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Great Anticipations

Electromyography in a performance piece

By Arts & Culture

Photo by Donna Karadsheh

“Where do you come from? I wonder because I only know where you’re going.” Berlin-based artist Lisa Müller-Trede had just squirted a clear gel from a syringe onto electrodes before attaching them to her bare legs, arms, and torso. Anticipation, A = ERY + 2/3 x πx R^3, her live performance-lecture, is an exploration of the notion that the mixing of two bodies in space allows them to anticipate each other’s movements. Using electromyography to generate a visual representation of the movements of her muscles, she creates an allegory for the intersections and figurative movements that constitute and define human relationships.

The electrodes run to a laptop placed on the floor, which is connected to a projector that broadcasts the image of five lines on a screen behind her. The lines resemble those of heart monitors, which use electrocardiography. Spikes and ripples rise up and fade away as the lines trace Müller-Trede’s muscle movements. This past February, the performance was curated by Bianca Bova at the Downey Mansion, a cultural center in Andersonville, Chicago. Standing to face those gathered, Müller-Trede met each member’s eyes one-by-one while reciting an essay she composed. Occasionally, a shy half-smile played on her lips.

In her recitation, the physical and emotional makeup of a person is a “pure composition.” It is, she says to F Newsmagazine later, “the mixture of what two people are made of and what flows between them. You have to have it before you can anticipate.” After reciting her essay, Müller-Trede chooses a man from the audience and performs various actions with him, asking him to mirror her movements, instructing him to focus on one point on her body while solving a series of simple math problems as another audience member shouts them out. The idea, she later reveals, is to distract the audience member on stage with her to rid him of self-consciousness, the better for anticipation to take place.

“When I look at you … I know what you are going to do … next … your movement composition is flowing vertically through my second mindset … a free-floating mindlessness anticipating future movement,” she recites. “I know that you’re going to move to the right with no warning.” Her voice falters for a moment. We learn after the performance that she had arrived from Germany earlier that day, and she is exhausted. But Müller-Trede wants her performances to change with each iteration. Performance art, she says, is a forum for a conversation to take place between performer and non-performer, unlike acting where audiences are traditional and passive.

The idea of allowing a performance to evolve each time serves “some greater purpose,” Müller-Trede says. “Having a purpose emerge during a performance can get you very high, put you in a very unusual state, when the artist and another person are part of a dialogue.”

At the 2013 Venice Biennale, the artist walked back and forth on an I-beam in a garden while telling stories about Dada. In New York, she cut an effigy of another performer into pieces with a chainsaw and put them in a suitcase. But with Anticipation, Müller-Trede wanted to use science to take her work in a new direction. With a friend who builds machines for a medical technology company in Berlin, the artist designed and built her own electromyography machine, which will eventually be adapted to translate muscle movement into sound as well as visual representation. She is also developing a digital application that will help users teach themselves to be able to “look at another person and anticipate what they’re going to do next.”

“Your composition overwhelms me … it flows through the upper skin cells … I can taste the difference in the temperature of your skin,” the artist recites. “Where do you come from? I wonder because I only know where you’re going. My own movement stagnates.” She likens the intersections of two people to a sphere, “four thirds times pi times r to the power of three … you just started moving with me, and you’re nervous … you don’t know if you like this dance … you don’t know if you like us being four thirds times pi times r to the power of three.”

Müller-Trede can only be referencing the covenant of romantic love. “You sure are trapped inside that sphere with me, and you know that it doesn’t get much better. Maybe not better at all,” she recites. “You turn and see if any other composition sounds as pure. Now you know what I’m going to do next.”

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