Let the Body do the Thinking

James Chutter

(This is the fifth in a series of research projects being developed by Graduate Students at Emily Carr Institute.)

To what extent does the physical self of the artist affect the production of art? Many artists create from memory, imagination or research, but what would their art look like if it were created from a purely corporeal charge? Can artists supplant the influence of the mind and produce only from the body? My research will examine these questions, and how they relate to the binary relationship of the mind-body question raised by French philosopher Rene Descartes.

The relationship between mind and the body has been at the centre of philosophical debate since the dawn of man. To what extent does our body influence our mind and vice-versa? This question has universal applications in all facets of our life, yet in the art community most artists use only their mind (creativity, inspiration, imagination, memory). Some use their bodies as tools but the creation still stems from the mind. I’m interested in finding a way to isolate the body as a means of creating art.

This idea has been influenced by some of the most groundbreaking art movements of the 20th century. The Surrealists attempted to isolate their mind from themselves and society. As with my research they struggled to subvert conscious aesthetic choice. Surrealists were, however, still working within the mind. One of the most celebrated artists working today, Mathew Barney, an ex-football star, works very much from his body. During Barney’s performative pieces he often works while hanging 80 feet off the ground by climbing ropes, while he draws on the gallery wall. He believes that by restraining his physical abilities his art will grow much as a muscle grows under restraint. Jackson Pollock painted with his canvases on the floor in order to attack the work by throwing and dripping his paint. Pollock and his contemporaries worked in what has come to be known as gestural abstraction or action painting; they wanted the physical action of the artist to be seen in the final work. I hope to take these acts of physicality and aesthetic subversion, which were only a part of their work, and expand it into the whole work.

In applying this to my own research, I conducted experiments such as hanging a canvas just out of reach on a roof, which forced me to paint by jumping up to the canvas. Although the fact of being airborne limited my ability to cognitively ascribe mind based aesthetic taste, it did not totally subvert it. The body was still just a tool, a mediating implement between the mind and the canvas. What the work did show me is that, creating and aesthetic choices seem to be indelibly linked. If I want to remove the mind, then the possibility of aesthetic choice must be eliminated. In order to isolate the body, the mind creating the work cannot be connected to the body. The body must not be that of the artist’s, but rather that of an athlete that is simply performing his or her discipline without knowledge of the final product. The mind must be limited in its cognitive ability, similar to the thought process inherent in a pre-programmed, pre-determined software application.

As for the body, I have been working in the motion picture stunt industry and have made many contacts with Martial Artists, Capoiera Dancers and Parcour Athletes. These artistic forms are highly physical, requiring a specifically trained body. For my experiments I will collaborate with these athletes. I am particularly interested in how the resulting visual art will differ between athletic disciplines, but also how the art-objects might change as the athletes themselves change and grow in their abilities to perform their art/sport at a higher level through continual training.

As for the mind, I believe the software and hardware of Motion Capture is a perfect substitute. With motion capture I will be able to record the body’s movement in three dimensions. Once I have the data from the motion capture, my research will again draw upon Descartes, who was not only a great philosopher, but also the father of modern mathematics. The Cartesian Coordinate System charts numbers based on an x, y, and z-axis for 3-d objects or x, y-axis for 2-d objects. The data from the motion capture, based on the body’s movements, will be represented in such a coordinate system. From that point, I can analyse the differences in movement between the athletic disciplines, and also translate those coordinates in a 3-d or 2-d art object. Most importantly, I hope to be able to claim to have created an art piece from the body, having supplanted the mind. The aesthetic qualities of these body-built pieces will not only be measured against my written research, but also collaboratively judged against traditional mind-based work to see if there are any distinctions to be made in working in this manner.

Knowing that the Emily Carr Institute had built the Intersections Digital Studios, complete with a fully equipped High Definition Motion Capture studio, I immediately accepted ECI’s offer to attend their inaugural Masters of Applied Arts program. Under the auspices of this program and under the tutelage of the practicing faculty, I feel I can make some major breakthroughs in research on the mind and body argument as it relates to modern art creation. I will also be able to combine my original research in the philosophy of art production with the latest technologies. I believe it is the responsibility of artists not only to find new ways of working with emergent technology but also to challenge modes of thought through original research.