Movement-Based Research

Principles for Movement-Based Research

Sha Xin Wei

Canada Research Chair, Critical studies of media arts and sciences / Director Topological Media Lab
Concordia Montreal

Basic Question:  How do we make sense of our surroundings and each other via corporeal movement: walking, gesturing, playing games and sports, dancing?

Approach: The key is that we don't just sit and talk about it, or watch videos of someone else doing the action.  Participants don't just think about movement, we think in movement.  This requires fresh ways to articulate time-based media.


(1)    Live, in-person, first-person experience, not about spectators far away from or beyond arms-reach of the action.

(2)    Actors are spectators, spectators are actors.

(3)    Collective as well as solo movement.

(4)    How making sense of our surroundings and each other depends on media in movement: varying fields of lighting, sound, sensate and active materials / textiles, and objects: cloth, toys, furniture, and so forth.   Thus we are assembling our large-scale, motion / gesture - modulated, rich media environment as a ‘kinetoscope’ focussing on the body in spontaneous, creative, and thoughtful movement. 

(5)    Primarily about everyday  people in everyday movement,
but using techniques and insights of expert "movers" from movement arts, sport, martial art, meditation, music.

(6)    Deeply interdisciplinary, but at expert level:  we bring together teams of people who are good at what they do, but working beyond their home disciplines.

(7)    Methodology:

(7.1)    Abduction (David Morris, philosophy):
Our aim is to let the thinking body educate us into how to think about it, rather than trying to catch it in the mesh of traditional theories. Methodologically, our concern is with “abduction” (vs. deduction and induction): the process of formulating hypotheses in the first place. Instead of testing the body according to hypotheses derived by abstract reflection, we will study freely moving bodies to “abduct” new hypotheses and concepts.

(7.2)        We are our own subjects.  We as experimentalists will do the moving ourselves.   NOT:  theorists or scientists sitting and watching "test subjects" like dancers move about.  We in fact will do the moving ourselves.  Although there will be expert movers among us such as choreographer Michael Montanaro and his students, the MBR is not simply about producing new instances of dance, or music, per se.   Rather, we are after understanding ordinary or extraordinary phenomena in everyday experience This requires a careful training analogous to what phenomenology did with thinking-in-language about experience.  In this case we are adjoining to the medium of language, other modes of articulation, such as gesture, voice, mathematical notation, diagram, but all with the same degree of care and attention that motivated the original “phenomenological reduction” -- suspending the natural attitude, suspending the psychologism, and attempting variation of experience.  We believe that arts have powerful means for achieving the last.
(7.3)        We as makers inhabit our own environments.

(7.1) - (7.3) have scientific and ethical implications. 

Ethical implication:   We are not experimenting "on" other people.   We are creating experiences with ourselves.   When we invite guests (not "users") into our events, we invite them in the spirit of fellow creators of the event.  

Scientific implication: Al Bregman, one of the pioneers of psychoacoustic research, at the keynote speech at McGill's CIRMMT 2008 :

"scientific psychology has harboured a deep suspicion of the experience of the researcher as an acceptable tool in research. … In my many years of research on how and when a mixture of sounds will blend or be heard as separate sounds, my own personal experience and those of my students has played a central role in deciding what to study and how to study it. When I encouraged students to spend a lot of time listening to the stimuli and trying out different patterns of sound to see which ones would show the effect we were interested in, far into the academic year, and nearing the time that they should have been carrying out their experiments, they would get nervous and ask when they would start doing the “real research”. I told them that what they were doing now was the real research, and the formal experiment with subjects and statistics was just to convince other people."

We share Dr. Bregman's method, and extend it to corporeal movement.  In order to understand the movement phenomenon the experimentalist must be herself / himself move in a reproducible situation.

(8)    The environment is part of the experimental apparatus.
Retaining the concerns, but extending from or complementing methods of phenomenology, art theory, psychology, cognitive science, for example, we look for non-anthropocentric ways to understand and articulate ethico-aesthetic expression and improvisation.  This motivates our work with environments and gestural, textural computational media -- acoustics, soundfields, lighting, projected video, structured light, and kinetic materials.

Reproducible situation means we can reproduce the environmental conditions -- lighting, sound, haptic.   “Topological media choreography” methods give experimentalists the means to insert potential responses in lighting, acoustics or physical materials the way that physical materials “respond” to any gesture.  Why computational means, why not just use analog materials?   In fact, applying minimax design -- minimum tech for maximum experiential impact -- often we will use “unplugged” analog techniques, which may be no less expensive.  But using computational media permits the experimentalist to vary the environment away from its customary physics, in precise and reproducible ways.
(Reproducible does not mean repeating exact same event, if only because there have been prior events.   Repetition and memory are in fact objects of philosophical investigation, rather than data.)

(9)    Long-duration experiment-workshops (vs. 5 minute demo)

This facility is NOT for producing events for audiences to come and watch, like a rehearsed theatrical performance or like a 5-minute engineering demo, for that matter.  Instead, we will build the human and equipment infrastructure to run durable living events to which we can invite people to experience and improvise over time.  Movement is about change over time, and since we are working with living people, all our media and event logics are about change, unrehearsed change, improvisation in everyday situations.

(10)    Performance is dissemination. We will disseminate our findings in movement (workshops, events), and in time-based media (sound, video, gesture), as well as in “static” media such as text.

One of the key insights that choreographer Michael Montanaro provided is that a performance work is completed only at the moment that it’s encountered by an audience.  This resonates with Peter Brook: “True form only arrives at the last moment, sometimes even later. ... True form is not like the construction of a building where each action is the logical step forward from the previous one. On the contrary, the true process of construction involves at the same time a sort of demolition.”  

But then we can say that a presentation of the performance is itself also the dissemination of that work.

As scholars publishing in art research, engineering research, and philosophy, we expect to continue this important work of academic exchange, with graduate students from philosophy, cultural studies, anthropology, geography, science and technology studies, and other disciplines.

But the innovation is that in addition, we adapt dissemination techniques exemplified by the Grotowski WorkCenter in Pontedera, Italy, Brook's Theater of Cruelty ensemble, the Living Theater, the Bread and Puppet company.  That is, we invite other practitioners from around the world to come inhabit long-running experiments and workshops because the best way to disseminate insights in movement is via live, in-person, rigorous practice in a stable, well-prepared environment.