I have known and worked closely with Fiona Griffiths over many years, benefitting from her contributions as an artist, a teacher, and a health and fitness trainer-practitioner. We are good friends as well as colleagues, and she was instrumental in assisting my recovery from a series of catastrophic illnesses, in particular providing craniosacral treatments and developing personalized movement and exercise regimens for me during and after a 9-week hospitalization in 2017.
I first met Fiona in 1992, when she was one of several mentors leading a month-long, multidisciplinary, intensive training/production workshop at the Theatre Resource Centre (TRC) called Passages. As one of the student participants in Passages, this was my introduction to Fiona’s unique approach to impulse and movement exploration for performers.
Currently, the TRC, run by Sue Morrison, operates without a space while offering specialized clown and bouffon classes in various countries, including workshops in Clown through Mask, a process-based clowning approach developed by the TRC’s founder, Richard Pochinko, that synthesizes Native American and European clowning traditions. In the early 1990s, however, the TRC, under Fiona’s artistic direction, maintained a lively studio in an office building and former sewing factory on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto. The TRC provided a broad range of performance opportunities, offering classes in clown technique, impulse and movement for performers, body awareness, and Grotowski-based source work—the latter based on the teachings of U.S.-based artist Linda Putnam, a master teacher Fiona brought to Toronto numerous times to conduct intensive classes—as well as mounting experimental theatre productions and monthly interdisciplinary “soiree” cabaret evenings.
After Passages, I continued to work with Fiona, taking many of her classes in kinetics, movement, impulse and self-scripting, not to mention her incomparable “Fiona’s Fitness Frenzy” workouts at Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. I found many of her teachings extremely useful and adaptable to non-theatrical performance art work, so much so that I produced a number of classes and workshops featuring Fiona and Linda Putnam through FADO in the mid- to late- 1990s in my early years as the centre’s artistic director.
I have also worked with Fiona as a performer. Fiona choreographed and performed in Small Towns, a performance art piece created by Sandy McFadden that I remounted as an experimental voice and movement work for an ensemble cast in Toronto in 1993. Fiona also developed an original installation-based performance work, Touched By……., for the first 7a*11d festival in 1997 as part of my curatorial program FIVE HOLES: Touched. Although many of Fiona’s performances tend toward what I would describe as character/narrative-driven, theatrical and/or dance-based forms, I have always been struck by aspects of her work that seem to me to stretch or even fall out of the boundaries of traditional performing arts conventions, which is one reason I have been eager to include her in performance art projects.
Above all, however, what made Fiona an apt choice for inclusion in KinesTHESES is her extensive and profoundly cross-disciplinary understanding of human bodies as dynamic systems. She has honed an intuitive ability to “read” bodies through practice and research across a range of scientific and expressive modalities: from nursing and neuroscience to sports, clown, theatre, choreography, and body awareness/movement techniques. Her approach to kinesthetic and tactile experience is a holistic one, in the sense that she does not partition body and mind as independent entities.
Kinetic and tactile awareness in body wilderness : a holistic approach to thinking bodies
Treating what we think, what we feel, what we sense, and how we move as an integrated whole is often referred to using the terms embodied and/or embodiment. Yet just as mindfulness turns out to be a somewhat misleading term in that it points to a profoundly corporeal practice rather than simply a mental exercise—one in which we are asked to pay attention in an observational rather than controlling capacity to the ways consciousness and body mesh—embodied is a term that tends to obscure the way “mind” and “body” are already inseparable. As dancer/choreographer-turned-philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has pointed out,
the term embodied is a lexical band-aid covering up a three-hundred-fifty-year-old wound generated and kept suppurating by a schizoid metaphysics [of Cartesian mind-body dualism]. […] Embodiment deflects our attention from the task of understanding animate forms […] by conveniently packaging beforehand something already labeled “the mental” or “mind” and something already labeled “the physical” or “body” (p. 215).
Maxine Sheets-Johnstone argues against using the term embodiment because she believes it perpetuates a way of thinking that is seductive and seemingly commonsensical but is in fact not borne out by a careful examination of the way we actually experience being. The idea that there is some extra level of awareness required for an experience to become “embodied” suggests that our consciousness somehow takes place outside of or beyond our bodies—as if a mind were a substanceless entity tethered to a body only by chance.
Sheets-Johnstone contends that what we call “mental” experience is something that is already linked to and always happens within and through a moving body. All mental experience is in this sense already corporeal. Humans are thinking bodies, and what we sometimes refer to as our inner world—our consciousness or sentience—is a phenomenon not only informed by but also essentially generated through our bodies in their animate materiality.
