Creativity

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From Computational Creativity to Creative AI and Back Again

Abstract

I compare and contrast the AI research field of Computational Creativity and the Creative AI technological movement, both of which are contributing to progress in the arts. I raise the sceptre of a looming crisis wherein public opinion moves on from the spectacle of software being creative to viewing the lack of authenticity in creative AI systems as being a major drawback. I propose a roadmap from Creative AI systems to Computationally Creative systems which address this lack of authenticity via the software expressing aspects of its computational life experiences in the art, music, games and literature that it produces. I posit that only by harnessing Creative AI technologies and Computational Creativity philosophies in the pursuit of truly creative software able to express the machine condition, will we gain maximum societal benefit in further understanding the human condition.

 

  1. Introduction

This year, we passed a milestone in my field, as the 10th annual International Conference on Computational Creativity (ICCC) was held in the USA. The conference brings together AI researchers who test the idea of software being independently creative, describing projects with goals ranging from enhancing human creativity to advancing our philosophical understanding of creativity and producing fully autonomous creative machines. The conference series was built on roughly ten years of preceding workshops [1], with interest in the idea of machine creativity going back to the birth of modern computing. For instance, in their 1958 paper [2], AI luminary Alan Newell and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon hypothesised that: “Within ten years, a digital computer will discover and prove an important mathematical theorem”. In [3], we proposed the following working definition of Computational Creativity research as:

“the philosophy, science and engineering of computational systems which, by taking on particular responsibilities, exhibit behaviours that unbiased observers would deem to be creative.”

In the last few years, we have seen unprecedented interest across society in generative AI systems able to create culturally interesting artefacts such as pictures, musical compositions, texts and games. Indeed, it’s difficult to read a newspaper or magazine these days without stumbling across a story about a new project to generate poems, or a symphony orchestra playing AI-generated music or an art exhibition in which AI systems are purported to be artists.

This wave of interest has been fuelled by a step change in the quality of computer-generated cultural artefacts, brought on largely by advances in machine learning technologies, and in particular the deep learning of artificial neural networks. Such techniques are able to generate new material by learning from data about the structure of existing material – such as a database of images, a corpus of texts or a collection of songs – and determining a way to create more of the same. An umbrella term for this groundswell of interest and activity in generative art/music/literature/games is “Creative AI”, and people from arts and sciences, within and outwith academia are actively engaged in producing art using AI techniques. We surveyed different communities engaged in generative arts – including Creative AI practitioners – in a recent ICCC paper [4].

While we might have expected the Creative AI community to have grown from the field of Computational Creativity, this is not the case. Indeed, somewhat of a schism has developed where the two communities have different aims and ambitions. Both communities have a main interest in the development of generative technologies for societal good. The Creative AI movement has an emphasis on quality of output and developing apps to commercial level for mass consumption. There is also a tendency to disavow the idea that software itself could/should be independently creative, in favour of a strong commitment to producing software purely for people to use to enhance their own creativity. In contrast, Computational Creativity researchers tend to be interested in the bigger picture of Artificial Intelligence, philosophical discourse around notions of human and machine creativity, novel ways to automate creative processes, and the idea that software, itself, could one day be deemed to be creative.

To highlight the schism: I personally find it difficult to think of any computational system as being “a Creative AI” if it cannot communicate details about a single decision it has taken, which is generally the case for approaches popular in Creative AI circles, such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) [5]. I prefer therefore to describe Creative AI projects as “AI for creative people”, because the most literal reading of the phrase “Creative AI” is currently inaccurate for the majority of the projects under that banner. I often go further to point out that many Creative AI applications should be categorised as graphics (or audio, etc) projects which happen to employ techniques such as GANs that were originally developed by AI researchers.

As another example, I’ve argued in talks and papers many times that the end result of having more computer creativity in society is likely to be an increased understanding and celebration of human creativity, in much the same way that hand-made craft artefacts, like furniture or food, are usually preferred over machine-produced ones. I point out that I’ve met dozens of artists, musicians, poets and game designers, none of whom have expressed any concern about creative software, because they understand the value of humanity in creative practice. On the other hand, I’ve also spoken to Creative AI practitioners who remain convinced that truly creative software will lead to job losses, demoralisation and devaluation in the creative industries.

 

  1. Product versus Process

The Creative AI movement has helped to swing the global effort in engineering creative software systems firmly towards human-centric projects where AI techniques are used purely as tools for human use, with ease of use and quality of output disproportionately more important than any other considerations. I’ve been trying recently to put together arguments and thought experiments to help explain why I believe this is a retrograde step, and I’ve been trying to articulate ways in which the wealth of knowledge accrued through decades of Computational Creativity projects could be of use to Creative AI practitioners. Almost every project ever presented within Computational Creativity circles started with building a generative system with similar aims to Creative AI projects. Hence I feel we are well placed to consider the role that AI systems could have in creative practice, and to encourage Creative AI researchers and practitioners to consider some of the ideas we’ve developed over the years.

Imagine a generative music system created by a large technology company, which is able to generate 10,000 fully orchestrated symphonies in just 1 hour. Let’s say that each symphony would be lauded by experts as a beautiful work of genius had it been produced by a human composer like Beethoven; and each one sounds uniquely different to the others. If we accept the reality of an AI system (AlphaGo Zero) able to train itself from scratch to play Go, Chess and Shogi at superhuman levels [6], then we should entertain the idea that superhuman symphony writing is possible in our lifetimes. If we only concentrate on the quality of output and ease of which software can generate outputs as complex as a symphony, then the above scenario is presumably a suitable end point for generative music and would be a cause for celebration – it would certainly tick the box of huge technical achievement, as the AlphaGo project did. However, one has to wonder what the benefits of having these symphonies (and the ability to generate them so easily) are for society.

I would predict that the classical music world would find very few practical applications for a database of 10,000 high-quality symphonies, and it would likewise find little value in generating more such material. I would also predict that there would be little, if any, devaluation of symphonic music as a whole, and no devaluation of the work of gifted composers able to hand-produce symphonies. Superhuman chess playing by computers has been around since the time of Deep Blue, and has likely increased rather than decreased the popularity of the game. The chess world has responded to computer chess by being clearer about the human-centric struggle at the heart of every game of chess, and “[a]mong the chess elite, the idea of challenging a computer has fallen into the realm of farce and retort” [7]. It is clear that computer chess has made the game of chess more human. Part of the attraction of the music from composers such as Mozart and Beethoven is that these were mere mortals with superhuman creative abilities in composition. Society celebrates such creative people, often by lauding the works they produce, but also by applauding their motivations, exploring their backgrounds, expressing awe about their process, and by taking inspiration for a fresh wave of creative activity. Creativity in society serves various purposes, only one of which is to bring into being artefacts of value.

While board games have hugely driven forward AI research, chess isn’t some mathematical Drosophilia for AI problem solving (as some researchers would have you believe). It is actually a game and pastime played by two people, which can be elevated to highly competitive levels. Likewise, a symphony isn’t just a collection of notes to guide musicians to produce sound waves, but is created by human endeavour for human entertainment, often condensing into abstract form aspects of human life experience and expression. I would predict that – in an age of superhuman symphony generation – a huge premium would be placed on compositions borne of human blood, sweat and tears, with the generation of music via statistical manipulation of data by computer remaining a second class process.

 

  1. Computational Authenticity

To hit home with the points above, I usually turn to poetry, due to the highly human-centric nature of the medium: poems are condensed humanity, written by people, for people, usually about people. The following poem provides a useful focal point to illustrate the humanity gap [8] in Computational Creativity.

———————————————————————————————

Childbirth

by Maureen Q. Smith

The joy, the pain, the begin again. My boy.

Born of me, for me, through my tears, through my fears.

———————————————————————————————-

This short poem naturally invites interpretation, and we might think of the joy, pain, tears as fears as referring literally to the birth of a child, perhaps from the first-person perspective of the author, as possibly indicated by “My boy … Born of me”. We might also interpret the “begin again” as referring to the start of a baby’s life, but equally it might reflect a fresh start for the family.

Importantly, the poem was not actually written by Maureen Q. Smith. The author was in fact a man called Maurice Q. Smith. In this light, we might want to re-think our interpretation. The poem takes on a different flavour now, but we can still imagine the male author witnessing a childbirth, possibly with his own tears and fears, reflecting the joy and pain of a woman giving birth. However, I should reveal that Maurice Q. Smith was actually a convicted paedophile when he wrote this poem, and it was widely assumed to be about the act of grooming innocent children, which he referred to as “childbirth”. The poem now affords a rather sinister reading, with “tears” and “fears” perhaps reflecting the author’s concerns for his own freedom; and the phrases “Joy and pain” and “Born of me, for me” now taking on very dark tones.

Fortunately, as you may have guessed, the poem wasn’t written by a paedophile, but was instead generated by a computer program using a cut-up technique. Thankfully, we can now go back and project a different interpretation onto the poem. Looking at “Joy and pain”, perhaps the software was thinking about… Well, the part about “Born of me, for me” must have been written to convey… Hmmmm. We see fairly quickly that it is no longer possible to project feelings, background and experiences onto the author, and the poem has lost some of its value. If the words have been put together algorithmically with nothing resembling the human thought processes we might have expected, we may also think of the poem as having lost its authenticity and a lot, if not all, of its meaning. We could, of course, pretend that it was written by a person. In fact, it’s possible to imagine an entire anthology of computer generated poems that we are instructed to read as if written by various people. But then, why wouldn’t we prefer to read an anthology of poems written by actual people?

For full and final disclosure: I actually wrote the poem and found it remarkably easy to pen a piece for which a straightforward interpretation changes greatly as the nature of the author changes. I’ve been using this provocative poem to try to change the minds of researchers in Computational Creativity research for a few years, in particular to try and shift the focus away from an obsession with the quality of output judged as if it were produced by a person. I’ve argued that the nature of the generative processes [9], how software frames its creations [10], and where motivations for computational creativity come from [11] are more important for us to investigate than how to increase the quality or diversity of output. This led to a study of the notion of computational authenticity [12], which pays into the discussion below.

As with pretty much all things generative, the advent of deep learning has led to a step change in the quality of the output of poetry generators, which have a long history dating (at least) as far back as an anthology entitled: “The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed” [13]. On the whole, the scientists pushing forward these advances have barely thought of addressing the deficiencies with these poems, namely that they were made by an inauthentic process. It is not impossible to imagine a poem-shaped computer generated text that would have been classed as a masterpiece had it been written by a person, but is not accepted by anyone as even being a poem, because public opinion has swung against inauthentic generative processes. I have for many years advocated using the name “c-poem” for the poem-shaped texts produced by computers. Just as people know that they won’t be unwrapping a beautifully bound e-book for their birthday, they should know that their ability to project human beliefs, emotions and experiences onto the author of a c-poem will be very limited.

 

  1. Responses to the Rise of Creative AI

Returning to the observation that the quality of the artistic output of AI systems has much increased in recent years, we can consider some appropriate responses to this situation.

One response is to follow the lead from the Creative AI community, and disavow the idea that software should be developed to be fully creative, concentrating instead on using AI techniques to aid human creativity. This certainly simplifies the situation, with AI systems becoming just the latest tools for creative people. It is also a public-friendly response, as journalists, broadcasters and documentary makers (along with the occasional politician, member of the clergy, philosopher or royal) often publish missives about how AI software is going to take everyone’s job, strangle our cats and devalue our life. On the whole, I believe it would be very sad if this response dominates the discourse and drives the field, as it would certainly curtail the dream of Artificial General Intelligence, which brought many of us into AI, and it will limit the ways in which people interact with software, which has the potential to be much more than a mere muse or tool. Software systems we have developed in Computational Creativity projects can be seen as creative collaborators; motivating yet critical partners; and sometimes independent creative entities. We should not throw away the idea that software can itself be creative, as the world always needs more creativity, and truly creative AI systems could radically drive humanity forward.

A second response is to accept the point above that the processes and personality behind creative practice are indeed important in the cultural appreciation of output from generative AI systems. In this context, given that software won’t be particularly human-like anytime soon, we could say that it’s impossible to take an AI system seriously as an authentic creative voice. An extreme version of this argument is that machines will never be valuable in the arts because they are not human. I argue below that this is shortsighted and missing an opportunity to understand technology in-situ. A closely related opinion is that people should or could dislike computer generated material precisely because it has been made by computer. This point of view has certainly been simmering under the surface of many conversations I’ve had, leading people to talk of computers lacking a soul or a spark, and often employing other such obfuscating rhetoric. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve argued on a number of occasions that such a view is not extreme, and is indeed perfectly natural: such a view would, in my opinion, be a suitable personal response to the childbirth poem above, if indeed it had been computer generated.

Well intentioned people would never dream of saying that they dislike something because it was produced by a particular minority (or majority) group of people. Hence it feels to those people that they are being prejudicial to say that a painting, poem or composition is inferior purely because it was computer generated. Moreover, the view that works such as paintings and novels should be evaluated in their own terms, i.e., independently from information about their author and the creative process, has been reinforced philosophically with movements such as the Death of the Author [14], and numerous artistic manifestos.

Software systems do not form a minority human group whose creative freedom has to be protected. Throughout the history of humanity, art has been celebrated as a particularly human endeavour, and the art world is utterly people-centric. Software is not human, but due to decades of anthropomorphic thinking on AI, it seems more acceptable to think of computers somehow as under-evolved or under-developed humans, perhaps like monkeys or toddlers, rather than non-humans with intelligence, albeit low. Disliking a work of art purely because of its computational origins is more akin to expressing a preference of one type of process over another, than it is to expressing preferences of one ethnicity, gender or religion over another. “I don’t like this painting because it is a pointillist piece” is not the same as: “I don’t like this painting because it was painted by a Brit”.

So, we could say that, while the output of the current/future wave of generative AI systems is remarkable, and could – under Turing-style conditions of anonymity – be taken for human works, there is a natural limiting factor in the non-humanity of computational systems which gives us a backstop against the devaluation of human artistic endeavour. This is a reasonable response and may lead to increased celebration of human creativity, which would be no bad thing. However, I believe that this response will also (eventually) be limiting and lead to missed opportunities, as I hope to explain below.

A third response, which I greatly favour, is to start from the truism that software is not human. In many research and industry circles, it often seems that creating human-like intelligence through nueroscience-inspired approaches such as deep learning, is the only goal and the only approach. Not every AI researcher wants to build a software version of the brain, but this fact is often lost, and helps to obfuscate the fact that software has different experiences to people. The Painting Fool is software that I’ve developed over nearly 20 years [15], and has met minor and major celebrities and painted their portraits in half a dozen different countries, often in front of large audiences in interesting venues ranging from science museums and art galleries to a pub in East London. I have, of course, anthropomorphised this experience and The Painting Fool didn’t experience it as I have portrayed. But it did have experiences, and those experiences were authentic in the sense that the software was present, did interact with people and created things independently of me which entertained and provoked people in equal measure.

We could therefore respond to the uptick in quality of output from Creative AI systems by agreeing to concentrate more on investigating plausible internal reasons for software to be creative, and developing ways in which it can impart its understanding of the world, through expressing aspects of its life experiences. Instead of challenging human creativity in terms of the quality of output, but failing due to lack of authenticity, Computational Creativity systems could be developed to explore aspects of creative independence such as intrinsic motivation, empowerment [10] and intentionality [8]. A side effect of this is that – if we get software to record and use its own experiences rather than pretending that it is a person having human experiences – we will gain a better understanding of computer processing, the impact of particular software systems and what it means for a machine to have a cultural existence in our human world. It may be that this communicative side effect actually becomes more important than having software be creative for the purpose of making things.

If software can express its experience of the world through artistic expression, surely this would add to our understanding of human culture in a digital age of tremendous, constant, technological change. While the non-human life experiences of software systems can seem other worldly, automation is very much a part of the human world, and our increasing interaction on a minute-by-minute basis with software means we should be constantly open to new ideas for understanding what it does. It’s not so strange to imagine building an automated painting system to add on to another piece of software so that it can express aspects of its experience. In fact, this would be a natural generalisation of projects such as DeepDream [16], where visualisations of deep-learned neural models were originally generated to enable people to better understand how the model processed image data. It turned out that the visualisations had artistic value as computational hallucinations, and were presented in artistic contexts, with this usage eventually dominating, fuelling a huge push in generative neural network research and development.

 

  1. A RoadMap from Creative AI to Computational Creativity

In a talk at a London Creative AI meetup event a while ago, I offered some advice for people in the Creative AI community who might be interested in pursuing the dream of making genuinely creative AI systems. At the time, there were already indications that Creative AI practitioners were beginning to see the limitations of mass generation of high-quality artefacts and were interested in handing over more creative responsibility to software. Some people were already testing the water using deep learning techniques in ways other than pastiche generation, for instance looking at style invention rather than just style transfer [17]. The advice I gave can be seen as a very rough roadmap, which reflects to some extent my own career arc in building creative AI systems, and provides one of many paths by which people can take their generative system into fascinating new territories.

While keeping much of the original, I will re-draw the roadmap below, from a fresh perspective of improving authenticity through expanding the recording and creative usage of life experiences that creative software might have. It is presented as a series of seven levels for Creative AI Systems to transition to via increased software engineering and cultural usage, with each level representing a different type of system that the software graduates to. Focused on generative visual art rather than poetry/music/games/etc., but intended to generalise over many domains, the roadmap offers direct advice to people who already have a generative system.

  • Generative Systems. So, you’ve designed a generative system and are having fun making pictures with it. You play around with input data and parameter settings, and realise that the output is not only high quality, but really varied. You write a little graphical user interface, which enables you to play around with the inputs/parameters, and this increases the fun and the variety. It becomes clear that the space of inputs/parameters is very You begin to suspect that the space of novel outputs is also vast. You’re at level one: you have an interesting generative system which is able to make stuff. 

 

  • Appreciative Systems. Generating images becomes addictive, and you gorge on the output. In your gluttony, you get a strong fear of missing out – what if I miss the parameters for a really interesting picture? You decide to systematically sample the space of outputs, but there are millions of images that can be produced. So, you encode your aesthetic preferences into a fitness function and get the software to rank/display its best results, according to the fitness function, perhaps tempered by a novelty measure to keep things fresh. You’re at level two: you have an appreciative system which is able to discern quality in output.

