Reading Rhythms of Art, Medicine and Culture
Between 2011 and 2017 I initiated and conducted Pulse Project, an artistic research series that used rhythmic sound as performance medium with which to explore and reflect upon inter-relationships between human bodies, the performance of medicine and cultural approaches to technology. This project (and all of my current projects) draw upon certain Chinese medicine practices because it provides a more holistic and relational model of the body than the biomedical model of the body currently offers.
In particular, I adapted Chinese pulse diagnosis as a performance tool. After years of listening to the pulse as waveforms emerging from peoples’ bodies, I came to realise that human touch can be used not simply as a diagnostic instrument that yields medically relevant information, but also to activate embodied, inter-relational and musical-artistic readings of the body that can expand upon and amplify the transformative aspects of healing – to use art to expand medical meaning.
During Pulse Project performances, each person’s pulse was analysed as a set of unique rhythmic sound wave ‘images’ or types (there are more than twenty-eight Chinese medicine pulse wave-images, with each wave-image indicative of medically significant states of somatic being). These unique waveform rhythms felt within peoples’ bodies were analysed and then transposed into bespoke musical notations, (hand-drawn or painted musical scores). The resulting notations were used, along with the Chinese pentatonic scale, to produce live performances of digital ‘pulse’ soundscapes that simultaneously gave sonic shape to the inner rhythmic soundscapes of individual audience members while at the same time aiming to promote bodily well-being of the wider audience.
Instead of interpreting the Western notion of the circulatory system, the project draws upon specific early Chinese medical philosophies and music theories in order to represent a person as a living cosmos – as a relational body-consciousness pulsating with matter and energy. Each soundscape reflects both a rhythmic commonality and distinctness, i.e., the rhythms of the heart, essences and energies that share a commonality with all living beings. Yet each individual embodies their life in a unique way and emits their own unique musical signature through the pulse.
Phenomena that ought not to exist at all had a stubborn way of existing in my clinic.
By working with Chinese pulse diagnosis as a method of medical and artistic analysis for bodily rhythms and producing notations and soundscapes as sonic ‘prescriptions’, Pulse Project questions the fundamental metaphysics of medicine and technology as they have been shaped by Western thought. This helps to reveal new expressions and thinking on the ways that the body, society, knowledge systems and space-time can reassemble, interact and transform.
These performances were inspired by clinical experience as a practicing acupuncturist within the context of biomedicine; for example, in relation to or with healthcare staff in the NHS. They were particularly inspired by the discovery of healing responses that often ran counter to the biomedical view on the way the body should be and act. Phenomena that ought not to exist at all had a stubborn way of existing in my clinic: phenomena such as the sensation of qi, or bioelectric current not related to the nerves, which is palpably experienced during the application of acupuncture needles into points on the body.
So, I created Pulse Project pulse reading performances to provide alternative experiences to the dominant medical approach to reading and understanding the body. Through the simple act of touch, I could demonstrate and discuss how the intra-active and embodied process of Chinese pulse diagnosis offers new insight on the way the rhythmic and patterned emergences of the body can be measured and conceptualised as both a medicine and an art. Pulse Project demonstrates pulse reading as a performative act that captures the rhythms of being with others in a moving and entangled world.
The Cosmological Body
The body, according to certain Chinese medical theories, is a system of inter-relating organs and energetic pathways/networks. Some early Chinese physicians conceived of the body as an interfacing organism that is actively and reflexively shaped by its relationship to environmental, natural and cosmic structures – structures that are themselves in continual states of transformation. Medical texts produced over thousands of years articulate that the body-lifeworld relationship is itself a ‘holistic’ and alchemical organism. This Chinese approach did not think of the body as a discreet and separate organism from the world it inhabited, but rather a unified set of distinct yet interrelated substances and essences that are each, at their core, shaped and mediated by the wider cosmological processes of yīnyáng and wŭxíng. The Chinese observed yīnyáng wŭxíng processes to be animate within all living (including nonhuman) organisms, and also active externally, within larger contexts of the lifeworld and cosmos. In order for life to manifest, the primordial substances of yīn and yáng, which are opposite in nature and expression, must maintain a continual process of relative interaction, mutual restraint and interdependence. If yīn and yáng cease to interact, death occurs.
