By Tamara Ashley, MFA, PhD, University of Bedfordshire
As a somatic practitioner and researcher, I am interested in what we can learn about ourselves through our engagements with the natural environment. In my somatic and artistic practice, I undertake immersions in wilderness, where I am interested in how nature can serve as a guide to coming to know the body-mind. In the current context of ecological crisis and environmental degradation, it seems more urgent than ever to develop tools of engaging with nature in sensitive ways, and in so doing acknowledge the dynamic interplays between body, mind, nature and environment. In this essay, I explore, apply and further develop Laura Mark’s concept of yieldingin the practice of site-sensitive research in the natural environment. It is an approach that enables the practitioner to navigate some of the perceptual politics of researching both body and nature, and attempts to acknowledge a continuity between mind, perception, body, embodied experience and nature. It is also an approach that tries to be sensitive to dynamics of power, post-colonial questions about how knowledge is generated and the rights of the natural environment itself. The practices aim to situate somatic questions that might arise as anchored in the participant’s own perception, rather than being from an externalized somatic system.
In yoga, the body is sometimes thought of as a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Yoga scholar, Feuerstein writes that “we can access the cosmos by going within ourselves because objective and subjective realities always co-evolve and subsist in the same reality” (1998, p. 61). Gregory Bateson asserts that “mind is immanent in the larger system – man plus environment” (1972, p.322), while Andy Clark asserts that humans are natural born cyborgs because they have developed “thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry” (2003, p. 3). Clark articulates a thesis of the extended mind in which the boundaries between the individual, and the tools that they use for thought are blurred. What enables this, he argues, is that we are “incomplete cognitive systems” (2003, p. 190) and that as such our biological brains are flexible and co-create with our environments. That the mind is immanent to not only the body but the environment radically deconstructs any notions of environment as other, as separate from and different from me, rather that they are continuous.
Nonetheless, engagement with and understanding of the environment is perceptual and individual. Developing perception is an inherently political process in that choices are made in terms of what is perceived and what is not perceived. Strategies of perceiving, such as entering in with a desire to partner body system knowledge with earth system knowledge, position participants in relations of power with what it is they are perceiving and the territory that is formed through the process. Laura Marks (2004) calls for an understanding of vision as embodied and material where looking is not about power but rather about yielding and connecting to images that resonate with our individual experiences. Yielding, rather than gazing or projecting, can allow for a reception of phenomena that changes the receiver. Yielding suggests listening and attending to what is received and allowing change to happen as a response. Mark’s ideas are particularly useful to the researcher who is interested in developing practices that resist imposition on landscapes and bodies.
A useful comparison might be made with the term of ‘listening’ as used by improvisational dance practitioners, such as Andrew Harwood, that refers to an attending of phenomena arising in the moment of the improvisation in order that ‘tuned’ responses are made to the evolving composition. Listening, or yielding, informs a responsive action and also puts into play a model of collaborative making. Yielding also allows the composition or landscape to offer dynamics of territorialization to the body so that the territorial imperative of the researcher is not one of imposition but rather one of partnering and exchange. Perception is imbued with power, and yielding, on the terms put forward by Marks, can be an empowered action when the yielding catalyzes response. What is conceptualized here is a web of relations rather than a hierarchy of actions. As an improviser myself, for example, yielding to the performance, location, people and conditions of the moment can facilitate sensitive response and interaction.
Yielding encourages attending to the immediate environment, a relation that Marks identifies through her articulation of haptic perception that deals with the sensory knowing of space. As film theorist Marks asserts that haptic perception can be dealt with through the eyes, that the eyes can touch and enable the body to change feeling state. Vision, as distinct from optical perception, connects the audience to the performance, as does sound, where audio media has been uploaded. Viewing my own performances online brings forward memories of places and spaces, territories and ways of being. Do other bodies sense the spaces of my making or do they see an ordering of information with no sensory affect? Can the eyes touch, or do they need to learn how to touch? Moreover, it is interesting to consider the potential of yielding through all of the senses – vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell. To these senses, I would also add perceptions of weight, body, energy, weather and other perceptual phenomena that a researcher might identify.
