Originally published during Deathfest for the Metro Arts Blog Artspeak, November 2018.
I have exhausted one third of my probable life expectancy. So says a website that offers death predictions based on health and demographic data. I found this estimate a couple of years ago and recorded milestones in my calendar so that I would know exactly how I was tracking. The one-third mark was last year, Friday the 29th of September at 2:55pm. I didn’t really celebrate.
This year I had another date in my calendar. The 16th of June – this was my ten thousandth day on earth. That morning to mark the occasion I tried to take a dramatic photo of myself looking weary. Anyone who has been around for a bit longer might disagree and roll their eyes, but look – lately I’m feeling old.
Time seems to be rushing along, disappearing at a quickening rate. And maybe in the middle of Deathfest, now might be as good a time as ever to reflect on our collective mortality.
I often feel that theatre has a lot to do with mortality. Unlike other art forms, theatre depends on us giving over units of our own lives in order to participate. When it works, theatre transforms those pieces, amplifying our experience of being alive and heightening our awareness beyond that of the everyday. But of course, anyone who has seen enough theatre will agree that the opposite can be true – bad theatre can suck away at your life force, intensifying the feeling that by the act of living you are also slowly dying…
Andrew Upton (former artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company) claims that performance is bound by the same constraints as life itself. It takes place within units of time and space, and so we experience theatre in the same way that we encounter reality. As fictional as it might be, our time spent in theatrical worlds is still an application of our own reality.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with these ideas in my own practice. I don’t want to waste any part of someone’s life! The work is here & now. So how can it be very here and very now?
In my postgrad research, I went down a rabbit hole of neuroscience to try and address these impulses. For example, now becomes a different kind of challenge when you realise that humans do not actually perceive the present. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that our senses are not actually a live feed to the world. Rather, our brain has to laboriously construct its perception of reality using data from a range of delayed feeds. Our eyes don’t process information at the same speed as our ears, and our nerves transport information slower than the speed of a car on the motorway. The result is that our brain has to carefully synchronise all of this data to give us a retrospective understanding of what has happened in our immediate surroundings.
It can take up to a tenth of a second for the brain to reach its conclusions. So in fact our lived experiences are all about a tenth of a second behind the reality of their circumstances. We don’t perceive this delay because we don’t know any better – our brain self-corrects, and this becomes what we understand as the present, even though we are caught in a lag.
Considering that we are therefore all caught in the past, now becomes something that we can’t necessarily exploit, but rather have to construct. The feeling of now. Alan Burdick explains that we do not perceive empty time until it contains something. An empty moment simply doesn’t register to us until it contains an event for reference – even if that event is the movement of a clock’s second hand, or someone declaring the word now.
“Look up into a clear blue sky: how far away is one hundred feet? How far is a mile? With no landmarks for reference, one can’t say. It’s the same with time. If we perceive time’s passage it’s because we perceive change, and for us to perceive change, the time must be somehow filled; an empty duration alone won’t stimulate our awareness. So what fills it?”
– Alan Burdick quoting William James
Theatre is an elaborate declaration of now. An ambition to fill our empty time with something significant, so that it might be recognised. To give more resonance to this unit of our life than what we otherwise might have had.
But here’s the interesting part – that tenth of a second processing time is relative depending on what we fill a moment with. Eagleman found that when the brain took in extra information, the processing time increased and the moment expanded.
For instance, if I were to swing a golf club towards your face, or if the balcony on which you were standing were to suddenly collapse – in those threatening moments, your brain would kick into overdrive. The amygdala would commandeer excess resources so that your brain would become intensely focused on capturing and understanding the circumstances at-hand. The resulting data would take longer to reconcile.
After this heightened experience, your memory of it would move in slow motion. The richness of your data would also mean that your senses were more vivid. You would feel as though you had lived for longer in that moment.
Eagleman uses this same principle to explain why time seems to speed up as we get older. In the same way that our perception of time can expand by ingesting more detail, so too can our time be rushed by an inattentive lack of detail. The more familiar we get with the experience of living, the less data we tend to capture. Whether due to routine or disinterest, we have less curiosity and therefore less inclination to observe intensely.
“This may be why time seems to speed up as you age: you develop more compressed representations of events, and the memories to be read out are correspondingly impoverished. When you are a child, and everything is novel, the richness of the memory gives the impression of increased time passage—for example, when looking back at the end of a childhood summer.”
– David Eagleman
The author Carleton Noyes described how the world around us closes in as we grow up and lose our childish curiosity. In this transition, “imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge,” and so we cease to play.
But perhaps this is our obligation as artists. To stimulate newfound curiosity. To defamiliarise the familiar. To heighten experiences so that our brains are prompted to ingest more data once again!
This is why I revolt against tradition. Why I find repetition and routine so draining. Experimentation is urgent. Form needs to be reinvented, ruptured, re-birthed. With my life in your hands, show me something new. Something now. Something so unexpected that my brain can’t fill in all of the gaps.
I’m not about to swing a golf club at your face, I promise. But I’d certainly like to heighten your present. Counterpilot projects are all about transforming the familiar. We like to find surprising combinations of things we recognise, and subvert them using rich design or gameplay.
The result, if we are to believe Eagleman, is an expanded duration of experience. With such art, we can stave off our own mortality. Kind of.
Can theatre make you live longer? Not really. Not if measured in units of time. But considering that our perception of time is not constant, maybe it shouldn’t be about measuring the minutes.
Theatre declares our now in a bolder way than our everyday life might be able to. It is a mode for our reality that transcends what we expect from what is real. In perception and memory, a life regularly stimulated by intrigue and curiosity would feel as though it had lasted longer.
If you don’t believe that theatre can save lives, then at least believe it can do this.