 

  • Artistic Systems. At some stage, some humility sinks in, and you begin to think that maybe… just maybe… your particular aesthetic preferences aren’t the only ones which could be used to mine images. You give the software the ability to invent its own aesthetic fitness functions and use them to filter and rank the images that it generates. You’re at level three, with an artistic system which has some potential to affect the world artistically.

 

  • Persuasive Systems. Some of the output is great – beautiful new images that you perhaps wouldn’t have found/made yourself. But some of the pictures are unpalatable and you can’t imagine why the software likes them. However, sometimes, an awful image grows in appeal to you, and you realise that your own aesthetic sensibilities are being changed by the software. This is weird, but fun. You want to give the software the ability to influence you more easily, so you add a module which produces a little essay as a commentary on the aesthetic generation, the artefact generation and the style that the software has invented. You’re at level four, with a persuasive system that can change your mind through explanations as well as high quality, surprising output.

 

  • Inventive Systems. You begin to realise that you enjoy the output partially because of what it looks like and partially because of the backstory to the generation of the output and the aesthetics being considered. You want to increase both aspects, by enabling the software to alter its own code, perhaps at process level, and by taking inspiration from outside sources like newspapers, twitter, art books, other artists, etc., so you have less control. And you add natural language generation to turn the commentary about the process/product into a little drama. You’re at level five, where what your inventive system does is as important, interesting and unpredictable as its output.

 

  • Authentic Systems. You’re loving the commentaries/essays/stories about how and why your software has made a particular picture/aesthetic/style/series or invented a new technique, and the software pretty much has an artistic persona. However, sometimes the persona doesn’t ring true and actually verges on being insulting, given how little the software knows about the world. You realise that you’re reading/viewing the output as if it were created by a person, which is a falsehood which has gotten very old and somewhat disturbing. You decide to give the software plausible and believable reasons to be creative, by implementing models of intrinsic motivation, reflection, self-improvement, self-determination, empowerment and maybe even consciousness. In particular, much of this depends on implementing techniques to record the life experiences that your software has, via: sensors detecting aspects of the environment the software operates in; improved in-situ and online HCI, wherein the software’s interactions with people are recorded and the software is able to probe people with questions; and methods which take life experiences and outside knowledge and operationalise them into opinions that can be reflected in generative processing and output. You then give the software the ability to use its recorded life experiences to influence its creative direction, in much the same way that twitter and newspaper sources were previously. You’re at level six, with an authentic system that is seen more as an autonomous AI individual than a pale reflection of a person.

 

  • Philosophical Systems. Ultimately, you find it thrilling to be in the presence of such an interesting creator as your software – it’s completely independent of you, and it teaches you new things, regularly inspiring you and others. You realise that for the software to be taken seriously as an artist, it needs to join the debate about what creativity means (as creativity is an essentially contested concept [18]) in practice and as a societal driving force. You implement methods for philosophical reasoning based on the software’s own creative endeavours, and you enable it to critique the thoughts of others. You add dialogue systems to propose, prove and disprove hypotheses about the nature of creativity, enabling your system to generally provoke discussion around the topic. You’re at level seven, where it’s difficult to argue that your philosophical system isn’t genuinely creative.

 

It is fair to say that no AI system gets close yet to levels 6 and 7 yet, but projects presented in Creative AI and Computational Creativity circles have tested the water up to and including level 5. If I were giving a talk about this roadmap, there would be much handwaving towards the end, as the road gets very blurry, with few signposts. This, of course, is the frontier of Computational Creativity research and reflects directions I will personally be taking software like The Painting Fool in. I’m particularly interested in exploring the notion of the machine condition and seeing how authentic we can make the processing and products from AI systems. That notwithstanding, I hope the roadmap offers some insight and inspiration to people from all backgrounds who are working with cool generative systems and want to take the project further.

 

  1. In Conclusion

More than a decade ago, I was dismayed to read in a graphics textbook the following statement:

“Simulating artistic techniques means also simulating human thinking and reasoning, especially creative thinking. This is impossible to do using algorithms or information processing systems. [19, p. 113]”

The topic of the textbook is Non-photorealistic Computer Graphics, part of which involves getting software to simulate paint/pencil/pastel strokes on-screen. Stating that computational creative thinking is impossible was short-sighted and presumably written to placate creative industry practitioners, who use software like the Adobe Creative Suite which employ such non-photorealistic graphics techniques. In the 17 years since the above statement was published, the argument seems to have moved on from whether software can be independently creative to whether it should be allowed to. It is my sincere hope that the argument will shift soon to the question of how best truly creative AI systems can enhance and inform the human world, and how we can use autonomous software creativity to help us understand how technology works.

Creative AI practitioners have emerged as much via scientists in the machine learning community embracing art practice as via tech-savvy artists picking up and applying tools such as Tensor Flow [20]. Speaking personally, and having witnessed numerous transitions, scientists tend to hold on too long to the idea that product is more important than process or personality in creative practice [21]. This is presumably due to scientific evaluation being objective, with scientific findings expected to be evaluated entirely independently of their origins.

It would be tempting to follow the lead of companies like DeepMind who often justify working on applications to the automated playing of board games and video games [22] by stating that this research pushes forward AI technologies in general, which ultimately leads to improvements in applications to other, more worthwhile, domains like protein structure prediction [23] and healthcare. Getting software to produce better poems, paintings, games, etc., will likely lead to improvements in AI techniques overall, so concentrating on improving quality of output is in some senses a good thing. However, this would serve to deflect from what I believe is a looming crisis in Creative AI, which is when the novelty of the computer generation gimmick wears off, and people begin to realise that authenticity of process, voice and life experience are more important than the so-called “quality” of computer generated artefacts.

The activities of playing games and predicting protein structures have the luxury of objective measures for success and thus progress (beating other players and nanoscale accuracy, respectively). This is not true in the arts, where there are only subjective – and highly debated – notions of the “best” painting, poem, game or musical composition. The humanity wrapped up in artefacts produced by creative people is absolutely critical in the evaluation of those artefacts, which is not true in scientific or (to a lesser extent) competitive scenarios.

It is similarly tempting to appeal to the creative outcomes of the AlphaGo match against Lee Sedol, which have been described beautifully by Cade Metz in [24]:

“In Game Two, the Google machine made a move that no human ever would. And it was beautiful. As the world looked on, the move so perfectly demonstrated the enormously powerful and rather mysterious talents of modern artificial intelligence.”

“But in Game Four, the human made a move that no machine would ever expect. And it was beautiful too. Indeed, it was just as beautiful as the move from the Google machine – no less and no more. It showed that although machines are now capable of moments of genius, humans have hardly lost the ability to generate their own transcendent moments. And it seems that in the years to come, as we humans work with these machines, our genius will only grow in tandem with our creations.”

In the thought experiment above, in the corpus of 10,000 new symphonies generated by computer, there would surely be many moments of inventive genius: a phrase, passage or flourish of orchestration found in the notes of the music produced. Humankind would learn from the software, and would in turn develop better generative approaches to music production. But would we necessarily learn anything about the human condition, as we generally hope to in the arts?

I posit that only if software is developed to record its life experiences and use them in the pursuit of creative practice will we learn anything about the human condition, through increased understanding of the machine condition. Developing better AI painters means engineering software with more interesting life experiences, not software with better technical abilities. While there might be advantages, there is no imperative for these life experiences to be particularly human-like, and society might be better served if we try and understand computational lives through art generation. We hear all the time that the workings of black box AI systems deep-learned over huge datasets are not understood even by the researchers in the project. While this difficulty is usually overstated, we are facing a situation of increased scenarios where AI-enhanced software makes decisions of real import for us, coupled with decreased understanding of how individual AI systems make those decisions.

Combining the best practices and understanding gained from both Computational Creativity as a research field and Creative AI as an artistic and technological movement, may be the best approach to bringing about a future enhanced by creative software expressing its life experiences artistically for our benefit. The diversity, enthusiasm and innovative thinking coming daily from the Creative AI community, guided by the philosophy of the Computational Creativity movement is a potent combination, and I’m optimistic that in my lifetime, we will reap the benefits of cross-discipline, cross-community collaborations. Creative AI practitioners may rail against interventions from people like myself: stuffy academic disciples of the Computational Creativity discipline. But it is worth mentioning that we were once the angry young men and women of a largely ostracised and ignored arm of AI, shouting into the void at an establishment who thought that notions of creativity in AI systems were too “wooly” to be taken seriously.

Who knows what history will record about the rise of creative machines in society. My sincere hope is that it will chart how Computational Creativity thinking evolved without the benefit of sophisticated technical implementations; this was massively influenced with a surge in the technical abilities of Creative AI Systems during the period of Deep Learning dominance; but then naturally turned back to the philosophical thinking of Computational Creativity in order to properly reap the benefits of truly creative technologies in society.

 

References

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[7] Max, D. T. (2011) The Prince’s Gambit: A chess star emerges for the post-computer age. New Yorker, March 14th 2011 edition.

[8] Colton, S., Cook, M., Hepworth, R. and Pease, A. (2014). On Acid Drops and Teardrops: Observer Issues in Computational Creativity. Proceedings of the AISB’50 Symposium on AI and Philosophy.

[9] Colton, S. (2008). Creativity versus the Perception of Creativity in Computational Systems.

Proceedings of the AAAI Spring Symposium on Creative Systems.

[10] Charnley, J., Pease, A. and Colton, S. (2012). On the Notion of Framing in Computational Creativity. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Computational Creativity.

[11] Guckelsberger, C., Salge, C. and Colton, S. (2017). Addressing the “Why?” in Computational Creativity: A Non-Anthropocentric, Minimal Model of Intentional Creative Agency. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Computational Creativity.

[12] Colton, S., Pease, A. and Saunders, R. (2018). Issues of Authenticity in Autonomously Creative Systems. Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Computational Creativity.

[13] Chamberlain, W. and Etter, T. (1984). The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry. Warner Books.

[14] Barthes, R. (1967). The death of the author. Aspen 5-6.

[15] Colton, S. (2012) The Painting Fool: Stories from building an automated painter. In McCormack, J. and d’Inverno, M., eds., Computers and Creativity, 3–38. Springer.

[16] Mordvintsev, A., Olah, C. and Tyka, M. (2015). DeepDream – a code example for visualizing Neural Networks. Google AI Blog, July 1st 2015.

[17] Elgammal, A., Liu, B., Elhoseiny, M. and Mazzone, M. (2017). CAN: Creative Adversarial Networks, Generating “Art” by Learning About Styles and Deviating from Style Norms. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Computational Creativity.

[18] Gallie, W. (1956). Art as an essentially contested concept. The Philosophical Quarterly 6(23),97-114.

[19] Strothotte, H. and Schlechtweg, S. (2002). Non-Photorealistic Computer Graphics: Modelling, Rendering and Animation. Morgan Kaufmann.

[20] Abadi, M., Agarwal, A., Barham, P., Brevdo, E., Chen, Z., Citro, C., Corrado, G. S., Davis, A.,

Dean, J., Devin, M., Ghemawat, S., Goodfellow, I., Harp, A., Irving, G., Isard, M., Jozefowicz, R.,  Jia, Y., Kaiser, L., Kudlur, M., Levenberg, J., Mané, D., Schuster, M., Monga, R., Moore, S., Murray, D., Olah, F., Shlens, J., Steiner, B., Sutskever, I., Talwar, K., Tucker, P., Vanhoucke, V., Vasudevan, V., Viégas, F., Vinyals, O., Warden, P., Wattenberg, M., Wicke, M., Yu, Y. and Zheng, X. (2015). TensorFlow: Large-scale machine learning on heterogeneous systems. Software available from tensorflow.org.

[21] Jordanous, A. (2016). Four PPPPerspectives on computational creativity in theory and in practice. Connection Science special issue on Computational Creativity, 28(2), 194-216.

[22] Mnih, V., Kavukcuoglu, K., Silver, D., Rusu, A., Veness, J., Bellemare, M., Graves, A., Riedmiller, M., Fidjeland, A., Ostrovski, G., Petersen, S., Beattie, C., Sadik, A., Antonoglou, I., King, H., Kumaran, D., Wierstra, D., Legg, S. and Hassabis, D. (2015). Human-level control through deep reinforcement learning. Nature 518, 529-533.

[23] Evans, R., Jumper, J., Kirkpatrick, J., Sifre, L., Green, T., Qin, C., Zidek, A., Nelson, A., Bridgland, A., Penedones, H., Petersen, S., Simonyan, K., Crossan, S., Jones, D., Silver, D., Kavukcuoglu, K., Hassabis, D. and Senior, A. (2018). De novo structure prediction with deep-learning based scoring. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (Abstracts).

[24] Metz, C. (2016). In Two Moves, AlphaGo and Lee Sedol Redefined the Future. Wired, 16th March 2016 edition.

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Is consciousness a battle between your beliefs and perceptions?

Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?

The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.

Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.

The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.

As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.

We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?

In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.

If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.

This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.

The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.

Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.

Hakwan Lau

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art

Today the litany of crises we face culturally and globally has become so familiar that it needs no further recitation. Indeed, so often are we reminded that the world has gone wrong that the word “crisis” has acquired a patina of banality. But this is to be an essay of hope, so let us move on. For protests to the contrary notwithstanding, there is good reason for it: across many strata of Western culture, there is a growing awareness, uneasy though it may be, that we have at last identified the problem. The problem is not out there, in some externalized other (would that it were so, so much more palatable would this be). Reluctantly, shamefully, but profoundly necessarily, we are finally meeting the enemy, and he is us: the human animal that placed itself in the center of the universe, the one that first severed itself from nature and then elevated itself above it, and the one that in imagining that this was really possible has dug its own grave. We can call this progress.

Daniel Hill, “Untitled 37,” 2012. Acrylic polymer emulsion on paper mounted to panel, 44″ x 60″ (diptych). Courtesy of ODETTA Gallery.

To be fair, the problem is more specific, and can be located in an idea. Although for most of us in the West the word “humanism” still conjures little but benevolence (“human values,” “human rights, “human dignity,” etc.), it harbors an implicit ideology that many are now challenging. This is none other than its premise of human exceptionalism: the assumption that the human being is the source of all meaning and, even further, the ultimate reality. In light of everything we’re witnessing in our ignoble Anthropocene, it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism has been as mistaken as the theism it sought to replace, for just as God’s omnipotence reduced us to servitude, so ours has done the same to the non-human world. The call for a post-humanist worldview grows ever more compelling. Can we achieve a new way of being that honors the nonhuman world, one that acknowledges its inherent richness and restores it to its rightful place in the cosmos? Spatially, chronologically, and in just about every other way, it does, after all, rather greatly exceed us.

William Holton, “Point of Convergence,” 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 35″ x 36″. Courtesy of the artist.

But what does any of this have to do with art, you may be asking. And this is exactly the point. The answer is nothing – or very little, just yet. While the so-called non-human turn has inundated the humanities, leading even to the proposal a new “inhuman humanities,” visual art has undergone nothing of the kind. In fact, it could be argued that just the opposite has happened; with art’s preoccupation with social justice and an exhausted postmodernism, it’s easy for those of us in the field to forget anything beyond us exists. Adding to this our inherited assumptions about art being “self-expression” (and lest we be inclined to dismiss this as a pedestrian notion, what is our current “identity art” if not exactly this?), it becomes clear that visual art is mired in an obsolescent human centrism. Indeed, if “everything is a social construct,” as postmodernism tells us, the human being isn’t just the highest but the only reality.

But aside from the societal orientation of much visual art today, there is a deeper sense in which art has been complicit in perpetuating an old idea. It’s much more subtle than subject matter, and has to do with our very expectations for and valuations of art. For as art becomes ever more discursive, prioritizing issues and ideas over the forms in which they’re instantiated, it is reinforcing the implicit values of the humanist fallacy.

Werner Sun, “Double Vision 1B,” diptych, 2018. Archival inkjet prints and acrylic on board, 12″ x 25″ x 2″. Courtesy of the artist.

The problem is made evident when we consider prevailing attitudes toward form. “Empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “shallow form devoid of content”: in a time when art is expected to address this or that issue, form has become a critical embarrassment, something insufficient in itself but useful for one purpose – namely, to serve as the delivery system for the real substance that is “content.” So pervasive is the disdain for “mere form” that today’s artist’s statements often read as hyper-intellectualized apologia – discursive treatises announcing in advance that there’s no “mere” happening here. And yet in the privacy of their studios, in the presence of that trust they have only with each other, many artists will confess that it is precisely form – the interplay of shapes, colors, textures, and materials, and the tensions and rhythms generated therein – that is not only captain but also navigator: the one with the first word, plenty in the middle, and certainly the last. A tacit understanding among those who make, discursive content is to many a mere maneuver of expediency.

David Mann, “YTB III,” 2016. Oil and alkyd on canvas stretched over board, 68″ x 72.”

Why the disavowal and disparagement of form? As our attitudes about art can’t be separated from the larger culture, we come back to humanism and its hierarchy of values. One of the most pernicious assumptions of the humanist worldview was its devaluation of the body and all that is associated with it. Carrying on the legacy of the great Cartesian cleavage, humanism had reason enthroned on high, casting off as inferior the emotions, the senses, all our autonomic functions – in short, anything rude enough to remind us that we are animals. And yet as today’s neuroscience has definitively shown, the body and the emotions are not separate from cognition; far from being “soft” and secondary faculties inferior to reason, they are in fact central to it, integral functions on which reason is entirely dependent. If form is something we apprehend with our senses and discursive content that which is grasped by the mind, the inferior status granted form is a tired recapitulation of the humanist error. But it is also more than this.  In denying form its rightful place in art, art is denying itself an exquisite opportunity. For if now is the time for us to move beyond ourselves, to reclaim our fleshly relations to earth, animal, and world, what better vehicle than the power of sensual form?

Debra Ramsay, “The Wind Turning in Circles Invents the Dance,” 2019. Acrylic on acrylic panel, 19″ x 18″. Courtesy of the artist.

In the spirit of the emerging ethos, then, can we imagine a new art for a post-humanist century? What would a post-humanist art look like, and how would it be experienced? First and foremost, a post-humanist art would be one that embraces form. It would be an art that considers form not as something that serves content, but rather as something that, like the body, possesses an intelligence of its own – an intelligence far deeper and more complex than conscious, discursive thought. In its address to the body and somatic experience, it would run directly counter to the prevailing emphasis on ideas, seeking not their propagation but exactly their cessation. For in order to gain access the beyond-human world, conscious thought, discursive thought, must first be extinguished. Rather than focusing on the contents of consciousness, then, post-humanist art would alight on its structure – all the subtle rhythms and patterns that constitute its movement. And not least, being decidedly oriented away from the self – away from personal identity, above all that of the artist – a post-humanist art would be one of transcendence. For with the thinker that thought itself into the center of the world silenced, we become living organisms again just like all others, participating in, and exquisitely sensitive to, the dynamic flux of the natural world.

