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Puppet Woman from Zen Zen Zo SubCon Warrior 2.0 © Morgan Roberts 2009

"Puppet Woman" from Zen Zen Zo SubCon Warrior 2.0 © Morgan Roberts 2009

In this dissertation I have set out to give the reader some way to share in my experiences; of music, of vision, of thought, of feeling. Knowing my own inadequacies in emotional recognition and regulation and the subsequent hesitations in trusting the written word to describe my meanings, I have chosen to use images, design in combination with the text and music. While the publication of a dissertation is not quite a performance autoethnography, the immediacy of multi-modal expression via the web carries significant weight in the transfer of meaning, both for me as writer and hopefully, for the reader as well.

Words can carry the most direct layer of meaning, but not the whole. Where I have placed images or music, I have done so because they represent something to me. In some cases they are illustrative – I have created some pieces to represent as closely as possible my inner experience – Brain on Loop is an example of this, … in the detailsis a more abstract exploration of a cognitive preference, while Megara, a piece that was created pre-diagnosis, quite accurately illustrates a particular sensory phenomena. It is ironic that music, which is generally considered to be the least literal of the arts can sometimes be used in this way, where here the visual elements are much more open to interpretation. On the other hand, as composers and musicians we often seek to express that which is not possible in words. Schneck (2006) comments that “Music is about itself, just as a mirror is about itself, becoming dynamic according to how one views one’s self in its reflection. Human emotions are about human emotional energies, and these often defy formal definitions that are limited by words” (p. 221).

The images, which are quite possibly also “about themselves”, have been chosen very carefully to enhance the text that they are associated with. They each mean something quite particular to me – they carry baggage, emotional memories (Ellis, 2004). For this reason I have not provided a gallery function to enable viewing them out of context.

The photographs come from two main sources; recording sessions and performance and rehearsal photographs with Brisbane theatre company Zen Zen Zo.  My relationship with the company goes back to 1994, but most of the images are from productions in the past five years, when Zen Zen Zo began to more seriously document their processes through still photography, particularly the work of Morgan Roberts and Simon Woods. I was heavily involved in the processes of these shows, attending production meetings, rehearsals, workshops and performances. In many instances, I was present when the photographs were taken. In the others, the resultant images are very familiar through my engagement with the performers and the process. So these faces and bodies stir memories of the process of meaning-making that was occurring at the time.

It has been noted by colleagues, supervisors and others that the images are quite striking in their form, colour and emotional intensity. Some of them have been described as “confronting” or “base”. My favourite description came from a colleague who teaches screen-writing, animation and digital visual arts. “They are certainly not subtle Colin – but then, neither are you!” The images have what might be described as an extended affect, partly as a result of the projection of emotion on the part of the performers. Just as dancers use physical extension and stretch to carry the shape of their bodies to the audience beyond the stage, actors need to be able to project their emotional state, even in complete stillness. Indeed the ability to have presence in stillness is a much desired quality.

It has been understood for some time that individuals at the higher functioning end of Autistic Spectrum Disorders often have difficulty distinguishing emotion from facial expression, especially more complex emotional states (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright & Jolliffe, 1997; Hefter, Manoach & Barton, 2005; Hobson, Ouston & Lee, 1988; Loveland et al., 1997; Wright et al., 2008). In my own experience this is certainly the case and manifests quite clearly in daily life. For example, I can hold eye contact in conversation for short periods of time, but then need to look away, as I find the eyes and face distracting, particularly when listening. In this way I miss facial expressions. When I make conscious effort to hold eye contact or study the face for body language and emotional content, I frequently make errors. In practical terms this means that I frequently miss social and contextual cues in facial expressions and body language during normal social interactions, and, as video analysis and self observation highlights, in musical and studio situations that involve complex non-verbal interactions.

Apart from being frozen and therefore available for lengthy cognitive analysis, the composition of these photographs serves to focus my attention very strongly on these bodily cues. Many of them draw focus to specific body features – face, hands, extended shape and so on. In addition, the false and vibrant colours of theatrical lighting add a significant layer of meaning plus initiate a Stroop effect. The Stroop tests were originally designed to show “interference” in cognition of colour vs semantic meaning in texts (Stroop, 1935), but has been modified to address interference in relation to emotional content of facial expressions. Ashwin et al (2006) found that adults with ASDs displayed an increased Stroop effect in these tests, and the effect was noted with any facial expression rather than just the “threat” images that delayed response in typically developing individuals. They conclude that ASD individuals are “involuntarily captured” (p. 841) by faces due to the difficulty in interpretation. They postulate that faces evoke a perceptual bias for ASD individuals because of anxiety induced in real-world situations. I would suggest that the same forces may lead to a fascination for images that have both strong and more subtle bodily expression – especially where the bodies are in “false colour” such as theatrical lighting. Exactly what effect this false colour may be having is beyond the scope of this discussion – suffice to say that there is more to the lighting designer’s work than making things look pretty, it is all part of the “meaning-making” of theatre.

The image below is a simple demonstration of the Stroop effect.  In each set, name aloud the colour of each word.  Ignore the word itself, just name the colour.

The Stroop effect

The Stroop effect

You will notice that the second set is harder to do and will take you longer.  This is the “capturing” of the cognitive functions by the semantic meaning in the words.

Now that you have gone through this exercise, look at the images in a new way.  The extended, heightened or false colours force the brain to examine the content a little more closely. I have no way of knowing wether the viewer will feel the same way I do about these pictures, I can only hold them out to you as an offering. “We give ourselves up to that which is beyond language and rational thought” (Quinney, 1996, p. 400).

Beyond the wonderful composition and colours, the most important aspect of these images form me is the memory.  These performers are caught in the act of responding to, drawing from and adding to my own music. I know what music was playing when these pictures were taken, what was involved in the rehearsal process, and within my own process.

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