Please Consider Your Audience
An Opinion Essay by Mariana Taragano
In a nutshell:
I claim that we, artists, have to make a decision about the amount of interaction we are interested in with our audiences. I explain this through my own personal story, back it up with some neuroscience and then explain why I believe this artistic choice is actually a social responsibility.
I was in my twenties when I first started making dance pieces. At that time my motivation for creating work lay in what was interesting to me as a dancer and artist. Sometimes I wanted to practice a certain skill set or combine different types of movements to create new material that would be surprising. I wanted to create something that perhaps was not seen before, something which creation process I enjoyed or benefited from in some sort of way.
Of course, I preferred if other people liked it too but the audience experience was never really a part of my process. That is, I never really thought of what the observer would get out of the experience of observing my work. I was creating an offering and inviting the audience into my world. I loved it when they enjoyed it but if they did not it was absolutely OK. At least in theory.
It was in this period of time that I also became a very heavy consumer of arts. I was living in London and seeing a lot of dance, theater, performance arts and many things in between. Some of the work was really experimental, some was commercially produced. A lot of it was presented in tiny stages in the small pub-theaters that are so typical of London’s performing arts scenes. At the beginning I enjoyed almost everything I saw. I found pleasure in the familiar, I loved watching skilled dancers and I also appreciated the exploration of some less-skilled performers. But with time I realized that I am seeing some of the same motifs, moves and themes over and over again. I realized that things I thought were ground breaking and new were variations on subjects that have been around for ages. I started analyzing the performances I saw and came to the conclusion that some of the productions simply worked. I also noticed that it did not seem to matter if I was observing a variation of something I saw before or if it was ground breaking. The form was not what was driving my experience. Neither was the theme of the piece. Some of the most ground-breaking material exploring the most interesting and urgent subjects of the time were just not good. What made a piece work was something else.
As one becomes more competent in their medium it is normal to start explaining, cognitively, how and why one prefers a specific type of art. But it seemed to me that rationalizing my experience was missing the point. It was actually in the rare occasions in which I saw a piece that moved something in me to the point that I was reduced to my primal self, that is, the basic human being that I am: the one that loves, gets hurt, laughs about non-cynical or crazy-intelligent comments and gets tired or sick, that I truly felt the piece was good. You can say it differently too: I truly appreciated being stopped on my tracks, as I believe Ann Bogart once wrote, by a piece of art. For me it is the cognitive self that was stopped and left me to sense myself in my most bare existence.
Now, I do not mean that I appreciated when my experience was reduced to the point in which I am not challenged to think. I do not mean entertained, necessarily. I mean being put in touch with my humanity in such a way that I have no other choice than to question my thoughts and actions in this world.
It was with this realization that my artist statement changed dramatically and came to include words that other artists seem to dislike. Words like “connection”, “to” and “people”. In the same sentence.
When I mention to my colleagues that what drives my work is to communicate with the observer I often get a small eye roll and a bunch of warnings. They warn me that I should not “suck up” to my audience. That it is OK if the audience does not like my work. In other words, they warn me not to become an entertainer.
Now, while I do not actually mind entertainment, this is not my intention when creating work. For me, entertainment will engage the audience is a soft, comfortable way. It will allow ones brain to rest, to have a good time by gentle tapping into basic emotions and reassure the audience of its existence. Art on the other hand will get the audience’s brain to work, it will prompt the audience to ask questions and/or to experience various complex feelings. Sometimes art can be entertaining and sometimes entertainment can be artistic. Both art and entertainment require skill. But while skill alone might be entertaining skill without a clear intention cannot be called art.
When my colleagues look at me with that worried gaze I find it hard to explain that I do not want to, necessarily, make the audience like my work. I am interested in creating an opportunity for them to have an experience that is meaningful.
Just think of art works like Crime and Punishment, Manchester by the Sea, 1984 (not necessarily the book but the play), The Sea Inside*. I’m sure these are not works of art that have made you feel comfortable. But I am also pretty sure that you did not forget these pieces half a day after seeing them. Whether you liked them or not aesthetically most chances are that they stuck with you for a while.
I also believe that no matter where you are coming from as an audience you did not feel stupid when you watched or read them. That is because these works are clear in intention and their ways of communication is precise. I know I am giving examples of works that are very linear and literal but there are countless of works which structure is less clear and still make a strong and clear impact on the audience, partly because they keep their audience in mind (works by Akram Khan, Punchdrunk, DV8 and Third Rail Productions are an example of clarity with a less clear linearity).
