What is Proprioceptive Art?


Many works of art are predominantly visual or auditory in nature (visual arts such as drawing, painting, photography or performing arts like music). Only some art works (happenings, fluxus, performance) might also crucially involve the audience’s own physicality and thereby intentionally provoke the recipients’ perception of their own body, i.e. their proprioceptions.

Tomás Saraceno “In Orbit”, K21 Düsseldorf

Could there be works of art that are either primarily or predominantly proprioceptive in nature: i.e., that have the perception of one’s own bodily movement, position in space, balance, muscle tension, pain, temperature, energy and stress levels, etc., at their core: Is proprioceptive art possible?


Dubbed english version. For german version click here

Is Proprioceptive Art Possible?

A Research Project

[Please note that this text’s aim is to help the project getting started, to gather ideas. This fairly preliminary work is by no means the project’s end product!]

Many works of art are predominantly visual or auditory in nature (e.g. drawing, painting, photography or music). Mixed forms are also common (e.g. opera, theatre, dance). The so-called chemical senses (smelling/tasting) are hardly ever addressed and only some works of art (happenings, fluxus, certain performances) involve the audience’s own physicality and might thereby also – together with vision and audition – intentionally provoke the recipients’ perception of their own body, i.e., their proprioception.

This project poses the radical question whether there could be artworks that are essentially proprioceptive in nature, i.e. that have the perception of one’s own body’s movement and position in space, balance, muscle tension, stretching, pain, temperature, energy and stress levels, etc., at their core (while paying less attention the other senses). In addition to theoretical considerations which show the plausibility of a positive answer, potential examples for this art form will be given.

The text is organised in six sections. The first, (1), concerns general individuation criteria for sense modalities (seeing, hearing, etc.), the second, (2), specifically addresses proprioception. The third, (3), qualifies proprioception as aesthetic sense. Section (4) characterises proprioceptive art, (A), as a practice the primary or only focus of which is aesthetic proprioception; a practice which, (B), qualifies as art. Now, is such art possible? Core section (5) argues that certain existing aesthetic proprioceptive practices are indeed art. Since factuality entails possibility, the question whether proprioceptive art is possible is thereby answered positively. The final section, (6), looks at open questions and makes some observations.

(1) Different sense modalities (cf. Ritchie & Carruthers 2018: 355) consist of different detector mechanisms that each transduce a range of sensed physical properties into an informational signal to the central nervous system. These mechanisms have evolved to represent these properties and the signals are utilised by the organism to guide (intentional) action. Sense perceptions might be representations with (nonconceptual) content which have a mind-to-world direction of fit. Some also have a notorious specific phenomenology.

(2) Proprioception, specifically, is the often (but not always) subconscious perception of stimuli within the body: spatial orientation, one’s body’s movements, sense of equilibrium (via gravity and the vestibular system); position of our limbs and one’s posture or muscle tension (via mechanosensory neurons); pain, thermal sensations, or itches (via nociceptors and thermoreceptors); energy and stress levels, heart-beat, shortness of breath, etc. (via visceroception).

William Forsythe “White Bouncy Castle”. Photo by Dominik Mentzos

Often the terms „interoception“ or „kinaesthesia“ are used for proprioception and sometimes just a subset of the above is labelled „proprioception“. I take the term to mean all of these sensations/perceptions. A common factor is the detection of one’s body’s internal states, not the detection of features of the body-external world.

(3) Barbara Montero (2006) has argued that proprioception can be an aesthetic sense:

„One can make aesthetic judgments based on proprioceptive experience. One way professional dancers claim to evaluate the aesthetic qualities of their movements is by feeling (that is, proprioceiving) what is right. The dancer can feel that this particular way of movement is better than the other way: it is more exciting, or graceful, or brilliant, or any other number of aesthetic qualities that bodily movements can manifest.“

Montero 2006; also compare to the works of Richard Shusterman, for example Shusterman 2008 or 2012: esp. item 5; and, importantly, chapters 2.3-2.5 in Benovsky’s 2020: 10-25); cf. Schrenk 2014: 108, 111

(4) Now, a proprioceptive artwork would be, (A), a practice the primary or only focus of which is aesthetic proprioception. This practice has, (B), to qualify as work of art. ‚Primary or only‘ is added because, since we are embodied creatures, just about any practice (e.g. looking at paintings in a museum) involves our bodies and, thus, this practice will inevitably be accompanied by proprioceptions. Yet, these are not the primary or only focus of that practice. (Note aside that dance might qualify but is predominately considered a visual art.) Consider yoga or certain forms of meditation practices, martial arts or climbing (cf. Conroy 2015; Nguyen 2018): here, often, the primary or only target is proprioception.

