Nell Breyer at Observatory

Choreographer and neuroscience researcher Nell Breyer spoke at Observatory last night.   A recording of her lecture should be up on the Observatory site later this month.  She also let me interview her earlier in the day, which made this dance and neuroscience lover pretty excited.

Nell’s interested in how we perceive motion, both from a scientific and artistic perspective.  She creates installations, often in public spaces, to encourage others to notice their own movement.  One of her favorite techniques is to use a computer program that captures only movement on video.  Static objects remain invisible, but the negative space where motion occurred lingers on the screen.  She’ll project these ghosts of movement on a wall in real time.  As people walk by they can watch the outlines of their walking on the wall.  This seems to compel people to move in ways they might not ordinarily move, to watch what happens to their image on the wall.  “You’re a choreographer of the masses!” I told Nell.

Her most recent installation was my favorite.  The inspiration came from research on a group of children in India.   Born blind, they had recently gained sight through a simple operation.  Researchers found that the children didn’t see overlapping objects as distinct.  For example a red triangle under a yellow circle just looked like a single blob.  However, when the shapes moved the children began to perceive them as separate.  Nell used Sol Lewitt’s “Bars of Color Within Squares (MIT)” (above left) as a backdrop to illustrate this idea of movement revealing form.  It’s a little complicated to explain, so bear with me.  Lewitt’s tiled piece is 2D.  Nell had dancers move against it as if they were inhabiting a 3D space.  While lying on the floor they’d appear to be sitting in a crevice or hanging from an overhang.  As the viewer watching from above, you’d be drawn into suddenly seeing a third dimension to what you know was a flat floor.  I was amazed by how the dancers’ movement could create such a contrast between what you perceive and what you know is real.

Nell proposes that science is a model for art while art acts as a precursor to science.  Art impacts us because of the way it manipulates scientific principles.  Art can be seen as our initial attempt at trying to make sense of the world.   These ideas are really haunting me.  I keep restating her proposal in my mind, thinking what it means to me personally.  I want to remember to capture more of the “art” in the science I report on in my future stories.

And now a brief farewell.  I’m heading out on vacation tomorrow, so this blog will be on a week long hiatus.