Fieldwork: THE BRAIN-BODY POETRY KIT

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Photo by Paul Matthew. Poem by Winter School participants.

Week two of my Responsive Residency with Critical Path and IO Myers Creative Practice Lab, UNSW. July 2017.

Both heaters are on, a bright neon orange light warms the large, cavernous theatre space. I am standing at a table cutting up words with a pair of sewing scissors. Snip. Snip. Under my fingers float neurons under my finger float attention under my fingers float swallow under my fingers float process. I am sorting words into lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and pronouns. As I snip I learn more about grammar, about how language works, how perception works, how sentences come together and shape thoughts, actions. It feels so choreographic to snip!

My father up until the very end of his life, even when all his mobility had disappeared – where did it go? all those micro signals between the brain and body where did they all disappear to? – would play word games; endlessly staring at a scrambled list of letters and putting then together to form four-letter, five-letter, six-letter words, and I had to write them down because his fingers didn’t move and he couldn’t hold a pen. Now, four months after his death I am standing alone at a long white table in a large, cavernous theatre snipping words with the emerging thought to make a brain-body magnetic poetry kit. Under my fingers float continuously under my fingers float dangling under my fingers float ancestor under my fingers float time.

Last time I was in Sydney I was in a different large, cavernous theatre space – at Drill Hall by Rushcutter’s Bay with boats bobbing in the harbour. Here at UNSW I am surrounded not by shipyards and white yachts but by ancient fig trees and construction sites. What is it to be in-residence as an ‘interstate artist’ coming in for three weeks, once in June, once in July and once in September, re-inscribing that well-worn pathway between Melbourne and Sydney again and again, to research by dancing, writing, reading, thinking and encountering the connections between brain and body: the incessant signals they send each other for the simplest of actions, like snip. Under my fingers float software under my fingers float evolution under my fingers float principles under my fingers float idea.

My idea was to be in dialogue with Dr Brindha Shivalingam, a neurosurgeon who lives in Sydney. In my application for this residency I wrote:

I have known Brindha all my life. She is a family friend. We grew up together in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In 1983 when the riots began we lived a very particular traumatic period at the start of the war together. Our families both migrated to Australian in 1984. Brindha and I share lives in two continents and a childhood shaped, amongst other things, by war. I am wanting to research pathways and scales by investigating relationships between micro and macro mobility. How does fine motor coordination exist in relation to the pathways enacted by economic and political migrants? This research investigates the pathways between body and brain and the pathways taken by each of us – neurosurgery and choreography – with the thought that perhaps both the micro and the macro can speak to the creation of hybrid identities, economies of practice and kinaesthetic heritage.

This is my first science-dance investigation – can I even call it that? In week one, Brindha and I spent a lot of time together. I stayed in her home and invited her to Drill Hall. We walked along the harbour and talked about our lives, about her work, about her path as a Bharatanayam Dancer, then Doctor, then Surgeon. And my pathway from theatre, to dance, to architecture and design. We talked about love and relationships about family and expectations. We talked about money and power we talked about the surgeon’s theatre and the performer’s theatre, the unlikely connections and vast gaps between the two.

In week 2 I am trying to make sense of these discussions, how they might translate or transform into ‘tests’ or ‘shifts’ in my practice. I listen to our conversations recorded on my iphone, I listen to podcasts from brain surgeons and neuroscientists talking about the human brain. I make lists and lists of words. And then I cut them all up. Under my fingers float touch under my fingers float stimuli under my fingers float down under my fingers float small.

The idea of a magnetic poetry kit on the Brain-Body emerges as a choreographic object, a way to make non/sense of these sediments floating up through my fingers. The next day a group of young Indigenous Australian high school kids come into the theatre to meet with the artist in-residence i.e. me. I tell them a story about my childhood in Sri Lanka and my family friendship with Brindha. It’s a story of war, and fire, and refugee camps, close escapes, and high achievements. Their mouths are open listening to every word. One of the girls puts her hand on her heart. It’s so satisfying to tell stories. I LOVE this feeling – like binding a spell, like weaving a web. I catch them in my sticky, silvery words, and they are all mine and I am all theirs and under our fingers float syntax under our fingers float tangle under our fingers float I under our fingers float sensing.

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Photo by Paul Matthews