Neuroscientific Considerations in the construction ofTen Minutes to Midnight

 

by TERESA CREA

View Teresa Crea's Biography

Teresa Crea is an interdisciplinary artist and academic with credits as a writer, director and creative producer across a variety of media.

Neuroscientific Considerations in the construction ofTen Minutes to Midnight

by Teresa Crea

Introduction

The late twentieth and early 21st century witnessed a seismic shift towards immersive art practices in live and media art, installation and film. They go beyond the psychological immersion expounded by western Aristotelian dramatic and literary modalities towards more embodied experiences. Indeed, the collision of the dramatic and narrative arts with digital technology has seen the emergence of distinct narrative experiences and story worlds that incorporate new attributes such as interactivity and the participant's agency within the unfolding of the work.1 In other words, these forms of immersion reel in the psychology of the mind, but also seek to activate the audience's sensory perceptions in different ways. The aesthetic choice to embrace digital media and installation as a platform for Ten Minutes to Midnight as part of the Nuclear Futures suite of projects required us as artists to respond to these developments, in turn presenting many challenges for the construction of our narrative and story. This paper offers some neuroscientific perspectives on the challenges of delivering an authentic immersive experience to an audience of survivors and first-hand witnesses through the Ten Minutes to Midnight media installation2.

In taking this approach it is important to acknowledge that our neuroscientific discussion is referenced essentially against western modes of dramatic story construction passed down by Aristotle through his Poetics (circa 350BC). This was our default position for two reasons. Firstly, the explicit objective of Ten Minutes to Midnight to capture the lived experience of British and non-indigenous Australian war veterans subjected to the nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga in South Australia and secondly, our goal in particular, was to track the eyewitness testimony of Balaklava resident Avon Hudson.

We recognise differences between indigenous modalities of storytelling and western conventions, and that concepts of immersion may also resonate very differently within aboriginal cultures. However, in our project, we also knew that the indigenous perspectives and voices were being incorporated via a range of artistic collaborations across the broader Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative (Brown 2018; Barkley 2018; Barkley et.al. 2018; Boylan 2018 in this volume) and that the veteran perspective would in essence serve to compliment that.

Another consideration in our discussion is the recognition that Ten Minutes to Midnight is not alone in ultising immersive media or installation to portray the thematics raised by Atomic Art. In Australia, documentary filmmakers such as Dennis O'Rourke for example had already exploited the potential of film to expose the hidden consequences of hydrogen bomb testing in Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age (1985). Two decades later, as part of the 70th anniversary of the bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Mick Broderick and Stuart Bender's Fading Lights immersive exhibition utilised digital video

to evoke the past and present sense of place at Nagasaki and Hiroshima and pay tribute to the experience of Australians in Japan between 1945 - 1952 (Curtin University 2017).

Even as we were developing Ten Minutes to Midnight, visual artist Lynette Wallworth was tackling similar themes in Collisions, a Virtual Reality Exhibition described as "utilising virtual reality, sound localisation and sound tracking technologies, to construct an immersive recount of the atomic tests at Maralinga from the perspective of Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan"3. And international film makers at Tribeca were also preparing The Bomb, a multimedia performance for the closing night event of the 2016 Film Festival. Co-directed by Smriti Keshari, Eric Schlosser and Kevin Ford, their multimedia installation was described on the Tribeca Film Festival website as:

The bomb is a ground-breaking multimedia installation that immerses you in the strange, compelling, and unsettling reality of nuclear weapons. The 55-minute film will be projected 360 degrees on massive floor to ceiling screens that surround the audience, as The Acid performs live in the centre of the space (Tribeca Film Festival 2016).

Clearly the movement towards immersive art has been particularly appealing in the depiction of nuclear bomb tests and their legacies. Each of the afore-mentioned projects offered unique artistic responses to the contested issues surrounding the atomic tests and appropriately, all were premiered to coincide with of the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Immersive storytelling for Ten Minutes to Midnight

As art workers within the Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative, our specific approach to the creation of immersion and ensuing dramaturgical structure underpinning the Ten Minutes to Midnight installation was to take a neuroscientific perspective, beginning with considerations of the war veteran experience. To understand this approach, it is useful to first review some of the essential elements of conventional western dramaturgy. Originating from the Greek (via Latin) dran meaning do or act, the term dramaturgy and the art of dramatic composition is associated with stagecraft -- a place where fictions are created and enacted in front of an audience. Western dramaturgical composition comprises the linear, chronological sequence of events -- the foundation story; and the way these events are interconnected and positioned for dramatic effect -- the plot (Turner and Behrndt 2008; Flusser and Strohl 2004).

