Recensioni / Slopek, Edward. Bodies of Art: The Shaping of Aesthetic Experience

This intriguing book immediately throws the reader into a disciplinary maze (social theory, cultural studies, philosophy, psychology, and the humanities), and attempts to shed some light on common (mis)conceptions about the body and mind dichotomy. Short though dense, this essay aims to uncover the realities of the brain’s impact on our aesthetic understanding of art – according to Slopek, the body is crucial to all aesthetic experience – putting on a pedestal the “corporeal imagination” that has been much discussed by theory and artistic practices over the last two decades. One of the non-cartesian approaches, “Spread Mind identity theory” (coined by Riccardo Manzotti) inverts the mind over the body debate, establishing that the brain is, in fact, a “mind’s artifact”. After rather long theoretical passages, Slopek presents “Spread Mind Aesthetics” right before drawing links to the practice of unconventional artists who endeavor to prolong the dispute over what’s shaping the aesthetic experience.

The book’s paratext is already quite engaging, as well as the prelude where the reader is offered, without further ado, to rediscover (or reimagine) major historical and cultural landmarks in the city of London, scarred, as would be a body, by various events such as the Black Plague or the writing of Oliver Twist. One eventually discovers the “musical coalman’s” plaque. This coalman, Thomas Britton, would have created and directed a hugely renowned space of performance where people came to listen to music in a rather unpleasant environment. Many testified and described Britton’s space, and “the eventual pleasure (…) afforded by listening to the music (…) was tempered by the listener’s singular recognition of their precarious corporeality” (p. 14). Such an ambivalent mosaic of sensations is likely to echo in the reader of this somewhat esoteric prelude, where italics apply the notion of perspective to the flat page, and ever-lasting sentences flesh up the meanders of the author’s thoughts, prolonging our impression of overflying, as painfully as eagerly, the 16th century London. That said, it would be wrong to ignore that such a chiselled style conveys the crux of Slopek’s point: like Britton and his public, people do experience the arts through their bodies.
Although the project longs for a definite emancipation from the mind/body dichotomy, it is equally shared in two parts that reiterate it (Mind-Body: in theory vs Body-Mind: in practice). In the former, the author disqualifies “cerebral mystic” theories, while the latter is an attempt at drawing links with performers and artists who have engaged in this discourse about “the enactive embrace of the spread-mind”, a concept that will furrow its way throughout the book while never having been clearly defined.

Taking ground on the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s book (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945), the first step of the study, “Zero point body”, explains that the body is an “experienced entity” – it allows one to experience the world. This statement draws an implicit link with Britton’s endeavor and is the starting point of Slopek’s investigation. The second theoretical step takes the shape of an intertwining of in-depth biographical and theoretical elements portraying crucial discoveries and experiences, all of which point to the conclusion that people’s space perception depends on the “push of gravity’s pull”. The author then paraphrases Nietzsche, according to whom “we come to see and hear and, by extension, remember, with our muscles” (p. 25), eventually leading to what is stated as the core question of the essay: “what role does body position consciously and unconsciously play in the meaningful shaping of cinema and installation art within alternative spaces of viewing?” (p. 27)
Several disciplines are then detailed while Slopek meticulously explains their lacks – kinesthetics doesn’t concentrate enough on the question of the lived body, thus reinforcing the Cartesian split; somatechnics only “acknowledges the role of all the senses in meaning-making and allows for the possibility of a ‘synergistic meshing of different sensory stimuli’” (p. 31), etc. The author returns to Merleau-Ponty for whom body movement and its ability to inhabit time and space is the key, an idea neuroaesthetics have overlooked due to their “brain overclaim syndrome” (a concept borrowed from Morse).
Beyond these several missteps, Slopek asserts, as stated in the next title, that “Cognitive process ain’t all in the head: this ain’t no armchair things”. Over the last 30 years, much research has been devoted to cognition and to flesh up the disciplines that helped in “reframing our understanding of the relation between mind, brain, perception, and world” (p. 35) – known as “the 4Es”: “Embodied, extended, embedded and enactive cognition theories”. Slopek clarifies that if cognition inhabits a body, it is “embodied”; if it depends upon a body, it is “embedded”; if it can be distributed into other environments or places, it is “extended”; and, lastly, if it needs actions to become meaningful, “it is enactive, spread out and performative, essentially dependent on the cognizer’s activity” (p. 37).
The author then expresses the necessity of a detour through pragmatism (Pierce) and embodied cognitive science before addressing Spread Mind Aesthetics, because pragmatism is “conceivably the first intellectual current which took as its core idea that beliefs are inseparable from actions, that embodiment in cognition need be widely appreciated and a systematic model of interaction between organism and environment be built, and that representationalism is a philosophical error” (p. 39). As intriguing and entertaining as all this program seems at first, this detour may lead astray the confused reader, a feeling elicited with the last theoretical excerpt defining the “Spread Mind-Body Theory”, a “non-Cartesian, externalist and radical enactivist approach, with (often acknowledged) roots in Piercean pragmatic philosophy” (p. 43). According to them and despite all odds, “one’s consciousness of an object is the object one is conscious of” (p. 43). Allowing a performative turn based on several of Slopek’s points of interest and leading to the conclusion that the mind is probably bigger than the brain, these theories were apparently meant to be quoted. This first theoretical part concludes on Jacques Rancière’s definition of “aesthetics” – “a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making their corresponding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking their relationships” (2004, p. 4).

