Benjamin Dwyer | Pete Gomes | Helen Kindred
KnowingUnknowing is an improvised duet in triptych form by dancer Helen Kindred and guitarist Benjamin Dwyer. Improvising filmmaker Pete Gomes joined them in a performance in which the director-as-camera operator became an integral element of the improvisation transforming the work from a duet into a trio. The film KnowingUnknowing is a demonstration of the combined improvisations of dancer, guitarist and filmmaker.
Our research on this process appear here in three parts. The first part of this exposition is a videographic essay by Gomes that explores his developing practice of ‘improvising mise en scene’—the ways in which the live, improvised interaction of the director-as-camera operator advances upon traditional understandings of mise en scene in film. The second part of the exposition is a jointly written essay by Dwyer and Kindred, which explores themes surrounding originality in improvisation, the processes at work in the moment of the expression of embodied knowledges and experience, the role of poetics and philosophy in understanding these processes and how they have specifically impacted the KnowingUnknowing project. The final element of the exposition is the film itself.
Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.
KnowingUnknowing—Benjamin Dwyer and Helen Kindred
As a classically trained guitarist and composer who is also a free improviser, and as a classical-contemporary trained dancer-choreographer-improviser, we are both critically engaged with the contradictory forces at play between codified compositional and interpretative practices on the one hand and free, intuitive improvised making on the other. We are all too aware that various established methods, gestures, languages, syntaxes, styles and aesthetic modes are deeply embedded in our compositional and performance signatures. While essential for the successful production and interpretation of our artistic work and for suitable technical and stylistic performance practice, such embodied knowledges have a tendency to impose unwanted behaviors and patterns on the interpretative and technical apparatuses utilized in the enactment of free improvised performance.
While outlining these distinctions, we do not make claims that totally autonomous languages and gestures can be accessed through free improvisation. We acknowledge the impossibility of escaping long-engrained technical, gestural and semantic knowledges. Our ideas here are thus concerned with the ways in which such knowledges may be accessed and released through the harnessing of poetic and philosophical perspectives, and through the employment of certain strategic methods that may assist in the creative and spontaneous re-articulation of such embodied materials and gestures in newly autonomous ways.
A paradox inheres in the fact that while the performer requires technical proficiency in order to deliver free improvisation of high technical and creative quality, this very technical facility brings with it a history of established behaviors and patterns that may very well impede a desire to create work liberated from such historical, stylistic and technical baggage. Furthermore, free improvisation in music and dance is set apart from established applied practices (such as composition and choreography or codified practices central to many jazz and contemporary dance genres) in the distance it places between its own immediate engagement with the development of autonomous aesthetics and the paradigmatic nature of the determinate methods that underpin such codified practices. Both methods face in opposite directions. Free improvisation emerges out of the ‘now’ and points towards an undefined futurity; applied practices are concerned with conservation, or what Adorno calls the ‘crystallization of the creative impulse’; such applied genres are situated at a historic moment that looks back upon long established ontologies of practice. A tension thus exists between the existential, transient condition of the free improvised on the one hand, and the doctrinal, mimetic fixity of the codified on the other.
This conflict between the technical, interpretative and stylistic training in compositional and performance practices, and the intuitive, ‘in-the-moment’ making that results from free improvised practice can be seen in wider historical perspectives. We will begin by outlining this broader conflict here, as it has been extremely useful for us as performer-creators in understanding the heuristic mechanics of creative thought and its expression through both structural and intuitive methods within our collaborative performance work, KnowingUnknowing.
For numerous reasons, which include the way in which the institutionalization of knowledge developed from the early Renaissance, modes of investigation and research that developed in the Enlightenment favoured scientific, verifiable methodologies over other knowledge systems. This preference is exemplified by the formulation of two distinct categories of epistemology: aesthetic and productive knowledges were relegated to ‘gnoseologia inferior’, a science dealing with what came to be considered as the lower faculties of experience, and which contrasted with the ‘gnoseologia superior’ of logic and philosophical thought. Such binary categorizations of modes of knowledge enquiry existed even before the Enlightenment. In fact, they appear in ancient Greek thought in the opposing terms technê (τέχνη) and epistêmê (ἐπιστήμη). While the former has been associated generally with the domain of art or craft, the latter was seen as a study of theory or knowledge. Thus, technê may be generally understood as knowledge gained from ‘doing’, from ‘being’, whilst epistêmê can be viewed as knowledge gained from applied study.