Stories move through time, and Aristotle's model, cited earlier, is predicated on a linear and logical ordering of story events across time. Dominated therefore by "logos and linearity" (Flusser and Strohl 2004, 21), Aristotle's notion of mimicry and representation is characterised by a form of spectator empathy that relies on psychological immersion. In a classic western story or dramatic narrative, the reader or spectator identifies and empathises with a character (conventionally the protagonist) and this then serves as the emotional hook or 'buy-in' for the reader or spectator to immerse themselves in the story as a passive witness to the un-folding drama4. By empathising with a character or a situation, the spectator is transported into that fictitious world as a psychological presence and bystander, rather than an active real time bodily presence.

For us, the immersive storytelling mode we wanted to explore in Ten Minutes to Midnight demanded something that went beyond psychological empathy. We understood that the narrative could no longer just be anchored in linear text but required activation through the construction of many vectors across different modalities -- visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic. (Kress 2003; McCloud 1993). The story could not be just 'told': it had to be experienced by the audience through the body and the senses. And this required a narrative construction that placed them in the centre of the story world so that they could inhabit it through a real time presence.

Thus, our approach to the composition of Ten Minutes to Midnight was to view the narrative as 'sense making': a perspective informed by emerging neuroscientific studies on the processing brain, particularly around perception and sensory awareness. (Damasio 1999; Libet 2004). This view suggests that meaning making is a bottom up process that starts with the senses and precedes the use of any higher order, top down, linear logic on which conventional (Aristotelian) narrative structure is based. Narrative meaning is instead assembled through a range of multimodal viewpoints and sensory triggers: spatial, kinaesthetic, auditory, haptic, and visual, in different tempos and intensities, to build tension, anticipation, intrigue and emotion. From this perspective, narrative meaning will be harnessed differently by each individual as a consequence of a subjective mix of attention, sensory perception, pattern recognition, memory and personal history. We understood that our task then was not to provide a linear story for individuals but rather an overarching narrative framework for them to navigate (Manovich 1998).

Taking Shape

Through the dramaturgical shaping of Ten Minutes to Midnight we aimed to construct a nested flow of recurring loops of information as distinct narrative threads. It was to be multimodal and sensory, utilising lights, sound, colour, voice and written text to communicate sensation. Each audience member sitting in the space, surrounded and immersed by image, sound, light and text, would undertake their own experiential journey of the Ten Minutes to Midnight story. They would build their own narrative meanings as they navigated the flows of information and sensations in a form of sense making much more in keeping with the brain's non-linear and generative processing mechanisms.

At the same time Ten Minutes to Midnight remained highly contextual and situated. The work was premiered in the Balaklava home of several survivors, and in front of a key eye witness. The dramaturgical structure that underpinned our story composition not only resonated with our neurobiological processes; but the deliberately fragmented, isolated narrative threads also mirrored the way the young soldiers and eye witnesses received the official narrative of the time.

The highly sensitive and secretive nature of the British Nuclear experiments in South Australia meant that neither the eyewitness veterans, nor their families ever had a holistic picture or understanding of what they were being asked to do, nor the potential repercussions of those actions. They were alternately denied or at best given partial information only on a need to know basis. Truth was defined by ones' status in the events and the perspective afforded. An extract from the film Nobody told us anything (Stewart 2015) remains one of the most poignant and telling nuclear veteran testimonials included in Ten Minutes to Midnight. Indeed, while official history -- no matter how contested -- seeks to present a unified, macro account of events, the lived experience of the veterans and their families together with the oral testimonies revealed a lattice of micro personal narratives.

As artists, we had at our disposal a rich repository of material that had been gathered over time -- historical records, scientific reports, political Hansard, veteran community and eyewitness accounts. Our challenge was to construct an audience experience that resonated with 'authenticity' from this plethora of conflicting information, while our dramaturgical aim was to push beyond the documentary form -- powerful in its own right -- towards a work that would be driven as much by sensory and emotional impressions, as rational and objective facts. Consequently, the work was populated by many perceptual shifts and frames of reference: objective facts pitted against the subjective memory of those facts, different interpretations of reality as experience was retold. Even the use of officially sanctioned archival documentation and recordings had to be viewed in the knowledge that those recordings were also a fictionalised and government approved recounting of how and why the events took place.

