Have you ever found yourself; going to watch a film simply because it has your favourite actor in, watch a new television show as it’s made by the same company, or seen a film as you like the director. The same things happen when you go to the theatre, you may choose to see a certain playwright or company as you enjoyed them last time so probably will again. The knowledge of our previous engagement with the art-form doesn’t just hold information about what to see, it also actively shapes our experience of the current show.
Let’s begin with the basics of perception, and the two theories that come from cognitive psychology. Although, these are separate theories it is more common to use the two together as an integrated approach. The terms bottom-up and top-down are terms that many student psychologists should have come across, so ingrained within the core syllabus I believe the terms are also taught to those doing GCSE psychology. Bottom-up processing is a term coined by James Gibson, who devoted most of his career to research in this field. In this approach we perceive based on what is in front of us and there is no need for higher cognition. Whereas in Top-Down processing, you process the information further drawing in previous knowledge to understand the experience you are currently having.
To make this clearer I will present an example, not a very good one but it will suffice. You are walking down the street. By bottom-up processing you recognise that a shiny object on the floor and with top-down processing you use past knowledge to recognise that the coin is in fact a 2p coin. Here my example works with both systems interconnected, most research is now suggesting that these systems are not independent of each other (Neisser, 1976). If we only thought that bottom-up processing was correct we would only be able to see in terms of lines and colours, we wouldn’t really be able to make sense of the world around us as there would be no concept that would help us define 4 vertical lines and 1 horizontal line as being a stool. Believing that only top-down processing occurred would also have it’s downfalls, you would begin to see things that aren’t there, extrapolating meaning into everything you saw including the marks on the wall.
So how can these two ways of perceiving be exploited for the arts? Bottom-up processing can be used to sense the movements of the dancework, ie, you are able to know a dancer is moving from one side of the stage to the other due to the colours and shapes that also move from one side of the stage to the other. Top-down perception may also allow you recognise some of the movements, or add a layer of meaning to the dance. One of the most common ways the top-down perception can influence the experience of dance is through you’re previous experience of the dance artists involved. So if you’ve seen a dance work by Hofesh Shechter that you really enjoyed, it is likely that seeing any works by Hofesh Shechter you will also enjoy. This is not just to do with the idea that he creates work that you like all the time. Dance artists don’t create the same thing again and again. Think about albums you’ve recently listened to, how many albums have contained every song in the same style? How many albums have there been that you can say you like absolutely all of the songs on the album the same amount? How many artists have produced multiple albums of which you like every song from? Probably very few. The same is the case for any artist. Creating the same thing over and over again gets boring, they want to push themselves and take risks. Some of these risks pay off and some of them don’t. By watching a piece of dance by a choreographer that you really like you have already been ‘primed’ to enjoy this piece of work. It shapes the way you view it as well.
If I was to put on a dance performance in the middle of Bristol, I’m sure very few would come, of those that do come it is also unlikely that anyone would have thought they would definitely enjoy the piece. There would have been uncertainty. Whereas if The Royal Ballet did a dance performance in the middle of Bristol, it’s likely lots of people would come thinking they will enjoy the piece. This initial thought as to whether you will enjoy it or not shapes the way you experience the piece. If the pieces we both performed in Bristol City Centre were exactly the same, and the same people watched it, it would be highly likely there would be a preference towards The Royal Ballet’s performance. Also when I say they pieces of work are the same, I mean it, same performers, same technical ability, the same performance. This is due to the top-down processing that is gained from knowing the piece has come from The Royal Ballet, vs. Rhiannon a student from Bath Spa University. The audience will experience the works in a better light knowing that when they last saw The Royal Ballet they enjoyed it, vs., the uncertainty of viewing a piece from a student they haven’t heard of.
This kind of seems a little bit abstract and almost like I’m making it up. Something that is probably a bit more familiar to you is brand loyalty. You tend to buy from brands that you know are good, quite often food because you believe they taste better than all the other brands suppling that product. The famous example here is the Coca Cola vs. Pepsi debate.
Here, in Buzz Feed’s way, it shows how actually telling the difference between certain products is very hard when we don’t have the knowledge behind what it is. This can happen in dance as well. When viewing dance it can be hard to tell who the choreographer is without having the programme in front of you or a knowledge of every choreographer in the locality.
Denying the audience of the knowledge of who created the work is something that was implemented this year at the Dance Umbrella Festival. A work entitled ‘Unknown Pleasures‘ showcased the work of 5 choreographers but did not let the audience know who any of the choreographers were. Each artist worked with the same company, Ballet de Lorraine, to create the piece. The idea was sparked by the want to encourage the audience to look critically at the dance piece instead of judging it on the basis of the artist’s history. The choreographer’s names will be released once the show has finished touring. To me I feel that this would make the enjoyment purer, I would know the pleasure from watching was due to the movement material and not because of the big name on the tin.
Branding has become such a big thing within the dance industry, everyone want’s their name all over the piece, partly in a effort to boast but also as it will draw in the costumers that actually enjoy the work you create. But perhaps this needs to change, as it can make it very intimidating for others coming into the dance world feel like they need to know everything about everyone. But sometimes it should be more of being able to recognise whether you like a dance work or not, not whether you like the artists or not.
- A small book written by James Gibson about Bottom-up processing: samples.sainsburysebooks.co.uk
- Hofesh Shechter’s work: www.hofesh.co.uk
- Dance Umbrella: danceumbrella.co.uk
- Guardian’s write up of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ that inspired me: www.theguardian.com