For those directly involved in the creative arts (dancers, composers, performers, painters, etc.), an acknowledgement and understanding of technê therefore plays a particularly significant role in any evaluation of their creative practices. Indeed, this paper represents (for the most part) an applied study (epistêmê) of how embedded creative practices work (technê), and what type of knowledges they bring to the broader field of human cognition. Notwithstanding, we believe that a purely observational, empirical description of technê will not penetrate too far or offer valuable insight into the phenomenon of creative action. It is becoming clear within fields of modern epistemology that empirical data and the logics that harness it no longer tell the full story. We will thus be required to explore this subject of embodied experience and its creative expression through poetic and philosophic means. As the poet communicates (in George Steiner’s formulation) ‘knowingness, not knowledge’, we will refer to poetry to help illuminate the creative moments that initiated the project KnowingUnknowing, which we are investigating here. Furthermore, the concept of technê, particularly in a broadened understanding of the term offered by Martin Heidegger, serves an important point of reference; we will thus return to these matters in due course.
Both the problems of inherited behaviors of classical training and the cultural baggage of the body / instrument were immediate challenges for us in the initial discussions surrounding KnowingUnknowing. Indeed, the title emerged out of such desire to search for musical and dance gestures that would be free (as much as possible) from potential hazards of habit and cliché. Two texts became key in this regard. Rather than offer specific imagery, they were extremely useful in directing us aesthetically towards notions of ambiguity. Ted Hughes’s Wodwo (1967) points toward the concept of a consciousness existing at the point when it begins to become aware of itself—a consciousness at the very early stages of self-reflection.
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge I enter water.
who am I to split
the glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
of the river above me upside down very clear what am I doing here in mid-air? ...
The non-fixity of place and purpose here seems significant. Yes, it is in water; but the Wodwo neither understands where it is: (‘looking upward / I see the bed of the river above me...’), nor what its purpose really is: (‘What am I?...what am I doing here in mid-air?’). And yet, the Wodwo continues with its ‘aimless’ journey from ‘unmarked’ to ‘marked’ space (Peters, G. 2009). While it asks questions of itself, such questions are not immediately answered, leaving an open space as the Wodwo proceeds. It is this Wodwo moment, this sense of still-unadulterated ‘being’—what we came to call ‘unconscious consciousness’—that offered us a space within which improvised music and dance might, without premeditated effort, find renewed gestures that open towards that ‘undefined futurity’ mentioned previously; gestures that could elicit vibrant knowledges about the human experience. Nancy Stark-Smith speaks of a similar ‘in-between’ space in dance improvisation and the potential for new gestures it can harness. Describing this space as ‘the gap’, she talks of a ‘momentary suspension of reference point from which comes the unexpected and much sought after “original” material’ (Stark-Smith, N. in Tufnell, M. and Crickmay, C. 1990).
The inherent dichotomy of the title, KnowingUnknowing, also served a purpose in that it encapsulates the very challenges faced in addressing the elements of inherited practices and the cultural connotations of the body / instrument. How might we arrive at a place where we could initiate gestures free from ingrained patterns? How might we ‘unknow’ what we ‘know’ in order to reveal a renewed innocence we thought necessary for the harnessing of imaginative, innovative expression? How might we capture the ‘unconscious consciousness’ of the Wodwo? How might we meet ourselves through our encounters with each other? KnowingUnknowing functions not merely as a title but also as an invitation to enter into a state of being. It invokes an ambiguous moment or space where embodied knowledge may be both harnessed and released simultaneously. Conscious attempts to ‘unknow’ tacit knowledges are bound to fail, and might very well form the basis of precarious self-delusion. But if a space can be opened in which the performer can enter into a state of ‘knowingunknowing’, creative expression may very well ensue.
Much of Beckett’s prose and poetry strives towards such potent ambiguity in linguistic terms, and his work neither offered us particularly effective images, poetic invocations of Stark-Smith’s ‘gap’, that helped us create initial spaces, silences, one might even say states of ‘knowingunknowing’, from which autonomous and innocent musical and movement pathways could be initiated.
to and fro in shadow from inner to
from impenetrable self to impenetrable
unself by way of neither
as between two lit refuges whose
doors once neared gently close, once
turned away from gently part again.
