Panel: The Embodiment and Embeddedness of Improvisation

Ingar Brinck, Improvisation in arts practices: Bodily coordination, imitation and engagement

What enables improvisation and how can we account for its function within arts practices? In the arts, improvisation means that agents engage in reciprocal real-time interaction without a script or leader. It combines skill and spontaneity by re-mastering the techniques and technologies that the local environment affords. In contrast, everyday routine improvisation is ubiquitous, occurring e.g. in verbal conversation and daily rituals such as cooking or cleaning. It is set to maintain status quo and compensate for ambiguity or error, a device for repair rather than invention. I will develop a theory of improvisation as based in sensorimotor processing and emerging from interaction dynamics. Bodily coordination (entrainment) provides the necessary underpinning in synchronizing the agents’ behavior temporally, allowing for a shared rhythm and timing. Imitation consists in the complete or partial matching of behavior and permits modulation of the interaction, normally serving to re-align agents when interaction breaks down. I suggest that in arts practices improvisation aims at discovery and novelty, as exemplified by modern dance and jazz music, and that agents imitate strategically to explore variations of expected behavior. I discuss how imitation may support improvisation on different temporal scales and levels of resolution, and consider the effects of emotional and material (dis)engagement on the interaction. Finally, I submit that studies in the visual arts imply that individual improvisation too emerges from imitation, the artist coupling to the physical context, using artefacts and her own body as tools for exploring novel trajectories, imitating shapes and forms or simulating imagined space. The present theory combines insights from the cognitive sciences, neuroscience, phenomenology, and studies in the arts, grounding the theoretical claims in reviews of empirical studies.

Susanne Ravn and Simon Høffding, Body memories in artistic improvisation: a dialogical embodied exchange of movement

When engaging in observations of and interviews with expert artists, such as dancers and musicians, it becomes evident that their practices are, in different ways, focused on developing, adjusting and optimising certain techniques of the body. In the phenomenological analysis of body memory in dance and musicianship presented in this paper, we contend that it would be a mistake to think of these body techniques – or specialised habits – as a repertoire of more or less automatized movements. Rather, in each repetition, body memories including these habits are to be understood as unfolding in response to the present context and accordingly instantiate a fresh memory of these habits while moulding them at the same time. In that sense, any habit is also always improvised in some degree – adjusted and timed in accordance with the present situation. In recent sociological discussions, several researchers have drawn attention to the facts that when exploring, and possibly changing, habits, we at the same time rely on other habits and that habit does not only include sensory-motor use of our bodies, but also the way we handle our attention and focus our awareness. We argue that dance and musical improvisation can then only be understood when taking into consideration its complex relation to habits and body memory. In the analysis we specifically draw on resent philosophical discussions (e.g. Sutton, Colombetti, Montero; Fuchs) to describe how body memories are not to be reduced to certain internalised dispositions, activated when performing. Rather body memories unfold and find their form in the contextual field of a dialogical embodied exchange of movement.

Mikko Salmela, Joint improvisation as interaction ritual

Improvised joint action feels good, sometimes even great when the participants experience highly rewarding “group flows”. In this presentation, I analyze the emergence of the positive affective phenomenology of improvised joint action in several domains such as various forms of art improvisation, improvisational music therapies for children with autism or schizophrenia, and social and political movements with the sociological interaction ritual theory of Randall Collins (2004). The understanding of joint improvisation as interaction ritual allows us to see how the shared affective experience of the participants builds up from several ingredients that include structural, intentional, and embodied elements. These are the participants’ bodily co-presence and physical separation from others; their joint attention to the joint activity; an initial shared mood among the participants; and their mutual awareness of the shared focus of attention. The initial affects intensify during the joint activity into an intrinsically pleasant collective effervescence in the group’s interaction ritual through emotional contagion and rhythmic synchronization of the participants’ bodily and behavioral processes as well as through the participants’ awareness of their shared experience. Improvised joint action involves more variation than typical rituals, but both are patterned social interactions in which the alignment of participatory, either synchronic or complementary, individual actions within the joint activity yields affective rewards to the participants, as shown by several empirical studies. Another difference to rituals is that in some cases of joint improvisation, the initial shared mood may emerge only from the affective rewards of bodily and behavioral synchrony and coordination. Another source of shared affects in joint improvisation is the activity itself, such as a successful performance of a difficult part of it. In social activism, improvised joint actions are often motivated by the participants’ collective emotions that by constitution involve extensive bodily and behavioral synchrony.

