This is the first entry on the blog for the residency. I’m feeling very excited about the prospect of learning a lot from different fields and hopefully being able to join the dots and bring something out of it.
The subject of the residency is to develop a new piece of work by exploring different interpretations of “what is actually happening when I watch a puppet”. The word ‘actually’ is there to trigger an attempt to explain technically what might be happening in psychological or neurological terms, or in an evolutionary or philosophical context, or from the particular discipline the researcher happens to be from (or to be most interested in). It’s my ambition that the collision of different responses will suggest some surprises or further avenues.
A list of starting points that I will be sending to the correspondent researchers:
- What is happening when we ‘recognise’ consciousness, emotion or agency in something that we know is not alive?
- This dissonance seems pleasurable and sustainable.
- What is behind the identification of apparent consciousness and apparent thought? Is it movement, rhythm, stillness?
- Can existing studies of consciousness recognition shed light on the psychological or neurological process at work?
- Do existing theories like mirror neurons help to explain why this illusion might be happening?
- I would like to recreate some classic perception experiments using puppets as the objects of recognition.
The puppet and the puppetry
I realise that one of the principles that may not be obvious at first is that there is quite a big difference in my mind as to what is being done by the puppet and what is being done by the puppetry – i.e. the technique by which it is moved.
The puppet itself is an object which through its design embodies certain properties and can evoke a series of responses – exactly as a piece of sculpture can. What distinguishes this project from one examining our responses to sculpture is the action of the puppet.
In my teaching of puppetry there is clear focus that it is the puppeteer and their choices that are creating the performance. The puppet itself is not quite irrelevant; but the puppetry technique needs to be adapted to the puppet that is being used. When I teach, I usually start with the puppeteers animating small sticks. Throughout the training we tend to work with ‘rough’ or simple objects as well as puppets. The focus is on what can be communicated purely by the puppetry. The lesson there is that a lot can be communicated by something that is not dramatically sculptural – that the puppeteer should trust their technique as well as the skill of the carver.
What it brings to this subject is a distinction between what we respond to as the object and what we respond to as its behaviour.
It will not always be possible to separate these elements, even by using very ‘pure’ figures: there comes a point when the abstraction of the puppet serves to frustrate the subtleties of the puppetry and becomes counterproductive.