beckoned back and forth and turned
heedless of the way, intent on the one
gleam or the other
unheard footfalls only sound
till at last halt for good, absent for
good from self and other
then no sound
then gently light unfading on that
Seen through the beautiful ambiguity of Beckett’s imagery, the title becomes more than mere nomenclature. It actually embodies the methodology our practice undertakes in its name. A state of ‘knowingunknowing’ is potently conjured up in Beckett’s lines: ‘…from impenetrable self to impenetrable / unself by way of neither…’ This notion of shifting ‘to and fro’, from ‘self’ to ‘unself’, the meditation upon evocations where doors ‘once neared gently close, once / turned away from gently part again’, offer extraordinary spaces within which music and dance may be intitiated from that sought for state of ‘unconscious consciousness’. This ambiguous relationship, this state of being that both ‘knows’ and ‘unknows’ itself then becomes a central focus of our collaboration in KnowingUnknowing. Building upon this premise, as performer-creators, Heidegger is further useful in offering us a greater understanding of the processes involved in the act of creative cognition by shedding new light on how technê articulates our embodied experiences through music and movement.
As mentioned previously, technê has generally been translated as ‘craft’ or ‘art’, and is thus understood as a form of making or doing, as opposed to disinterested understanding (epistêmê). While this concise definition has generally been assumed to be accurate, Heidegger suggests that its original meaning has been lost in translation between the original Greek and the Latin, from which it comes to modern epistemology. He has warned against such a literal translation and understanding of the term as being wholly connected to craft or production, insisting that ‘technê signifies neither craft nor art, and not at all the technical in our present-day sense. It never means a kind of practical performance.’ In contrast, he suggests, it
denotes rather a mode of knowing. To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing, which means to apprehend what is present, as such. For Greek thought the essence of knowing consists in alêtheia, that is, in the revealing of beings…Technê, as knowledge experienced in the Greek manner, is a bringing forth of beings in that it brings forth what is present as such out of concealment and specifically into the unconcealment of its appearance… (his italics). (Heidegger 1962)
Thus, we see technê as an act by which our embodied experiences are released through creative practice. This ‘unconcealing’ of tacit knowledges, we feel, is most likely to offer innovative and creative expression if technê is appealed to from a state of ‘knowingunknowing’, from that moment of innocent ‘unconscious consciousness’.
We have spoken about the ways in which technê allows for the unconcealment of tacit knowledges, of embedded creative impulses to be brought forth. We have also spoken of the ways in which such states of ‘knowingunknowing’ can allow potent spaces within which ‘original material’ (to cite Stark-Smith again) may be revealed. However, at this point, definitions of what originality is need to be unpacked. While technê allows for tacit knowledges to be released as creative expression, the desire to tap into wholly original expression can never truly be satisfied. We think it would be disingenuous to suggest that any artist, no matter how skilled, can free himself or herself from the gargantuan archive of tacit relations with gesture, technique, expression, and somatic and digital memory. Every day of one’s lived experience also feeds into this archive; there is no such thing as access to a tabula rasa of pure expression no matter how free one wishes to be from the influence of memory and lived experience, from learned knowledge and technique.
Free improvisation, as we have explored it through KnowingUnknowing, is therefore not necessarily about creating something new in terms of musical or movement material. The practice is not helpfully aligned with newness of this sort. Our understanding of free improvisation resides rather in the belief that the avoidance of embodied patterns is impossible. What makes inventive expression original is the ‘renewed’ attempts to unconceal such materials and memories in spontaneously creative ways. This understanding is echoed by Gary Peters’ supposition that in order to locate the essence of the presence in free improvisation, it is necessary to reveal its past. Peters describes this as a kind of ‘marking of the past in the present’ (2009).
Against the rather idealistic notion of improvisation being ‘free’ (as in free from pre-established patterns and codifications of musical material and dance gestures), Steve Paxton also assumes the position that the improviser can never act in a liberated way from such embodied structures. He speaks of choosing to work both with and without structures in improvisation, of ‘simply choosing which of the inescapable structures you wish to focus on: choreographic/formal structures, time/space structures, interpersonal/interactive structures, embodied structures and more’ (Paxton, S. in de Spain, K. 2014: 159). While the dualist impositions implied here may be seen as problematic, Paxton ameliorates his stance by providing alternative perspectives to the rather Western notion of chronological trajectories by introducing other dimensions such as space and interaction. Whether we see structures as physical, cultural, environmental, musical or spatial, it is worth acknowledging here the inherent presence of structures within improvised performance and move away from the idealistic notion that a pure, value-free tabula rasa can be tapped into through processes of free improvisation.
We align ourselves with Peters’ notion that free improvisation is inherently connected with the past; that it offers multiple ways of renewing what has already been. He expresses concern over claims to originality and creation, and with notions of aesthetics and value. An awareness of historicity lies at the heart of this philosophy of improvisation. Echoing Paxton, Peters sees the play, or the act of creativity, as residing in the space/time/distance between past and present (2009: 58, 66, 83). It seeks a transition from the ‘fixing of the unfixed’ that constitutes an originary gesture in music making’. We would argue that innovation in free improvisation occurs in the transformation of known movements and materials into something else.