Regarding (B), note that it is notoriously difficult to define ‚art‘. The next section is dedicated to handle this obstacle.

(5) Institutionalism is the theory of art which says that objects, performances, practices, etc. qualify as works of art if they are sanctioned by art schools, museums, galleries, etc.:

„A work of art […] is (1) an artifact [performance, practice, …]  (2) upon which some society or some sub-group of a society has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation“

Dickie 1969: 254; my addendum

For Institutionalism, art is a convention-bound social practice. Danto’s concept of the ‚art world‘ and the respective sub-group of a society who are knowledgeable about artistic theory, art history, etc., is an integral part of Dickie’s idea (cf. Danto 1964).

Now, examples will be given for which holds that, (A), they are a practices the primary or only focus of which is (aesthetic) proprioception, plus: the art world „has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation“. Thus, they, (B), qualify – by the lights of Institutionalism – as works of art.

(Caveat: Surely, Institutionalism is but one theory to demarcate art from the non-art, and can, therefore, just serve as an example. Yet, we think that no matter what theory of art one holds (Levinson’s Historical Definition (1979) or Weitz’s family resemblance claims (1956)) we believe we can give good reasons, also within the framework of those theories, why various body practices are proprioceptive art.)

Disclaimer: this is not a depiction of
Carsten Höller‘s installation “Test Site”. Photo by Niallkennedy „Up the slide“

To mention but a few works of art that are, by the lights of Institutionalism, art: Carsten Höller’s Test Site (2006) a giant slide in London’s Tate Moderns on which the artist himself remarks:

„The state of mind that you enter when sliding, of simultaneous delight, madness and ‘voluptuous panic’, can’t simply disappear without trace afterwards. In this sense the ‘test site’ isn’t just in the Turbine Hall, but is also, […] in the slider […] who’s stimulated by the slides: a site within.”

Höller 2006; my italics

An essential part of Höllers artwork is that the participating audience’s sense of equilibrium, spatial orientation or gravity is disturbed, muscle tensions and the raise of stress levels and heart-beat rate are experienced. Consider also ‚Welt ohne Außen‘ at Gropius Bau Berlin, an exhibition by curators Thomas Oberender and Tino Sehgal whose self-ascribed primary or only focus was „embodied aesthetics“, „bodily practices“, „full-bodied engagement and practice“ (Website Berliner Festspiele 2018). Proprioceptive art can, of course, be found much earlier in the Body Art of the 60s and 70s: Take, for example, Bruce Nauman’s corridor sculptures which trigger an increased (claustrophobic) self-perception and challenge the physical and physiological reactions of the recipients. Most notable is also Naumann’s 1974 work Body Pressure.

See our work in progress examples page here.

(6) In proprioceptive art, one’s own body becomes an instrument for an unmediated perceptive output and input. This transcends the subject-object divide of the art work and its audience: The performer of proprioceptive art is (necessarily) his or her exclusive audience.

Proprioceptive artworks enable us to feel our bodies aesthetically from within, joined with a positive affirmation of being embodied creatures.



Possible Research Questions

Definition / Explication:

  • How should “proprioceptive artwork” be defined, and which artworks and aesthetic practices fall under this definition and which do not?

    A working hypothesis:
    A proprioceptive artwork is a practice / an artefact
    (1) the primary or only focus of which is (aesthetic) proprioception and
    (2) which qualifies as work of art.

Ontology

  • What kind of ontological entity is a proprioceptive artwork? Does it need the interacting recipient for the artwork to exist/to be realised?

    This is a difficult but probably no specific problem: compare to the ontology of musical works or performance arts. There might not always be an artefact in proprioceptive art, as the only physical entity there might be is just our body. (Saraceno’s net, Höller’s slides, Walter’s cloths are artefacts that might belong to the artwork.)

