Objects of Emotion
Earlier this summer the Wellcome Collection hosted a series of events exploring our relationship with moving things, which culminated in a day-long symposium. Puppeteers and scientists joined forces to explore the emotional connections we make with inanimate things and why. ‘Objects of Emotion’ was pretty unique – it’s not often that neuroscientists are found in discussion with performers and that lectures are punctuated with puppetry.
“The idea for the ‘Moving Things’ series came at a time when puppetry was becoming more mainstream” explains Rosie Tooby from the Wellcome Trust. “There’s lots of interesting research going on in psychology and neuroscience about movement. It felt like it would be great to bring neuroscientists and puppeteers together specifically to talk about it.”
The puppetry fraternity was keen to get involved, as Jessica Bowles from Central School of Speech and Drama explains. “We wanted to take apart the process of puppetry, not just mechanically but also how it impacted our brains. Science is something we think about but there isn’t a body of theory behind it.”
Back in 2009 the Wellcome Collection ran a series of events called ‘Aparatus’, which explored how performers use their bodies. What had stood out then was how much audiences enjoyed combining a performance with a conversation about the process behind it. Inspired by this success, the ‘Objects of Emotion’ symposium blended lecture hall debates with several puppet acts. These included an appearance by Moses, the card and cotton bunraku protagonist in Blind Summit’s ‘The Table’.
“The scope of the event was very broad, but at the core were movement and objects and how we perceive them – be that on the stage, in a museum or an everyday object on your desk” says Rosie. “The most successful part for me was the way the speakers – people who would never normally meet – bounced off each other. They found the event genuinely exciting.”
Did those involved come up with any answers to the big questions like what triggers our emotions when we watch puppets? Or why we can be moved by everyday objects? Not entirely, but the unanswered questions can be the most interesting ones. “We’re at the very beginning of a conversation” says Jessica.
“Puppetry heightens how we engage with objects, but in fact we’re making relationships with objects all the time. Manipulating an object is an immediate and playful thing. It allows us to see new things and explore what it could do rather than should do. Objects help us tell stories about our world.”
Some of the science included looking at how, when point light displays reduce the body down to seven points of light, we can still perceive that they represent a human in motion. We can even tell whether the walk is a happy or sad one. If the light points are scrambled, we can still perceive the emotion. Another phenomena discussed was that of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – the point at which a non-human object’s imitation of a human one becomes so realistic it turns us off.
For curious puppeteers such conversations offer an insight into how audiences respond to their work and why. But what motivates the scientists to get involved? “There’s growing pressure on scientists to do public engagement, to tell people about the research they’re doing and to do interdisciplinary work” explains Rosie. According to Jessica, the scientists involved on the day clearly enjoyed the immediacy of working with objects and engaging audiences.
Want to find out more? You can read the session summaries on the Wellcome website. And there are lots of drop-in events on offer at the moment, as part of their Superhuman exhibition including the chance to build your own superhero and to get your hands on some synthetic body parts.
Objects of Emotion was organised by the Wellcome Collection in association with Central School of Speech and Drama and with thanks to the Puppet Centre.