One of the main themes we have investigated within KnowingUnknowing is that of innocent searching or what we’ve already termed an “unconscious consciousness”; and we have outlined how both the poetry of Hughes and Beckett, and Heidegger’s philosophical penetrations into technê have helped us better understand and create the potent spaces within which creative impulses may be initiated. Having acknowledged Peters’ and Paxton’s arguments that no tabulea rasae exist in relation to embodied knowledges, our attention now focuses on certain strategies we have employed to help us explore new ways in which such materials might be authentically expressed.
Among these strategies is the use of ‘prepared guitar’ (using sticks, tuning forks and found objects). These applications serve as a strategy of de-familiarization from both the standard methods of playing and the normal, expected sounds created. The strategic manipulation of the strings with these implements divides the normal string length into three separate sections each capable of producing unusual sounds including microtonal, timbral and textural innovations that effectively deconstruct the instrument and its cultural connotations.
Further to this, we decided to explore approaches that would restrict typical sensory perception when improvising. For example, the use of blindfolds offered us an opportunity to restrict sensory awareness to some extent. By removing our sense of sight we were forced into new territories, new modes of exploring our instruments. Blindfolded, the dancer relies on a continuous internalized sensing of movements within her skin and becomes acutely conscious of their form and patterns from within. The deficit of sight alters the relationship of the body in movement and space shifting the usual proprioceptive sense of the limbs into a heightened reliance on ‘centre’. Unable to see, the guitarist’s tactile relationship with the instrument is heightened, and he is forced to rely on alternative senses in order to ‘visualise’ the dancer’s physicality. The practice of ‘heightening sensorial awareness’ is commonly found as a route into moving and making within a range of somatic-based practices, and has in more recent years become absorbed into Western dance methods as a way of ‘arriving’ and ‘becoming present’. A deep level of listening through the senses is enhanced by way of a process that minimizes physical activity—the eyes are closed and the body is attuned to the rhythm of the breath and the external environment. We feel that these strategies have helped us ‘unconceal’ new modes of expression in KnowingUnknowing and they have created tributaries of new knowledge from embodied experience.
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T S Eliot)
Beckett, S., 2012. The complete dramatic works of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber.
Daniel, M.R. and Degas, E., 1998. Edgar Degas, Photographer. Metropolitan museum of art.
De Spain, K., 2014. Landscape of the now: a topography of movement improvisation. Oxford University Press.
Elliot, T.S.1952. Four Quartets. In the complete poems and plays 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World
Fraleigh, S. ed., 2015. Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations Through Dance, Yoga, and Touch. University of Illinois Press.
Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and time. 1927. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper.
Hughes, T. 1967. Wodwo, Faber and Faber: London
Landgraf, E., 2011. Improvisation as Art: Conceptual Challenges, Historical Perspectives. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Nelson, L. 2006. Composition, Communication, and the Sense of Imagination: Lisa Nelson on her pre-technique of dance, the Tuning Scores. Self interview. Ballet Tanz. Critical Correspondence.
Nelson, L. and Smith, N.S. eds., 2012. Sensing, feeling, and action: The experiential anatomy of body-mind centering.
Olsen, A. and McHose, C., 2004. Bodystories: A guide to experiential anatomy. UPNE.
Peters, G. 2009. The Philosophy of Improvisation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Rouch, J. The Camera and Man. In Ciné-Ethnography (ed. trans.) Steven Feld. p.38-39. University of Minnesota Press. US
Tufnell, M. and Crickmay, C., 1993. Body, space, image: Notes towards improvisation and performance. Dance Books Limited.
Steiner, G. 2001. Grammars of Creation, Faber and Faber: London
 The term ‘free improvisation’, which is common in music performance vocabulary, is used to describe a genre of improvised practice that is distinct from jazz improvisation; although it often shares musical space with the latter genre. While this term is not utilized in dance scholariship, it is used in this essay to refer to improvised dance practice, as opposed to codified contemporary dance genres.
 George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, Faber and Faber: London, 36.
 Beckett, S., 2012. The complete dramatic works of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber.
 Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 4.
 Arriving and becoming present are terms referred to within the field of somatic movement practice by Andrea Olsen (1998), Fraleigh (2004, 2015), Tufnell (2004, 2014)