Linda Francis, “Nostalgia for Messier #2,” 1994. Chalk on paper, 52″ x 39″. Courtesy of the artist.

With the affirmation of form as the powerful force that it is, the question becomes how, exactly, it delivers us to the non-human. We can begin by examining how form works on us, and why it moves us so deeply when indeed it does. Of all the arts, visual art is singular in a particularly significant way, and this is that it is physically embodied.[1] Its material presence being the first thing we apprehend, we confront in it not just it but ourselves: body to body, there is a certain carnal reciprocity absent in music and literature. Grasping the whole with an uncanny instantaneity, the eye moves in to probe the parts and their interrelations – this part to that, these to those over there, all of them in active tension with the overall organization.  Attraction and repulsion, assonance and dissonance, the ever-present tug of gravity that is the counterpoint to all visual form: whatever forces are enacted in the work’s particulars reverberate sympathetically on the instrument of our nervous system, causing subtle internal movements we cannot locate introspectively. Never fixing on any one area for too long, the eye is led by the forms in a rhythmic leaving and returning, ever expanding and contracting between the general and the particular. A kind of optical dance choreographed by the artist, the experience of viewing is far from the passive act of receiving information; rather, it is a profoundly active and participatory mode of engagement. When we say we are moved by a work of art, it is not just conceptual metaphor. In a very real sense, on every level of our organism we literally are moved. The experience of visual form is a distinct and particularly intense kind of electrochemical excitation.

But the real mystery of aesthetic form is not so much why it moves us but why it moves us so deeply. Why, when it does so, does it not merely delight? Why is it not just pleasant, the way the sound of a distant foghorn is pleasant, or the smell of fresh rain falling on stone, or the brush of a hand against the soft fur of an animal? Unlike these momentary pleasures, the experience of a great work of art seems in some way to change us, to rearrange the internal architecture on the deepest level of our being. And not only does it change us; it does so in a way that feels unusually significant. There is a profound rightness about it, a felt realignment, a re-membering of something unconsciously undone.  Indeed, so right is the feeling that is has, in the largest sense, the quality of coming home.

Ed Kerns, “Degree of Freedom in a Liquid Field; Not Overwhelmed,” 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 30.” Courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps the experience of aesthetic form feels like coming home precisely because it is coming home. Home, that is, to the world that gave rise to us: the world of inanimate matter in all its myriad manifestations, and the whole kingdom of sentient creatures from whom we are descended. For what is the nature of this non-human world if not an endless cycle of dynamic patterns, from the rhythms of the tides to the sonic undulations of the animals to the expansions and contractions of the earth moved by forces to all manner – not least life and death – of arisings and evanescings? If the world out there is constituted of patterns of movement, it is in their deep visceral experience that we gain access to that world, moving from a consciousness of separation to one of participation. The experience of aesthetic form is an active engagement in the largest kind of communion.

It is also, and not insignificantly, an act of self-recognition. For in transcending the thinker and entering the greater world, we find not just the greater world but the greater parts of ourselves: the millions of years of evolution we carry in our bodies, and all that constitutes, unbeknownst to us, the richest reservoirs of our intelligence. We all know the feeling of being thus transported. Little else is as satisfying. The separatist ego will return, of course, to reassert its authority, but the experience of having left it lodges deep in the body, where, like a benevolent nuisance, it reminds us of something we only half want to remember – namely, that we live most of our lives locked in the smallest room in the house. Summoned on occasion by the exquisite rightness of a form, it comes back, and there we are again, and again we have to humbly concede that we really should get out more.

Yoshiaki Mochizuki, “Untitled, 6/6,” 2012. Gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf, and ink, 10.5″ x 10.5″. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough, New York and London.

While it may not be our only means of participating in the Great Beyond, aesthetic form is surely one of the most powerful. If visual art continues to dismiss it, insisting on art’s identity as a discursive enterprise, it may end up on the losing side of our century’s catastrophe. For if the arrogance of reason is what brought us to where we are, it can hardly be expected to be the thing to get us out. What we need is reason reunited with the sensorium that sustains it and with the misconceived “other” that gave rise to it in the first place. And what is art if not an agent of integration, and what are artists if not those who know how to show us what that might look like? So let us reclaim form. Let us reclaim it as the transformative force it always was, and let us reclaim it in the name of something larger than ourselves – something beyond art, beyond culture, beyond even human history, something that, in returning us to our smallness, grants us full citizenship in the greatest largeness.

[1] Unless it is not. There is certainly much conceptual art that lacks any material component, but our focus here is on visual art that is visual – which is to say visual art that has sensual form.

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http://www.concatenations.org/

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Neural Zoo

 

Sofia Crespo: Micro Beauty

 

Sofia Crespo: Bug

 

Sofia Crespo: Consistente

 

Sofia Crespo: Soft Sea of Awareness

 

Sofia Crespo: Self Acceptance

 

Sofia Crespo: Reward System

 

Sofia Crespo: Revivir

 

Sofia Crespo: Realization

 

Sofia Crespo: Morphing

 

Sofia Crespo: Merging

 

Sofia Crespo: Internet

 

Sofia Crespo: Free Will

 

Sofia Crespo: Courage

 

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https://sofiacrespo.com/

All images copyright and courtesy of Sofia Crespo

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Art and Generative Systems

Gene Kogan: Neural Synthesis, 2017

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Gene Kogan: I studied applied mathematics in university and became interested in machine learning through its application to music technology, especially the idea of music recommendation systems. That got me thinking more about creative and artistic uses of machine learning, which led me indirectly to discover media arts and art technology more broadly. Since then, I’ve become interested in computer science more generally in how it can be applied to emerging tech art.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

GK: A lot of the things that influence my art practice come from outside the art world. I don’t have a proper art background and don’t participate very much in the residency or gallery scene, with fairly rare exceptions, and I think this keeps my work a bit less influenced by art trends. I am very curiosity-driven and spend most of my time looking at scientific literature more so than artistic. That said, there have been many artists that have influenced me over the years, and I am especially grateful to arts-technology communities like OpenFrameworks and Processing, out of which I’ve made many friends, and gotten many ideas and help on projects. Community is very important in arts technology, otherwise we’re all just sitting alone in front of computers.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

GK: I guess the underlying theme is emerging technology for creative practice and generative art. More recently, I’ve become interested in systems that facilitate mass collaboration among people, and creating generative systems built on collective intelligence.

RB: Can you say something about ml4a, the collection of free educational resources devoted to machine learning for artists?

GK: I started ml4a as a resource for a class I was teaching at NYU called “machine learning for artists” and slowly the scope of it grew to encompass most of the educational materials I was putting out, including outside of the university. I generally neither work as a creative technologist nor as a professional artist (selling my work) and so my educational output turns out to be the most stable part of my professional work, and it’s been really fun for me to keep a consistent workshop practice over the last few years, and ml4a has been a big part of that. These days, I’m thinking a lot about how to evolve ml4a, as some of the problems that it seeks to solve are becoming less relevant, now that there are so many more resources besides ml4a directed at artists and creatives. I’m thinking about how to make it more goal-driven and community-oriented.

Neural synthesis [2017]. Some recent experiments with neural channel synthesis. The video was created for the creativity exhibition at NIPS conference in 2017.

RB: A lot of the processes behind creative thinking are still unknown. Can AI-powered creativity and neural networks play a role in helping the understanding about our own creative methodology and imagination?

GK: Yeah, I think it can help us discover a lot of things by creating interesting interactions between us and our tools. When you work with systems that have flexible automation, it forces you to confront what the essence of creativity really is. Is it in the performance, or the composition, or the ideation? It’s all very subjective though, so I tend not to take the question too seriously.

RB: Can you say something about your project Abraham?

GK: I’ve been thinking about Abraham for a couple of years, and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s gradually becoming my main focus. In many ways, it’s a continuation of ml4a but a bit more goal-driven, with a tangible project as an end goal, and an expanded scope to include emerging topics besides machine learning, including decentralization technology, cryptography, economics, game theory, and even some philosophy. I’m trying to make the case now for why it’s an interesting construction, this idea of an autonomous artificial artist, and it’s been a learning process for me, trying to understand and articulate why I find it so meaningful. Hopefully, we start working towards a prototype later this year, and I expect 2020 for it to be my main focus.

Gene Kogan: Experiments with style transfer (2015). Mona Lisa restyled by Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Crab Nebula, and Google Maps.

RB: Can AI be taught how to create without guidance and develop its own sense of creativity?

GK: By definition, AI (or AGI) is all about creating agents that have all the same intellectual capabilities or even greater ones than human beings, and so in principle, if we believe a human can do that, then so could an AI eventually. How we achieve that in the future, and when or if that might ever actually happen is another question. I’m pretty optimistic in general and don’t see why we couldn’t accomplish this in principle, but it’s hard to predict.

RB: When does a neural network become an author of an artwork? And how can we form an understanding of the art that it makes?

GK: This question comes up a lot but I think it’s actually not well-defined. Authorship is a concept that very much predates AI and has not yet caught up. We are seeing now how limiting it is to try to assign one person or entity as the sole author to something, when AI brings in so many influences, and so many people, and so many data points. It very much fragments the notion of authorship, and certainly downstream ideas about intellectual property, copyright, and so on. No one ever asked “when does a paintbrush become an author of an artwork” even though it’s a tool just the same. But the more of the creative process AI takes on, much more so than the paintbrush itself, the more obsolete the authorship idea becomes, since AI is not really a singular being like a human. We may have to invent new words to really make this clear.

Gene Kogan: pix2pix webcam (meat puppet), 2017

RB: Emotions are essential for creativity and is a subject being explored in a relatively new area of AI, Affective Computing, which seeks to place a machine in the world such that it recognizes, interprets, processes, and simulates human affects. In order to be truly creative, will AI need to develop emotions and consciousness?

GK: Like with authorship, I think some of these terms are not well defined. Have to pass on the question, it’s a bit too abstract!

RB: Pushing the boundaries of the medium is a natural part of the art making process because, in some ways, the artist is exploring the medium itself. What boundaries do you wish to push with the medium that you use?

GK: I’ve been really inspired by the world of decentralization and peer-to-peer networks, in how they are trying to increase our ability to coordinate en masse with many people towards shared goals. Abraham is very much influenced by this trend. I think there’s a lot of room to innovate here and a lot of low-hanging fruits. In the context of art, I’d like to see how it’s possible to make creative artifacts — artworks, music, even novels — through this kind of mode of mass collaboration.

RB: As well as mI4a and Abraham, what other projects are you currently working on or planning?

GK: I am helping some friends to organize a free retreat to make art in something of an intentional community in the desert. The website is brahman.ai . It is closely tied with some of my arts projects, but it’s much more anarchical, and some of my friends will be initiating interesting art projects and group activities there. It’s an experiment in sustainable learning and living, and I’m pretty excited to spend a few months focused on it next year. I’m also just generally researching AI and decentralization, and working occasionally on art projects and installations. For example, I just finished a big installation at a brand new museum in Germany called The Futurium.

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http://genekogan.com/

All images copyright and courtesy of Gene Kogan.

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Missing Mass

Carey Young: Missing Mass, 2010 (installation view) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Missing Mass (2010) is a sculptural work created with the scientific guidance of Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, an astrophysicist based at King’s College London. The piece ‘presents’ a specific number of dark matter particles alongside a legal disclaimer which proposes the particles as the only truly free entities in existence. The work centres on the idea of artistic freedom, suggesting that if dark matter particles are the only free entities in existence, by implication, art, the artist, and any other societal or cultural element held to be symbolic of freedom, are merely constrained, whether by gravity, bureaucracy, institutional ties, etc. The work also proposes links between sculptural works associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art (such as the early work of Hans Haacke) and contemporary developments in astrophysics.

The work was developed through a research process which involved regular meetings with Dr. Fairbairn, plus an astrophysics reading list, which necessitated five months of study. From this process I derived the idea for the work, as well as others including Terminal Velocity.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Thierry Bal. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The text on the plinth says:

Carey Young
2010
5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, 18 x 18 x 18 inches.*

* Disclaimer

  1. i) Dark matter particles are governed by their own laws and may circulate freely.ii)  The figure of 5461 dark matter particles represents an average according to current scientific thinking. Actual amounts may vary from time to time.iii)  Dark matter is transparent and undetectable to the human eye.iv)  Since dark matter may at any time pass through any surrounding man-made or natural structures, including the walls of this container, your body, and the whole material structure of the planet, any collector of this work should not expect to own the same 5,461 dark matter particles at any one time.

Carey Young Missing Mass, 2010 (detail) 5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, on pedestal with silkscreened text container: 18 x 18 x 18 in. (45.7 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) pedestal: 38 x 18 x 18 in. (96.5 x 45.7 x 45.7 cm) Photo: Steven Probert. © Carey Young. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

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Artist Statement

Since 2003, visual artist Carey Young has developed a number of artworks that are also functional legal instruments, and which have conceptualised and explored law as an artistic medium. Young collaborates with legal advisors to make artworks in installation, video, performance, print, sculpture and photography, which have been exhibited internationally. These works have embodied such diverse forms as contracts, disclaimers, offers, licenses, cautionary statements and a will, and addressed disparate legal fields including human rights, inheritance law, intellectual property and law relating to outer space. Experimenting with ideas of time, space and physicality, Young’s body of artistic work explores law as a separate kind of ‘reality’, one with its own inherent subjectivities and points of breakdown.

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www.careyyoung.com

 

The post Missing Mass appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Voices

Aura Satz: The Trembling Line. Film and multi-channel sound installation, 2015

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Aura Satz: I studied cultural studies and art history in Bologna (Italy) before coming to London to do a PhD by theory/practice at the Slade School of Fine Art. Initially I worked with sculpture and performance but over the last 20 years or so I have become more invested in film and sound. My works operate in constellations, I have a central theme which might manifest in multiple formats, as films, performances, sound works, and so on.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

AS: I was very much influenced by Lis Rhodes who taught me at the Slade, and whom I have since collaborated with. Intergenerational conversations are extremely important to me. I have been teaching for around 20 years now, and I get a lot of inspiration from my students. Teaching also keeps me attuned to practices outside of my own. In my undergraduate studies I was particularly fascinated by iconoclasm and theories of the image based on contact relics. I suppose this has carried through in my later works which attempt to look closely at technologies, prying the apparatus apart, as well as my interest in technologies of sound writing, such as the phonograph – where the groove is a trace and relic of the voice, so to speak. I have always been inspired by female voices, and there are a number of women composers who are key sources of inspiration. I often think of some of the more dialogic works I have made with people such as Lis Rhodes, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, as an opportunity to go deeper into the conversation, not just through the encounter, the film or the recording of a verbal exchange, but even later in the editing process, where I spend a lot of time listening and composing to the cadence of speech or a pause for breath.

Aura Satz: Her Marks a Measure

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

AS: I keep returning to the notion of a distributed, expanded and shared notion of voice. Works are made in conversation and use dialogue as both method and subject matter. In my works which draw on historical research I see myself in dialogic exchange with past voices, speaking backwards and forwards, being spoken through. When I have focussed on technologies of sound writing, recording and playback, it is precisely because I am interested in ways in which voices carry through, have been under-heard, and can be ‘listened into speech’. Many previous works focussed on minor histories, using archival research as a starting point, but in recent years I have shifted from the idea of notation of the past towards a logic that is more aligned with a visual or verbal score, an open invitation to think towards possible future manifestations. A score implies a non-hierarchical generosity, suggesting multiple future iterations and no singular privileged way of performing or enacting. Some scores simply suggest a shift in focus, such as Oliveros’ suggestion to listen with the soles of your feet. Many of my works could be read as an invitation to recalibrate attention, ways in which we give it, what is deemed worthy of it, how we might enact a different modality of attention, what we conceive of as foreground and what is background.

Aura Satz: Ventriloqua

RB: You began working with sound, with the piece Ventriloqua, in 2003 when you were pregnant. A number of your later works are to do with acoustic devices and vibration. Can you give some examples of these works?

AS: In Ventriloqua my pregnant belly became an instrument, a medium or antenna of sorts for a thereminist to play the electromagnetic waves. I wore a red outfit that covered all of my body, including my face, and the only visible part was the belly, which looked like an oracular eye or a breast of sorts. Through the trope of ventri-loquism (belly-speaking) I was able to explore the possibility of becoming a conduit for other voices. For me that performance was a powerful manifestation of speaking and being spoken through. In other works such as Automamusic (2008), Sound Seam (2010) Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010), Vocal Flame (2011) and In and Out of Synch (2012) I focussed on devices such as orchestrions, mechanical music, phonographs, Chladni Plate, Ruben’s tube and optical sound on film as technologies of sound visualisation, some of which manifest sound patterns without quite constituting a notation system or code, and others which encrypt sound in order for it to be read back by a machine rather than a human. All of these enabled me to explore voices that align, interfere, interweave, synchronise, overlap, overwrite, hover between signal and noise, between decipherable meaning and the unfamiliar and as yet unencoded.

Aura Satz: Vocal Flame, 2012

 

Aura Satz: Sound Seam, 2010 (installation view)

In Sound Seam for example we worked with the surface noises of wax cylinders and vinyl glitch, as well as generating many layers of sounds by recording voices over each other.  At the same time there is something about seeing as informed by hearing, and vice versa, a listening that is in tension with the visible, that I find incredibly generative. This became central to In and Out of Synch, the 16mm film co-scripted and co-voiced with Lis Rhodes, where the optical sound on film patterns conveying our voices are ruptured by stroboscopic effects, due to a deliberate subtle misalignment of the monitoring eyepiece. You end up with a kind of Rorschach effect, certain sounds are punctuated or counteracted by the visual, and their respective rhythms generate a friction that is useful in unsettling standardized readings, making us hear or see differently.

Aura Satz: In and Out of Synch

RB: When did you begin to prioritise film-making and why?