This Chinese approach did not think of the body as a discreet and separate organism from the world it inhabited…
In addition to the ever-unfolding dynamics of yīnyáng, the cosmological processes of the five elemental phases (wŭxíng) are manifested through the changes of the seasons and the processes of natural phenomena that are associated with these seasons. These five elemental (alchemical) processes are: Wood (materialised by dynamic growth of vegetation in spring), Fire (materialised by thermal expansion and upward direction of heat in the summer), Earth (materialised by the damp abundance of crops and gardens of late summer), Metal (materialised by thermal contraction, the return of cooler temperatures and the cutting strictness of the harvest) and Water (materialised by cold, congealing, sinking and storing activities of winter). These elemental phases are expressed both within the body–as functional essences and processes–and also experienced exterior to the body through the multi-dimensional unfolding of daily and seasonal processes.
The Chinese Pulse Diagnosis Procedure
Chinese pulse analysis is a diagnostic system comprising both clinical and scholarly discourses that can be traced back to at least 221 BCE. For this reason, Chinese pulse analysis can only be described very superficially here. Overall, it is a technical procedure in which it is important that the practitioner applies their intuitive intelligence of the whole person in tandem with acute diagnostic perception of pulse waveforms, which are diagnosed in relation to twenty-eight waveform ‘images’.
Chinese pulse analysis is also open to the individual interpretation of the practitioner, which deepens alongside experience. It is precisely this allowance for individual interpretation to co-exist with standard interpretation that, for me, places Chinese pulse diagnosis at the level of artistry. It is a system that uses the technology of embodied perception to perform a type of medical analysis that includes somatic, intuitive, metaphoric, poetic and individualised forms of interpretation as integral aspects of its measuring process.
On each wrist, there are three positions where the fingers are placed to palpate the pulse (described in Chinese as cun 寸; guan 關; chi 尺), making a total of six positions altogether (see above). Within these three positions on each wrist, there are also at least two levels from which the practitioner analyses the characteristics of the pulse waveforms. These two levels within each pulse position are referred to as ‘superficial’ and ‘deep’. This makes a total of twelve loci of analysis. Each locus or analysis position is associated with specific zàng-fǔ (organ-networks) such as lungs, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine and so on (see above for where each organ is felt and below for an illustration of zàng-fǔ relationships).
Each zàng and fǔ pulse position corresponds to diagnostic categories of both ideal and diseased pulse wave images. For example, at the middle position on the left wrist (the position of the liver and gallbladder zàng-fǔ pair), there is a list of corresponding wave-images; ‘bowstring’, ‘choppy’, ‘replete’, ‘fine’ and so on. These wave-images correspond to the amplitude and signature of pulse waveforms at each of the twelve positions, which then reveal the state of health of all of the body’s zàng-fǔ/organ-networks.
During the performances, each pulse reading is recorded by producing a set of case-study notes of clinical impressions based on particular Chinese therapeutic principles. Rather than simply writing standard medical notes and impressions (as in, ‘the person possesses a “slippery” pulse at the spleen/stomach positions’) and only spending three to five minutes analysing a pulse (as is standard in clinical practice due to time constraints), I spend twenty minutes reading participants’ pulses to produce hand-drawn graphic notations of each unique zàng and fǔ waveform that emerges during the readings. Each notation is used to compose a bespoke soundscape of the participant’s pulse according to these Chinese medical principles and five-element music theory.
The soundscapes created from the readings sonify both my artistic and medical impressions of an individual’s pulse reading. Specific frequencies and rhythms are added to the composition according to what an individual’s pulse indicates the person requires, based upon specific Chinese therapeutic principles. So, whilst my performances do not diagnose in the biomedical sense, I do perform a diagnosis and treatment strategy in the sense understood in some areas of Chinese medicine – and the resulting soundscapes form a sonic ‘prescription’ for each person.
By drawing upon my knowledge as an acupuncturist, each soundscape sonically responds perceived imbalances and arrhythmias found in participants’ pulses. Selecting appropriate frequencies and rhythms for soundscapes is based on assessment of both specific and overall characteristics of the twelve zàng-fǔ. By using pulse analysis to create soundscapes that re-establish the balance of wave amplitudes, frequencies and rhythms and of each participant’s zàng-fǔ, the soundscapes create immersive environments that enhance well-being. In this way, the artistic process of the performances are reflective of my clinical acupuncture practice.
Pulse Project as Rhythmanalysis
In writing Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (2004), philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued for a new approach to scientific practice through the creation of an expanded analysis of rhythm. Lefebvre’s theory of rhythm reconfigures the rhythmic interplay of space, time, energy and everyday life into a cross-disciplinary form of analysis that engages in both scientific and artistic modes of investigation. Lefebvre notably describes rhythmanalysis as a process that adopts the body and its relational consciousness as an instrument with which to examine the confluences of space, time and energy in order to arrive at a more embodied and participatory understanding existence.
