Quantum Leap

a rant about art and science: liz lerman’s dance exchange, the matter of origins @ mca chicago, november 2012.

What does it mean to make good art about problematic science? The answer was not to be found in Liz Lerman’s The Matter of Origins. The dancers were incredible, athletic, emotive, moving, and much of the gestural language was striking too, particularly when it was at its most abstract and non-referential, but this was an extraordinarily hackneyed piece. Dancers in hard hats and lab coats, pretending to be molecules, moving in front of backdrops of pipes and the latticework of reactor facilities, pondering the mysteries of the universe, with equations shooting across the screens to music that sounded like a computer crashing or an electric drill stripping a screw or a really bad Philip Glass composition—if this is the equation of art and science, then e = mc bad.

Lerman chose to create a dance about the metaphysics of physics, the poetry of protons, and in the process did a disservice to both art and science. Her piece emphasized the strangeness of scientific knowledge, the ways in which—gee-whiz!—the simplicity of artistic expression can help turn people on to physics. But this reduced scientific modes of understanding to trite art while reducing the art of dance to propaganda for physics. The dance failed to measure the incommensurability of these different ways of knowing.

Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, The Matter of Origins. Photograph: Jaclyn Borowski.

As a physicist responded when asked how he pictures dark matter (as part of the soundtrack for the dance), “I don’t.” It’s numbers, not images. But Lerman stuck at it. Her troupe pretended to be parts of molecules in a particle collider and one dancer fell from a chair repeatedly to dramatize Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Okay, that was kind of an intriguing idea. But overall, this was dance and science for school children. Which is fine for school children. In fact, it’s great for school children. But not for much more. At the level of representation, Lerman’s oversimplified reenactments of theoretical physics neither illuminated the physics, nor enlivened the choreography and the talents of her dancers.

It got worse. Lerman chose to focus on the figure of Edith Warner, a poet and writer who ran a teahouse near Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. The physicists working on the atom bomb would often spend time there, conversing about their work. The second half of the dance recreated this tea house. The audience convened in the lobby of the MCA in a kind of convivial environment, drinking tea and eating cake from a recipe that Warner used. A smart and articulate physicist from DePaul University discussed his work as the dancers moved around the room. He even, in a nicely playful moment, participated in the dancing. Meanwhile, “provocateurs” at each table led discussions about the performance. As the dancers served out the cake, Lerman camped up the moment with 1950s elevator music. But this seemed the entirely wrong tone for thinking about the moral and ethical dimensions of the Manhattan Project, and the role of scientists in creating the atom bomb. I am not arguing that they were wrong to do so. That is a whole other vexing debate. Rather, my point is that Lerman once again trivialized both dance and science—and audience participation—by her choices for staging the performance and engagement. There was a kind of enforced mood of celebrating the dance performance and little space for critique and real discussion.

It was a good example of the perils of relational aesthetics, which seeks to use art to forge new social bonds by encouraging conviviality. But as Claire Bishop (pdf) and others have noticed, conviviality has its dangers. In its very niceness, it can be not nice. This is particularly so when it threatens to enforce consensus and to block paths for more confrontational critique and engagement. Another example of how Lerman’s tone seemed wrong, trite, more like propaganda than serious inquiry: at one point two of her older dancers (Lerman is famous for including multi-generational dancers in her troupes) performed what I could only call the dance of old age. In movements that emphasized the pain of mortality, of dying, they were shadowed by words to the effect of (think physics again here): our bodies turn to light. Okay, fine, yes our bodies do turn to light eventually, and they came from light. But in the meantime, death sucks, getting old sucks, and why impose New Age numbness over that pain?

Perhaps the problem, for me, is that dance is a strange mix of the social and the material. It gets at the metaphysical, but only through the physical. In this way, it’s actually closer to physics than Lerman makes it out to be. Dancers don’t have to pretend to be molecules; they already are molecules. This meant that the best moments of the performance were about dancing—when the dancers leaped up and down in feats of endurance, when they measured and fell and turned and collapsed as dancers, not as representations of physics or stories about the physics of Edith Warner’s teacups and trough cakes. The Matter of Origins mattered most, and was most original, not when it emphasized the philosophical improbabilities of probability theory but rather when it featured predictable things done unpredictably.

Lerman tried to make art about science when she should have concentrated more on the science of art-making. This may have to do less with art or science than with money. The main funding for The Matter of Origins came from the National Science Foundation. At the beginning, middle, and end of the show, audience members filled out survey forms about what they were learning about science from the dance. This meant that a performance that was supposed to use art to probe the meaning of science seemed to be aimed, most of all, at producing marketing and survey data for the NSF. The audience members were the lab rats and the dancers lab technicians, but the strings (the purse, not the physics kind) were being pulled by the funders. Dance became nothing more than a controlled experiment of the worst kind, a manipulation instead of an exploration. The hope is always that art can explode with beauty, that it is about creation and can make a big bang. In this case, it proved mainly to be a focal point for a focus group.

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