AS: Initially I used film to document performances. When I made Automamusic in 2008 I realised that the only way to get inside these multiple mechanical music devices (which were housed in a museum in a small town in Switzerland), the best method of access to open them up and reconfigure them, was through the camera and the juxtaposition of sound patterns with visual rhythms. In other projects I found that there’s a kind of close-up looking and listening that can only be achieved through film. In my films I am keen to foreground sound, often it becomes the driving force, literally the engine driving the visuals or setting the rhythmic pace of the film. This is true of all of the sound visualisation films mentioned above, as well as a more recent project Preemptive Listening (2018), where the voice triggers an emergency rotating light. A film might feature moments of darkness or silence to allow for the senses to cross-pollinate, the eyes to take on the role of the ears or the other way around. I like the idea of an anagrammatic remapping of the senses, a disruption of hierarchies, a destabilizing of relations, of what is perceived, how, where, by who.

Aura Satz: Preemptive Listening (part 1 The Fork in the Road), 2018, installation view (photo Adam Reich)

RB: As well as exploring different techniques for visualizing sound, a number of your works focus on gender and women’s important contributions to technology. I’m thinking particularly of Oramics: Atlantis Anew (2011), Doorway for Natalie Kalmus (2013) and She Recalibrates (2018).  Can you say something about these works?

AS: Part of my commitment to the notion of a distributed voice is an unsettling of which voices are allowed, amplified within the range of the audible, who gets heard, who is written into the canon of history, and how can we destabilise these readings to allow for new voices to emerge. The film about Daphne Oram was central to my thinking on sound writing as a form of instantiating a new language or notation system, a new soundscape and in turn a new kind of listening.

 

Aura Satz: She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018 (photo Thierry Bal)

She Recalibrates follows on from this by focussing on women composers working with electronic music such as Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher and others, who are portrayed with their hands on a dial, engaged in an experimental type of listening, modulating electricity, recalibrating what is considered noise or signal, what is worthy of being heard, and what can be understood as music. Their hands and ears are literally partaking in the circuit, tuning and recalibrating the signal. I made series of pencil drawings of hands on dials, framed inside a Fresnel lens which generates a diffractive pattern from the centre. The drawings only appear at a certain angle, due to the silver effect of graphite pencil on black paper, but also because the lens incorporates the interference of light reflections. It’s like looking at a lenticular print, or, more accurately, a CD or vinyl record with a diffractive centre, the image is continually changing according to the position of the viewer and the angle of light.  This is emblematic of what I try to do in all my works, allowing for an entangled space between voices, between signal and noise, for both to appear as method and subject matter.

Aura Satz: Tuning Interference on a Dark Matter Radio, 2019

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’, with a sound work Tuning Interference: Dark Matter Radio. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

AS: The curator Sandra Ross commissioned me to make a sound work responding to the theme of dark matter, under the guidance of the astrophysicist Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, who invited Prof. David (Doddy) J.E. Marsh into the collaboration. I was really inspired by the way some of the experiments have been described as listening out for a signal that has not yet appeared. In particular I was drawn to the description of ADMX, one of many dark matter research initiatives (and a number of related experiments operating in Korea, Europe, and the USA), as “a radio that looks for a radio station, but we don’t know its frequency. We turn the knob slowly while listening. Ideally we will hear a tone when the frequency is right.[1] I wanted to work with this notion of experimental listening by making a sonic diagram of sorts, which would evoke a tuning experience. Together with Malcom and Doddy, as well as audio engineer/music AI specialist Dr. David Ronan who sonified the data, we made a 10 channel sound installation which renders a current hypothetical simulation of dark matter into sound. Essentially the sound patterns are a set of relations between the data, and we mapped it in such a way so as to generate intense psychoacoustic effects in the listeners, exploring sonic equivalents of interference and collision through beat frequencies and other diffractive qualities which shift according to the listener’s location. The listener becomes a radio dial of sorts, as the ears move through the soundscape, micro-tuning with each adjustment. It’s not dissimilar to the effect I described with the Fresnel lens framed drawings. There is no ideal vantage point or listening sweet spot, the listener is embedded within the sound, effectively generating the sound according to their orientation within the speaker ring.

Doddy showed me some visualisations of the simulation of dark matter in a hypothetical galaxy, and it looked like ripples of water or waves diffracting. This particular model of dark matter simulated contains waves[2], and we used speed and density to generate the shape of the harmonic structure. We chose the spacing of the speakers around the ring to be close to one wavelength, so that the coherence between speakers is audible, and yet varies in an interesting way around the ring. I wanted to create a soundscape that felt like a field of vibration and flux, with clusters of density, moments of tension and relief. Close frequency alignment and interference became a compositional principle, much like a kind of acoustic moiré. The arrangement of the speakers reflects the distribution of dark matter, so what you are hearing is not the sound of dark matter per se, but the hypothetical flux and motion of dark matter as rendered through sound. Each speaker is one point of data in the simulation, and if you listen close-up you will hear a singular slow-changing drone rather than all the beat frequencies that occur in the centre of the ring where the sounds interact with each other. Sometimes the wave shape of one point of data is extremely close to another, changing at a variable rate, and this alignment generates a sense of dense patterning, a pulse which gradually accelerates, intensifies, shifts focus and recedes. The sound is sculpted into a rippling flux which gathers and dissipates in such a way that is hard to hold onto or memorise. You can’t possibly internalise the rhythm of the piece, and each listening session will sound quite different from the previous one as your ears fabricate new acoustic illusions, adjust to the sounds, are de-sensitized or fatigued. I spent months tweaking the composition and by the end of a long session I wasn’t sure what I was hearing anymore, what was in between the speakers and what was between my ears.

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

AS: I am interested in the ways in which scientific research activates or distorts a certain intuitive understanding of the world, and I try to find a way to make this come across on a very physical level, as visual or sonic experience. I wanted people to feel enmeshed within a dynamic rotational flow or current, something that can be sensed but which we don’t necessarily have the theoretical frameworks to account for. I find it fascinating that in current research on dark matter we are at a point of knowing unknowing, so to speak – we don’t know what exactly we are looking for and we haven’t yet identified what it is, all we know for certain is that its presence is somehow implied through the way it interacts or interferes with matter. Without dark matter many previously accepted theories are untenable, and as such it both disrupts and holds together different hypothetical theories.

I think the piece also conveys some of my previous concerns around modes of attention, a continuous retuning and recalibrating of what is heard and where one is positioned in relation to the signal or the noise (or what is understood as which). The idea of acoustic moiré – a morphing non-hierarchical, almost untethered grid – resonates with my interest in a multiplicity of voices which align and interfere with each other, activating the spaces in between. This is the reason I am drawn to work with sound – already at a very basic level it is doing the work as a vibratory in-between, as inherently relational, unsettling boundaries.

In addition to the speaker ring, I wanted a visual marker to provide a distinct sense of oscillation, that you are entering a vibratory sound field, so between each speaker there is a VU metre driven by the sound. The needle trembles to echo the volatile, dynamic and ever-changing frequency fields, though what exactly is being measured remains uncertain (the metres are blank and have no numbers).

Aura Satz, ‘Vera Rubin’s Irrefutable Evidence’, 2019

Nearby hangs a photo of Vera Rubin (1928-2016). Rubin was an American astronomer who discovered the galaxy rotation problem, providing evidence of the existence of dark matter. In the photo she is seen looking through a spectrograph mounted on the end of the telescope, recording an image of the spectrum (colours) of a small section of a galaxy. It’s quite an obscure image, in that she is wearing a hooded coat, so hardly any parts of her face or body are identifiable. Like the series She Recalibrates mentioned earlier, the image is framed inside a Fresnel lens, generating a diffractive pattern emanating from the centre, the point between her eye and the eyepiece of the telescope. The viewer has to somehow tune into the image for it to surface in amidst all the diffractive interferences and light play. It’s not central to the main piece, but I wanted to include Rubin as I think of the artwork as a space for naming, reconfiguring the canon, putting an underacknowledged female scientist into the conversation.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

AS: I don’t think I could ever provide a definitive answer. The part that interests me from my recent experiences is the way in which both science and art ask questions and destabilise our current understanding of the world. Both are a response to curiosity and uncertainty, and can give us some orientation towards the future. Recalibration is key, an openness to change and a resistance to standardization.

Aura Satz: ‘Listen, Recalibrate’, solo show installation view, Fridman Gallery (photo Adam Reich)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

AS: For some years now I have been working on a project entitled Preemptive Listening, which looks at emergency signals and siren sounds. I read the siren as a specific kind of sound, one that requires attention, and demands an action or response. Citizens respond to its call, demonstrating obedience to its authority – it is a sound that commands submission, deflection, dispersion. It attracts in order to dispel, unsettles and resettles. It demands localized attention, and is the sonic architect of social order. It is a sonic marker that structures urban spaces in an emergency, a marker between future danger and dangers past, projecting a trajectory and expelling obstacles along the way. As the primary vocalization of the state, it articulates our relationship to power and civil order. All of which makes it fascinating, complex and in dire need of a re-wiring. My invitation is to pry it apart and recompose the siren, to think of it as a sound signal that requires recalibration. I am attempting to reimagine the siren sound: how can we open and destabilize this overly codified, prescriptive and stable semantic sound by taking a compositional approach, remapping new readings onto new sounds, how can we unlearn the existing code, find ways to listen differently, resist the hypervigilant, predetermined, automated call to obedience and set the intention to be curious, open, receptive, imaginative. If one remaps the sound, explores the possibility of different emotional registers, one can in turn generate distinct affective responses, more varied strategies for crisis management, and attend to a spectrum of different voices in need of our attention. And in our multiple modes of response, we might in turn enact an altered relationships to power.

[1] https://www.futurity.org/dark-matter-axions-detector-1726622/

[2]  Simulations performed at the University of Goettingen by Mr Jan Veltmaat, Dr Bodo Schwabe, and Prof Jens Niemeyer.

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https://www.iamanagram.com/

All images copyright and courtesy of Aura Satz

 

The post Voices appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

On the Surface

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Rachel Pimm: I have a pretty straightforward background in Fine Art. I studied an undergraduate Fine Art degree at Central Saint Martins in a discipline called 4D which was developed from a blend of Critical Fine Art practice, film studies and then performative and video practice- all the extras to painting and sculpture. Then I started a project space called Auto Italia, which is still going, and went on to a postgraduate MFA programme at Goldsmiths. Those initial feelers into curating, which also included a curatorial internship at the ICA and a short stint after working in the department, have now morphed into more of a collaborative practice, where I invite people to do projects with me.

I wasn’t born in the UK though, my family are white Rhodesian and I came here from Harare, Zimbabwe in 1986- shortly after independence from Britain. This perhaps affects my interests in ways I haven’t yet unpacked, but It certainly gives me plenty to work on and address in terms of my own relationship to the world as a European settler thinking about land management and colonial histories.

Lori E Allen: My background is in social science with a Bachelors in Anthropology, Classical Studies, and Ancient Latin from New York University and a Masters in Archaeology from University College London. I never trained formally in fine art or music but when living in New York began a very low key experimental type of art practice around media archaeology. This began as a method of chopping up broad-casted media in real time to extract concurrent narratives across television networks, and took the form of a weekly public access television series. I then expanded that focus to include field recordings and began focusing more on sound and sound scape than image. My practice is still generally very low key in that I while I do make solo work it’s mostly for my own amusement, and I prefer a collaborative approach in creative work.

RP: when Lori and I work together we are good at thinking about larger scales than I do on my own- humans, animals, time, place. Lori is very technical and I do admin 😉 I’m only half joking. We have made performance together since 2015. You can listen to worming out of shit performed at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2015 here and Disintegration, performed at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year, here.

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: worming out of shit, 2015, performed at CCA Glasgow, 2016

Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm: Disintegration, Whitechapel Gallery, 2019

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

RP: For a short while I did a full time office job at the Ideal Home Show, designing and specifying the model home village at the show – then building show houses inside Earl’s Court. For me, not only is this display format just as interesting historically as gallery exhibition, its lineage can be traced via British Colonial histories to the Crystal Palace, botanical gardens, raw materials, the industrial revolution and housing after the Garden City movement- really rich (and violent) contexts for the relationship between stuff we take from the ground and the systems of engineering and capitalism that surround its movement and processing.

I’m also influenced by Natural History. I find old books and go to libraries a lot – the Geological Society, Linnean Society, Bournemouth Natural Science Society library, the Teri Institute in New Delhi, and then gardens and greenhouses, physics evening classes, kids science kits, conversations and study days with friends, and strolling around, taking photos of infrastructure space, and ways in which ‘Nature’ is being put to work. I learn a lot from living with houseplants about care, and time and growing.

LEA: For me it’s probably studying archaeology that has influenced me most. I like thinking about and witnessing the ways people, myself included, interact with and build relationships with inanimate objects – of which I would also class mass media. There is so much story-telling in the scars, rips, wear and tear of a thing. Yet the thing is silent while retaining a record of events it’s undergone.  Conversely, mass media is not silent. I think the pull from the mute objects to the noise of constructed narratives led me to think more about noise and silence in internal dialogue, where it comes from, what records it holds  – and I suppose focusing on broad-casted media, especially the way it is told/digested/re-told/re-digested is a way of getting at/excavating the noise and silence of objects embedded in narrative rather than the earth.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

RP: I suppose what things are made of, how things work, and how they change the environment are my primary focuses. I find the idea of the surface of something especially interesting because this is the place where the change visibly happens. Also because everything material comes from the surface of the earth. The theory conversations around materialism where they combine with climate activist, feminist, queer, crip or anti-racist work are part of what engages me in this and the desire to understand the environment through structures other than Cartesian western patriarchal power.

LEA: I’m really interested in mass behaviours, ritual, and taboo how they generate, what they come from, how enduring they are, and what influences rate of change. Rachel and my underlying interests are really different in this way, but her focus on material and the surface of the earth I have found to be a really good way round again to approach such questions. It is literally from the ground up and makes human society kind of less important – which is a relief.

RP: and Lori helps me think of ways to create narratives around images and sound. She’s a good storyteller and while I’ll Wikipedia something or buy something, she’ll just get on and make a test. Lori is very unafraid of trying something even if it sounds hard or stupid, because doing it mechanically almost always works something out.

Rachel Pimm photographing landscape at Dallol in the Afar Triangle, 2019

RB: In 2018 you were involved in the project ‘Experiments in Art & Science’, a collaboration between Kettle’s Yard and The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. Can you say something about your work in this?

RP: I had a period of around 9 months where I was supported by a stipend and was given fantastic access to the genetics labs run by Eric Miska at the Gurdon Institute who had approached the art partners to be able to make a project with no fixed outcome, refreshingly. I was matched with some scientists whose research I could engage with and rather than being a project, it became more of a change of practice and an opportunity to learn and reflect. I read a lot, and used much of my production time and fee to collate a lovely library of rare and specific books on morphology, geology, biology, and also go on field trips to archives to see the lineage of the research into morphology- through fish and worms. I learnt some amazing things- like that transgenerational traumas are chemical in cells, that from suboptimal exposure to environments that suppress life (and those survived by ancestors) sit in a protein you can dye and actually see under the microscope in the RNi. That’s how life forms become resilient. That is mind blowing. I also now understand that ALL patterns of growth and shapes in nature are connected in a spectrum, and that this is due to chemistry and physics at a cellular level, also completely amazing and an overhaul of my thought process.

Rachel Pimm and Emilia Santos at the Gurdon Institute Cichlid Aquarium, production Morpho Chemical, 2018 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at St Andrews University Special Collections library, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

Rachel Pimm at Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland, production for Morpho Chemical, 2018-19 (Experiments in Art and Science  residency, Cambridge University and Kettles Yard)

I’ve since also been lucky enough to do more labwork, including some photomicroscopy, with Radar, in Loughborough at the Chemical Engineering department.

SEM microscope samples from Afar triangle fieldwork, production for S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Radar residency, Loughborough University)

RB: You are taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

RP: I was approached to work on a set of new elements in the Periodic Table- which is one of my catalogues of collaborations, and I approached Lori E Allen to come on a very amazing field trip to the Afar triangle triple rift junction in Ethiopia and make work together in response to Sulfur. This has since turned into a project about alchemy- we’ll be doing a performance at a late event, and then showing S and Hg at an event on August 7th. I recorded mainly images and Lori recorded mainly sound but we will fully collaborate on the works in the events.

LEA: I was invited by Rachel Pimm to take part in this project, which follows from a previous work we did with the material from Ethiopia, linked above :)!

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Dallol)

S, Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019 (Lava fields at Erta Ale crater)

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

RP: Art doesn’t have to communicate. That’s one of the great privileges about making it.

LEA: I agree with Rachel’s comment above and would add that in my experience it’s very hard to control that aspect in the first place as well as limiting the opportunity of a work to communicate how it will or won’t with anyone seeking to engage with it.

RP: Maybe you can learn and control some of the tools at your disposal so you can take a didactic political position where needed or get people thinking on a particular track, like when we talk about the use of vocal samples.

LEA: Hmm. yeah. But even so what you want to communicate may not translate the way you expect it to, and that’s kind of the best part about a work becoming organic/non static

RP: But aside from this, we want to show people the images and sounds we experienced when we went off to investigate sulfur as an element important for life forms. We have looked at a lot of Alchemy practices and cultural references of burning hell holes (Sodom and Gomorroh! Volcano Deities!) and tried to incorporate those alongside harder sciences like  geology and chemistry. We think it will be messier than the show itself, perhaps more true to the way matter operates.

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

RP: Both seem to be about trial and error, failure, learning and experiments. Art can change form part way through though, methodologies can be really sloppy compared to the science. In both making and in publishing- peer review matters to both, but I find science a bit of a straight-jacket and would want to work on more things at once, not finish things, do things incorrectly or whatever. I have a lot of respect for the focus of scientists. Artists working with scientists have the pleasure of finding out facts and then ignoring them entirely if they want. I imagine scientists like the lateral thinking opportunity to flex their ideas. Sometimes scientists actually want an illustrator, which is a misunderstanding. Illustration is a whole other, also very interesting thing. But that’s not what artists do well.

LEA: Both are linked by inquiry of the observed or experienced and function in similar ways in the quest for understanding a thing, a relationship, a process, a being. While the scientific method is robust and disciplined this can have limitations. Similarly, so can art.

Lori E Allen making contact microphone and hydroponic sound recordings on a field trip in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm looking at Lava Rock samples, Erta Ale crater, Afar triangle, 2019

Geological samples and AV equipment on a field trip in the Afar triangle Lori E Allen and Rachel Pimm, 2019

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

RP: I have a performance coming up making some music using cash crops and plants that are domesticated at the Serpentine Gallery and am working on a menu of earth-based food for an event in Lincoln at Mansions of the Future around the practice of Geophagy.