For example, Lefebvre writes that the rhythmanalyst:
listens… first to his body; he learns rhythm from it, in order consequently to appreciate external rhythms. His body serves him as a metronome. A difficult task and situation: to perceive distinct rhythms distinctly, without disrupting them, without dislocating time.
Lefebvre’s focus on adopting the body as the primary instrument of analysis perfectly describes the task of Chinese pulse analysis. It’s not simply a matter of listening to the body, but of using one’s body to listen to the body of others in symphonic relation to the unfolding of the world.
More particularly, as Pulse Project’s pulse readings, notations and sonic compositions materialise, the temporal rhythmicity of the moment of embodied connection within each performance encounter becomes a form of ‘rhythmanalysis’. Pulse analysis produces rhythmic soundscapes as forms of artistic-medical synthesis that increase well-being and establish eurhythmic resonance not only in order to restore the health of bodies but also in order to enhance the harmonic flow of beings within space and time. Lefebvre defines eurhythmic body as being:
composed of diverse rhythms – each organ, each having its own function – keeps them in metastable equilibrium… But the surroundings of bodies, be they in nature or a social setting, are also bundles, bouquets, garlands of rhythms, to which it is necessary to listen in order to grasp the natural or produced ensembles.
This cosmological and rhythmic reading of life is called Zhèng 證. It refers to the measurement of complex interacting patterns of phenomena that exist within the continuum between the interior and exterior of the body. Or, more precisely, it is a method of analysis (biàn zhèng 辨證) used to determine or prognosticate the condition of the substances and processes of the interior body (such as digestive turbidity [dampness or melancholy] in the spleen, or rapid and uneven circulation [heat or excess joy] in the heart) in relation to the climate or lifeworld environment, such as wind, heat, cold and dampness and so on.
The health of the body can therefore be determined through a profound understanding of rhythm…
Determination of zhèng patterns is maintained via clinical observation methods such as looking, listening, questioning and particularly pulse analysis. This method of diagnosis means that the analyst needs to understand the multiple rhythms of the pulse in order to get an impression of the vibrational health or disharmony of the body. They must also understand these internal rhythms in relation to the external rhythms of the seasons, the rhythms of the person’s domestic and professional life, and the rhythms of a person’s genetic inheritance. This is why Chinese pulse diagnosis is a rhythmanalysis par excellence.
The health of the body can therefore be determined through a profound understanding of rhythm via long-term study of pulse wave-images; each pulse-image-rhythm indicates either the robust activity of the organ-networks or their dysfunction and failure. Lefebvre refers to rhythmic well-being as a state created by the synchronised, ‘metastable’ organisation of multiple chains of rhythms, or ‘eurhythmia’, whereas pathology is created by arrhythmia as bodily (or environmental) ‘rhythms break apart, alter and bypass synchronisation’. It is exactly theses eurhythmic and arrhythmic patterns of the body’s organ-network (zàng-fǔ) that a Chinese pulse diagnosis practitioner listens for and feels within the pulse.
In my acupuncture clinic, I select acupuncture points on the surface of the body and then apply needles by twisting them to retune the infrasonic rhythms of the qì flowing through the organ-network. Inspired by these techniques, my strategy in my work is to create eurhythmic soundscapes by choosing particular frequencies and rhythms that resonate within and around the body. By decreasing the arrhythmic patterns felt in participants’ pulses and enhancing the harmonic rhythmicity of the zàng-fǔ, this restores the equilibrium of the frequencies of the zàng-fǔ pulses, and at the same time synchronises the body’s internal rhythms with the external environment. Creating soundscapes-as-prescriptions is what Lefebvre refers to as ‘intervention through rhythm… [that] has an objective: to strengthen or re-establish eurhythmia’.
I bring medical and artistic methodologies together to interpret and create rhythmic resonances…
This re-establishment of health through eurhythmia is known as the body’s healing response in Chinese medical practices that seeks to balance the wave-images in the pulse to generate health. Likewise, in my work I bring medical and artistic methodologies together to examine, interpret and create harmonic rhythmic resonances both within and between the body and the lifeworld, to extend the art-science practice of rhythmanalysis to create new forms of eurhythmic being-withness in the world.
