cw: use of profanity 

McMaster LIVELab houses an endless array of technology on our campus, from active acoustic control to motion capture and electroencephalography. This technology is a necessity, for LIVELab needs it to combine research-based studies with theatrical and musical shows. 

Synaptic Rodeo, a project presented by McMaster LIVELab, seamlessly blends neuroscience, technology and art into a nonlinear show about human consciousness. Synaptic Rodeo is based on the premise that humans often rely on past experiences to inform future predictions. This subconscious activity is constant, we are always trying to hypothesize what will happen next. 

After a two year residency, six diverse interdisciplinary artists have joined forces to put Synaptic Rodeo together and take advantage of all the technology LIVELab has to offer. Julia Aplin (choreographer), Anna Chatterton (playwright/performer), Christopher Stanton (director), John Gzowski (composer), Jim Ruxton (new media) and Lauren Trainor (neuroscientist and professor) have lended their knowledge with the hopes of creating an experience for everyone to enjoy.

We caught up with Stanton, Ruxton and Gzowski for an exclusive Sil Sit Down interview all about Synaptic Rodeo, the interdisciplinary artists involved, and what audiences can expect from this show premiering this Friday Nov. 29 and Saturday Nov. 30. 

How did you get involved with the project?


Stanton: I was welcomed onto this train while it was already chugging along, and it did not slow down for them to let me on . . . they’ve been going for about two years and I’ve been with them for just under one year. 

Ruxton: [LIVELab] put out a call for submissions and I have all these interests in the brain, ideas of consciousness and how the brain works, so I spearheaded that proposal to study those things at LIVELab using their technologies. It was a great opportunity I think.

Gzowski: I was involved from the beginning . . . [Ruxton, Aplin, Chatterton and I] did one show before this called “Yellow Wallpaper” based on an existing short story and it was really a lot of fun. It was really a nice collaboration and outside of the straight theatre, dance and music world. After that when we were talking about what to do next, Jim said he would love to work at the LIVELab, it has been sort of a dream of his. So we looked into it and it was an amazing place. We applied to do a residency there and they happily accepted us.


How would you describe “Synaptic Rodeo”?


Stanton: We play with ideas of identity, we play with ideas of just how slippery our hold on reality is and just notions of reality all together. As [Trainor] mentions in one of her lecture segments, we’re taught to believe our eyes. Seeing is believing and really our experience of the world is shaped by subconscious biases. [With] the way our brain is taught to perceive the world, there’s no way of knowing what reality really is. There’s no core ontological experience, so we’re really playing with the notions of what’s real and what’s not real.

Ruxton: I think it’s a way of taking advantage of a lab and bringing together all the technology that they have available to pull it all together into what may not seem like a cohesive narrative at times, but it’s all tied together by the fact that Trainor, the neuroscientist, does little snippets of talks in between to pull the threads together of what we’re doing and showing. It’s really a blending of all the technologies available at LIVELab and making use of all those to create an interesting, visual, audio synaptic rodeo.

Gzowski: “Synaptic Rodeo” is a journey down the predictive mind. About how the predictive mind works, what happens when you lose it and how our sense of reality is based on predicting where things are gonna go, what’s going to happen next and what we’re gonna see. When those interactions don’t work or when our mind messes with what we expect is going to happen.


Can you walk me through the process it takes to create your parts of the show?


Ruxton: I’m using a lot of video processing and we’re also using the motion capture system [at LIVELab]. It’s kind of unique to have access to a motion capture system of that size and quality, because artists would never have [access to] that. For example, one piece [of Synaptic Rodeo] uses motion capture to control the lights in the space. [The lights] emanate from [Chatterton’s] head to look like neurons of her brain. [When Aplin] moves around the space, [she is able] to control different lights based on where she is in the space. That’s something that would only be possible with something like the amazing motion capture system in LIVELab. 

[Aplin] has [also] become a master at taking video [during the performance] and converting it into a kaleidoscopic video and changing it in real time. Depending on the objects she brings into the image, it’ll change the image. It’s kind of mesmerizing, it’s a real trip. It appeals to a certain side of your brain to see those things transform. We’re kind of akin to provide people with a psychedelic trip without having to do the acid. 

Gzowski: Most of the music isn’t really written, it’s been improvised to stick with the show which has been a lot of fun because it sort of changes with what we do as the technology changes. We’d just play around and improvise . . . and it’s really just trying to find that balance of meditative, hypnotic, sound and video that really brings you to that sense of your mind where you can lose your predictive mind. 


How do you think this is different than any other project in Hamilton?

Stanton: The particular blend of music, dance, text and scientific lecture . . . it’s so funny because the only way I can describe it is all my nerdiest loves all in one place. I’ve never been able to indulge the science nerd in me as equally in one project . . . it’s been incredible to be able to roll them up into one ball and have the generosity of all these folks into one room. They all bring something so different into the process and [Trainor] has been so generous with her knowledge and her time, there’s some surprises that will blow some people’s predictive minds. It’s like the most fucked up jazz band that I’ve ever worked with. It’s great and it’s nothing like I’ve ever worked on before. 

Ruxton: I think one of the things that makes it really unique is our different skills and bringing those together. Often you’ll go see a concert, a video artist, a dancer or play but because we bring all those elements together, it makes it pretty unique. John works all over the country in theatres creating sound design for amazing shows. Julia has been a choreographer for many years and has done dance work in Toronto, Anna has been nominated for the Governor General’s award for playwriting and has done a lot of really amazing work all over the world. I think we all at a certain level of our career, we’re all pretty professional. Bringing together these professionals in this way is pretty unique.

Gzowski: It’s different in that it has so much more involvement in tech . . . I haven’t worked on a show that has all this sort of stuff going on at the same time . . . To develop it slowly over such a collaborative workshop has been really a pleasure. 


What message do you hope somebody will walk away with after viewing the show?


Stanton: Two things: One is I hope they enjoy the non-linear, non-narrative expressionistic journey. A lot of this is just great to sit back and come on the trip with us. The truth is that I would love for people to be taking some of [Trainor]’s fascinating points and be curious about that. I hope they learn a thing or two about the human experience.

Ruxton: Well a very rich experience coming out of it. I hope it’s a bit of an altered state feeling coming out of the show. Also, leaving with this idea of the potential of what happens when you bring people together. The LIVELab has typically been used for concerts and things like that but to show other artists in the city, the potential of what that space has and perhaps they can make use of that. It’s world class and it’s right in our city and the potential of that is pretty amazing I think. 

It’s an experiential thing that I want them to have and also academically, [Trainor] does talk throughout the show in different areas and I want people to learn about these ideas of the extended mind and extended cognition the idea that our mind is no longer stuck inside our head but is in our phones, our computers, in the internet and we’ve really extended ourselves through technology and I want people to leave with those concepts that she talks about why music is important to us, she talks about rhythm, there’s a lot of things that she talks about in just a short period and I really want that to sync into people too and maybe go away and think about the mind in new ways.

Gzowski: I think it’s not really a message show but it’s an idea of how you really see the world, how your brain interprets it and how much of what you think of the world is based on how your mind works.


Synaptic Rodeo will be showing on Nov. 29 at 8 p.m., Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. and at 8 p.m. in the McMaster LIVELab (Psychology Complex 202A)


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