LEA: I have vinyl coming out soon with my band from a piece we did for the Tate Modern a couple of years ago. I am working with another artist producing soundscape compositions for a performance work investigating medical imaging, for which I will also produce the soundtrack for a short film version of the work. Perhaps what I’m currently most excited about is a children’s book.

RP: We have made a start working on a video project about Salt- its geology, history, production, trade and processing. That was an unexpectedly big part of what we saw in the Afar triangle and there are a lot of leads to follow. It was bigger than the elements so it has become its own project.

Lori E Allen making sound recordings on a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019

Rachel Pimm sampling lake salt crystals during a field trip at Lake Asale in the Afar triangle, 2019

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All images copyright and courtesy of Rachel Pimm and Lori E Allen

 

The post On the Surface appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

There’s more to this than meets the eye

Yu-Chen Wang at CCCB 2019 Arts at CERN

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Yu-Chen Wang: I’m originally from Taiwan and I’ve lived and worked in the UK for quite some time… actually next week, it would be 19 years exactly. I was trained as a designer, specialising in visual communication. When I moved to London, by chance I went on to study art at Goldsmiths and I’ve worked as a practicing artist ever since.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

Y-CW: One of the major influences is my life experience in and between Taiwan and the UK. For a long time, I try to understand Britain/Britishness – I treat it almost like an ongoing research project. I have travelled extensively and actively undertaken artist-in-residence in different regions as a way to explore local histories and meeting new people. In a way, I’m taking the opportunity to learn more about the country and trying to make up what I don’t know or I haven’t had a chance to experience previously.

Funny enough, I start to think there’s an urge for me to do similar things in Taiwan. Not only I feel like there’s a lot I need to catch up, but also to discover something completely different – because I’ve been away for so long, I would approach things quite differently now. Also with Taiwan’s colonial past and the dictatorship, only in recent years a lot of untold histories begin to merge and being talked about. It’s like getting to know Taiwan in a new way.

Quantum In Search of the Invisible catalogue, 2019 CCCB

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

Y-CW: I see my work very much focuses on research and process, experience and relationship. There’s a particular way for developing my work, which often involves a period of time spent in a specific place. I would then undertake extensive research the contextual histories and engage with a group of locally-based people or specialists who would assist my research. Two major components I’d like to explore generally: the archives and archaeology, which form the main source of inspiration for developing my work.

I have spent a lot of time in various archives going through documents, photos and footage. Often I find myself working like a historian trying to interpret documentations – it’s a form of storytelling. I am fascinated by the archival materials, as they are of the past, from another period of time, not now not my time, someone else’s memory… often in this context, the use of technology for documentation becomes particularly interesting.

Sometimes I think I work like an archaeologist exploring various heritage sites (historic landmarks, abandoned places, ruins or sites for regeneration projects…) and objects (remains in historic sites, artifacts in the museum collections, at abandoned places or junk yards…). Not necessary taking part in physical digging or excavations, but I would look for tangible evidence to further expand the missing narratives from interpreting archives.

Often I would engage with a group of people helping with my research. They’re the catalysts for me to connect to places and to unfold stories. It is important to form a relationship with the group; through repeated meetings, a lot of rich materials would naturally come out, they’re original and potentially very inspirational. I guess that’s a very important part of my practice – knowledge exchange. Through this exchange, a new network is formed for connecting people and places and telling (new) stories – that’s how I make work.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (detail) pencil on paper 2100 x 1310mm

RB: Drawing is central to your practice. How would you define your approach to drawing and its process?

Y-CW: For me, making drawing is very much about the process, various acts of accumulating, rendering, processing and reflecting. Before I make drawings, I collect a lot of images related to whatever project I’m working on, often from the archives, sometimes from my own camera. I don’t make sketches or preparatory drawings – I would just draw as if the pencil lines organically growing and spraying out on the paper. I make drawings on the table, often some part of the paper is rolled up due to the limited studio space and the size of my table. In a way it’s problematic as I’m very close to the paper and I don’t get a chance to see the entire drawing until I finish the work or when the drawing is being exhibited in the gallery. It’s a deliberate decision, as I try to condition the way I work and in the hope of opening up something that is more intuitive and less controlled.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at CCCB.

RB: Can you say something about your work We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there?

Y-CW: As part of Collide International Awards (2016-18), a partnership between Arts at CERN and FACT, the piece is a direct response to my visit to CERN, conversations I had with physicists there and also the ones in Liverpool.

Inspired by 60’s Bubble Chamber experiment, my work develops a poetic narrative of the histories of recent science: establishing parallel lines between my drawing of apparatus, meetings with physicists and scientific documents found in the archives. Comprising multilayered imageries and voices, We aren’t able to prove that just yet… is a collage of history and fiction, documentation and interpretation.

Over the 2-year EU touring, the work is evolving and has been developed into multiple versions with different languages and spatial arrangements for each venue. The piece have been shown at FACT, Liverpool last year and is currently on show at CCCB, Barcelona and will later travel to iMAL, Brussels and le lieu unique, Nantes. https://arts.cern/artist/yu-chen-wang

Yu-Chen Wang: We aren’t able to prove that just yet, but we know it’s out there? 2018-19 installation view at FACT

RB: You’re taking part in the Science Gallery, London exhibition ‘Dark Matter: 95% of the Universe is missing’. Can you say something about your involvement in this?

Y-CW: The experience of developing CERN-inspired project worked as a foundation for creating this new commission. I was very excited about further expanding what I was researching from quantum to cosmic, from particle physics to astrophysics, a more multi-disciplinary approach. https://london.sciencegallery.com/seasons/dark-matter/exhibition/theres-more-it-meets-eye

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019

I also took part in a panel discussion together with the exhibition adviser and physicist Malcolm Fairbairn (who is also one of the scientists I have interviewed), philosopher Eleanor Knox, chaired by science presenter Helen Arney (also my collaborator, who has delivered the voice over for my piece). It was brilliant that the speakers are from very different fields and to have conversation about scientific truth and the limitation of human knowledge. When we don’t know how to answer the question, turning ourselves to thinking philosophical seems necessary and perhaps helpful. https://london.sciencegallery.com/events/dark-matter-void

RB: In terms of the viewer, what are you trying to communicate in this exhibition?

Y-CW: I wrote the script using a first person’s voice as a reflection of my journey of exploring science – visiting labs, speaking to various physicists, investing scientific images and documentations. The voiceover is delivered by Helen Arney, whose performance was brilliant and humorous, absolutely animates my inner thoughts. Using wireless headphones with music and surround sound effect designed by Capitol K, I’m trying to create an intimate experience of one-to-one moment between the audience and my work. This way of storytelling also shows my approach to science: I almost become a researcher myself adapting certain scientific methods, collecting, analysing and trying to build new experiments and run tests in order to understand more and to make sense of everything.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: In your view, what are the lines that connect art and science?

Y-CW: Both fields are about asking questions, exploring some unknown territories and looking for something new. These are places where no one has been to or no one knows how to get there. They definitely involve certain level of risk-taking and overcoming endless failures, and most importantly they need to be able to communicate, not just within the community, but to the general public.

In the case of art and physics, it’s interesting that both are trying to make the invisible visible and trying to see differently.

Yu-Chen Wang: There’s more to this than meets the eye, 2019 (still)

RB: What other projects are you currently working on?

Y-CW: I’m continuing to develop the work for Collide International Awards’ touring programme. For the exhibition in Brussels, this evolving piece will have a new life and will be presented in response to the gallery space and local audiences.

I’m working on a couple of projects inspired by the industrial heritage, such as canals in Birmingham and railway in Doncaster. I will work with local community to produce new work in response to the future urban regeneration. Another project in Taipei I will explore the relationship between art and the increasing information-driven technology and the influences on our day to day life.

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www.yuchenwang.com

All images copyright and courtesy of Yu-Chen Wang

The post There’s more to this than meets the eye appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Imagination in Education

Richard Bright: What do you understand by the word ‘Imagination’?

Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn: Imagination has often been mistrusted in the realm of education as having something more to do with fantasy and the wasting of time, thus, I believe, children in this 21st century are being denied their natural growth path to full potential. The fact is that we live in 2 realities at one and the same time. Our outer reality being linear and time-bound, has more to do with the intellect and the learning of facts and figures and the analytic, whereas our inner reality goes by way of the spiral, is time-less and has the function of making connections and has the ability to synthesise. Imagination is a way of knowing and of being all at the same time. It is the world of And/And rather than Either/Or. It speaks to us by way of images and the symbolic rather than the literal. As a child we are reared on it by way of story-telling and fairy tales and as we grow up we experience it by way of Myth and Legend. It speaks to us also by way of our dreams and day dreams and if we can stay close to the images from within ourselves we can infuse our outer realities with enthusiasm and inspiration bringing the heart back into all that we do. Jung wrote that ‘the imagination is author of all human creation, of all that is greatest in our lives, and that play is its dynamic principle’. It is of vital importance, therefore, that the ‘child’ within us all is given the space to play and find its voice and this can only happen when we ‘still the mind’ and approach the interface between our heads and our hearts. Imagination is ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’ and how helpful it can be at moments to be able ‘to step into someone else’s shoes’ and to imagine how it feels from a different point of view. This is a most vital aspect in social dynamics at this time when the compassion of the heart might solve some otherwise intractable and potentially destructive global problems.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has recently celebrated its 25th birthday, which you are the founder of. What prompted you to do this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, as it was called at its inception, came into being in 1987 during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in N Ireland. My daughter, Sophie, had been having nightmares for some time of our home being ‘invaded’ and I realised that she and thousands of other  children were possibly breathing a form of  noxious toxin that suffused the air at that time – that of fear and hatred, of  grief and loss and of huge distrust between the Catholic and Protestant communities. I was at a loss as to what to do to help her until I attended a very special event in England to commemorate the life of my Russian ancestor, the poet, Alexander Pushkin. It was then that I realised how great Art lifts us all beyond the tribal and all that separates us and moves us on to Universal ground, where we share both the light and the dark of life, the joys and the sorrows. It is the ground where we meet as true human beings and where we begin to find and then express our ‘voice’ by more creative means.

RB: Can you say something about The Pushkin’s Schools Programme and why you feel it’s important to be cross-curricular?

SA: The Western Education and Library Board in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, helped us from the beginning to find 8 primary schools – 4 from the Protestant tradition and 4 from the Catholic tradition who would like to take part in a pilot scheme in the form of a creative writing competition. The schools would also be chosen from both sides of the border – 4 from Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland and 4 from Co Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The schools would then be invited to write short stories or poems on a theme chosen by the Pushkin project. The judges who helped us in the early days were looking for spontaneity, a sense of presence and ‘voice’ in the writing rather than perfect grammar and spelling. The themes we chose  to write about were drawn specifically from one of the 4 elements – Earth,  Air, Fire or  Water –  such as The Tree of Life,  Blowin’ in the Wind,  The Fire Within,  Going with the Flow etc  In this way the theme connected to every subject in the curriculum  and could be  explored and developed in a variety of ways. The Pushkin thematic approach is based on a holistic approach which values the uniqueness of each learner. It also values the contribution made by all subjects in school to the creation of well-rounded, creative and successful students. By placing the environment by way of the 4 elements, at the centre of its thematic approach the Pushkin Trust hopes to instil in children and adults a love and sense of deep connection  firstly to ourselves, and then to the  world in which we live and indeed share with one another. By focussing on a connected and innovative curriculum where learners explore and question, where they create and appreciate, the work of the Trust aims to encourage all learners to develop their fullest potential. The Pushkin logo of the 4 petalled flower is a symbol of the wholeness that we aspire to in our programmes with the 4 functions of Body, Mind, Emotions and Intuition each connecting to one of the 4 elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire centred on the Creative Spirit at its core.

RB: The programme uses creative writing as its central core, together with other creative art forms. Would science ever be considered to be included in the programme?

SA: The Pushkin Trust works primarily with children aged 9 – 11 years. For that reason the writing of short stories and poems, and now of working in many other art forms is the most appropriate way for them to access their creative spirit. However, just as we are convinced that it’s out of such an integrating approach that children can develop a larger sense of themselves as creative human beings, so we also believe that it can be the source of imaginative activity in all fields of endeavour, including the scientific. Our aim with Pushkin is to develop in children a confident degree of trust in that kind of intuitive creativity which is the source of good work in the sciences as well as in the arts.  The closest we get to scientific work is in our way of studying the environment, which stimulates the powers of observation through the senses and encourages a holistic and imaginative rather than simply analytic sense of the natural world. Science as it is conventionally taught relies on the rational analytic intellect, whereas our Pushkin mode of education tries to bring that faculty into creative relation with the other vitally important human functions of feeling, intuition and the senses.

RB: The Programme concentrates on the environment as an important source of inspiration. Why is this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, was conceived, as I have mentioned before, as a creative writing project to enable children in primary school to find their ‘voice’ by way of writing a short story or poem. It became apparent early on in the project that some children found it quite hard to open up to their unique ‘voice’ and connect to the realm of inspiration. It seemed that the most accessible way for a child or indeed a teacher to make contact with the source of their own being would be to take them into the natural world with the help of environmentalists to experience the world around them by way of their senses. After all, so many great artists have drawn upon this universal realm for their most inspired work in order to tap into the creative spirit at its source. We noticed how positively children from both urban and rural back grounds responded to having time in nature – time to regain their senses. It is as if children are in deep need of being re- connected to their ‘birthright’ – to their creative core.

RB: Pushkin’s work has become synonymous with creativity, inspiration and expression of the ‘Voice’. You have talked about encouraging both children and teachers to find their ‘Voice’. What do you mean by this?

SA: The genesis of the Pushkin work began with the ‘voice’ of a child. Realising the fear that was being voiced in my own child in the form of nightmares at that time I searched for a way to enable that fear to be channelled by some means into a more creative expression. I was fully aware that if such negative energy is left to fester it can become self-destructive and equally if it lashes out in self-defence it can destroy the world around it. However, all feelings whether they be positive or negative if they can be contained in some art form then become a kind of gift to life. Inspired by my ancestor, Alexander Pushkin, I realised that the power of the creative spirit, latent within us all, can transform the world we live in by giving a sense of meaning and purpose to ourselves as individuals. We discovered in the early stages of the creative writing programme that if the child in the class-room was to be able to express his or her ‘voice’ fully then the teacher needed to be alongside equally facing the ‘blank page’. We then began an annual November conference for all the teachers who would be taking the Pushkin programme into their class-rooms in the following January. In this way they would experience environmental and arts workshops based on the theme for the year ahead and re-discover the ‘child’ within themselves once more!  The response from teachers to this support enabling them to tap once more into their own creative spirit has been most rewarding. From this has grown our most current programme ‘Inspiring Educators’ which deepens the personal development of a teacher ad helps them to re-discover their own creative voice.

RB: Not only children, but many teachers have described the ‘Pushkin experience’ as life changing, releasing ‘hidden treasures’ that may have otherwise have lain dormant in their normal school lives. Do you think the current systems of education stifle the release of these ‘hidden treasures’?

SA: The ‘Pushkin experience’ has been described by both children and teachers as life changing, releasing  ‘hidden treasures’  that may otherwise have lain dormant in their school lives. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our current education system is its lop-sided nature. There are many positive aspects to learning how to read and write and knowing how to add and subtract and to  getting our sums right but that is only a part of what education is about. The word in Latin educare actually means to draw out and unfortunately our system seems to have failed massively in knowing how to go about this. We cannot have an exam for testing ‘emotional intelligence’ – feelings cannot be marked right or wrong.  Feelings simply ‘are’. So until our education system discovers how to embrace the non-rational side of a child’s nature we will continue to produce youngsters who are not able to cope with the world around them. Our inner landscape is full of hidden treasures – all qualities of the heart and soul. Until we find a way to uncover these treasures our outer landscape will remain severely impoverished.

RB: Educators from all over Ireland have paid tribute to the ability of The Pushkin Trust to inspire. Teachers and pupils alike have described how their contact with this movement has helped them to unlock in them a creative potential which they never knew existed.  When you founded it, did you foresee the Pushkin movement being so influential?

SA: It is most heartening that the Pushkin Trust has been acclaimed by educators from all parts of Ireland to have inspired children and teachers over these past 25 years. I never, for one moment, realised how strong the growth would become of the ‘seed of an idea’ that I had then. But I now realise that the creative spirit, if given the open ground to grow in, will put roots down and  stretch upwards to the light, branching out into new programmes and projects until it flowers and bears fruit. It has been a most rewarding process to have been involved with and we have simply acted as kind of ‘gardeners’ of our inner landscape. To have witnessed the ‘voice’ of so many children and teachers in so many creative ways has been a most humbling experience.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme for the creative and personal growth of the individual. What is your vision for its future?

SA: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme focussed on the creative potential in both the child and the teacher.  I would now like to see this work deeply embedded in and embraced by our education systems.  I would like to see every child in every classroom in primary schools and on through secondary and tertiary level claiming their ‘birthright’ to become whole human beings, fully alive.

The time is now.

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www.pushkintrust.com

 

The post Imagination in Education appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Creativity, Imagination and Philosophy

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Dustin Stokes: I’m a philosopher of mind and cognitive science. My research concerns three main (sometimes related) areas: imagination, sensory perception (and how it relates to cognition), and creativity. I tend to approach these topics in a broadly empirical manner, and collaborate with scientists in relevant fields. I have an additional interest in applying theories and methods from the philosophy and science of the mind to questions about art. I am trained in analytic philosophy and have typically worked and taught in philosophy departments. My academic home is the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, and I have previously researched and taught at the Universities of Sussex and Toronto, in both philosophy and cognitive science.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?

DS: Certainly my teachers. As an undergraduate, Bill Brown and Jack Knight. And as a graduate student, Tamar Szabo Gendler, Dominic McIver Lopes, and Mohan Matthen. They each, in their own ways, provided invaluable support and encouragement. And each was sensitive and receptive enough to recognize where my strengths were (and weren’t!), helping me to cultivate those strengths and, in turn to be confident about doing philosophy. This last bit is really important: I think philosophy can be extremely intimidating (it certainly was for me), and I don’t think I would have succeeded without the confidence that these teachers instilled in me. I should add that my schooling involved a lot of different philosophical approaches: history of ideas, analytic metaphysics and epistemology, empirically informed philosophy.