My interest in audiences and how to better communicate with them has led me to investigate, first as a part of an MA in Movement Studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and then independently how an audience’s brain works.
Mirror Neurons and the Embodied Stimulation Mechanism
Mirror Neurons were first discovered by a team of neuroscientists working at the University of Parma in 1996. Mirror Neurons are first and foremost motor neurons, which means that they activate when a goal related action is conducted: such as grasping a piece of food. What makes Mirror Neurons stand out from other motor neurons is that they are not only activated when a goal-oriented action is executed by an individual but also when such an action is observed by an agent without the agent moving at all (Ammaniti and Gallese, 2014; Gallese, 2005: 2006: 2009: 2010:2012: 2013; Gallese in Wojciehowski, 2011; Hadjikani, 2007; Keysers, 2011*). For example: my Mirror Neurons activate whilst I come to grasp a cup of coffee. The same neurons will fire if I see another person performing the same action, that is, if another person tries to grasp a cup of coffee.
Further research on Mirror Neurons has established that Mirror Neurons are not solely active during the observation of physical actions but also during the observation of emotions and sensations such as (but not limited to) disgust and touch (Gallese, 2009*). This means that when one solely observes, for example, another being caressed, neurons that would fire in the observer’s brain if s/he was the one being caressed are activated. The activation of Mirror Neurons enables the observer to perceive not just the touch but also the quality of that touch, for example: if a certain form of touch is a slap or a caress.
In addition, it has been shown that visual observation is not the only way to trigger Mirror Neurons (Gallese, 2009*). These seem to be activated through hearing as well as using fragmented pieces of visual, auditory and olfactory information to create a mental image of what is being observed.
Vittorio Gallese, one of the neuroscientist who worked in the Parma team when Mirror Neurons were discovered, has drawn on the discovery of Mirror Neurons and on theories of ‘simulation’, also known as ‘mind-reading’, to establish his own Embodied Simulation Mechanism hypothesis. Now, this might get a bit dense but hang on – it will all come full circle!
Theories of traditional simulation claim that humans have the capability not only of understanding what others do, but also why others act in certain ways:
[H]umans [...] start from the observation of an intentionally opaque behaviour, biological, which has to be interpreted and explained in mental terms. This explanatory process is referred to as “mind reading”, that is, the attribution to others of internal mental states, mapped in the mind of the observer as internal representations in propositional format. These representations supposedly play a casual role in determining the observed behaviour to be understood (Gallese, 2009: 522*).
In other words, traditional views of simulation claim that one can recognize another’s intention through reading bodily actions and interpreting these by means of conscious introspection and reflection.
Gallese, whilst not denying this conscious process of intersubjectivity, challenges it by positing that human’s capability to understand others’ intentional, emotional and sensational behaviours, that is, to empathise, are a result of basic neural functional mechanisms related to Mirror Neurons. For Gallese:
[O]ur capacity to empathize with others is mediated [...] by the activation of the same neural circuits underpinning our own emotional and sensory experiences [...] Following this perspective, empathy is to be conceived as the outcome of our natural tendency to experience our interpersonal relations first and foremost at the implicit level of intercorporeity, that is, the mutual resonance of intentionally meaningful sensory-motor behaviors (Gallese, 2009: 523*).
Empathy is therefore the result of physically experiencing another’s action, emotion or sensation and its quality. The physical experience is the consequence of the activation of the observer’s same corporeal state, if to a lesser degree. For example, seeing someone experiencing the feeling of disgust activates Mirror Neurons in the insula of the observer. The insula is indeed the section of the brain that would activate if the feeling of disgust was truly felt by the observer.
Gallese claims that it is specifically the fact that the observer and the observed share corporeal circuits that allows this direct form of understanding:
[i]t is a sort of acquaintance from within, capitalizing upon the fact that the shared neural code mapping both my emotional expression and your emotional expression is coupled with the activation of some of the neural correlates of my phenomenal experience of that particular state (Gallese in Wojciehowski, 2011: 5*).
The simulation process is in itself embodied rather than rational as “it uses pre-existing body models in the brain, and therefore involves a pre-rational, non-predicative form of representation” (Gallese, 2010*). That is, Embodied Simulation Mechanism is a non-conscious process through which one ‘knows’ certain truths about the other. Therefore the Embodied Simulation Mechanism can be considered as an intuitive one, as it is a non-conscious mental process.