Our approach again was not to answer the question of which singular story we wanted to tell but what kind of experience did we want to create for the audience? With this question at the forefront of our minds, we focussed not on an overarching linear narrative, but on the development of a series of narrative threads that acted more as a system of disclosure -- with each layer uncovering additional meanings through recurring associations, repetition and pattern recognition.

Firstly, these individual threads included a narrative thread that depicted nature and the landscape represented visually by images of the landscape past and present, photo media and video montage as well as archival footage and google earth; secondly, narrative threads that reflected on the body, represented through biological imagery of bones, cancer cells mutating, depictions of soldiers bathing to wash the contamination from their bodies and a synthetic mannequin situated in the centre of the viewing space, sitting alongside the audience; thirdly, a scientific narrative thread, comprising scientific data, formulae, facts, past and present; fourthly, the official government and political narrative, highlighted through archival and promotional documentary footage. Finally, the first-person eyewitness narratives, incorporating direct testimonies from our whistle blower Avon Hudson and other nuclear veterans, both as young soldiers and elderly veterans reflecting on their experiences.

Staging

The team of multidisciplinary artists brought a range of artistic modalities to the compilation of these narrative threads by interpreting them via audio, visual and text based micro loops. None of the narratives was in themselves complete, rather they existed as fragments of past and present, connected through lyrical association and repetition. The audience would deduce their own narrative meaning as they built emotional connections across the different threads. In this way, spectators acted inadvertently as co-authors: participants took a journey of discovery resonating with how veterans themselves might have processed the threads of information they were given or allowed at the time of the actual events.

The only overt, sequentially linear component to be incorporated was a ticking clock. This was at once a representation of the Doomsday Clock reset periodically by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to alert the world community to the dangers of the nuclear age and a reference to the countdown of the actual bomb blast. Whilst the device was very much a standard dramatic technique to build psychological suspense, neurologically the sound of the clock chime striking served to jolt the audience back into the physical space and force them to engage in 'real time'. The positioning of a mannequin wearing a gas mask -- an element of the historical experiments -- within the audience space, had the same intention of visually encouraging the audience to confront the issues directly in the real-time physical space.

Priority was always given to sensory inputs and their impact on audience responses. Fundamental to this was the breaking down of the fourth wall of conventional theatre staging to place the audience in a situation of feeling themselves immersed and part of the action. Whilst we did not have the use of virtual reality (VR) technologies, we wanted to construct a viewing platform and design that would deliver enough sensory immersion to give the audience the perception and illusion of 'being there'. To this end, the configuration of the space and the audience seating were 'dramaturgically' scoped and experimented with to create a sense of presence. The final set design and staging of the work in a cylindrical structure that ensured the audience's peripheral vision was enveloped by the 270-degree perspective of the screen image together with its height, was critical to securing the illusion of 'immersion' as were the auditory and visual textures. An unexpected discovery of the staging experiment was that by sitting in an enclosed circle (across from each other) allowed spectators to observe each other's responses and glimpse their own silhouettes reflected in the projections as part of the action. The circle afforded both an individual as well as a communal experience.

In the hierarchy of sensory perception, sound was a key element contributing to the sensation of 'being there'. Our collaboration with the composer and sound designer involved experimenting with the location of sounds in space through a surround sound design: included were both the granular sensuous textures of nature, scientific machines and the human voice, together with fragments of interviews, such that they enhanced the lyrical association across modes. Equally, the use of saturated colour, the chiaroscuro and shadowy textures of the lighting design, together with the visual image: the landscape, the depictions of cells and body, the final bomb blast montage and text -- these were all heightened and stylised to enhance sensory impact. The result was a narrative 'experience' more than a linear story, and predicated more on perceptions of reality, rather than any documentary style, single person recount of the events leading to the Maralinga bomb tests.

The extent and impact of the immersion was reflected to us in audience responses. Asked to respond to 'what I liked about the show?' students attending the premiere season in Baklava said:

"feeling like I was there"

"seeing what happened"

"you can really live yourself in the story"

"its raw intensity and its reality"

"I liked that it was surprising and truthful"

(Alphaville 2016)

Such testimonies served as indicators for us of the successful creation of an 'authentic' experience. Although we did not adhere to an objective logic, the feedback was very much that we had captured the essence and truth of the experience: the audience felt it more than understood it. The final test of course was the response of Avon Hudson, the whistle blower around whom the project hinged, and a protagonist and eyewitness to the events depicted in the installation. His "you got it right" at the end of the showing, was indeed our best validation that we had appropriately captured the sentiments of the nuclear veteran experiences.