Demarcation

  • Is architecture proprioceptive art? Is there a kind of massage that could be? (cf. Benovsky forthcoming)

  • Might there not be a slippery slope argument to the effect that everything becomes proprioceptive art? (Yet, note the phrasing above: „the primary or only focus is proprioception“!)

  • Yet, who is the authority to say what an artwork’s primary focus is? The artist or the recipient or the artworld?

    This question – when is an artwork a proprioceptive artwork — might find similar answers as the overarching question “What is Art?”.

    Also, perception is multisensory, transmodal and holistic: Many artworks which seem to be visual or auditive in nature might cause (and intentionally so!) proprioceptive experiences (some abstract expressionist paintings, minimalist sculptures, or minimal music, etc.) and others (dance) might cause mirror neurons to fire so that the audience empathizes experiences similar to the proprioceptions the dancers on stage have.

Sense Modalities

  • How come the dominance of sound and vision (as senses) in the arts?

    This question will have biological, psychological, sociological and historical answers. There are, of course, also practical reasons for our preference of sound and vision: the facility of reproduction and dissemination of the artworks, the possibility to enjoy the artworks at a distance, our relative excellence in the visual and auditorial faculties (as, for example, compared to our poor sense of smell), our acquired ability to converse with relative ease about the respective phenomena (as opposed to taste where almost only wine connoisseurs have gained the necessary vocabulary and expertise), etc.

  • Yet, can proprioception be emancipated through art?

    Resulting in an intensified self-awareness enabling new perspectives on our self, our body, and our physical world situatedness.

  • Proprioceptive artworks pose a new challenge to art criticism: How can proprioceptive experiences be properly described and how can their aesthetic value be measured? Are these experiences intersubjective at all?

  • Should proprioceptive art not be possible: What is missing in some sense modalities (proprioception) other senses (seeing, hearing, etc.) have, so that what is seen and heard can be art, but what smells, is proprioceived, etc. not? (cf. Benovsky 2020)

  • Do proprioceptive experiences have representational content? Can they misrepresent?

    Phantom limbs, phantom pain, distortions of one’s body scheme are likely to be examples (and, if they can be temporarily induced then they could be material for proprioceptive artists!). For visual experiences this is far less controversial (including the mentioned provoked disturbances).

Aesthetics and Features of Art

  • Is proprioception as aesthetic sensation a necessary precondition for the possibility of proprioceptive art? (Cf. Montero 2006)
  • Artworks in general have (some of) the features bellow. Do proprioceptive artworks possess (some of) them? How do they possess them?

    Works of art typically exhibit some of the following features (adapted from: Adajian, T 2008). They family-resemble each other on the basis of these feature, so to speak. They:

    (I) possess positive, usually perceptual, aesthetic properties: typically artworks are arrangements that are intended to have the capacity to afford experiences of aesthetic character (cf. Beardsley 1982: 299), for example to invoke joy and pleasure;(II) are expressive of emotion;
    (III) lack any practical use;
    (IV) are potentially meaningful, i.e., have the capacity to convey complex by representational, mimetic, expressive, and formal properties;
    (V) are formally complex and coherent;
    (VI) are artefacts or performances which are the product of a high degree of skill and expertise;
    (VII) sometimes have non-aesthetic, ceremonial or religious or propagandistic functions;
    (VIII) are intellectually challenging;
    (IX) exhibit an individual point of view;
    (X) are original;
    (XI) are the product of an intention to make a work of art;
    (XII) belong to an established artistic form;
    (XIII) are socially mediated.

The Body: Existence, Being in the World, and the Self-World Delineation

  • Can proprioceptive art be the foundation of a new appreciation for and mindfulness of the sense of one’s own body?

  • The agent–patient, active–passive, artist/artwork vs. audience distinction is eliminated for some proprioceptive art. (If, for example, the artwork is a certain body practice.) Then, the subject-object divide of work and audience is transcended: The performer of proprioceptive art is (necessarily) his or her exclusive audience. Does this pose a problem (for the dissemination of the artwork, for example) or is it a unique chance (because of the immediacy and privacy of the experience)?

