Author: Michael O'Connor
First publication: 01/01/2017
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 7
Made available by: Bloemlezing Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek (VDO)
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in Delft, M. van, Z. Gündüz, H. Koolen, J. Voets, L. Wijers (eds.) (2017), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 9. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.153-158

The material sign is constituted as a meaningful entity not for what it represents but for what it brings forth. (Malafouris 2013, p.105)

When we think about intangible concepts like time, thought or love, there is some physical way we understand them. We think of time as moving or as a substance of which we do not have enough. We think of love as a place to be in or out of, or as an object where pieces fit together. We describe thoughts as strong or distant. This physical understanding, outlined in the conceptual metaphor theory, introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), was the starting point and inspiration for my creative practice. If these concepts are learned, understood and described through physical experiences one has in the world, then are the qualities associated with these concepts recognizable? I wanted to develop a practice where the physical qualities of these concepts could be explored, highlighted and utilized to convey meaning. The piece that resulted was titled Moving Around X (2015), which aimed to prioritize the felt meaning of events and trigger thoughts without sentences for the audience and performers. I was interested in how and why something is known, even what is known, before it becomes a recognizable symbol.

Conceptual metaphor theory, rooted in cognitive science studies, explains that abstract concepts are typically understood using sensorimotor structures where entities from a sensorimotor source are mapped onto an abstract target (Johnson 2007, p.165). These cross-domain mappings are expressed in primary metaphors like: Psychological Intimacy is Physical Closeness or Time is Motion. The basic structures of sensorimotor experience that pattern our interactions, allowing us to understand our world, are called image schemas (Johnson 2007, p.136). Image schemas are the structure that metaphors are built on, binding the body to the mind. Pathway and Container were two image schemas that I felt related the most to concepts like time, love and thought. Qualities like linearity or curviness from Pathway, or the inside-ness or hidden-ness attached to Container are projected upon and used to understand metaphors like: love is a journey; time passing; or thinking outside the box. After establishing the image schemas of Pathway and Container as my focus, I introduced those into the rehearsal process as actual objects. Wooden boxes, bags of dirt and a large tarpaulin provided physical containers while ropes of different thicknesses and lengths, long plastic sheets and dirt on the ground created pathways to explore. As I was looking to test the inherent meaning residing in the three-dimensional metaphoric objects, without revealing a narrative, I allowed the qualities of the objects to speak for themselves, weaving the text they evoke with the texture they hold.

Generating meaning through atypical interactions
While working with objects, another important concept that affected the research was affordance theory, introduced by psychologist James Gibson, which defines affordances as potential actions provided by the surrounding environment (1979, p.127). Affordance theory considers how properties in the environment affect and are available to the perceiver (Chemero 2003, p.183). In the practice, it became important to notice how much the object was shaping our interactions with it. Going against the typical affordance of an object helped to change our normal way of thinking, and allowed a greater understanding of the object’s capabilities to emerge. By exploring what we called atypical affordances, like dragging a rope across the room instead of looping it to carry, or purposelessly holding a bag against a wall, we began to write new metaphors. For example, using a long rope and its linearity to substitute physicalized thought, we could create moments where the object afforded a typical interaction. Rope easily gets tangled. When rope is thought, then we have a familiar metaphoric text of ‘thoughts are tangled.’ However, as we sought to find atypical affordance behaviors between body and object, like standing on a rope, we were able to write new metaphors like ‘thoughts are under my toes’.  The introduction of new physical relationships through practice allowed for the understanding of that concept to change and expand. The texture of the object became responsible for the new text it evoked.

The generation of new metaphors is highly connected to abstraction and surrealism, as the meaning generated between shared qualities of two concepts is not commonly known or agreed upon yet. Engaging with the objects with these new metaphors in mind created a performative tension and allowed us to connect to the concepts in a more subjective way. The practice sought for the performers to feel rather than think and was on the edge of using what is familiar against what is abstract and open for multiple interpretations. Moving Around X hoped to bypass the need for the audience to know an exact narrative, and instead provide tangible qualities and physical dimensions so an increase in metaphor interpretation pressure would give them the potential to make meaning through association. Author and artist Richard Allen proposes the appearance and disappearance of objects in performance ‘dictates a rhythm that invites the audience to edit and frame the images themselves, letting the temporality of transition resonate rather than the resolution’ (Allen 2013, p.123). My intent was to create temporary relationships between object, performer and audience that resonated through the visual-tactile qualities presented. Thus, inviting the observer to understand the felt meaning of a moment on a sensorimotor level.

Interacting with immateriality
During Moving Around X one dancer swings and pulls a large rope, which creates ripples along the stage. These ripples are being paired to emotional jazz music played on the piano. The dripping piano scales, the melodic runs and the variation of occasional counterpoint notes are visualized in the rope’s continuous tempo, widening and narrowing ripples and contrasting loops when the rope is twisted or thrown. Here, the audience is guided to “listen with their eyes”. Highlighting prototypical qualities of objects allows the spectator to recognize and assign meaning to an event or object. Rich pre-categorical sensory information allows reception among audiences to vary as every spectator can attribute meaning to the stimuli in a different way (Sugiera 2002, p.233).