The interdisciplinary experiences that I’ve been lucky to have, and to still have, shaped and continue to shape how I think about philosophical analysis and, generally, theory and science. There are a number of ways that this is true, but here are a couple that come quickly to mind. Engaging with researchers from substantially different fields—for example, the roboticists, Alife researchers and computational neuroscientists at the Informatics department at the University of Sussex, where I had my first postdoc—encourages you, well, forces you really, to reflect carefully on the language and methodologies you use, and the underlying assumptions that you make. All of this has shaped how I think about expressing ideas. Second, and related, these experiences have forced me to be more open minded about the goals and values of philosophy. Put probably too simply: there isn’t just one way, or one good way, to approach a philosophical problem.

RB: What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?

DS: I think in our ordinary terms, we use ‘imagine’ and its cognates to refer to an array of disparate phenomena. For instance, we sometimes use the term to make clear that we merely thought or believed something, but now realize that we were mistaken, as we do when we say that we “just imagined it”. In a different spirit, we sometimes describe persons as being “imaginative” to express that they are creative or skilled at originating ideas. Sometimes we implore others to imagine so as to encourage empathy; I might say to you, “Imagine if I had done that to you”. And finally, and perhaps most obviously, we think of the imagination in terms of pretence, make-believe, imagery and mental exploration of non-actual, future and past, and merely fictional scenarios.

Now with the exception of perhaps the first imagination-as-mistake sense, all of these ordinary senses of imagination are relatively well theorized in philosophy and psychology: imagination in creative thought, imagination and its importance to understanding other minds, imagination and possibility, fiction, and, most simply, playfully indulging what is not here or now.

Whether there is a singular phenomenon that unifies these roles and mental activities is, to my mind, an open question. But even supposing that the answer to that question is in some sense negative, we can identify some common characteristics that seem to typify each of these cases. Imagination is a mental activity—a way of mentally representing—that is often under immediate voluntary control. (By contrast, you cannot immediately control what you believe at any moment, even if you can steer yourself, so to speak, towards this or that belief. As it is sometimes put, belief is truth-functional, imagination is not.) Second, imagination typically concerns objects and events that are not present to the subject doing the imagining. Put another way, imagining is not, as a mental activity, bound to truth or reality. And finally, and more traditionally, imagination often involves mental images of some sort, visual, auditory, and perhaps other sensory modalities.

RB: Can you give some historical examples of how imagination has been explored philosophically?

DS: I think we first might distinguish examples where imagination is a topic of inquiry, from cases where it is used as part of philosophical method.

Of the second, perhaps with greater or lesser emphasis, imagination has been part of the philosopher’s toolkit from the beginning: imagining hypotheses, possibilities, examples and illustrations. Imagination sometimes occupies an explicit and operative place in argumentation. One clear example is the use of conceivability/possibility principles in the early modern period. For instance, a number of Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism hinge around what he can conceive and the implication this has for what’s metaphysically possible: he claims that he can coherently conceive of his mind without his body, and so it must be possible to have a bodiless mind. Therefore, as a matter of metaphysics, the mind must be substantially distinct from the body. But it wasn’t just Descartes or so-called rationalists that appealed to imagination in this way: empiricists did the same. For example, in some places in the Essay, Locke takes the inconceivability of free-floating properties like colour, shape, motion, and so on to imply that (perhaps) properties without a property bearer are impossible and, therefore, maybe there is (or must be) some underlying substance or “substratum” that bears those properties. And maybe somewhere in between imagination as method and imagination as topic of inquiry, Hume regularly appeals to imagination to explain (but not justify) how we form ideas and beliefs about things for which (he thinks) we lack appropriate evidence, for example, ideas of the self, of substance, and of causes.

Now imagination is currently “in fashion” as a stand-alone topic, but traditionally it has not been a dominant subject matter. One notable exception is Sartre, who wrote two books on (broadly) the imagination. A lot of Sartre’s analysis readily comports, I think, with contemporary discussions of the imagination (and somewhat ironically, since Sartre is not much discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy).

First, Sartre understood imagination to be intentional, in the sense of having aboutness, or being representational. He also tended to have in mind imagery, since he described imaginative episodes as observational. Moreover, when imaging an event, say Pierre in the café (it’s always Pierre in the café), we “see” right through the image to the thing imaged: it is as if we see Pierre, but we do not see our image of Pierre. Imagination is, in more contemporary terms, transparent. But at the same time for Sartre, by contrast to perception, images are somehow tagged as concerning objects or events that are not present. So, imagination is really quasi-observational, since it lacks the feeling of presence that visual or other perceptual experiences enjoy. Finally, he understood our capacity for imagination to be voluntary but also to involve some degree of spontaneity: we construct the objects-as-imaged, but this often happens rapidly and without feeling of effort.

It is this combination of features that, for Sartre, give imagination its creative power. One can actively imagine, where one is thereby responsible for the objects-as-imaged, and without commitment to their presence in one’s environment. And because one can do this, one therefore makes and is responsible for the contents of one’s imaginings (by contrast to the contents of one’s perceptions or beliefs). Imagining is, for Sartre, a richly creative activity, and this is no trivial part of his broader philosophy. The playfulness and freedom enjoyed by imagination is central to how we intend to change the world as we find it, and how we identify as selves. On Sartre’s view, freedom in the world—freedom of the will—consists importantly in our capacity for imagining the world to be ways other than the ways we find it, and then further imagining how we might act to change the world in those very ways. So it’s not an overstatement, I don’t think, to say that imagination and its creative potential are central to Sartre’s existentialism, since they are central to how we mould our existence (which, on the familiar slogan, precedes essence).

RB: Are there different varieties of imagination? Can you give some examples?

DS: Well, as I said earlier, I think this is a point of active debate, since it isn’t obvious that there is a singular phenomenon that falls under the term ‘imagination’. That said, in both traditional and contemporary research, philosophers have made some distinctions. Depending upon one’s views about *a* faculty of imagination, these might be distinctions between types of mental process or state (perhaps not all of them imagination), distinctions in types of imagination, or distinctions in the roles or uses that a single thing the imagination—can serve.

One distinction, acknowledged by both Kant and Sartre is between “productive” vs. “reproductive” imagination (or put in other terms, “creative” vs. “recreative” imagination). The terms already point to the sense of the distinction, but the basic idea is that we can sometimes use imagination to produce or create a thought that is, to some degree, novel. It could be something important like a scientific hypothesis or something banal, like an anxiety-inducing possibility (“maybe that noise in the attic is a gremlin”). But just as often, perhaps more often, we use imagination to reproduce ideas. These could be our own ideas (“there’s that noisy gremlin again”) or be reproductions of ideas of others, as we do when we follow a fictional narrative. Interestingly, Sartre takes the latter—engagement with fictions—to be not entirely re-productive, but importantly productive. He takes the narrative—say a novel—to be incomplete at the stage of the author’s production; although guided by the text, the reader must actively imagine so as to “fill out” the fictional world. The reader is thereby complicit in creating the fictional world, or the “irreal world” as Sartre puts it, and this has an interesting explanatory consequence, it explains why our experiences of fictions can be so powerful: we are actively responsible, on Sartre’s view, for creating that fiction.

Another distinction is between sensory imagination, or imagery, and non-imagistic imagination. Going back at least to Aristotle, mental imagery was the more commonly discussed notion. When we imagine, we form images before the “mind’s eye”. In contemporary discussions, philosophers distinguish this sensory imagination from something that need not or does not involve images, what they call “propositional imagination”. Although imagery has received more attention traditionally, there is certainly early precedent for propositional imagination. For example, Descartes maintained that one could form a mental image of a triangle, but not of a chiliagon (a 1000-sided figure). This is standardly taken to indicate that understanding doesn’t require imagery, since Descartes claimed to find his image-less idea of the chiliagon to be intelligible. But it also points to a kind of imagination: one can imagine that a figure has 1000 sides. This is propositional imagination.

Most recently, propositional imagination has dominated recent theorizing of the imagination, with the consequence that imagery has been relatively neglected by philosophers. My view is that this inversion of tradition is unfortunate, and I hope that more and more philosophers will return attention to sensory imagination.

RB: How do our imaginative capacities differ from other mental capacities?

DS: Well, some of this has come out in what we have already discussed, but here are a few (hopefully not overly controversial) features of imagination, as contrasted with other mental processes. I think most take imagination to be disconnected from truth, reality, and action. So, I can imagine propositions that I know to be merely fictional or false, but I typically cannot (willingly) believe those same propositions. As I’ve put it in some of my work, imagination is non truth-bound in a way that is different from belief, memory, and knowledge. It is also different from sensory perception with respect to the here-and-now. We can grant that vision sometimes suffers illusions and hallucinations (some of them perhaps the mere imaginings of philosophers!), but it is typically responsive to the objects, features, and events that are present in one’s environment. Even if it sometimes misfires, this is certainly the function of vision. Imagination does not share this function: it can be about things that have little or nothing to do with one’s present reality. And indeed part of the fun, and the utility, of imagination consists in this freedom from reality. Finally, imagination is different from other states with respect to action. Unlike forming an intention to perform some action which will, assuming other conditions are in place, result in that action, imagining performing actions is not similarly bound to carrying out those actions.

All of this points to the playfulness of imagination. But, importantly, imagination is not all play and no work. It can result in emotional affect. It plays some non-negligible part in how we empathize with others. It plays a crucial role in a lot of our reasoning: we imagine what may happen if we make one choice instead of another, we form mental images to reason about spaces and bodily actions (“Will this sofa fit through the apartment door?”, “If I turn the handlebars at this angle then I bet I can make that tight switchback.”). It figures in determining whether our evidence is sufficient for certainty or knowledge. And so on.

My view is that it is this combination of playfulness and workfulness that makes imagination crucial, if not essential, to creative innovation and original thinking. The playfulness can get you novel ideas, since it allows you to “try out” thoughts and conceptual combinations unbound to truth and reality; it serves a role that I’ve called “cognitive manipulation”. The workfulness can enable you to determine which of those novel ideas are useful, relevant, or valuable. And all of this can, in the philosopher’s terms, be done agentially, largely under voluntary control.

RB: What role does the imagination have in scientific discovery and how does it fit with rational ways of making discoveries?

DS: I think we are going to talk about imagination and creativity in a moment, and think that is relevant to your question here, so I’ll say a few things now (further to my response to the last question) and more later.

Take it or leave it, but there is a traditional distinction in philosophy of science between “”the context of discovery” and “the context of justification”. The first concerns the scientist’s insight or novel hypothesis, perhaps it comes in a burst of original thinking or after a long period of laborious cognitive work. The second concerns how that hypothesis then gets analysed, scrutinized, tested, and so on. This is rather controversial territory, not least because the distinction essentially identified the context of justification—the “logic” of science—as the only appropriate subject matter for philosophy of science; and it took decades to overcome that theoretical consequence. An underlying assumption here, I think, is that the context of discovery is simply too unruly, unbound with respect to truth and reason, to be evaluated objectively. “Who knows how the scientist gets radically novel ideas!? That’s subject matter for psychology (or magic!) but not philosophy!” What’s right about this is that the generation of novel ideas or hypotheses requires mental processes that are not bound to truth or “objective reality”; it requires, as I said a bit ago, imagination. Imagination is non truth-bound, and playful, in a way that makes it ideal for novel discovery. Now, critics of this distinction and its disciplinary consequences rejected the assumption that the justification or “proof” of theories was a purely objective or logical matter; human psychology and sociology are undeniable factors in the context of justification, not just the context of discovery. An extension of this criticism is to acknowledge how imagination, a mental process not bound to objectivity with a big ‘O’, also figures in scientific reasoning, analysis, justification. Here are a couple ways I think this is true; both of them concern the use of imagination in scientific experimentation.

Philosophers employ thought experiments (sometimes for good, sometimes…not so good). But scientists use thought experiments too; they always have. And it should be obvious why: they often have to “dream up” some conceptual or technological innovation in order to resolve a current problem and, importantly, a problem apparently not resolvable by existing means. And this “dreaming up” involves imagination. It would be wrong to think, though, that this all occurs at an initial stage of discovery or a Eureka! moment. The imagined scenarios or propositions have to be put to the test, so to speak, to determine if they will contribute to the solution to the current problem. And this analysis will often involve imagination. A famous example is William Harvey’s reported method of discovering the human cardiovascular system. The problem was this: the existing anatomical model had it that there were two kinds of blood—one coming from the liver and distributed through the veins and the other coming from the heart and distributed through the arteries. And all of this blood was supposed to be regularly consumed by the human body. Harvey reasoned that this model was incompatible with empirical observation; for instance, it would predict that veins would be regularly dry (which appeared to be false given rapid blood loss upon incision) unless the liver created blood constantly and with inconceivable rapidity. Harvey began to imagine that blood flowed cyclically throughout the body. But this imagined possibility was not yet sufficient for a solution to the problem. To secure that, Harvey then had to construct a new anatomical model, including how the blood flowed from arteries to veins and then returned to the heart through its right ventricle. And he had to construct this new model—a new paradigm, if you like—in a way that was consistent with what else was known about the human body. This is a scientific innovation shot through with imagination at all of its stages.

Another way imagination figures in scientific discovery is technological. A naïve view of empirical science might assume that the technologies used are ready-made, so to speak, and the scientist must then just use them, and sometimes use them creatively. But a moment’s reflection will reveal otherwise: scientific technologies are as much a part of the invention of science as the theories they are used to test and support. The perceptual psychologist, for example, is regularly challenged to identify possible confounds to isolating the phenomenon she is interested in. Perhaps she wants to know if an observed behaviour is a result of vision, but not of the subject’s judgment or desires. So she must attempt to “control for”, as we say, the variables that might be possible confounds and, in the good cases, thereby get data just on the variable/s of interest. A great deal of imagination is required to do all of this successfully: one has to imagine what the possible confounds may be, one has to imagine methods for controlling for the relevant variables and then which ones may work better or worse. And one sometimes must imagine (and construct) a technology in order to serve those very methods. As I like to put it, then, being an experimentalist requires being a tinkerer, both at the stage of experimental construction and technological development. These innovations are themselves creative, are essential for creative scientific discovery, and the tinkering required often involves imagination.

RB: There is little that shapes the human experience as profoundly and pervasively as creativity. What is the relation between creativity and imagination?

DS: I certainly agree. I think it’s right that we simply wouldn’t be human, or what we think of as human, if we lacked the capacity for creative thought and behaviour. And I also think that we wouldn’t be human without the capacity for imagination. As should be clear from what I’ve said about imagination and scientific discovery, I think these two observations are importantly related. I think imagination is central to creativity, and that this is true whether we are talking about richly creative minds like Picasso or Einstein or Coltrane or whomever, or talking about more mundane instances of everyday creativity.

So a lot of my work on creativity has attempted to shift the emphasis from the former to the latter, from genius to what I call “minimal creativity”. I don’t think a Picasso or an Einstein is a good place to start, if we want to understand their innovations from a psychological or naturalistic perspective. Instead, we start with some features that are common to those instances of creativity and ones that many people might make: a clever solution to a hitch in a home improvement project, a new way to explain something familiar, a chess move that surprises both you and your opponent. What is common to all of these?

We can first acknowledge that creative things are valuable, but I don’t think value is informative as a condition on creativity (any more than I think utility is an informative defining condition of, say, a chair). To explain creativity, then, even at the most basic level, we have to say what features are necessary for some F to be creative. This will be incomplete…but I think there are at least two, and even just acknowledging the two can lead us in some interesting directions and make the topic of creativity tractable. First, creative Fs—an idea, an action, a product—are novel or new in some way. But we shouldn’t assume that they must be entirely new, or out of nowhere as we might say. Instead, they can be novel relative to a comparison class, and that comparison class could be the entirety of human ideas, or it could just be the set of ideas had by the thinker in question. Maggie Boden calls the first “historical creativity” and the second, “psychological creativity”. And she urges that an interest in creativity is not exclusive to the first. In fact, I think the point is even stronger: a philosophical or psychological interest in creativity should not centrally emphasize historical creativity, since here our interest is in what the agent does, or has to do, to make something new. And this could be a very individual, rather than a sociological, matter. Second, and related, we think of creative Fs, say a new hypothesis or an interesting performance, as being worthy of praise. Accordingly, they are thoughts and actions for which the agent is responsible (we don’t praise people for things out of their control). So, creativity, in addition to relative novelty, requires agency (in the philosopher’s sense).

This is an incomplete characterization of what I call “minimally creative thought” (or action). But even this minimal sense points to the importance of imagination. As I said above, the playfulness of imagination—its being unbound to truth or reality—allows us to think or act in ways not immediately responsive to our reality (or how we perceive that reality). It enables novelty. And because we can voluntarily control imagination, we can explore those novel ideas and their possible values. And, this is something we do, as agents. The upshot, I think, is that imagination is important for even mundane instances of creativity. And that, to come finally back to the question, is why imagination is so important to being human, and to experiencing the world as human.

RB: Can the imaginative capacity sometimes be a hindrance and restrictive? If so, can you give some examples where this might be the case?

DS: Well, imagination can itself be restricted (and therefore perhaps restrictive). Psychologists (and, following suit, some philosophers) are becoming more and more sensitive to individual differences in cognitive processes. One relevant example here is aphantasia, a condition where individuals have limited to no capacity for imagery. And more broadly, there is good evidence for individual differences in types of imagery. For instance, a lot more people report a capacity for visual imagery than, say, olfactory imagery. Whether these conditions restrict individuals is something of an open question. Persons with aphantasia can perform many of the same cognitive and reasoning tasks as those who have the capacity for imagery, even if they are succeeding by different mental means.

Another way that imagination can be troublesome—perhaps a hindrance—is a familiar one: our imaginations can “run away with us”. One nice development in recent philosophy of imagination and fiction concerns how mere imagining can cause powerful emotional affect. This is obviously true when we watch a film or theatre performance or read a novel. Imagining mere fictional characters and events results in feelings of sadness, pity, fear (or at least, feelings very much like them). In these cases I don’t think we would want to call it a hindrance, but now just notice how roughly the same phenomenon occurs when we are imagining mere possibilities in our lives: one can imagine that a loved one may be terminally ill, that the audience thought your lecture was rubbish, that that’s not a gremlin in the attic but a devastating termite infestation. And these imaginings may absolutely result in genuine emotional affect. This can be a hindrance, emotionally and in our decision making capacities.

