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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Gabriela Karolczak (PL)_interview by Orsolya Bálint (KÖM)

Our body is not our limit
How can a complete body understand the phenomenon of phantom sensation? How can one reveal the phantom body? In her workshop, Gabriela Karolczak (PL) combines neuroscientific knowledge with subjective experience, on the first Performing V4 – Biennial of VARP-PA Residents in Prague. The workshop is open for all audiences free of charge on the 28th of February, at 12 p.m. in Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre. Gabriela tells us how she developed the concept with Martyna Lorenc and Marysia Zimpel. 

Your project, Phantom Sensation is based on a lot of research. What was the initial inspiration to start working on this topic?
My initial idea was to create the environment for exchange between neuro-scientific knowledge that I encountered during my studies (MA in Science of Performative Creativity) and Martyna’s experience in cognitive psychology and dance. Not to ‘apply’ one discipline to the other, but rather ask the question: If I consider this, what will change in my understanding of what I do? So that it could be a process, in which all three of us could reorganize our thinking and feeling. The topic of phantom sensations came after doing one exercise from Rosalind Crisp. I kind of spontaneously called it ‘phantomic’ – when after some time of lying in the blanket pulled from different directions by the other, one starts to move in a different mode of muscle activation, as if imprinted with the previous experience: the phantom of the blanket. From there I started to read up-to-date neuroscientific inquiries in the subject and pinpoint the interesting stuff. 

Was there a turning point during your research that changed your perspective?
First moment was, when we decided to work on touch more profoundly. From there it was clearer to me how and what to learn from Body Mind Centering, Lisa Nelson or Eva Karczag. There was another moment, in our second period of work, when we started to talk figuratively, report the narrative structures of imagination and also drawing them. It was very liberating after the time when we used only non-personal description – qualities of movement and sensation like direction, temperature, speed, size, weight... But then this part of the research became quite alienated from the rest of it, like some kind of bastard practice. 

How did you begin to put theory into action?
We experimented with many ideas that came up in the theoretical research. One of them was the Penfield map (see picture) – the map representing correlates of sensation and movement of the body in the brain. So we were using this idea of differences in geography of the body, trying to trace the cortical one via the flesh-bones-skin body. So if you lie relaxed, and I touch you here, maybe you can feel some tingling in another place? What will be the next place where you would like to be touched? And then… how can I use this kind of information to inspire my dancing? Another was the figure of homunculus, the small man representing the proportions of the body in the brain (see drawing). We played around the notion of phantomculus; if we could reorganize our sensory proportions of the body, would the performance of a dance change? What if I perceive my upper arm as big and heavy – how it will influence the movement, will the viewer recognize my sensation? In the research on phantomic sensations, we worked a lot with eyes closed, and with extensive stimulation of body parts, or with insistent attention, that create new proportions of the phantom body; the body of awakened receptors with its own form, within the form of the physical body. This work provides a lot of disorientation, as the body achieves a different awareness of itself, and thus creates unfamiliar paths for action.

Is phantom sensation ‘real’? 
Well, you can say, that it is “scientifically proven”, that phantom sensation is a sensation. We didn’t want however to do our brain scans: If you can believe in amputees perception of the phantom hand, why should you doubt in the phantom of touch? 

How can a ‘healthy’ person (with a complete body) relate to that experience at all?
Hmm... if you don’t have a leg does it mean that you are unhealthy? Furthermore, there are people who feel “unhealthy” because they have a leg… One of the underlying questions was indeed: How can a complete body understand the notion of phantom sensation? But as the research in prosthetics develops, it becomes clear that our body is not our limit. We however worked mostly on the phantom of touch, and the general approach, that if you stay with certain sensation long enough, it can accompany you for while in a form of a phantom. However, the visibility even of clear signals is always determined by the viewer’s ability to read them…

Did your project lead you to a better understanding of body consciousness and body memory?
The fact that phantom pain is the reason why science is investigating the subject is emblematic for Western medicine. Nevertheless thanks to this fact, we also learn about all other phantom sensations (the movements of the phantom, phantom telescoping, itching, tickling, etc.), which accompany the mourning of the body member, and other more complicated processing issues, like where the difference between imagination and actual movement lies. I think we are always incomplete, as we are always in the process of relating our previous experience to the one that is present, even though we tend to forget about this in order to act efficiently in a world of changing circumstances. In that sense, I don’t really think my research is aimed at “completing the incomplete”. The experiences of sitting on a wet chair or running down the stairs or seeing people moving around, all create the palimpsest of our bodily constitution, priming us for certain future realities. However our bodily actions are worn out and without sensuous power, due to repetition and processes of automatisation that allow multitasking. And to paraphrase Nietzsche (out of the context), they are like “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

As an artist, are you inspired by science, or do you think science can add extra input to art?
I prefer to think about dance as an experiment, and I rather do artistic research which in my case I see as close to Romantic Science –  as described by Alexander Luria: “It is of the utmost importance to romantics to preserve the wealth of living reality, and they aspire to a science that retains this richness. Of course, romantic scholars and romantic science have their shortcomings. Romantic science typically lacks the logic and does not follow the careful, consecutive, step-by-step reasoning that is characteristic of classical science, nor does it easily reach firm formulations and universally applicable laws. Sometimes logical step-by-step analysis escapes romantic scholars, and on occasion, they let artistic preferences and intuitions take over.”(In Michael Cole, The Autobiography of Alexander Luria: A dialogue with the Making of Mind, Michael Cole, Karl Levitin,  Alexander Luria, Psychology Press, 2010, p. 175)

For how long have you been working with Martyna and Marysia?
In the frame of the VARP-PA residency we worked together for 4 weeks. Before, long time ago we danced for several years in one youth company together in Poznań, with Natalia Draganik, and later stayed in touch, even though we all lived in different countries. Martyna came also to a.pass Brussels, where we did the workshop on phantomic sensation as part of my final communication of the research. 
How did your partners contribute to the creative process?
It was a process of co-creation, we were not only starting from theoretical problems, often we would do just the movement practice offered by one of us, we were sharing experience, practices and knowledge, discussing... As for me and Martyna (who is mainly a dancer) – we both learned neuroscience and cognitive psychology, so the language and concepts were much closer to us. Marysia would often complain that we are too strict and that we should trust our experience more – which was a great antidote to the scientific part, always stirring the energy. 

What did the possibility mean to you to work in the framework of VARP-PA?
It really helped me develop the kind of practice I was dreaming of. After a short residency workshop in Art& Science Vienna, we were not sure, if we find a place to unfold the ideas that germinated there. It was also essential in terms of my individual research on the subject of phantomic sensation, which I realized in frames of a.pass (Advance Performance and Scenography Studies) during the same year.

What were your first experiences in the VARP-PA residency program?
We liked the people from SÍN Cultural Centre in Budapest and the Hungarian metro very much. Also the conditions of our stay were always excellent.

Who would you recommend the VARP-PA program to?
To anyone interested in developing his/her ideas of what a performance could be.

What other countries’ artists do you regularly work with within V4?
No one yet, I hope to make contacts in this Biennial.

Have you ever been to Prague before? 
I have been in Prague on a yoga camp 10 years ago.

What do you hope to gain from participating in the Biennial?
I hope to meet interesting people and communicate our practice.

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