Yielding, then, is an attitude that supports entry into the landscape, rather than a specific technique of collecting data. However, this attitude of yielding is cultivated through and further informed by practices that develop perceptual awareness in terms of time, location, environment, body and weather conditions. As an attitude by itself, yielding opens a field of practice and allows sense connections to develop. However, in order to develop the work, these sense connections need to be cultivated. Nature is given time to be received in the researcher’s open attitude of perception and offers dynamics, ideas and configurations of qualities with which to work. The researcher can respond by cultivating what is found and perhaps offer something back to nature. At the end of a process there might be a harvesting of the work that has been generated and through the harvesting, sharing of the work with a broader community through dissemination.
Yielding practices develop specific perceptual attention to the landscape through inhibition of the senses, changing durations of attention and activating relationship through memory and interest. Important to these practices is the absence of anchoring exercises in predetermined metaphors. The purpose of engaging in yielding practices is to enable researchers to develop a practice that is sensitive to their embodied experience in the location in which they are working and perhaps generate their own metaphors from that. Through yielding practices there is resistance of imposing predetermined schema or ideas on the landscape. The yielding practices are designed to open perception to the landscape and thus enable the body to witness and exchange with that landscape in a self-organizing emergent matrix of possibility that will be different for each and every person and location.
The Ethics of Practice: Nature as a guide to knowing the body
The purpose of the yielding practices is to create relationships of perceptual open ness in the researcher as they develop relations with nature in the landscape. The practice is not concerned with bringing metaphorical systems together, nor is it concerned with the creation of new metaphorical systems, although these might emerge. By creating exercises that are anchored in the functions of the senses as they enable perception, the practices seek to enable a self-organizing dynamic of knowledge creation in participants. Somatic questions arising from the practice are anchored in the researchers’ own perception, rather than being from an externalized somatic system. The somatic knowledge in the practice is cultivated through reflection upon the experience of the body in relation to what is perceived in relation to the environment of the practice. Sensual opening and inhibition encourages the yielding of varied embodied information. The body is located as a witness of perceptual experiences that are consciously processed and those that are not and may come into consciousness later.
Through yielding, the practice encourages the researcher to regard nature as a partner with which to work. The various exercises in the practice will possibly enable a deepening relationship through time if practiced often. However, sensitization to embodied experience and to human-nature relations can also be enhanced by reading and research that informs the practice. This process of working improvisationally without a predetermined design locates in researchers a responsibility for working that emphasizes paying attention to what is arising in their perceptions. Working without a predetermined design also locates in the researchers an attitude of activism in that the performer does not bring preconceived knowledge to the process, rather the researcher activates knowledge by perceiving in the present moment by creating responses to those perceptions. The heuristic opening of perception to the site of working is also about creating support for the body and an understanding of the limitations of relationships. Such limitations include that of the researcher’s body and their experience. The scale of the body, its condition and acclimatization, both physiological and psychological, to the task at hand, defines the limits of what can be perceived and made sense of. That the researcher is limited, is fallible and perceptually contingent grounds an ethic in the research that respects the place-sensitive, time-sensitive and experientially-sensitive nature of undertaking any enquiry. It also invites an approach where nature can be situated as a guide to knowing the body.
If you are interested to explore yielding, please follow this link to the Score for Yielding as an ecologically sensitive and somatic practice, which is part of the Extended Practice.
- Bateson, G. (1972) Steps towards an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Clark, A. (2003) Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technology and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Feuerstein, G (1998) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. London: Shambhala Publications.
- Marks, L. (2002). Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multi-sensory Media. USA: University of Minnesota Press.
- Marks, L. (2004). Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes. Framework Finnish Art Review, Available: http://www.framework.fi/2_2004/visitor/artikkelit/marks.html
- Reynolds, A. (2000). Casting Glances. Art in the Landscape, Marfa, TX: Chinati Foundation [symposium publication].