The starting point to the Spread Body-Mind Aesthetics investigation first takes the shape of some etymological considerations – there will be more in this practical study – that eventually lead to the following definition: “Somakinesthetics operationalizes the influence of body position and motion on perception and meaning-making in conventional and non-conventional cinematic viewing spaces, or performative architectures of reception” (p. 52). In other words, this theory explores the “unification of mind, brain, and body – of consciousness, cognition, and perception – in an enactive embrace” (p. 52). Repeatedly used for the next 50 pages, this last expression will not be elucidated, leaving its meaning open to the reader’s interpretation. Starting on a playful pun, the next section, “Neuroaesthetics: ‘Headed’ in the wrong direction” is a harsh critique of thinkers (amongst which V.S. Ramachandran and S. Zeki) who defended the idea that the arts are but a mere stimulus that acts on parts of the brain. For Slopek, it is more pertinent to study the role of the body in cognition than to linger on the brain itself, which he will in the next section – “The enactive triumvirate: Hexis, Plexis, Deixis”, after another definitory pause. Thanks to the “enactive embrace of the spread-mind”, the “world is no longer re-presented, but performed” (p. 58). At this stage of the book, the reader will most likely take pleasure pondering the several stimulating procedures, ideas and implementations of the spread-mind aesthetics described, and learn that while plexis “articulates a model of embodiment that not only extends human cognition beyond the boundaries of the skin but incorporates and creates a new organ for adaptive coupling with the environment” (p. 68), the use of artificial extensions by Anna Coleman Ladd, Franz West, Rebecca Horn or Susan Austin prove that the body has a say in the matter of aesthetics. Deixis is also defined and attached to some other examples – Roman Ondak’s Measuring the Universe or The Diffusion Choir, to quote a few. In conclusion, these three concepts “each refer to the manner in which the body shapes the mind and the mind, in turn, shapes the body” (p. 75).
What follows, “an engagement with examples of Spread Body-Mind Aesthetics”, engages with an emblematic example, Movie-Drome (by Stan VanDerBeek), a construction designed to explore the intersections of “motion pictures, image transmission, and image storage, video graphics, electronic sound and music, drama and experimental cinema-theatre” (1966, p. 339), which pushes the limits of “expanded cinema” (a term VanDerBeek coined) and, as it places the spectators in supine viewing, speaks to the questionings of Somakinaesthetics. Indeed, “recent research has confirmed that body position directly influences conscious experiences of corporeal or personal space”, that is to say that embodiment refers “to the unity experienced between self as center of conscious awareness and my ‘own body’” (p. 81). Such architectural spaces of entertainment may induce “autoscopic hallucinations” (dislocation of self/out-of-body experience) and “heautoscopic hallucinations” (doppleganger effect), two sensations which seem to be the aim of these constructions as they induce one’s extreme use of their body to take in a certain aesthetic experience. Other artists create environments where participants are “engaging and responding to a range of unbalancing acts” – such as Surging Verticality (Loke and Khut, 2011) and Body Cinema (Jones, 2016), described in thorough and stimulating details, finally leading to the book’s last excerpt, “We no longer see where the behaviour begins and where mind ends”, a quotation from Merleau-Ponty’s exhilarating book, and the concluding sentence: “whether we stand, sit or lie down, we will come to inhabit wholly different worlds” (p. 100).
This essay may have to be slowly swallowed in order to become digestible, but the author’s attention in making one experience, through this reading, not only the extents of their minds, but their bodies’, seems coherent with the stated purpose. This is food for thought, literally as well as metaphorically, both spheres being more intrinsically related than one would have ever imagined.