Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London
November 2, 2018
In some ways, Matthias Sperling’s Now That We Know is like being catapulted through a time warp back to the 1960s. An electronic drone plays throughout at various volumes akin to standing outside a busy factory. It continues as the lights stay down for about 15 minutes as Sperling delivers a monologue in a strange whine with much reverberation added.
When we eventually see Sperling, he’s dressed in black, his long black hair flopping lankly halfway down his back and his straggly beard giving him the appearance of a street dweller. He writhes across the stage, wringing his hands like a demented Uriah Heep and executing the occasional tai-chi-like movement with his arms. The irony of a monologue supposedly about movement being delivered with very little movement to accompany it seems lost.
At times, he also seems like a 19th-century soap box prophet or snake-oil salesman; the whining delivery attempting to ingratiate, the fawning abasement of his body language alternating with languid lounging to convince us that he is not a threat, just the voice of reason. The continuing aural assault of the electronic noisescape forces the audience to focus on the voice.
It would be easy to dismiss Now That We Know as another self-indulgent piece passed off as ‘cutting edge’ radicalism. The real horror is the pseudo-science, however. Sperling is apparently reading for a PhD. One hopes that he has considerably more evidential support for his theories than he demonstrates here.
He asserts that the Turing test is now only valid if it encompasses movement. This is blatantly untrue as the controversial Loebner prize attests. Natural language still remains the basis of the standard Turing test and to assert otherwise is at best lazy. The ability to scan the conscious brain using fMRI scanning has prompted people in many fields to append ‘neuro’ to their job title in an attempt to impress and, more often than not, precedes a ludicrous claim of cause and effect. A perfectly valid series of papers detailing pioneering fMRI scanning in dogs prompted ‘neuro-economist’ Gregory Berns to state, “Dogs are people too.” Not only nonsense but undermining to the actual pioneering science in which Berns played a role. Sperling appears to come from the same school of self-promotion.
There is even a paranoid Trumpian turn of speech (there’s a candidate for a new entry to the next OED update) when Sperling claims that the electorate are being manipulated by movement without their knowledge because all election campaigns are now choreographed. If universities are now considering awarding PhDs based on this kind of rhetoric, the world is indeed a dangerous place.
There have been signs that the division between the arts and science that evolved after the enlightenment is being sutured with support from bodies such as the Wellcome Trust. Dance has been at the forefront with collaborations such as Mark Bruce’s Constant Speed for Rambert, commissioned by the Institute of Physics, and between Frances Ashcroft and Motionhouse in Charge. Both work well as pieces of dance and theatre in their own right as well as being an innovative and informative way of communicating scientific principles.
In Now That We Know, Sperling not only desertifies the fertile soil in which valid dance-science collaborations are growing, but also seems to squander his own undoubted dance talent. It’s very unfortuante.
An endurance test for even the clear-headed, Now That We Know seemed to leave the audience mainly bemused.