory in which all the fragments are pulled together and framed as a cohesive whole.”

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By revealing how our brains process experience, The DTP team have built a mirror for their own creative process—a physical // theatrical manifestation of what is happening in their own minds during the construction of the show: “I’m always looking for a way for process to exist inside of the product. In Orpheus you see the process happening simultaneously with the product; they become inextricably linked.” As a result, the viewer is able to choose their own adventure, following the narrative of the film, the journey of an individual actor, or the production of a particular filmic moment. By design, each performance contains an infinite number of possible journeys, creating an intentionally subjective, wholly viewer-dependent theater-going experience. After every show, Adam opens up the room for a talkback session, giving the audience members an opportunity to share their experiences in processing the piece: What specific elements engaged them most? How did they travel from process to product and back again? And perhaps [most interestingly to me] what can the individual’s unique processing of the same raw inputs—the same film, actors, sound, lighting—tell us about the subjectivity of consciousness as it relates to how we experience art?

The talkback also plays an integral role in the dtp’s mission to bring its audience into the creative process—to understand the science of making art. to further engage their community in the ongoing conversations that inform and complicate their work, the company also holds a three-part series called The dtpE: “Each event is thematically related to the piece so that when you come to see the final performance you have some insight into what the actors and creative team have been going through.”

I actually met adam at the last of the dtp’s community engagement events for The Orpheus Variations—Sense Memory—which explored how the worlds of sight, sound, and taste can conjure up past experiences. What excited me most about our conversation was that we—a scientist and an artist—were using the same sort of language and drawing from the same sorts of experiences to talk to one another about our work. By deconstructing both memory and theater in one elegant stroke, The DTP has merged the worlds of art and science, challenging traditional notions of what it means to be called ‘artist’ or ‘scientist’. Adam’s approach to exploring art is at its core an investigation of the most basic of scientific questions: the *why* and the *how* of a very specific phenomenon. “The science is what makes the experience of art interesting. Because it is the unknown. And art is the tool that I have to understand the science.”

* Of course, I should mention that I have left out the senses we don’t typically consider: sensing where our bodies are in space [proprioception], sensing heat [thermoception], sensing pain [nocioception], sensing the passage of time [chronoception], and sensing the body’s movement [equilibrioception].

Photographs by Mitch Dean.