On the materiality of the heart, beyond our grasp.
After several years of working with heart rate sensors, we reached for the heart itself… only to discover that the thing we grasped in our hands shared little with the thing beating in our chests.
The first time we ever held a heart was in the making of III: Cœur de Cochon. It was a pig heart. This heart, removed from its body, ceased to look, feel, smell and act as it had as part of the life-sustaining systems of the self—the pig’s self, that is. This heart, unlike our hearts, could no longer circulate, promiscuously, beneath and beyond the skin. Much of what made it it—its movement, its rhythm, its electricity—was no longer. Removed from the body, this chunk of meat, of muscle, of material, became readily available to our touch and gaze, hinting at its prior life yet refusing to tell all.
When we speak of the materiality of the heart, we do not only mean its flesh, but rather, the ways in which our encounters with the heart as a material object are always-already entangled with discourse about what the heart is, and what the heart does. If we consider the dissected heart to be the thing-we-call-the-heart itself, we are defining the heart as a discrete material object, divorced from its behaviour and purpose within a living body. When we remove the heart from the body, severing its relation to the respiratory and nervous systems, it becomes available to us in a fundamentally different way: we do not necessarily have more or less access to it, but rather, by removing the heart from the body, we reconfigure its temporal and spatial potential.
In this project we have explored the materiality of the heart, or rather, many hearts, in many ways: firstly, the heart as we sense it within our own and one another’s bodies via interoception and touch; secondly, the heart as we sense it via biofeedback; and finally, the heart as an object, cut away from its body. These many hearts – available to us by virtue of their differentiation – expose the ubiquity of mediation; that is, that the materiality of the thing-we-call-the-heart is always already entangled with how, where, and why we have come to know its boundaries.
In this section we discuss:
Re/materializations of the heart in III: Synchronism
III: Synchronism began with a question: is it possible to synchronize the beating of one’s heart with that of another? As we will discuss in section on temporality, we do not believe that synchrony is possible, so this question is something of a ruse – or at least, an impossible yet generative task.
Initially we explored the alignment of heart rates between performers through studies related to entrainment, and while it was immediately clear that mirroring movements was unlikely to produce similar heart rates for different people, engaging in the same tempo and quality of breathing yielded similar patterns in heart rate variability for multiple performers, as seen in our early breath studies. But the seed of this question came even earlier in our process.
A key moment in our collaboration, back in 2013, unfolded as follows: we had two performers equipped with off-the-shelf ECG sensors, tasked with synchronizing the beating of their hearts; after experimenting with movement and breath, the performers came together in an embrace – and their heart rates fell into sync! It was tempting, to us at least, to interpret this as a physiological response to touch; more likely however, the bluetooth signals from the ECGs were affected by their proximity.
The significance of the above moment lay not in the fact of momentary synchrony (illusory as it may have been), but rather in how our reactions to and desire for synchrony exposed our own values and assumptions about the heart, materially and metaphorically. We have brought to our project an implicit assumption that the heart matters: for example, that it matters more than the kidneys, or the liver, as an organ to focus on in performance, and in relationships between performers. The physical matter of the heart, and why it is perceived to ‘matter’, in the sense of being important in a given context and culture, are inextricably bound.
This moment pointed to an association between the alignment (or entrainment) of heart rates, with subjective experiences of closeness and intimacy, and further, to how we might employ the emblematic weight of the heart to construct a pretext for particular ways of relating in performance that may otherwise seem inappropriate or even absurd.
In our project III: Synchronism we invited audience-participants, one at a time, to join a performer inside a private booth, with the goal of synchronizing the beating of their hearts. Using one hand, the performer and guest each held a digital stethoscope to the other’s chest. In the other hand, each had a haptic transducer that pulsed with feedback from the stethoscope in real-time. The haptic transducers could be placed anywhere on their own or one another’s bodies, pulsing with the digitized audio signal of the heart, lungs, and fluid passages being captured.
The choreography of the one-on-one performance progressed from shared eye contact, to deep breathing, to touch (with and without the objects in our hands), and eventually, into a fluid, mutual embrace that continued to shift and transform. Once entangled, the two individuals can feel the movements of each other’s breath and heartbeats both through the transducers and directly beneath the skin, such that it becomes difficult to discern source from representation, and one body from the other.
Concurrently with the one-on-one encounters, surrounding the private booth, there was a spatialized audio installation, and a kinetic sculpture, in which the real-time stethoscope signals from each participant were re/materialized and mixed with those from past participants.
We discuss our experiences of III: Synchronism further in our article “The Touch of the Stethoscope: Shaping Context in Intimate Performance” (2019), and conclude with the reflection that:
In III: Synchronism, the boundaries of mutual curiosity and consent are negotiated through touch – that is, the touching of sounds from the heart, and the touch of the sound of the heart. We appropriate and re/contextualise the stethoscope in order to use its authority to permit and mediate contact between strangers. Through the multiple materialisations of the audio signals from the stethoscopes in the public and private spaces, we investigate the perceptual and moral boundaries that govern the emergent visibility, audibility, and touch-ability of ‘foreign’ hearts and bodies. (Naccarato and MacCallum 2019: 75)
Concerns regarding mediation, as well as artistic uses of biosensors, are addressed more fully in our article “Critical Appropriations of Biosensors in Artistic Practice“. We also discuss our use of the stethoscope in an artist page co-authored with Peader Kirk titled “Intimate Listening“.
