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Using dance to learn about animal behaviour

*Excerpts from a talk to be presented at the CI for Critical Response conference

Studio Photos by Carolyn Arnold

My research involves designing habitats for intertidal species on artificial concrete structures. Sea snails, crustaceans and various other species that would otherwise find it harder colonizing the flat concrete surfaces of seawalls, jetties and other extensions of our built environments encroaching into the sea.

Early in the project, I found the scientific literature I was relying on to learn about these species did not provide me with the full range of knowledge I needed for the design process. I needed a way to make up for the tacit knowledge designers rely on when designing for people, knowledge embedded in their memory and life experience and in the basic fact that they are humans designing for other humans.

I needed a way to make the scientific knowledge tangible, embedded in my own body, so I could close my eyes and imagine the world from the point of view of my animal clients.

Designers often use role-playing to familiarize themselves with the worlds of their clients, to learn about their possibilities and limitations. If done well this provides the designer with useful information that can help navigate the micro-decisions that make up a design project. From the choice of materials, size, texture or colour to delivering an experience or desired feeling.

Initially, I tried to compensate for this lack of intimate knowledge of the animals I was designing for by spending as much time as I could on the beach and in the water observing their habitats and behaviours.

Then, one evening at a Contact Improvisation (CI) jam, after spending the day reading and watching videos of limpets defending themselves against starfish, questions from my research found their way into the dance space. Squashed between the floor and a fellow mover, I thought, is this what it feels like to be a limpet under attack by a starfish? I began moving the way I knew it would move, lifting my shell up and dropping it down on the sticky arms of my predator.

Other moments of cross-species connection followed along with more questions worthy of further exploration.

With the help of Malaika and Richard Sarco-Thomas, we set up an experimental workshop during a CI jam.
A stroll into intertidal worlds, a crash course in limpet and barnacle behaviour for movers.
Together with a group of dancers, we explored movement and behaviour patterns of intertidal species. How they move, how they interact with each other and with the surfaces they colonist.