If Sheets-Johnstone is correct, then it would also be a misnomer to characterize the sense of alienation that pervades so much of contemporary culture as a form of “disembodiment.” However much we might refuse to acknowledge our corporeality, nothing we know, think, or feel happens without it. Certainly, many of us find it deeply challenging to feel comfortable in our own skin, even as our digital technologies reflect and amplify a deeply held cultural desire to somehow leave our flesh behind and enter a virtual realm of pure thought and sensation. When we become engrossed in our computers and cellphones, we may feel as if we are engaged in an expansive world far removed from the one in which our bodies resolutely remain. Yet we imagine—or are fooled into believing—that we are bodiless by discounting the bone and musculature that continues to hold us upright, and will no doubt assert itself in the stiffness, achiness, and hunching that are hallmarks of human bodies that spend endless hours sitting in front of or facing screens. We may turn our awareness away from our bodily situatedness, but even if we ignore the immediacy of our surroundings, our minds do not, in fact, leave our bodies.
The way our mental focus becomes absorbed in virtual environments is not entirely new, of course. When we read a book, hear a story, watch a performance, listen to music, or even remember a previous event, we have an innate capacity to imaginatively engage with thoughts, feelings, and sensations that do not necessarily reflect or correspond to our body’s immediate surroundings. Our ability to experience in this way is sometimes characterized as a suspension of disbelief, but it often also involves a physical suspension as we “still” our bodies, blunting much of the movement and sensory awareness that attends non-virtual experience.
Should we say, then, that rather than being disembodied, we become dis-animate? Such a reading might be equally misleading. We are no more inanimate in such circumstances than we are bodiless. We may choose not to focus consciously on our bodily movements and postures, even as we hold devices or books in our hands, type on keyboards or flip pages, use our eyes to scan screens, follow sentences and track the movement of objects in space, perhaps bounce our legs up and down, react with facial gestures, or rock on our chairs. Our bodies are also engaged in essential autonomic movements; our torsos rise and fall as we breathe, and our organs pulse and circulate fluids internally. No matter what we are thinking or feeling or imagining, our bodies and their movements continue and endure—enabling and affecting our consciousness—whether or not we direct our awareness toward them.
We are thinking bodies. As such, our bodies support and in fact produce what we experience as our conscious awareness, although many of the processes that sustain our bodies function outside of that awareness. Recognizing that our mental life is a phenomenon of our animate corporeality does not resolve the many issues we may encounter in seeking to “know” our selves and our world. It does, however, offer some direction as to how we might align our awareness of our material and kinetic experiences with the things we think, feel, and imagine.
From an early age, we are encouraged and trained to hone the many remarkable ways in which our minds are able to exert control over various aspects of our bodies. As we develop, we discover how to move and comport ourselves in directed ways, how to recognize and produce sounds and language, how to stimulate or stifle particular emotional responses, and even how to move, speak, and act in ways that will generate specific responses in the world beyond our bodies. We learn to conjure and communicate thoughts through language, allowing us to share aspects of what we think and feel with other thinking bodies. In our culture, this has led to an attitudinal assumption that our minds are our true selves, while our bodies are simply tools that our minds have at their disposal in order to effect changes in the external world.
The approach that Fiona takes toward discovering and mapping experience in body wilderness offers opportunities to set aside this assumption and privileging of control by focusing on an equally remarkable aspect of our minds: their capacity to observe phenomena, whether or not they are under our direct control. The exercises in body wilderness engage across multiple levels of experience that we often tend to think of as separate realms: the world, which we identify as external to our selves; our bodies, which we have learned to think of as a material interface between our minds and the world; and our “internal” life of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. These realms form an interconnected “wilderness,” a kind of ecosystem that is both untamed and unknown in that it unfolds according to rules or patterns that extend beyond our conscious control, even though we are a part of it. By setting aside some of our habitual notions about what this wilderness is and how we operate within it, and focusing on observing rather than directing our experience, body wilderness encourages us to discover fresh perspectives on how our material, sensory, emotional, and conceptual lives are entangled.
Fiona Griffith’s body wilderness is a performative event that offers participants a carefully constructed set of tactile-kinesthetic experiences. The piece can also be understood, however, as modeling a research methodology. This methodology draws on but differs from both the scientific model of the laboratory and the creative model of the rehearsal studio.
In the “objective” model of the laboratory, a controlled environment is set up in order to observe how something will unfold under a particular set of repeatable conditions, and great care is taken to place the observer outside of what is being observed.
In the “subjective” model of the rehearsal studio, the environment is neutralized as much as possible so that the performer can focus on generating and inhabiting an interior or imagined world that can then be revealed or projected to an audience through voice and gesture.
