By Caleb Pershan
The first attendees of David Byrne's strange brand of immersive theater were audiences at Talking Heads shows who came to see him bop and flippy-flop onstage. More recently, he's performed for an audience of one, styling himself as writer with books on subjects from bicycling to the workings of music. Now, for a new immersive theater show at Pace Art + Technology in Menlo Park, his audience will be ten people at a time: From October 29, 2016 through March 31, 2017 (tickets here) the curious can attend 80-minute performances crafted by Byrne and collaborator Mala Gaonkar, an investor in technology and nonprofits. In the show, called “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety,” those groups will experience theatrical versions of real neuroscience experiments based on visits to prestigious labs.
"We won’t be running these experiments like the labs do," Byrne explained to The New York Times, "but recreating some of their work in more entertaining or theatrical ways."
That's because “Experiments... are a form of theater," or so Byrne and Gaonkar propose in a press release. "We have adopted elements of art installation and immersive theater to present these experiences in ways we think will be as engaging for others as they have been for us. We traveled and met with many scientists who generously welcomed us, patiently answered our untutored questions, and creatively collaborated with us on this project. In the course of creating The Institute, the work of our partner labs has become both a window and a mirror through which we view ourselves and our larger interactions with the world. We wanted to share these concepts with as many people as possible.”
One experiment, for example, comes from Henrik Ehrsson’s lab at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Sometimes called the Barbie doll experiment, its thesis is that the size of a person's own body informs their experience of the size of the world itself.
Sort of hilariously, Byrne tells the Times that he'd like the labs with whom he worked to accept his "results" after the show. "We’ve asked the labs if they want data. So far they’ve said no." Undeterred, Byrne says "I think the labs will see there’s a way to collect data from this. Instead of a small pool of 50 students, you might get 1,000 people from different demographics. I think in the end they will find value in this.”
Perhaps, but judging from the Institute's Twitter, Byrne's scientific methods appear slightly unorthodox. Maybe he's a better fit for a Nobel Prize in Literature than in Neuroscience.