Ashley Walton, Auriel Washbun, Anthony Chemero and Michael Richardson, Musical movement: spatiotemporal patterns of coordination and embodied listening

Musical collaboration emerges from the complex interaction of environmental and informational constraints, including those of the instruments and the performance context. Music improvisation in particular is more like everyday interaction in that dynamics emerge spontaneously without a rehearsed score or script. First, we examined how the structure of the musical context affords and shapes interactions between improvising musicians. Six pairs of professional piano players improvised with two different backing tracks while we recorded both the music produced and the movements of their heads, left arms and right arms. The backing tracks varied in rhythmic and harmonic information, from a chord progression, to a single tone. Differences in movement coordination and playing behavior were evaluated using nonlinear dynamical systems methods. Collectively, the findings indicated that each backing track afforded the emergence of different patterns of coordination with respect to how the musicians played together, how they moved together, as well as their experience collaborating with each other. Second, listeners were asked to rate the audio recordings of the improvised performances. Listener’s experiences of the recordings were related to the way the musicians coordinated their body movements, including head movements. These results demonstrate a link between the perception of musical sounds and the motional characteristics of their sources, specifically the movements and gestures involved in musical production. Given that bodily motion is powerfully bound to listeners’ engagement with music, we explore new forms of listening experiences afforded by virtual reality and motion tracking technology. In collaboration with the arts collective Intermedio, new immersive experiences are demonstrated where listener movements determine and interact with the spatial distribution of sounds in a music composition. How these additional dynamics expand the possibilities for engagement with musical aesthetics are considered in relation to the theoretical framework of ecological acoustics.

Panel: Embodiment and Biopolitics

Sandra Huber, Critical Unmaking: Divination, the Algorithm, and the Practice of Automatic Writing

What exactly is automatic writing, and why, after 150 years since the Spiritualists put it into practice, does it still persist? Furthermore, how can a reclaiming of automatic writing put forward an alternate ontology that changes the way we interact with writing and the systems it empowers? This presentation will start by complicating ideas around creativity, automaticity, and the act of divination by comparing examples of classic automatic writers, such as medium Geraldine Cummins, with contemporary writing automata, such as Horoscope Bot. Borrowing Matt Ratto’s term “critical making,” I’ll discuss how automatic writing offers a tactic of “critical unmaking”: a radical act that revises, among other things, the range of perceived interactions between humans and technology. To do this, I’ll examine cases where automatic writing has emerged from its habitus of parlour rooms and séances to appear in the theatres of law and cognitive science — here, its associations with divination and trance allow automatic writing to work as a disorienting force within these epic institutions, opening a space to unmake traditional systems. In her essay “Reclaiming Animism,” Isabelle Stengers calls for a move to reclaim concepts such as “magic,” for, she says, “magic undercuts any such version of the epic”; so, too, with divination and its embodiment in automatic writing, which resists explanation and is often gendered. “Long before our contemporary fascination with the beautific possibilities of cyberspace,” writes Jeffrey Sconce in Haunted Media, “feminine mediums led the Spiritualist movement as wholly realized cybernetic beings.” In an age where 70% of’s Mechanical Turk labour force is female, and where bots such as Siri are often tamed by being gendered female, is this “cybernetic being” as utopic as Sconce makes out? Or are different faculties of knowledge ready to be divined outside those that romance the (feminine) automaton?