In body wilderness, we are asked to observe our environment in a directed and detailed way. Practical exercises guide us to notice what is going on around us. We are encouraged to set aside, however temporarily, the assumptions and habits that usually colour our everyday experience of our surrounding world. This conforms to a rational, scientific approach that seeks to encounter the world on its own terms by paying attention to what is. Unlike with traditional western science, however, in body wilderness we are also asked to pay close attention to our own reactions—what changes take place in our bodies and minds as we open up to the world in this way. We are invited to consider that there are many ways that our senses can engage with our surroundings, and many ways we can move through a site. When we change the way we attend to the world, we notice different things; our perception of the environment changes. Indeed, sometimes the environment itself seems to respond differently to our presence within it. We do not simply move around or through this wilderness. We move with it, and even as it.
As we direct our awareness in this way, we may find unexpected ways that our minds, our bodies, and our environment are linked. We of course find familiar cause-and-effect relationships, as when a branch brushes against our body and we feel the contact through the nerves of our skin. Other relationships and types of responsiveness also exist, however, which may seem less linear. A particular smell or touch may evoke an unanticipated emotion or memory. A seemingly innocuous sound may startle us. Seeing a particular shape or movement may trigger a mimetic response, so that we feel compelled to imitate it. We may even find that particular environments affect our overall mood, relaxing us or making us feel on edge. We interact with the world not only in its objective materiality, but also in relation to a speculative imaginary—a world of memories, of potential outcomes, and of imagined possibilities—that seeks to generate meaning out of our experiences.
The studio is often seen as the place where performers can learn how to tap into their speculative imaginary. In training and rehearsal, actors learn how to use their bodies—to stand, move, sound, and emote—in ways that will project an image life outward to an audience, making it communicable to others. One’s image life can be used to give depth and precision to gestures. Given the task of walking in a slow, laborious way, for example, imagining oneself immersed in a pool of honey will likely produce a more integrated, full-body effect than if one simply tries to move one’s foot a bit at a time. To move in a light, delicate way, on the other hand, one might imagine being a wispy cloud of smoke.
The speculative imaginary is not only a one-way mind-tells-body relationship, however. Learning to track and direct impulses through one’s body, one discovers that focusing on particular body parts or moving in particular ways can evoke specific image lives. Walking with the intention of moving from your pelvic floor will generate a qualitatively different set of sensations and emotions than walking with the intention of moving from your foot bottoms or from your shoulder blades. Following the same movement trajectory through different body parts may produce completely different impressions of who you are as a person, character, or entity, and the world you imagine yourself inhabiting will also likely feel quite different.
The studio is meant to be a neutral setting where performers can concentrate on strengthening the relationship between their inner worlds and what they are capable of revealing or projecting through their bodies. Fiona has a long history of training performers in the studio. Her body wilderness project draws on this knowledge, but the project takes place in an outdoor setting, where the impulses of the participants cannot help but be influenced by the surrounding environment.
The goal of body wilderness is not to train people as performers or to produce a performance. Instead, the project seeks to facilitate a shifted awareness of the interplay between the sensory and kinesthetic experiences of our physical bodies and the image lives we inhabit in relation to those experiences. If the studio is designed to focus on strengthening a thinking body’s ability to express the “as if,” body wilderness asks participants to explore possible alignments between the “as is” of a thinking body situated in a physical world and the “as if” of that thinking body’s image life.
When we touch a leaf, what memories charge the encounter? When we move through the underbrush, what fears or hopes of what might happen next are triggered? When we stand amid the rustling trees and match their swaying, what imagined or imaginary worlds do we find ourselves entering? In these scenarios, paying attention to what is means also paying attention to what is evoked, and to how the qualitative feeling of an experience changes according to our body’s movements and rhythms, the postures and shapes we take, and our proximity to objects and sounds.
As Fiona mentions in the body wilderness recording, one of the key “rules” of a prospective clown is to “surprise yourself.” In body wilderness, this imperative comes as an invitation to participants to pay closer attention to our sensory palettes, whether by noticing details we might otherwise have overlooked, or by testing the full range of intensities and evocations a touch, a smell, a colour, a shape, a sound, or a movement might produce. Paying closer attention to the interplay between our corporeal experiencing of the world and our speculative imaginary opens us to a wilderness that joins mind, body, and environment holistically into a space of potential wonder.
 The term “image life” comes from the Grotowski performance training as taught by Linda Putnam. Image as it is used here does not refer only to visual phenomena, but is meant to signal any coherent block of sensation or perception, which could include our kinesthetic, tactile, aural, olfactory, and gustatorial senses. Further, an image life may be felt or remembered not only sensorily, but also as emotion or mood. This use of the term “image” also resonates with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s descriptions of how our brains map sensual and perceptual information. For more on this use of the term image, see my article see my article “Why Performance?” in Total Art Journal. http://totalartjournal.com/archives/1572/why-performance/
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. “Emotions and Movement: A Beginning Empricial-Phenomenological Analysis of Their Relationship.” The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader, Imprint Academic, 2009, 195-218.