To summarize, we humans are literally biologically wired for empathy. We are wired to understand each other. And the process by which we understand each other is a non-conscious one, we do not need to reflect upon a situation in order to empathize.
The Brain on Performing Arts:
All of the processes described above occur in an audience member when they watch performing arts. The actions of the performer will either fire up the audience-member’s Mirror Neuron Mechanism or not. It is due to our Mirror Neurons and our Embodied Stimulation Mechanism that we are able to intuitively feel if a performer is being ‘honest’ in their intentions or if the performer is really in the moment – just the same way that we are able to sense when someone is not being honest in a mundane conversation.
Most importantly though, the mechanism will not fire up unless the artist is addressing something that the audience-member can relate to. The way that mirror neurons work is that they fire when one observes an action or feeling that the brain has previously experienced. If the person has not experienced anything in the work s/he is observing there is no potential for this non-conscious, pure and natural connection to occur.
When a piece of art does not make use of experiences known to the audiences, most audience members will recoil into their own internal world, not in a form of introspection necessarily but in a form of detachment from what they are observing. They will not engage with the piece.
While doing some research on this theme on my MA I found that this detachment often happens to audiences in dance pieces, even when the audience member is an experienced dancer. Dancers switch off and often describe their experience as “getting bored”. Non-dancers often say that they feel stupid because they could not understand what was happening on stage.
The beautiful thing for us, artists, is that there is an attention continuum that we can play with. It is not necessary that every single moment in our pieces are to be relatable, especially if we wish to challenge the audience to experience something new. But if we are presenting work that is abstract and challenging to our audiences we can choose to place certain anchors in the piece so the audience does not drown completely and loses attention to the point that they are simply not interested.
The artist has a few choices: creating opportunity for connection, creating detachment or playing with this continuum of attention. Of course the artist can choose not to make a decision about the intended experience of the audience and leave the audience’s experience to luck or fate but, if you ask me, this is the selfish and irresponsible choice.
What I claim is that we need to understand how humans brains work if we are in the business of creating experiences for people. Which hopefully we are – otherwise the only reason to present out work in narcissism.
I personally choose connection as the goal of my work. I choose connection because I believe it is my responsibility as an artist to create opportunities for human connection.
The Mirror Neuron mechanism might be one of the most important mechanisms for society. Some researchers go as far as to claim that it is this mechanism that has facilitated humans place in the food chain and allowed the human race to develop to the point to which it has. I will not go into too much detail about the importance of empathy and understanding in our world. I think all readers can imagine the consequences of a world without empathy.
But while the Mirror Neuron System is built in us it needs to be trained and used so it can function well and keep developing: just like all other abilities in our brains and in our bodies. The brain is plastic and it can shift and change depending on the experiences it undergoes. At this moment in time we live in a society in which opportunities for real human connection and interaction are scarce. We barely talk to each other face to face. We communicate through email and text or in the worst cases with emoji’s, a double click on an image or a thumbs up. We share our pains and joins in a virtual world that cannot see our expressions in the words we type and we do not get to see the physical expression of the readers in response to our stories. This is numbing our brain’s capacity for empathy.
There is an immense opportunity for creating true connections through art and people are thirsty for this type of human connection. This thirst is the reason Marina Avramovic’s The Artist Is Present was such a big success. She simply created an opportunity for real human connection in a time of need.
There is another reason that I believe it is our responsibility as artists to make work that takes the audience in mind. A financial one. I might not like the fact that we live in a capitalistic world but that will not change the fact that we do. Making work that creates no experiences for our audiences actually drives potential audiences to entertainment rather than art. They can switch on any screen and at the touch of the button get a quick emotional fix for their real connection thirst. They might not get a real connection but at least they will feel something and it will be for far less money and effort than going out to see work that is not relatable. We have to understand the reality that we live in and at least attempt to move something (or stop something) in our audiences internal world. Otherwise it is unfair to expect them to get out of the house, invest in transport, a ticket and a babysitter. It is also unfair to feel disappointed when entertainment is more liked than our art.
So please, I encourage you to re-discover your relationship to the audience and make a decision about it. It does not have to be a positive experience but consider making a conscious decision about your relationship with the audience. If you do not - and excuse the comparison but since this is not an academic paper I will express myself in this manner – then you are performing an art of artistic masturbation. You are creating for your own pleasure alone. Which is fine. But if you are calling upon an audience to observe such an act it has to be done in very specific terms with specific observers. Making it public does not make it valuable the world.