My paper explores how contemporary disanthropocentric accounts of human and non-human agency impact question the ways racialized bodies are seen and interpreted as well as their implications in a post-ecological world, particularly through their depictions in literature. With material ecocriticism destabilizing binaries between the human and the non-human as we enter the era of the posthuman, both have come to be seen as co-extensive enmeshments in a state of radical immanence. The world is thus a non-hierarchal collective where humans and non-humans interact as material-discursive entanglements across tenuous boundaries. Human bodies thus become processual assemblages, as human embodiment undergoes a radical prosthetic enhancement. Race, or skin color, are thus held up to a revisionary scrutiny. Therefore, in engaging in an onto-epistemological account of how racialized bodies are to be re-read, the theoretical notions of Bruno Latour, Karen Barad, Val Plumwood, Jane Bennett and Arthur Bradley are pivotal to this exploration, despite their divergent trajectories. The deconstruction of a holistic Anthropos opens up unique possibilities for questioning how racialized bodies are socially constructed and known. The important question is that if the human is de-anthropologised and humans and non-humans are seen as equal citizens, then race-based boundaries become equally unstable. The epistemological disbanding of anthropocentrism in turn leads to the subversion of the White/non-White binary, so that the possibility of a new world view may be explored which could lead to an altered ethics of race. Using Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus to illustrate the possible alterations in this world view, my paper explores how such a disanthropocentric approach initiates an onto-epistemological revision of race-based embodiment and its scope in the contemporary world.

Josh Berson, The Age of Vigilance

This is the age of vigilance—of coordinated attacks and drone warfare but equally of attention disorders and modafinil. At every scale of our lives, from the long-distance movements of weather patterns, disease vectors, and human beings to the regulation of wakefulness in our bodies, vigilance has become a modal theme of self-care. For Bodies of Knowledge, I propose a panel exploring what this means for us as individuals and collectives.

Vigilance has two senses. There is vigilance in the sense of preparedness or threat readiness, an attunement to signs of incipient violence—or simply demands for social synchronization—in our perisomatic space. But vigilance has a second sense. In this second sense, vigilance is a dimension of nervous physiology that characterizes the relationship we enact in our bodies between motoricity and attention. The challenge here is to unpack the politics of this second kind of vigilance. More precisely:

1. How do vigilance outliers, individuals and communities whose attentional-motoric styles diverge from social norms, suffer or benefit? How do the enforcing and troping of vigilance norms function in the enactment of social power?
2. How do the types of vigilance operative at different scales of social life flow into one another? How do the rate and rhythmic character of demands on our attention, be it for threat assessment or simply social synchronization, shape our attentional-motoric style over time?
3. What role does the acoustic environment play in shaping our habits of vigilance? As a lifelong monaural hearer with continuous tinnitus and recurring hyperacusis linked to episodes of hypomania, this is a question of personal significance.

Jessie Wirkus, John Locke’s Hands: The Tools of Embodiment in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

John Locke turns to thought experiments involving the hand in service of both the simplest and most perplexing of questions in the Essay. Holding a flint in your hand makes the quality of solidity self-evident (II.iv.6). Considering what makes the hand write or lie still reveals both a simple answer (the will) and one of nature’s greatest mysteries—the interface between intention and action (IV.10.19). The hand’s functions in the text are varied and multivalenced: they further arguments for both the accessibility and difficulty of knowledge while also dramatizing the complex, and sometimes troubling, nature of action. Hands are at once seats of agency and tools for thinking: subject and object in one.

Locke’s use of hands changes the focus from the anatomist’s practice of reading the structure of hands metonymically so as to understand the movement of the soul, to considering the larger structures and forces within which the hands of the individual act. In the essay “Anatomia,” Locke lays out the limits of anatomy, forcefully arguing that structures do not reveal causes, providing, instead, only surface knowledge. Locke’s critique of the limits of anatomy mirrors in some ways Locke’s discussion of “fantastical uneasiness” (II.xxi.45) which, like “Anatomia,” multiplies the powers that determine action (or in the case of “Anatomia,” health), but that one would be hard-pressed to capture via dissection or under a microscope. Like Jonathan Kramnick has argued concerning Locke’s theory of action, health, as well as action, is an experiential thing. As the hands that appear in the Essay to illustrate the principles of power both shape and respond to these forces—forged by education, fashion, and custom—hands trouble the boundary between subject and in part by drawing to the forefront the object-ness of the hand.