  • Our body limits relations to others and our surroundings. The lived embodied experience of being in the world is crucially (if usually subconsciously) a proprioceptive experience. Proprioception allows us to exist also in a quite realistic, non-metaphorical way: people who lack proprioceptive experiences have extreme difficulties to walk upright and many other physical activities are very difficult or even impossible for them (this information was taken from the ARTE documentary „Unser geheimer 6. Sinn“ (2020); no longer available in ARTE’s online programme).

  • This importance/essentiality of proprioception makes it predestined to be at the heart of works of art that question our (material) being and existence. The experience of living with, and in, our body can be explored. Proprioceptive art works might shake our self-image and stretch the boundaries of our selves (or the concepts of self).

  • Since the body (our body!) is so central in proprioceptive art, there probably will be differences of appreciation of such art works for different body shapes and abilities or sexes (gender) that exceed those existing for the visual and auditive arts.

Sociology / Psychology

  • In art, proprioception (or, at least, active physical participation), is currently en vogue. Why is this so?

    People might be tired of the virtual, the digital, the merely mediated. Clearly, the museums also benefit from the adventure and event character of the fairground style attractions proprioceptive artworks might be. These artworks serve as crowd-pullers.


Literature

Adajian, T (2008) ,The Definition of Art’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Zalta, EN (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/art-definition/

Beardsley, M (1982) ‚The Aesthetic Point of View’, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Benovsky, Jiri 2020 ‚The Limits of Art. On borderline cases of artworks and their aesthetic properties’, Heidelberg/Berlin: Springer.

Benovsky, Jiri (forthcoming) ‚Erotic art as proprioceptive art’, in British Journal of Aesthetics.

Conroy, Christina (2015) ‚The Vertical Tango: The Aesthetics of Rock Climbing’. Presentation at the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, 43rd Annual meeting, Cardiff, Wales, September 2–5, 2015.

Danto, A. (1964) ‚The Art World’, The Journal of Philosophy 61: 571–584.

Dickie, G. (1969) ‚Defining Art‘, American Philosophical Quarterly 6(3): 253–56.

Höller, C. (2006) Interview here

Levinson, Jerrold (1979) ‚Defining Art Historically‘, Journal of Aesthetics 19: 232–250
Familienähnlichkeit.

Montero, B. (2006) ‚Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense‘, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64:2.

Nguyen, C. Thi ‚The aesthetics of rock climbing‘, The Philosophers‘ Magazine 31.12.18: http://www.philosophersmag.com/essays/170-the-aesthetics-of-rock-climbing

Ritchie, J. B. & Carruthers, P (2015) ‚The Bodily Senses‘ in OUP HB Perception.

Schrenk, M. 2014 ‚Is Proprioceptive Art Possible?’ in Graham Priest and Damon Young (Hrsg.): Anthology on the Philos-ophy of Martial Arts. Routledge (2014) 101–116.

Shusterman, Richard. Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Richard Shusterman, « Merleau-Ponty’s Somaesthetics », Critique d’art [Online], 37 | Printemps 2011, Online since 14 February 2012, connection on 28 November 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/critiquedart/1300 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/critiquedart.1300

Weitz, Morris (1956) ‚The Role of Theory in Aesthetics‘, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15.1: 27–35.

For the the exhibition „Welt ohne draußen“ see here


Workshop

  • most probably September, 2021
  • Haus der Universität, Düsseldorf

The workshop “What is Proprioceptive Art?” is planned to be the kick-off event of an interdisciplinary research project, which poses a radical question: Could there be works of art that are (either primarily or predominantly) proprioceptive in nature: i.e., that have the perception of one’s own bodily movement, position in space, balance, muscle tension, pain, temperature, energy and stress levels, etc., at their core?

Bringing together experts of different disciplines – especially philosophy of art, aesthetics, and art history – the workshop is meant to connect researchers joined by an interest in the phenomenon of proprioception and its relevancy in the art world.


Confirmed Speakers




Organisers

Markus Schrenk

Isabelle Keßels

Till Bödeker

Markus Schrenk

Professor of Theoretical Philosophy
Institute for Philosophy
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf

Building  23.32, Room U1.69
Universitätsstr. 1
40225 Düsseldorf
Germany

+49 (0)211 81-12920