Listening to Being-as-Rhythmicity
Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy, there is rhythm.
This project uses intimate touch as a means for connecting with others and for producing sounds that explore the rhythms of embodiment and inter-subjective space-time between oneself and another. It is important to acknowledge the role that participants and audiences play – a rhythm in itself – in their listening to and being affected by each soundscape as ‘completing’ the work. The social experience of listeners creates a ‘share’ in the work; the meaning of the work is created through interaction and/or physical experience of listening to the resonant forms of meaning embodied within each soundscape.
From my listening to others, each individual’s infrasonic being-as-rhythmicity is interpreted and performed as a set of spatially dynamic bodies of sound. In response, the audience’s interaction with their sonic body (sensed as both from within and without) is a meaning-as-listening activity: through their listening and through their embodied sense of resonance, each person creates their own meaning. There is no limit to what this meaning can go on to become – the inspiration for the creation of another sound work, a drawing, a poem. These body-sound interactions play a vital role in the rhythm of listening and understanding – of resonant meaning – an understanding that can only be realised via the body’s sensible and conscious interaction within sonic fields.
This is not simply listening to music or sound but to the vibrational unfolding of the lifeworld itself…
This project produces a complex rhythmanalysis between performer and audience – it creates the circumstances for active listening to the rhythms’ inter-relational sounds sensed/experienced between people, environments and matter. It is an analysis performed within the confluent rhythms between my listening, composing and playing and audience-participants’ listening, interacting and meaning-making with their bodies. This is not simply listening to music or sound but to the vibrational unfolding of the lifeworld itself – it is not a stable repetitious rhythm of familiar structures and institutions, but an unstable rhythm that creates its own art-science practice – its own time space.
Pulse Project moves across bodies and disciples. Through the layering of poetic, diagnostic and embodied analyses, it researches and activates creative interpretation across art, medicine, technology and culture. Lefebvre remarks:
Often coupled empirically with speculations (see, for example, doctors in the field of auscultation, etc.), the analytic operation simultaneously discovers the multiplicity of rhythms and the uniqueness of particular rhythms (the heart, the kidneys, etc.). The rhythmanalysis here defined as a method and a theory pursues this time-honoured labour in a systematic and theoretical manner, by bringing together very diverse practices… medicine, history, climatology, cosmology, poetry (the poetic)… [thus] he pursues an interdisciplinary approach.
Using Chinese medical practices to make analytical artwork enables me to create something that is both intimate and public, both medically precise and artistically open. It moves in time and resounds in space. Pulse Project performs, composes and produces research across disciplines as a new rhythmanalysis practice; as an act of participation in and contribution to a larger always-emerging composition of ecological being and discourse – a knowledge activity that maintains an intimate connection with the gestalt unfolding of the world.
Image credits (from top):
1 – Pulse Project (2011-2017), performance at the V&A Museum 02/2014. © Michelle Lewis-King. Image: Nick Fudge.
2 – Pulse Project (2011-2017), performance at the V&A Museum 02/2014. © Michelle Lewis-King. Image: Nick Fudge.
3 – Pulse Project (2013), detail of performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
4 – Pulse Landscape (2010), first digital graphic notation of a person’s pulse reading using the colours and wave images that are appropriate to each organ-network of the body according to Chinese medical theory.
5 – Pulse Project at TodaysArt Festival Den Hag (2015), detail of performance at the E.ON Electriciteitsfabriek. Image courtesy of 4DSOUND Budapest.
6 – Diagram of the Eight Trigrams and the Cosmos , Wu Weizhen (1368-1644), Creative Commons Attribution. Source: Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Library.
7 – Neijing Tu (1436-1443). Li Jiong. [Woodcut]. Creative Commons Attribution. Source: Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Library.
8 – Chinese Pulse Diagnosis Diagram (2013). [Illustration] © Michelle Lewis-King.
9 – Interior and Exterior Relationships of the Twelve Channels of the Hand and Feet (Qing Dynasty 1644-1911). Shen Jing. [woodcut] Creative Commons Attribution. Image: Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Library.
10 – Clinical Notation (2011). [Photo] © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Barbara Butkus.
11 – Cambridge Notation 1 (2014). [Ink Painting on Acetate] @ Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Léna Lewis-King.
12 – White Building 4 (2013) White Building, London. [photo] © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Léna Lewis-King.
13 – Intermittent/Irregular Female Zhi Scale (2014). [Screenshot of SuperCollider code] © Michelle Lewis-King
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.