Panel: Classics, Archeology, Language

David Turnbull, To Talk of Many Things, Of Stories, Ships and String, of Connections, Collaborations, Knowledges and Kin

Until recently the narrative of how Homo sapiens and their ancestors left Africa, extending themselves in space and time has largely been a terrestrial one. There is now an increasing body of evidence for early seafaring by hominims that may exceed 140,000 years BP. Including a maritime dimension to the narrative of hominim movement raises fundamental issues in understanding the development of hominim socio-cognitive and technical capacities. Some archaeologists such as Leppard and Cherry taking a strong representationalist/cognitivist approach have argued that such early seafaring could not have occurred and could only have become possible from around 50,000BP, because a socially and technically complex activity like seafaring requires planning, abstraction, fully syntactical language, and a fully working memory. The paper argues that taking a performative approach based in embodied cognition and in technologies of connection string and storytelling, provides the conditions for the possibility of the coproduction of social collaboration and technical capacities of boat building and navigation.

Zina Giannopoulou, Suffering, Embodiment, and the Self in Sophocles’ Philoctetes

The Philoctetes (c. 409 BCE) is unique in the Greek tragic corpus for the extreme physicality of its central event: abandoned by the Greeks on the deserted island of Lemnos because of his foul stench and cries which interrupted the religious rituals, Philoctetes suffers attacks of excruciating pain from a stinking, ulcerous sore in his foot. Deprived of companions and resources, he uses his divine bow—Heracles’ gift and the sole means, together with its owner, of capturing Troy—to eke out a meager existence. His wounded foot causes sudden bouts of pain across the space of a hundred lines (730-826): he first tries to hide his pain but then gives voice to it repeatedly until he finally collapses into sleep. Although suffering is present almost by definition in tragedy (Poetics 1452b11-13), Philoctetes makes suffering its explicit subject: the main hero just is suffering or pain incarnate (Scarry 1985, Garner 1994).

In this paper, I look at the ways in which Sophocles constructs Philoctetes’ sense of self out of the material means available to him: his cries and bow. Drawing upon the distinction of the phenomenologist Herbert Plügge between Körper (the physical body observed from outside and subject to biomechanical laws) and Leib (the body as it is subjectively lived, the ground of perception, knowledge, intention, and self-extension beyond the body’s physical boundaries), I argue that Philoctetes’ shrieks of agony foreground his waning Körper, whereas the bow symbolizes his potent Leib, the means by which he transmutes his defeat by the Greeks—his being treated as a dispensable tool—into the double victory of his survival on Lemnos and the anticipated capture of Troy. In this way, Philoctetes overcomes his suffering, which bifurcates the human being into the bodily and the mental (Cassell 2004), and preserves his sense of himself as a hero.

David Wright, Sacred reptiles and native world view: enactive aesthetics and agency in Mesoamerican art

Representations of serpents are ubiquitous in the iconography of pre-Hispanic and early colonial Mesoamerica. Snakes, as well as reptilian attributes combined with other iconic elements, are ubiquitous in verbal and visual expressions of the experience of a sentient cosmos, including the surface of the Earth, the underworld, the heavens, rain, fire, and more. Reptilian attributes were assumed by rulers and priests as manifestations of their sacred status, legitimizing their social and political power. In this paper serpent symbolism is framed in embodiment theory, drawing on concepts developed by scholars over the last 25 years. The evolutionary aspects of the phenomenology of reptiles in the primate mind is relevant to this study, providing insights into the aesthetic impact of Mesoamerican sculpture and painting.

Anila Bhagavatula, Neuroscience of Rhetoric and Poetry

We discuss the contribution of neuroaesthetics and cognitive paradigms to rhetoric in art and humanities and also ask the question of how art and humanities can better help us understand specialization in brain function. These questions will be addressed within the theoretical framework of Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Linguistics, and Cognitive Poetics. An analysis of literary style elements and perceptual symbols will conclude the discussion.