Performers Michael O’Connor and Samuel Feldhandler interact with large ship ropes in time to music, pairing sound to sight to create a visual listening. Photo: Nellie de Boer, 2015.

Performers produce time through a projection of light onto cloth-like material and practice atypical interactions with time after transposing the linguistic metaphor Time as Fabric back into a physical form. Photo: Nellie de Boer, 2015.

Utilizing the primary metaphor Time as Fabric, a projection of a clock was placed on a large tarpaulin, giving time a materiality that allowed the body to unconventionally explore the fabric-like qualities of time. With this cross-domain mapping, the practice was to approach the tarpaulin in ways one normally does not interact with time, for example caressing time with an erotic touch. This created an interesting foursome, in which one dancer is controlling the image of time while the other is interacting with the tarpaulin. They are sensuously interrelating, sensing each other’s presence, yet engaging a visual-tactility between light, image, and tarpaulin without actually touching each other.

Moments like this interest me because they are ambiguous and vague, and this is where I find the performance has strength. The qualities the body uses to interact with the tarpaulin are understandable but the performative event does not prescribe a specific context or content to illustrate any specific narrative. It is nonsense and at the same time a déjà vu. Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce explains that ‘ ‘depth’ or meaning of a symbol is controlled by its ‘breath’ or reference’ (Anderson 1984, p.463), allowing it to be recognizable in different ways simultaneously.

A rope is as much a thought as a thought is
Lambros Malafouris, a Research and Teaching Fellow in Creativity, Cognition and Material Culture, crosses embodied, metaphorical theories with objects in particular and suggests the mind can be found in between the actor and the object. This material engagement theory, as he calls it, was important for my practice in that it helped verify the proposal that I was working with concepts through the objects. Allen and Malafouris both quote Daniel Miller when referencing that objects should not be considered simply as material artifacts or symbols that signify dramatic meaning, but that they act as a trigger that ‘makes possible the immaterial existence of thought and emotion’ (Allen 2013, p.124). Malafouris sites Andy Clark’s term of surrogate material structures as ‘any kind of real-world structure, artifact, or material assemblage that is used to stand in for, or take the place of, some aspect of some target situation, thereby allowing human reason to reach out to that which is absent, distant or otherwise unavailable’ (Malafouris 2013, p.104). Here, material engagement theory excitingly blends objects with a metaphoric surrogacy making possible a way to understand nontangible things. Utilizing cognitive science studies in my practice to explore immaterial things like time, love and thought through metaphor by enacting them as tangible objects appears congruent with Clark’s supposition.

Moving Around X utilizes movement of qualities to temporarily create meaning between the object and the body that is polyvalent and subtle. The drive behind the work was to remember that, as Malafouris states, ‘the material sign, (…) does not stand for a concept but rather substantiates a concept’ (2013, p.97). I feel the research undertaken in this practice and work was a successful entanglement between cognitive science studies and art, demonstrating how conceptual metaphor theories could be questioned and explored in performance.

Samuel Feldhandler manipulates rope to conjure a tangible thinking through lines and pathways with a thin black rope. Photo: Nellie de Boer 2015.


This article is based on:
Love-Empathy-Metaphor AMCh Practice Reports, Master of Arts Choreography Studies: Theater School-Dance, Amsterdam School of the Arts, 2015


Postscript by Michael O’Connor (April 2019)
In addition to this research being used as a creative practice to create choreography, this method could be applied in contexts such as therapeutic settings, or in the teaching of cognitive linguistic concepts of embodied meaning. This paper was presented at the Metaphor Festival in Amsterdam in 2018 under the title Touching thoughts: Creatively materializing immaterial concepts and was nominated for Christina Alm Arvius best student paper award. Furthermore, this research has laid the groundwork for additional research that will outline a PhD proposal I am currently commencing.

As a professional dancer and choreographer, I realized that lines were dynamic data themselves, defining how we experience the world around us. The idea that the moving body creates lines appears in the background of theories from different fields of study, as shown in the essay with respect to the linearity of materials or within the structure of thoughts. I propose thinking of experience as a layering of lines of different modalities; lines that we imagine, lines that we make (as in traces of movements), and lines that we perceive sensually. Through our body, lines become a fundamental part of our experience. Practice-based research utilizes the body’s ability to find ways in which lines co-exist between other academic fields, thus allowing the body to be the site of integration and translation between fields. I aim to define the term ‘Embodied Lines’ and continue to look at ways the body can be seen as a metaphor translator and as a line maker, while using the theoretical fields outlined in this essay and thus making more bridges between artistic and traditional modes of research.


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