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Dance of the emergent self

October 24, 2015


Today I watched a wonderful dance performance by the Royal Ballet. It was a piece by choreographer Alastair Marriot called ‘Connectome‘.

Connectome has a thoroughly scientific premise. It’s based on the 2012 book of the same name by Dr Sebastian Seung, a Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT. Dr Seung argues that our human identity doesn’t lie in our genes, but in the connections between our brain cells – our own particular synaptic wiring, or “connectome”. His argument is that we are far more than simply genetic code; we emerge instead as distinct selves from the networked interrelations between our brain cells – shaped as they are by human experience: love, pain, laughter, loss.

It’s an argument for the perfect complement of art and science – the self as a cultural and psychological entity emerging in glorious analogue from the digital core of our coded biological data. Forever irreducible to those coded parts, but with a mind now able to describe and articulate the biological elegance that begat it.

One choreographic image stays with me. It’s the very opening of the ballet – brilliantly designed by Es Devlin. The stage is populated by rows of closely packed vertical steel tubes. Onto the tubes are projected patterns of dnatestirregular light and shade that bring to mind the genetic strip test samples familiar to genetic laboratories. Our coded selves. Within these flashes of light and shade we can make out the dark shapes of male figures – still and robotic against the light of the tubes. A constructed sum of these parts.

Just then, we detect a trace of movement between the strips. A flash of white. It takes our eyes a few seconds to make out a shape between the tall, cold steel trunks. Then we see it again. It is a solo female dancer – an individual human being – negotiating the forest of code, leaping and dancing between the bands of light and the dark stillness of the male shapes.

She is us. Skipping through the elements of the reality that describes her, but which cannot contain her. She is alive and doomed. Rational and erratic. Joyful and sad. Driven by interaction with her world, and the emotions they engender. She is imagination, fancy, creativity.

The mistake is to think she is dancing alone. She isn’t. Those coded strips represent her dance partner –  holding her steady as she leaps. The essential stillness of the data that gives her movement a human blood and passion. There can be no leaping of the imagination without the canvas of reality on which to paint it.

There is a rich tradition in science communication for formal collaboration between art and science. It’s founded on the sincere premise that these two great traditions can take something from each other by their occasional polite proximity. Rather like a friendly but cautious summit meeting of two distant superpowers.

I prefer to think of the relationship between art and science as integral. A dance between two aspects of the same personality. The same reality viewed from different angles. They are not distinct – rather science raises and holds art to a height above its head by which art can describe the beauty of their collective nature. A human nature. It is the dance of the emergent self.

A duet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2015 10:40 pm

    Enjoyed this, Stephen. Do you know of the work Hidden Fields by David Glowacki? It’s covered in Arthur Miller’s book Colliding Worlds.

  2. December 8, 2016 7:31 am

    This is beautifully written! Thank you for this!

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