Understanding and Exploring Physical Intelligence

"The human body, connected to itself and its environment, is a complex, memory-laden thinking entity that provides an unrivalled window into human experience"—Wayne McGregor

By Studio Wayne McGregor

Tree of Codes by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Physical intelligence is something that every human inherently possesses, for each of us constantly thinks with and through our bodies.  

UNDANCE (2011-12-01) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Whether we are conscious of it or not, every single movement we make is guided by this physical intelligence. It doesn’t matter what our bodies look like, nor what they are capable of – whether we prefer to surf gargantuan waves or sofas; whether we’re a martial arts champion or reliant on mobility aids; restless teen or retiree.

Orpheus and Eurydice (2019-10-01) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

So, why aren’t we better aware of this innate, embodied wisdom? Well, once our bodies and minds work out how to perform a motion or action, we (mostly) no longer need to pay attention to the physical intelligence that underpins it. Skeptical? Try brushing your teeth with the other hand. (Watch those gums!) And funnily enough, it was humans attempting to design robots to perform extremely simple tasks such as this that drew wider attention to just how clever our bodies are.

Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment (2019-07-12) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Today, across the fields of cognitive and social science, medicine, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and sports as well as technology, our physical intelligence is beginning to get its dues. We are learning that rather than being ignorant flesh, our bodies have much to teach us.

brainstate by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Choreographers, whose artistic medium is the moving human body, have proved vital collaborators in this interdisciplinary quest for greater understanding of our physical intelligence – of how the mind and body together generate motion.        

Tree of Codes by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor has been at the vanguard of such efforts since 2000. Insatiably curious about the workings and creative potential of the human body, his artistic practice is closely intertwined with ongoing collaborative scientific and technological research projects. All of which are developed from within his state of the-art London headquarters, Studio Wayne McGregor.      

Dyad 1909 ProjectStudio Wayne McGregor

"Physical thinking isn’t just one kind of behaviour. It happens in your head and through and with your body in motion, and with objects and people in the world.” —Wayne McGregor     

Choreographic Tools training dayStudio Wayne McGregor

Over the years, McGregor has partnered with eminent researchers, including Professor Philip Barnard of Cambridge University’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit – whom he met while a Research Fellow at Cambridge University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, and Professor David Kirsh of the University of California, San Diego’s Cognitive Sciences Department, where McGregor acted as Innovator in Residence. Noted researcher and choreographer, Scott deLaHunta has also been instrumental in these physical intelligence-centric endeavours.      

CastleScape (2001-07-27) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

And it’s not only the physical intelligence of professional movers that McGregor, his teams at Studio Wayne McGregor, dancers of Company Wayne McGregor and vast multidisciplinary network of collaborators pay mind to. Exploring how every single human might be better equipped to utilise and enjoy their physical intelligence has been central to his work since the earliest days of his career.   

Cybergeneration (1996-11-20) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

At the Studio, this is most evident in the numerous education and outreach projects undertaken by its Learning and Engagement wing, which is headed up by Jasmine Wilson. Over 100,000 bodies of wide-ranging backgrounds and abilities have so far participated in an array of physical intelligence-boosting activities, from learning dance to becoming comfortable with taking up space in a communal setting.      

During a TEDGlobal Talk (2012), McGregor unpacked his remarkable creative process in real-time. Viewed over a million times, the riveting video not only breaks down how he makes dance via live choreography, but also encourages viewers to consider their bodies (and thus themselves) as intelligent and technologically literate entities with unique physical signatures.

Wayne McGregor's TED Talk, A Choreographer's Creative Process in Real-Time, 2012

“We all know what that body is like in the real world, so one of the aspects of physical [intelligence] that we think about a lot is this notion of proprioception, the sense of my own body in the space in the real world … You absolutely know that when you're going to grab a cup, or that cup moves and you have to re-navigate it. So we're experts in physical thinking already.” —Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor TED TalkStudio Wayne McGregor

Instances of shared or ‘distributed’ physical intelligence are illustrated in the talk too, e.g. how information may be conveyed from one body to another – from artist to audience, or dancer to dancer; or, when one body serves as the ‘memory’ for another.      

Thinking with the Body exhibition by Studio Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

In 2013, the cumulative results of research into physical intelligence, creativity, choreographic thinking and technology, undertaken by McGregor and partners: Barnard, Kirsh, deLaHunta (and further collaborators) were presented at The Wellcome Collection in a groundbreaking exhibition entitled, Thinking with the Body.     

Thinking with the Body exhibition by Studio Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

The hugely popular show invited visitors to contemplate how the mind, body and movement interact in each of us – from the very basics, such as walking up stairs, to the incredibly complex, e.g. making contemporary dance sequences.    

Thinking with the Body exhibition by Studio Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Under the heading ‘Choreographic Thinking’, particular focus was given to a theory that illustrates how attention shifts between sensorial realms (such as the visual and aural) within our mental landscape – a vital function for generating original movement. 

Mind and Movement by Studio Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Alongside the exhibition, key principles for boosting dancers’ imaginations, borne of years of experimentation and study were parlayed into Mind and Movement, an educational toolkit that promises to enhance anybody’s physical intelligence.      

Atomos (film) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Another area of Thinking with the Body explored how our bodies communicate with each other through gesture and movement, depicting how a group of humans forms a ‘thinking system’ – as might also be witnessed on a football pitch, or crowded commuter train.    

Dyad 1909 ProjectStudio Wayne McGregor

Once we grasp how our physical intelligence enables us to navigate the world and the people and objects in it, we naturally start to wonder what else we might be capable of – a question McGregor has been actively investigating for decades.

Becoming by Wayne McGregor, Marc Downie, Nick RothwellStudio Wayne McGregor

For not only has he sought to uncover how bodies and minds function in tandem, and how those processes might be bolstered for innovative artistic and creative pursuits, he’s also jointly devised and tested technologies that could assist us in expanding the frontiers of physical intelligence. 

Living Archive by Google Arts and Culture Lab, Studio Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

One of these projects, Living Archive – a partnership between Studio Wayne McGregor and Google Arts&Culture, lead to the development of algorithms that organise physical intelligence in motion within McGregor’s extensive video archive, and then instantly suggest over 30+ potential movement continuations to any given motion, in real-time.      

Living Archive: An AI Performance Experiment (2019-07-12) by Wayne McGregorStudio Wayne McGregor

Beyond the world of dance-making, the applications of this and other intriguing collaborative ventures being devised at Studio Wayne McGregor in a bid to expand our abilities as physically intelligent beings are still to be ascertained. But what’s clear is that their potential, much like ours, is enormous and exhilarating.

Credits: Story

'Physical Intelligence', text written by Suze Olbrich

Images of Living Archive experiment, courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.  

Credits: All media
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