A perhaps less familiar way that imagination might be a hindrance concerns knowledge. Many think that having knowledge of some proposition P involves certainty that P is true. Here is one way to characterize this epistemic achievement: certainty that P requires that one be certain that propositions incompatible with P (most obviously, not P) are false. Thus to know that you have a physical body and live in a material world (again, call this ‘P’), you need to be certain (or, as we sometimes say, have a justified belief) that you are not living in some science fictional scenario, say, where all of your experiences are the mere consequence of an elaborate computer simulation. (This may sound outlandish, but how could you be absolutely sure that this scenario is false? It’s notoriously hard to answer that question with certainty. And if you want more down to earth examples: short of going and looking, how can you be certain…that you locked your apartment door this morning? that your car is parked where you left it? that there are no typos in the email you just sent?…it’s easy to imagine possibilities incompatible with each of these propositions). So…this latter proposition (living out an elaborate computer simulation) is incompatible with the truth of P (that you have a physical body and live in a material world), and thus incompatible with your knowing that P. And here is the rub, the more imaginative you are, if you “let your imagination rip”, to steal a phrase from David Lewis, the more salient are those possibilities incompatible with your knowledge that P. So, perhaps surprisingly, imagination can restrict knowledge: as imagination goes up, so to speak, we can become more sceptical and knowledge can elude us.

RB: How do you, or how would you like to, see the future philosophical and psychological exploration of our imaginative capacities progressing?

DS: Well, I’d certainly like to see more collaboration between empirical researchers and philosophers on the topic. Things are trending in this direction, so I’d just like to see that continue. It’s a place—and theories of mind in general are a place—where, I think, interdisciplinarity is worth the hype.

As I noted earlier, the dominant emphasis in the last couple decades has been on non-sensory imagination, and at the cost of work on imagery. I’d like to see that change.

Finally, I think the work on imagination and fiction is good. But I think we should see more emphasis on the importance of imagination to other aspects of life: to the pursuit of knowledge, to happiness, to understanding of others. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been some of this work, there has been. But I think there should be more and more of it. To use my own slogan once more, imagination is not all play and no work: it does a great deal of work for us. It may sound lofty, but I think imagination contributes in deep and rich ways to the human condition, and so I would like to see more philosophical and cognitive scientific discussions of this broad importance.

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http://stokes.mentalpaint.net/Dustin_Stokes.htm

 

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Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’

Richard Bright: What is the biggest misconception people have about creativity?

Ken Robinson: There are several. Probably the biggest is that creativity is an exceptional set of powers that few people have. My argument is that, if you are a human being, it comes with the kit; you’re born with these powers. Creativity is not a single power that only a few people have, it’s a set of capacities that everybody has. There’s an analogy with literacy. With a few exceptions, everybody is born with the capacity to be literate, but not everybody is, because not everybody has learnt what’s involved and practiced the skills that are needed.

Becoming literate is different from learning to speak. Most children learn to speak quite naturally; nobody teaches them formally how to do it. They just pick it up. You couldn’t teach them. It isn’t practical to teach anybody to speak at that age; you coax, encourage and correct them, but you don’t ‘teach’ them to speak in any formal sense. But writing and reading are cultural skills that have to be studied and practiced and usually do need to be taught. Similarly, all people are born with ‘creative capacities’ but not everybody develops the skills that are necessary to fulfil them.

RB: Would you say that creativity is a natural instinct?

KR: It’s a suite of things. I make a broad distinction between imagination and creativity. Imagination is where all this comes from. It’s part of what makes human beings different from the rest of life on Earth. Very few things do, when it comes down to it and we make far too much of the differences. We’re mortal, organic creatures of flesh and blood. We depend for our survival on what the Earth provides. Our life cycles are similar to many other species; we are part of the natural world.  At the same time, it’s evident that there are some differences between humanity and the rest of life on earth. You and I are communicating across continents by Skype. You’re sitting in a building that someone designed and others constructed and you’re surrounded by digital technologies. So am I. We’re using articulate languages. Other creatures aren’t doing that. There aren’t cats and dogs Skyping in some other parts of the building on devices they came up with.

Clearly there are differences in the way we engage with the world around us. One way of describing these differences is to say that human beings have powerful imaginations; that we are born with a capacity to look beyond the immediate sensory environment. As far as we can judge, other creatures are more ‘locked in’ to the here and now than we are.

By imagination, I mean the ability to bring into mind the things that are not present. With imagination, you can step outside the immediate here and now; you can re-visit the past; you can enter the mindsets of other people and try to see the world from their perspective; you can anticipate the future and hypothesise.

Imagination is the wellspring of creativity. But creativity is a step on. You could be imaginative all day long and never do anything. We wouldn’t say, “There’s Richard, he’s tremendously creative. He never does anything but he’s terribly thoughtful. He lays in bed all day, staring at the ceiling.” To be creative you have to do something, it can be anything, but it has to be something. It could be mathematics, publishing a magazine, making a meal, writing a play, designing a building, coming up with a new scientific theory. But it has to be some thing.

I define creativity more specifically as the process of having original ideas that have value. There’s a shorter way of thinking about it, which is that creativity is putting imagination to work. It is ‘applied imagination’. It’s the executive branch of imagination. We’re born with fertile imaginations. Children often lead wonderfully imaginative lives. They create imaginary worlds and dwell in them with tremendous enjoyment and confidence. To move into the more purposeful realm of sustained and serious creativity, we need to acquire the necessary skills and dispositions in the domain in which we are interested, or at least enough to get started.

I had an indirect exchange with Michael Gove last year. He was on BBC Question Time, talking about how creativity is all very well but musicians have to learn all their scales first; they have to master their instruments before they can create. Well, they don’t. There are many wonderful musicians who don’t know one end of a stave from another, and who learnt ‘on the job’. Think of jazz musicians, rock musicians, blues guitarists who learnt through improvisation and trial and error. I’m sure there are many accomplished classical musicians too, who started making music before they understood what they were doing technically and had mastery of their instruments.

Of course, there’s a reciprocal relationship between the skills you need and what you are  you are capable of doing, but you acquire skills more readily when you need them. I don’t play the piano and I can’t be properly creative on it. I could make a row on a piano. I could vent on it for a while, I could do something that I might personally find interesting but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to take an interest in it because I can’t control the medium. Sustained and fulfilling creative work in any domain requires a growing mastery of the discipline itself. But you can get started and learn more as you go.

Children start out being very imaginative but as they get older they may not acquire the skills they need or they may lose the confidence. They become more self-conscious look at what other people are doing and think, “I can’t do that.” Kids will draw unselfconsciously until they’re five, six or seven. By the time they’re ten, they’ll often say, “I can’t draw.” Actually, they probably can’t. I don’t know how to fly a plane. There’s no point in saying, “Oh go on, have a go!” because I can’t. Of course, I could learn how to do it. There’s a difference between saying, “I don’t know how to do it” and “I’m incapable of doing it.” I can’t play the guitar, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, I just can’t at the moment. I could if I put my mind to it.

We all have creative capacities, but they do have to be cultivated. If we neglect or demean them in schools, those natural talents may start to atrophy.

RB: You mentioned drawing and how children, when they are seven or eight, feel that they can’t draw. At some point children are told to draw ‘realistically’ and some then believe they cannot draw because they cannot draw realistically. But they’re still expressing their creativity, although they’re being told, “Well, you can’t draw realistically, therefore you can’t draw.”

KR: Untutored, children’s drawings typically go through various stages of development. Very young children start off with unrecognisable shapes and splodges. As they grow, they start to draw stick people. Then they start adding more details and features. As they go on, they develop some perspective in their drawings. When they get to the age of twelve or thirteen, without tutoring, they don’t get much better. They reach a plateau. Consequently, many adults have the graphic skills of an adolescent. If you asked a typical forty year old they’d probably say, “Well, I can’t really draw.” They’re probably right. They can’t really. If people can’t read, there’s no point in saying that they can when they can’t. But they could, with help.

RB: Going back to imagination. Imagination, as you said, is very tied up with creativity. Ted Hughes, in an essay entitled, ‘Myth and Education’ said, “The real problem comes from the fact that outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment, we are simply the locus of their collision. And, whether we like it or not, our life is what we are able to make of that collision and struggle. So, what we need is a faculty that embraces both worlds simultaneously, a large, flexible graph, an inner vision which holds wide open like a great theatre, the arena of contention, and pays equal respect to both sides. This really is imagination.” Basically, he’s saying that imagination and creativity involves this dynamic process of negotiation between the inner and outer world. Would you agree with this statement? That there’s a negotiation between the inner and outer? If you’re too ‘inner’, you can be psychotic. If you’re just ‘outer’, you become less empathetic.

KR: Yes, absolutely. One of the consequences of our powers of imagination and creativity is that we don’t live in the world as directly as other creatures seem to do. We live in a world of ideas and conceptions, of representations. We don’t just live in the world, we have ideas about it, we think about it, we theorise about it, we place frameworks across it, we see it through veils of conceptions, through our languages, our cultures and our ideologies. Some of the most bitter battles and murderous conflicts in the world are over ideas, not property. They are between people avidly contesting their own views of the world.

We do live in two worlds. It was nicely put some years ago in a book by Robert Witkin, called ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’.  He said there’s a world that exists, whether or not we exist – a world of other people and objects, a world that was there before we came into it as individuals. There’s another world that exists only because we exist; it’s the world that came into being when we did, it’s the world of our own private thoughts, feelings, perceptions and motivations, a world in which, as R.D. Laing once said, there’s only one set of footprints. We only know the outer world through the inner world, through our various senses and the ideas we have about it.

Education systems are pre-occupied with this outer world, with the events that go on in it and with information about almost to the complete neglect of students’ inner lives. There has to be balance between the inner world of feeling and spirituality, and the outer world of events, ideas and information.

One way, of distinguishing arts and sciences is that the natural sciences especially are focused on understanding the outer world in its own terms. Science is objective in the sense that people aim to produce observations and theories, which can be independently validated by other people using agreed criteria and procedures. In these ways, the assertions of scientists can be challenged, refuted or verified by other scientists. They are objective in that sense.

Objectivity isn’t the same as truth. Ideas and theories that people agree on with complete, objective certainty may turn out in the light of better information and analysis to be completely untrue. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t objective in the first place. They may have been subjected to all the normal criteria of objective judgement: they just turned out to be wrong.

What artists typically aim to do is not only to describe the outer world in terms of itself but of its relationship with our inner worlds: that point of collision that Ted Hughes talks about, where these two worlds intersect. “This is how it looks to me, this is how I experience it. This is how I feel about this.” This doesn’t mean that the arts are not objective, they can be completely objective, but they report on different sorts of truth. They live in that intersection of the inner and outer worlds and they’re all the more important for that.

Creativity isn’t just about the arts. When people say they’re not creative, often what they mean is that they’re not artistic; they don’t play an instrument or draw or dance. But creativity is a feature of all areas of human intelligence, and it operates often in very similar ways in different disciplines. There are many synergies between the arts and sciences, for example. They may answer to different criteria, the purposes may be different, but the interests between them and the processes they draw on are more alike than is commonly understood. Education often divides disciplines and tries to keep them apart but out in the world they constantly flow together.

RB: The statement you made, about defining creativity as a process of having original ideas that have value, the term ‘value’ is loaded, it’s subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. People often associate creativity with the individual, but there’s also the social dimension as well. Would you agree that there’s the value personally for the individual, but also there’s a social dimension?

KR: All three parts of the definition are important. It’s a process and not an event. In any creative process you work to shape the idea or object you are producing. It often takes a different form in the end from what you had in mind when you started out. Being creative is a process of successive approximations. It’s a material process too. The materials being used are not incidental to how the work evolves but central to it.

Some artistic movements, for example, have been spurred by new technologies and materials. Impressionism was borne forward with the development of pre-mixed and synthetic paints, which gave painters a different and more vivid palette than before. The availability of these paints in tin tubes also allowed them to work more easily and quickly outdoors.  The instruments of the symphony orchestra are a tool kit. The development of these instruments intermingled at every turn with the evolution of Western music itself. But these are tools. A cupboard full of these instruments has no music in it until musicians breathe life into them.

So, creativity is a process in which the work you are producing evolves in the making. Sometimes people come up with a finished work straightaway, but it’s more the exception than the rule. It’s said that John Milton never revised ‘Paradise Lost’. He woke up every morning and dictated sections of it to his daughters. They took it down and took it off to the publishers and that was that. It’s much more often the case that creative work takes shape with successive revisions, false starts, edits and changes in the process of making it.

Creativity is about producing something new.  At the most basic level, it means producing something that didn’t exist before. To count as creative, the work doesn’t have to be original to the whole of humanity. It doesn’t have to be quantum theory, or Beethoven’s Ninth. It does have to be new to the maker at least and not just a copy or a repetition.  Value judgements are important here too. In judging our own and other people’s creative work, we constantly apply values to them. Is it any good? Is it worth it? Does it add up to anything? Does it matter? In any creative process, there is a constant questioning, “Does that feel right? Is that OK? Is that it?”

Then, when the work is out in the world, people bring their own judgments to it and decide whether they think it’s any good. That’s true in the sciences and the arts. Most of our judgments about original work are about value. It does of course then raise the question, “Whose values?” There’s no single answer to that. What we do know is that a lot of original work, in all sorts of fields, was vilified when it first appeared. Some of it was deified later on when people got the hang of it; some turned out to be nonsense after all.

Original work is often misunderstood at the time, because it doesn’t sit well with dominant cultural values. Some people start by thinking, “This is rubbish” Then, if it has some enduring quality, people think of it differently because it shifts the value system.

You can’t really have a conversation about arts, or creativity in many fields without encountering value judgements. I don’t know why people shy away from that. Of course, you should be prepared to defend value judgements and to say which values are being applied and why. I think people are sometimes nervous of making value judgements because of a ‘scientistic’ culture that demands quantitative data as proof of judgement. Not all judgements can or should be quantified in the same way.

RB: I want to come on to education. We talked about the creative process, where one is working with limitations. Stravinsky once wrote that the more constraint one imposes, the more one frees oneself. John Cleese talks about creativity as a way of operating, as opposed to a talent, and he imposes time restraints on his creative output during the day. Anish Kapoor talks about limiting failure time, working with failure and reducing that failure time. That idea of working with limitations, self-imposed, or imposed by others, is actually part of the creative process. There are no hard and fast rules about creativity, it can come from desperation, deadlines or daydreaming. So, getting on to education, can creativity be educated? Or does education actually jeopardise creativity?

KR: Limitations and constraints can have an important role in creativity. David Rockwell, the architect, was recently commissioned to design a theatre for the TED conference, which now takes place in a large, rather featureless convention hall at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The actual space is like an aircraft hanger. His commission was to design a theatre that could house twelve hundred people with a sense of intimacy with the stage and each other. The TED conference is only in the space for one week a year and the theatre has to be assembled relatively quickly on site and then dismantled and stored for the next year. He designed a wooden theatre, a little like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London It’s a beautiful structure that creates a vibrant, intimate space. The strict constraints on space, portability and materials drove the design.

Creativity is not all about freewheeling and freefalling. It’s about control and rigour too. I’m doing some work at the moment with Disney and the ‘Imagineers’. They are brilliantly talented in all sorts of ways, and deeply disciplined in what they’re doing. So, can education help to promote creativity? Well, yes.

Joi Ito runs the media lab at MIT. He said recently, “Learning is what you do for yourself, and education is what other people do to you.” That’s a nice way to put it. Education is about learning. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that but it is. It’s like saying the health service is about health. It is, but in practice all kinds of people go into hospital for one condition and get sick or die of another that they contracted in the hospital. Too often kids love to learn until they go to school because the conditions in schools can militate against it.

There are various ways in which education gets in the way of creativity in particular. One is that most education systems actually do very little to cultivate it. If it happens at all, it happens incidentally through the efforts of individual teachers who are impassioned about it. Politicians talk a good game about creativity, but they don’t do what’s needed at the policy level to make it flourish. Often enough, they do the exact opposite.

Schools can frustrate creativity too, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately, in how they’re organised and operate. Education consists of four interweaving strands; there’s the curriculum, which is what we want people to learn; pedagogy, which is how we aim to help them do it; assessment, which is how we report on how they’re getting on; and the overall culture of the school, which gives strong, if tacit messages about priorities through the physical environment and algorithms of the day.

Broadly speaking, I distinguish between general creativity and personal creativity. There are all kinds of ways to help people think more productively and generate fresh ideas. Edward de Bono has written a lot about this and produced some great strategies like the ‘six thinking hats’ and other practical techniques for generating and sifting through ideas and for organising groups to be more productive. There are other proprietary systems too, like Synectics and Design Thinking, which offer their own techniques. These sorts of techniques can be applied to anything from designing a new car to planning your holidays. I think that schools should routinely teach the skills of general creative thinking.

By personal creativity, I mean areas in which, as individuals, we have a particular calling. I wrote about this in the Element books. For some people it may be chemistry or basketball; others come alive when they’re working with animals, others when they’re dancing or writing. There’s a very personal dimension to these forms of creative work because they fulfil personal talents and passions.

Education militates against general creativity because schools don’t teach the skills and processes of creative thinking. It inhibits personal creativity because a narrow curriculum limits opportunities for students to develop their personal talents and passions or doesn’t allow them enough time to pursue them. There are pedagogical issues too. Teachers themselves are very constrained by the testing demands in schools and not enough of them know how to facilitate the creative process.

Methods of assessment also have to be compatible with promoting creative work. When I was chairman of the Department of Arts Education at Warwick University, I was pressing to have the practical work of students in theatre, dance, visual arts and music, accepted for assessment in its original forms. The general unit of assessment at the time was a two thousand-word essay. Even students that were doing art had to submit essays, not paintings. I remember a conversation with another member of the examinations who said, “There’s no objective way of judging these works” I said, “How do you judge a paper in mathematics?” He said, “We give them to mathematicians.” I replied, “Let’s give works of art to artists and get them to assess it. Let’s give novels to people who understand about novels.” The next issue was comparability. I was asked how we could compare paintings to a two thousand-word essay. I suggested that as a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, the students should probably submit two pictures …

If schools are serious about promoting creativity in schools, they have to look at the curriculum, teaching and assessment and at the physical environment in which students are learning. They have to understand and encourage the conditions in which both general and personal creativity actually flourish.