On the value of the heart, materially and metaphorically
In our movement from exploring the heart by way of biosensors, to holding a dissected heart between us, we were confronted with questions not only regarding what the heart is, but also why it matters to us as choreographer-composer, and as individuals. The text below was written the day after we filmed III: Cœur de cochon, and touches upon some of our thinking at the time.
When we were finished with it, we could not bring ourselves to throw it in the trash. Instead, we climbed a high cliff at sunset overlooking the coastline, and, short of words, dropped it over the edge into the trees below. We supposed some animals would eat it, or that it would decompose into the earth.
On our walk home, we discussed what we want done with our organs after death. We are both organ donors. But, if our organs were no longer viable for transplant, would 75
we be willing to donate our expired flesh for artistic research? Would we give our own hearts, in place of the pig’s heart we had just used in our film?
I felt a morbid comfort imagining two people holding my heart tenderly in their hands, caressing and examining it intimately as we did the pig’s heart in our film. We came to know the textures, seams, folds, and openings of this creature’s heart so closely that when it was time to let it go, I felt loss.
Would I have felt differently if it weren’t a heart? What if it was the pig’s liver or intestines? Or her tongue, ear, or hoof? All of these items were readily available at the tripperie where we purchased her heart for €4.60.
Or, what if we were holding a human heart? Biologically, pig hearts are relatively similar to human hearts; porcine valves have long been used in human patients, and research regarding transplanting entire porcine hearts into humans is being actively pursued. So does it make a difference (to me, to us) if it is a pig’s heart versus a human’s heart in our hands?
We considered eating it. It is meat, after all. Many cultures consume pig heart, and recipes abound online. I am vegetarian, so this did not appeal to me. At the same time, I was desperate not to let this pig’s heart go to waste.
If this had been a human heart, would I have considered eating it? Of course not. I am not a cannibal… isn’t that what eating a human heart would say about me? In the secular Western culture in which I have come up, this is likely so. I don’t know if I am capable of seeing beyond my socially constructed attitude towards the human heart, and the human body, as being made of something essentially different from animal flesh— and therefore, not as food.
I am not religious, but as a child I attended Catholic mass on special holidays with my extended family. During communion, I remember really wanting a piece of the cookie my cousins were eating. Had my parents explained that the wafer is the flesh of Christ, perhaps I would have reconsidered (but surely, with confusion and curiosity).
I find it fascinating to read about sacrificial rites in different cultures. There is evidence that the Aztecs “sacrificed human beings, tearing out their hearts on pyramids so that the sun, on which all life depended, could be nourished with the heart’s blood” (Young 2002: 214). While this may sound unthinkable to some, so too could the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. According to Young: “In many places at many times, sacrificees believed in the system and were happy to go. It’s worth remembering that life in this world was not always the be-all and end-all that it is now in the West” (2002: 149).
While sacrificial rituals in Ancient cultures—of animals and humans alike—are far beyond my comfort zone, I suspend judgment, because my views stem from an extremely different context. Moreover, do I think I held some moral high ground, standing on a cliff at sunset, and dropping a pig’s heart (un/ceremoniously) into the woods below?
That night, we couldn’t bring ourselves to have sex. Perhaps it was the blood on our hands, washed away repeatedly, but seemingly still present. Maybe it was the smell of pork, haunting our apartment. Mostly, I think it was the memory of touching the heart, sensually, together.
When we first unwrapped the heart, I had to force myself to touch it. I lifted it tentatively, sliding my fingers over its contours. I tried to avoid the small cut on my hand for fear that the fluids seeping from its openings would somehow infect me. I was afraid to drop it, or break it, despite knowing how tough the tissues of the heart are.
When we turned the camera on, I began choreographing my touch; my focus shifted to aesthetic concerns such as the framing and lighting of the heart on screen, as well as varying the texture, timing, and placement of my gestures. Diving into the familiarity of my craft, I almost forgot that it was a heart I was holding.
As we started touching the heart together, I was not prepared for the sensuality that emerged. Our fingers met gently, accidentally at first, followed by an intentional interlacing of our hands around the heart. Together, we caressed and massaged the heart, letting our fingers slip into the wide opening of the aorta, and then slide back over the smooth outer surfaces of the atria and ventricles.
The irony that we, as lovers, were holding a real heart between us—the ultimate symbol of romantic love—did not escape us. While the reality of our situation—from the odour to the blood to the fact that the heart came from a ‘beast’—was far removed from any traditional notion of romance, it certainly felt very intimate. Our sensuousness and trust as partners became a part of this vulnerable (and unexpected) artistic space, which in turn infiltrated the dynamics of our personal relationship. We could not simply let this heart go and return to holding hands as if nothing had happened.