In conclusion

As a dramaturge and director of Ten Minutes to Midnight I believe that the neuroscientific thrust and the experiential approach adopted by the project team added a new level to the community debates and discussions that accompanied the Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative. Creating a space for an audience to feel and be still with the phenomenon, to take in the physical repercussions on the land and on our bodies in a visceral and embodied manner, potentially helped bypass the conflicting layers of information around the nuclear debate in ways that a mere reciting of scientific facts could not.

Neuroscience is giving us new insights into how the brain takes in information and makes meaning. And these understandings no doubt go some way to explaining the explosion in immersive art. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, renowned for his ground-breaking study of the neural systems underpinning feeling and emotion and the correlation between mind and body, describes art both as "an alternate means to make us conscious of the human condition" and "an alternate means to overcome the problems posed by the human condition" (Damasio 2017).

We would like to hope that in some small way, the Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative in general and Ten Minutes to Midnight make modest contributions towards achieving this aim.

Works Cited

Alphaville. 2016. Repository of participant and audience responses, Nuclear Futures Partnership Initiative.

Aristotle [c350 B.C] Poetics, trans. M. Heath. 1997. London: Penguin.

Barkley, Ellise. 2018. 'Making the Story go Far: Reflection, Evaluation, Analysis and Documentation'. Unlikely: Journal for Creative Arts.

Barkley, Ellise, Nic Mollison, Paul Brown, Luke Harrald and Teresa Crea. 2018. 'Staging the Bomb'. Unlikely: Journal for Creative Arts.

Bolter, Jay, and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Boylan, Jessie. 2018. 'Residual: Art Beyond the Event of Maralinga'. Unlikely: Journal for Creative Arts.

Broderick, Mick and Stuart Bender. 2015. Fading Lights. Immersive exhibition. Perth: Curtin University.

Brown, Paul. 2018. 'Rebellious art: pushing back against the nuclear state'. Unlikely: Journal for Creative Arts.

Curtin University. 2015. 'Fading Lights Immersive Exhibition' Accessed 15 Jan 2017.

Damasio, Antonio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Damasio, Antonio. 2017. 'Art and Neurobiology of the Mind Conference ' Italian Academy Forum. Web. Accessed 13 Jan 2017.

Flusser, Vilem, and Andreas Strohl. 2004. Writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kress, Gunther. 2010. Multimodality: A Social-Semiotic Approach to Contemporary communication. New York: Routledge.

Libet, Benjamin. 2004. Mind Time - The Temporal factor in Consciousness. Harvard University Press.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: the invisible art. 1999 Edition, New York: Paradox Press.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Manovich, Lev. 1998. Navigable Space Web. Accessed 26 January 2012.

Oddey, Alison, and Christine White. 2009. Modes of Spectating. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O'Rourke, Dennis. 1985. Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age. Documentary film.

Stewart, Charles. 2015. Nobody Told Us Anything. Documentary film.

Tribeca Film Festival 2016. Web. Accessed 15 Jan 2017.

Turner, Cathy, and Synne Behrndt. 2008. Dramaturgy and Performance. Palgrave MacMillan.

Footnotes


  1. Oddey and White (2003) speak of a viewer/spectator goes who goes beyond just watching, to one who is engaged in a new sensory kinetic experience. See also Bolter and Grusin (1999). 

  2. The Ten Minutes to Midnight Installation team comprised Teresa Crea (director and dramaturg) Linda Dement (Visual and Media Artist), Luke Harrald (Composer and Sound Designer), Nic Mollison (Set, Lighting and Projection Artist), Jesse Boylan (additional photo media), Paul Brown (Creative Producer), Elise Barkley (Production Manager) and Rowan Lee (Technical Operator). 

  3. Collisions and the Nuclear Futures showcase and Installations were exhibited contemporaneously in Adelaide South Australia across September - November 2016 at the South Australian Art Gallery and Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute respectively. 

  4. The Aristotelian concepts consisting of the linear and sequential ordering of events, unity of time, place, action, mimesis, catharsis, are complex terms. Whilst these concepts underpin a Western literary canon, they have continued to be re-interpreted by thinkers across the ages, as well as being debated by Aristotle's own contemporaries, such as Plato (Turner and Behrndt (2008).