Sita Popat

This is the first entry in the Error Network’s new fortnightly blog. Over the coming months, all twelve participants will post thoughts about error, ambiguity, glitches and the body. It is my turn first.

Last week, we spent two days at Coventry University in the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) having our first Network workshop/laboratory. Activities included Skinner Releasing Technique workshops taught by Ruth Gibson. Some participants had no experience of this kind of movement but everyone got involved with enthusiasm. The workshops led to conversations about the nature of error and ambiguity in movement. How far was there room for error, someone wanted to know.

Ruth’s initial Skinner Releasing Technique exercise encouraged us to move with ‘soft feet’. We shifted weight from foot to foot, walked, ran, turned, feeling our feet spreading into the floor in whatever way felt ‘right’ to us as individuals in that moment. Another exercise involved leaning back against a partner and sitting on his or her thigh. In this case, error could be quite dangerous, if the partner’s thigh was not in the right place to provide support. This led to questions about categorisations of error, and about whether we could draw a graph of restriction levels when teaching movement. Did it vary between movement techniques? What were the issues or parameters? Risk, sensation, aesthetic?

The ambiguity of embodied knowledge can sometimes offer creative potential. A few years ago, some colleagues and I were working with Shadow Robot Company Ltd in an interdisciplinary workshop combining dance, theatre and robotics. Shadow brought a small six-legged robot called Zephyrus, and my student undertook an embodiment exercise with it. The robot was about 10 inches tall, with straight, solid legs that twitched forward and backward to allow it to move. After watching the robot, my student took its motion into her own body and began to experiment with what it might do. One of the robotics engineers became excited when he saw her standing on her hands and feet and pulling her straightened legs and arms together quickly so that she could jump slightly off the floor. He said he hadn’t imagined that Zephyrus might jump because the robot had no ‘knee’ joints in its legs. The dancer’s knowledge of what a body might do offered more options than could be imagined by the engineer or his Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, because she engaged with the ambiguity of the movement itself rather than following the rules of logic.

I was intrigued to hear other Network participants talking about how continuity of motion can lead to levels of error tolerance or reduction in some situations. Sarah talked about the complex traffic junction in Coventry where the Council has removed the traffic lights and markings in order to make drivers and pedestrians pay greater attention to the riskiness of moving. The result has been the reduction in serious errors in the form of accidents (and I understand that this has been done elsewhere too). Similarly, Olivier talked about space rockets that have built-in instability or ‘wobble’ to engage the safety controller at all times, rather than just at the point of more serious error. The introduction of potential or purposeful error is designed to avoid more significant errors.

Movement is inherently ambiguous. We are always moving but we are often not aware of it. We constantly correct our balance when we stand, making tiny alterations in our joints, muscles and tendons to remain upright against gravity, balanced on our feet. On top of this, our motion is imbued with personal characteristics, with expressive gestures and movement habits. Rarely do we move entirely in a functional manner, as a robot might do. That ambiguity is an essential part of our lived identities. How easily can we document or capture such ambiguity? How does it relate to other disciplines, for example, in medicine where there might a concept of ‘normal’ movement? These questions were raised by our interdisciplinary Network group, and we will attempt to address some of them in our next workshop/laboratory in Sweden in September.

Sita Popat, University of Leeds