RB: Certain languages, the written language, the visual language, mathematical language, are sometimes non-transferable. An example would be that, in mathematics, you can describe multi-dimensional space quite easily – up to twelve dimensions – in the visual language you can only imply it in four dimensions; you cannot go beyond that. Visual language is a system of communication, to encode concepts, information and meaning, using visual elements only, no other ‘language’ is needed or will suffice. It’s non-transferable.

KR: Richard Feynman talked about that. As well as being a great physicist, he was also a musician. He said, if you want to understand quantum theory you need to know mathematics. You can’t understand it otherwise. You can approximate it, you can get some rough idea of what we’re talking about, but you can’t engage in it without mathematics. You can’t get there through music.

Different areas of understanding need different modes of discourse. If somebody wants to know that you love them write them a poem, don’t give them an equation. A major argument for the arts in schools is that there are some forms of experience that that we can’t fully understand without them.

RB: My last question. Is finding one’s element a quest?

KR: Yes it is. I write about this in Finding Your Element. A quest is a particular type of journey. If you’re in Bath and decide to go to London, you know where it is and the odds are pretty high you’re going to get there. A quest is a different sort of journey, where you set out purposefully, but may not have a clear idea of the destination or if you will make it. Finding your element is a two-way quest. It’s an inner journey to understand more about yourself, your talents, and the things that engage and interest you. In that sense it’s a spiritual journey: the sense in which you are in high or low spirits, in which your energy is enriched, or depleted. If you’re in your element, you get energy from what you do. Doing things you don’t care for tends to take energy from you.

Finding your element is not just a journey into yourself. It’s a quest to discover more of yourself in the world around you. You may not know what’s in you, until you put yourself to the test in the outer world. It’s that interaction that Ted Hughes talks about.

In Finding Your Element I set out some practices and techniques for this two-way quest. I also argue that this isn’t only or necessarily about what you do for a living, it’s about what sort of life you want to lead. I spoke at an event a few years ago with HRH the Dalai Lama. He said lots of wonderful things. One was, “To be born at all is a miracle. So what are you going to do with your life?” I think that’s exactly the right question.

The odds of our being here individually are very small and we’re not here for very long. Many people spend so much of their time just coping and getting through it. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 the second largest cause of disability among human beings, will be depression. Education does little to help here. In high-performing systems on standardised tests, like South Korea and Singapore, kids are being driven to states of high anxiety and often suicide because of the pressure of competition.

Dealing with these sorts of issues is about understanding that education is a personal process and that there are certain conditions under which human beings flourish, and others under which we do not. That’s what the Element books are really about.

The post Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’ appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

The Alchemy of Oblique Topography

Imaginary Echo Chamber. Mixed Media, 2016, 68cm x 74cm

Speculation regarding global-scale catastrophe has heightened exponentially in this current age of socio-economic pandemonium and the algorithmic governance that has seen the dissolution of previously dominant socio-cultural value systems built on Taylor’s scientific management of the capitalist society.

While the transhumanism of crypto cloudminds, recent advances in synthetic biotechnology, and the politics of biometric surveillance are taken into consideration when crafting measures to counteract techno-economic disruption, the complex urban apparatus demands innovative reconfiguration to address the spatial dynamics of rapid and unregulated urban growth.

The speculative visualization approach reflects the acceleration of the human-influenced geological epoch and eventually fosters critical thinking in relation to the underlying agendas of the increasingly dominant anthropocentric biophysical processes and subsequent dystopia.

Recursive Topography of Uncertainty. Mixed Media, 2017, 81cm x 67cm

 

Surviving in the Multidimensional Space of Cognitive Dissonance. Mixed Media, 2014, 80cm x 110cm

All the layers of lines, forms, and colors merge to create a holistic vision whereby the morpho-semantic representations of prototyping to post-processing in the substructure of state machine are exposed through symptomatic reading. In the meantime, each layer of accumulated images represents a post-human agency of epistemological perceptions in sociological imaginaries. These multimodal visual narratives are employed to document and assimilate the urban metamorphosis to maximum effect in a syntactic context. The cluster-oriented genetic algorithm optimizes the subtle movement of each phase-shifted layer to enact and improvise the ever-evolving ethereal visions of epistemological reflection.

The Biometric Ephemera of Positronic Variation within Transient Bounds. Mixed Media, 2016, 80cm x 100cm

As it relates to the imaginaries of transhuman urbanism, the optimum design of cities is determined through the flow, exchange, and interbreeding of organic and non-organic beings in place of nested binary zoning codes. These hybrid sentient entities interact through neurobiological means, embracing the biosynthetic technologies of symbiotic and autonomous multi-agent system.

They have the capacity to self-organize during assembly and optimize themselves as the multiplicity of biocomputing intelligence based on environmentally responsive particle morphology. Furthermore, the inter-communal dynamic and accelerated interdependency between living, non-living, and hybrid agents facilitate the sustainable development of the urban assemblage.

Swirling Effects and Their Wayside Phenomena. Mixed Media, 2016, 67cm x 72cm

While allowing for multiple possible scenarios of ecological configurations, the collective intelligence of the post-anthropocene is prototyped and  planetary-scale networks are hypothetically formulated at  molecular level. Consequently, the dynamic interplay between the biomorphic protocols of advanced hybrid technologies and existing obsolete infrastructures is considered to be the catalyst behind establishing the conjectural approach towards visionary urban cosmologies.

The Frozen Air Evoked the Analogical Still of Ephemeral Swarms. Mixed Media, 2015, 53cm x 83cm

 

The Extensity of Sferics Counterpoint. Mixed Media, 2017, 79cm x 114cm

Artist Statement

Matsumoto’s work reflects the morphological transformations of our ever-evolving urban and ecological milieus, which could be attributed to a multitude of spatio-temporal phenomena influenced by social, economic, and cultural factors. These works are created as visual commentaries on speculative changes in notions of societies, cultures, and ecosystems in the transient nature of constantly shifting topography and geology.

The artworks explore the hybrid technique, combining both traditional (ink, acrylic, and graphite) and digital medias (algorithmic processing, data transcoding, and image compositing through customized software).

The varying scale, juxtaposition of biomorphic forms, intertwined textures, oblique projections, and visual metamorphoses are employed as multi-layered drawing methodologies to question and investigate the ubiquitous nature of urban meta-morphology, emerging realities of post-human dystopia, and their visual representation in the context of non-Euclidean configuration. The application of these techniques allows the work to transcend the boundaries between analog and digital media as well as between two- and multi-dimensional domains.

Matsumoto’s process-oriented compositional techniques imbue the work with what we see as the very essence of our socio-cultural environments, beyond the conventional protocols of architectural and artistic formalities; they conjure up the synthetic possibilities within which the spatial and temporal variations of existing spatial semiotics emerge as the potential products of alchemical procedures.

The Reverberant Ambience of Interpretative Codes for an Ancient Artifact. Mixed Media, 2015, 68cm x 93cm

 

Transient Field in the Air. Mixed Media, 2014, 85cm x 57cm

 

Those Who Affirm the Spontaneity of Every Event. Mixed Media, 2014, 84cm x 119cm

 

Water, Hinge, Field. Mixed Media, 2014, 42cm x 59cm

 

Waves and Particles. Mixed Media, 2014, 85cm x 59cm

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www.ryotamatsumoto.com

All images copyright and courtesy of Ryota Matsumoto

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Contained

CONTAINED

The act of containing is always an act of restraining—holding something or someone in place.

Keeping proper control. Limiting expansion.

Preventing advancement.

When an infectious disease presents itself, we act to contain it.

An act that can be both liberating and traumatic.

Contained is an exhibition of installations that encompasses both these possibilities.

In 1944, my mother Louise Poulin, contracted Tuberculosis (TB) while caring for her stricken brother and sister-in-law. She was sent to a sanatorium in rural Quebec for treatments that were current at the time – rest therapy and artificial pneumothorax. These treatments involved almost constant bed rest, a healthy diet, hours and hours of fresh air (at times, covered in blankets on a porch in the middle of a Canadian winter), and collapsing of the lungs to cut off oxygen flow to the TB bacteria. For over two years, day-in day-out, she lay there wondering if she would survive while many around her succumbed to the disease. She often dreamed of escaping, flying past the surrounding farmlands, over the grand forests, and into the hopeful sky. My mother’s experience of contracting TB, and the fragility of all life, is the narrative that informs Contained.

Contained Installation view 2018 (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Contained Installation view 2018 (Photo credit: David Williams)

Illness as a young person, especially traumatic illness, embeds itself deep inside the psyche. It festers and often manifests itself as overwhelming fear. My mother was haunted by such fears and it shaped her identity in the world for the rest of her life. This was apparent in her reactions every time either I or my brothers became ill, and her adamant concerns for proper inoculations and medical tests. Her ever present fear that we might contract TB or another equally terrifying infectious disease made me aware that there was a world of invisible microbes with a potential to suddenly infect or even cause death. It was only later, when conducting research for my art practice, did I become aware that most microbes are not infectious, are more harmless than harmful, and our symbiotic relationship with them is part of our own well-being. This knowledge – of this necessity and danger – of microorganisms that form our natural and human ecology is a constant in my artwork.

Contained, first shown at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto in 2018, is composed of a series of mixed media installations, monoprints, drawings and sculptures. With these works I abstract and transform my mother’s experience of living in a TB sanatorium, to create a gallery atmosphere that is clinical, fantastical, immersive. Drawing on my ongoing artist residency at the Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology (University of Ottawa), I combine medical tools and scientific processes into a series of installations and sculptures encapsulating biomaterial, feathers, salt crystals, avian lungs and plant fibre containing human lung cells.

She Hungered for the Sky, 2018. Bed, bedside table, chair, crocheted shawl by Louise while in sanitorium, her books and music piano music sheets, personal items, table cloth, petri dishes with ink drawing and X-ray of lungs with TB (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker).

 

She Hungered for the Sky (detail) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The centrepiece installation, She Hungered for the Sky, recreates the atmosphere of the sanitorium – a white chair with the shawl she crocheted while living there; a bedside table with her books and personal items; and  an empty skeletal 1940s hospital bed with attached dangling petri dishes containing TB X-rays and drawings of lungs. In the centre of the bed frame, laid across the bare floor, lies her favourite crocheted table cloth, metaphorically emphasizing her fragility and confinement. Directly across from the bed is a wall installation entitled Fragile Forest. Representing the forest that captured my mother’s dreams and fantasies of escaping her illness and containment in the sanatorium, it is composed of white alveolar-like branches (waxed grape stems) that are adhered to cell culture plates. Above them, partially decellularized maple leaves, fragile and spotted like infected lungs, are precariously attached to the wall, fluttering from passing air currents. Decellularization means the plant cells have been dissolved leaving only a cellulose scaffold. This results in draining their colour, leaving them ghost-like and ephemeral. Lit from below, their silhouettes and that of the forest become even more heightened apparitions.

Fragile Forest (detail 1) 120”x 6”x 4”, 2017. Grape stems, wax, partially decellularized maple leaves, pipette tips, cell culture plates (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

Fragile Forest (detail 2) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

As one moves through the exhibition space, a series of framed monoprints and drawings of leaves and lungs, as well as small sculptures on pedestals, are encountered. These works continue to draw on the metaphors of forest and flight. They include test tubes inserted with partially decellularized maple keys (seeds) held in place by cell culture plates and stacked on synthetic maple leaves; sections of avian lung tissue displayed in tiny petri dishes; feathers in vials; miniature nests constructed from medical tubing; and a crow skull. All these objects are carefully placed and contained on clear acrylic bed-like trays.

Airborne 1, 12”x9” 2017. Ink monotype on paper (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

At Rest: Dwelling, 6”x12”x3”, 2018. Plastic tubing, sparrow feathers, test tubes, acrylic trays (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

At Rest: Flight, 6”x12”x3”, 2018. Sparrow feathers, test tubes, Common Raven skull, acrylic trays (Photo credit: David Williams)

 

At Rest: Breath (detail) 6”x12”x3” 2018. Petri dishes, avian lung tissue encased in salt crystals, display & acrylic trays (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Quiescent Growth (detail) 36”x22”x6” 2018. Partially decellularized maple keys, test tubes, cell culture plates, synthetic leaves (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Vestigial 2 11”x14” 2017. Ink monotype on paper (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The notion of a confined bird on the edge of expiration and a fantastical forest that heals and provides hope is woven through the artworks. But the reality is that TB is still an infectious disease ravaging the world. A wall installation of over fifty eerie beautiful oxygen masks lined up with cascading tubes gives prominence to this continuing – even resurgent – plague. These empty ominous masks, entitled Fraught Air, starkly remind us that TB may be out of mind for many people but it is yet to be defeated, known too well by the marginalized in our communities and over the world.

Fraught Air (detail) 150”x 96”x 3”, 2018. Oxygen masks (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Lungs of the Earth 22”x 8”x 1”, 2018. Petri dishes, decellularized maple leaves with human lung epithelial cells (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

 

Lungs of the Earth (detail) (Photo credit: Elaine Whittaker)

The final artwork in the exhibition is entitled Lungs of the Earth*. Three large petri dishes with four decellularized maple leaves are elegantly displayed in acrylic holders. Again the decellularization process of removing the leaves’ plant cells has left a ghostly cellulose scaffold, but this time the scaffold has been re-cultured with human epithelial lung cells. Merging human cells within a plant matrix, this artwork is a convergence of science and technology; a hybridization of human and plant; and a possibility that human and plant can merge. There is a core message of persistence, struggle and hope. Contained is an exhibit that finds hope when faced with a life curtailed by disease. With its blend of current scientific processes and past medical practices, it becomes, ultimately, a contemplation on past histories and possible futures.

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* Lungs of the Earth was made possible through my artist-in-residence collaboration with Andrew Pelling and Ryan Hickey at the Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology at the University of Ottawa. It was shown in the 2019 exhibit La Fabrique du Vivant at the Centre Pompidou, curated by Marie-Ange Brayer and Olivier Zeitoun as part of the Mutations/Creations platform.

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www.elainewhittaker.ca

All images copyright and courtesy of Elaine Whittaker

The post Contained appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Notes on an Aphantasic Artist

There are aspects of experience that vary between individual humans, and that contribute to the way individuals think and behave differently to others – aspects that, in other words, make up personal identity.

One of these is the degree to which people experience mental imagery, or picturing with the ‘mind’s eye’. The strength or vividness of mental imagery differs across the population. This is known due to psychologists using a standardised questionnaire, called the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), where participants are asked to visualise something then rate the vividness of what they picture, from ‘1’ for no image, to ‘5’ for an image ‘as vivid as real seeing’.

When this test is given to a group of people the results form a bell curve of normal distribution (leaning slightly towards higher scores, because of the social desirability of a ‘vivid imagination’). Most people’s scores fall around the middle of the curve, experiencing some degree of imagery, but at one edge of the curve are those report to lack visual mental imagery entirely, giving ‘1’ for every task in the VVIQ.

Fig. 1 Distribution of Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) scores in participants with aphantasia and control participants (VVIQ range extends from 16, lowest imagery score to 80, highest imagery score). [Zeman et al 2015, p2]

The phenomenon – that some people do not experience visual mental imagery – had been given little scientific attention until it was given a name in 2015 by the British neurologist Adam Zeman and colleagues: aphantasia.

This was publicised in the popular science press, and very soon, and for the ensuing years, thousands of people contacted Zeman to say that they had ‘aphantasia’. Among these, to the researchers’ surprise, were many artists – and designers, architects, and writers – who could not visualise. To investigate this phenomenon of creativity without visualisation the researchers, co-curating with artist Susan Aldworth, developed an exhibition of ‘aphantasic’ artwork.

While the resulting exhibition included 19 visual artists, I want to focus here on the work and procedural narrative of one in particular, which, I think, is particularly representative of the way that aphantasic artists tend to work. This is the British artist Michael Chance, who paints detailed figurative scenes. Rather than being a barrier to creativity, as one might expect, Chance views his aphantasia as a stimulus, because he cannot personally entertain images other than by creating them in paint:

The lack of ability to visualise images in my mind is a great motivation; I must physically work on a drawing or painting in order for my imagination to become visually manifest. I often start a picture with no intention and certainly no end goal; it materialises in an improvisatory way. This sense of stepping out into the unknown is thrilling and the subsequent discovery of latent imagery fascinating. Largely bypassing conscious decision making, the way images (usually figures) emerge from my subconscious is akin to dreaming, and the resulting work is often just as strange, surprising and revealing as that would suggest. However (yet, somewhat like dreams) these visions are informed by my everyday experience and observational drawing practice, and structured by my artistic understanding of illusionistic space, light, form and anatomy.’  (MacKisack & Aldworth, 2018, p35]

What is immediately noticeable is the way that Chance describes ‘physical’ work replacing mental work: painting takes the place of visualising or dreaming. This would be a good example of ‘extended cognition’ (Clark & Chalmers 1998): the brain delegating operations that it finds hard, or even impossible, to physical manipulations of external media. Also, by making the images the artist discovers something that they did not or could not ‘foresee’. This process of search, discovery and ‘materialisation’ is revealed by a time-lapse video Chance made of himself working.

Fig 2. Michael Chance, ‘Painting from Imagination (Bacchus Walk)’ 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

The completed painting shows how a reclining, prone, figure emerged – not, if Chance and our interpretation are correct, from the artist’s deliberations, but from the canvas itself and the two faces in profile, suggested by the negative space between them.

Michael Chance, Bacchus Walk, 2016 Oil on board, 92×122cm . Courtesy of the artist

What Chance and his work demonstrates is that the lack of conscious imagery has multiple implications for artistic practice – but none for the creativity of the artist. Imagery ability is not equal to ’imaginativeness’. It seems that aphantasia instead can have a more holistic’ affect on artistic identity, influencing the decisions one makes about how to work and what to do. For example, having no plan’ as such, you just start making marks and see where they lead – in Chance’s case, fed by his training and knowledge of anatomy, figures emerge. Of course, artists without aphantasia also do all these things. And one couldn’t know if a picture had been made by an artist with imagery or without. But that is what the phenomenon of aphantasic art forces us to realise: the diversity of the hidden routes to creation.

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MacKisack, M. and Aldworth, S. (eds.) Extreme Imagination – Inside the Mind’s Eye. Exeter: The Eye’s Mind Press. (2018)

Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery: Congenital aphantasia. Cortex, 73, 378e380.

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