THE BRAIN PIECE
July 21, 2017
Patrons fill the lobby of New York Live Arts in anticipation of Jody Oberfelder’s The Brain Piece. Once given a colored sticker, we compare hues, predicting our viewing fate, until we hear Oberfelder, a meek voice from a petit body in a space-aged dress. Her language is quirky, modifying familiar phrases ever so slightly, prepping us not to “wander off, but to wander in.”
We are dispersed to color-coded representatives, beginning a track from different points in a preliminary expository cycle. In the NYLA house, the stage is bare and only two rows of seats are filled. A voiceover begins an anthology of famous quotes on the brain. It, too, partakes in quirky wordplay. “Do you mind? All the time.” It’s all very cute, until the etymology of the word “empathy” is explained: “feeling into.”
The factoid spawns the curious hypothesis of “tactile empathy,” before veering off track in a combination of stimulation for stimulation’s sake and arbitrarily cute aesthetic choices of bright colors and glitchy music that cannot draw clear boundaries as to when it intends to depict brain activity or activate ours.
For a dance piece concerned with physicalized cognitive process, the movement falls too short. When there is dancing, arms are interlocked with other arms or heads in a behavioral motif of connection. In a stairwell, arms reach for other bodies, but in a feigned sort of way that motivically frames their dare-devilish execution of non-thematic movement. The finale uses technology as a crutch, avoiding the possibilities bodies and space alone offer by letting a projection of alternate perspectives do the work instead, among cheap interactive illusion.
The participatory bits, primarily stimulating in nature, come closer to wholesome brainy experiences. In the empty theater, we are ambushed with head massages that, while consent was neither asked for nor given, are admittedly enjoyable. We return to the lobby to find a carnival of activities of clinical cognitive exercises, dressed up to seem exciting. A circle of subjects must toss a beanie and remember the order in which it was passed. A segmented mirror is rearranged to distort our reflections. Other moments are completely decorative, such as a bartender serving tequila-infused “brain juice” alongside a slew of insufferable brain puns.
Highly regimented audience corralling goes directly against Oberfelder’s wish that we have an adventure. The company does not let us complete one task in such a way that it is unclear weather we are to process as much incomplete stimuli as we can or they simply don’t realize we aren’t finished having one complete experience. Before returning to the theater, we are given blue booties. Looking medical, perhaps it’s in preparation for something epic. The subsequent realization that it is simply to not scuff the stage’s floor is wholly disheartening.
Nevertheless, they are necessary for the intersection of movement and interaction that situates performers and spectators alike on the NYLA stage. In an irksomely one-sided buildup, dancers tediously place us to frame pathways through which we watch some unremarkable frolicking. Afterwards, the connection motif reemerges in a group sway that fails to synchronize because of how dependent we have become on instruction and expectant of interruption. This is the only time, however, we know we exist, de-personified, as neurons. Shedding our humanity begets peak engagement, far more than the brain personification that pervades much of the work.
The Brain Piece simultaneously goes too far and not far enough. Within effort taken to create projections that rely on optical illusions is the potential to simply understand illusion. Stimulation, while inevitably interesting, only tells us that our brain is working, not the sort of work our brain is doing. As such, it is no more than a playground, and the initial directive to “wander in” is unachievable. This is not a bad thing; it simply needs a title that doesn’t claim aesthetic authority on something utterly unaesthetic.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews