Thursday, April 26, 2012

the covert power of creativity

Because conceptual art can exist in non-material forms, one could argue that it is not only one of the most sustainable forms of creative practice, but also one of the most radical in its potential to challenge conventional thinking. To a tremendous extent, commercial media—whose primary function is to persuade its audience to consume—influences current prevailing thought. Conceptual art, by contrast, is often non-commodifiable; the value of an idea can supersede conventional methods of quantification, lending it a subtle, subversive, status-quo-defying kind of power.

The notion that all ecosystems, cultures, disciplines and systems are interconnected, and that we can cultivate a more efficient, healthy and satisfying existence by appreciating more and consuming less, run counter to the mainstream. In spite of the relentless promotion of the consumer mindset, one can find ample evidence of the tremendous human impulse to freely share and exchange information and other commodities simply by perusing the internet (the most culture-altering, wisdom-liberating development since Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe in 1439). Practical knowledge—including instructions on permaculture design, DIY, open source and appropriate technologies, petitions and calls for political and social action—is disseminated free of charge by those who, knowingly or not, describe a new social paradigm based on reciprocity, fair exchange and mutual benefit.

German artist/activist Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986) believed that when individuals contribute to the betterment of society by infusing everyday actions with creativity and reverence for nature then “everyone is an artist.” He considered the fruits of such labor “social sculpture.”

I didn’t know about Beuys when I first set out to combine art and science by seeking a degree in marine biology, then going on to study scientific illustration. As the detrimental effects of reckless human activity on the environment have become all the more obvious, my urge to express the intangible, profound mysteries contained in the natural world has intensified. My technical renderings have morphed into multimedia “philosoprops,” works that challenge conventional boundaries between disciplines and spark dialog around social, political and ecological topics. While most of these pieces have a physical component, their essence is really the ideas behind them—and these are free for the taking.

For example, the concept behind my sonic fabric—a textile woven from cassette tape overdubbed with intricate collages of sound—alludes to the ultimate interconnectedness of everything. While I wholeheartedly embrace opportunities to repurpose materials, sonic fabric was not intended as a statement about recycling, per se. Rather, the project was inspired by theories in quantum physics suggesting that everything, at the most basic level, is composed of little more than vibration. When all the vibrations are woven together, the result is one exquisite, unified cacophony.

Like Beuys, I believe that by cultivating a relationship with nature and by honing and engaging personal creative aptitudes, everyone can become a catalyst for social transformation. While the powers-that-be wage an insidious war on the freedom to share information, the subversive force of cooperation and exchange is vastly underestimated, even by those with the potential to wield it. Shifts in the course of our culture depend on the quality of our thoughts. Everyone is a catalyst.

Published at The Sustainability Review, April 19, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

the visible, the invisible, and the indivisible

Prevailing thought is like prevailing wind; it requires less effort to allow oneself to be carried along than to set a course that goes against it. Also like wind, thought is often presumed to be invisible. But one can quite easily learn to observe the effects of both on tangible objects, and thereby gain the ability to harness the power of either.

The first lesson in sailing usually occurs on the shoreline. Students are invited to determine from which direction the wind is blowing by looking for clues: flags, trees, boats at anchor, the feel of the breeze on one’s own skin, and through careful observation of subtle variations in the texture of wavelets on the surface of the water itself.

In order to see thought, one only needs to look around oneself. The urge to connect turns into telephones, televisions, and the internet. The inclination to travel manifests as cars, ships, planes, and trains. The need for social organization is revealed in our political systems. And so forth and so on…

But what is a thought, exactly? An electrochemical impulse? Does it require an embodied agent, or is it possible that ambient electrochemical forces cause matter to coalesce into particular patterns and configurations, resulting in the infinite variety of artifacts we find ourselves among? Needs, longings, and desires arrive with the distinct sensation that they are ours alone – but couldn’t the existence of a tree be the outward expression of a fundamental “need” in the universe for an efficient, multifunctional carbon dioxide processing unit?

Sophisticated new investigative apparatus developed around the 17th century in the form of telescopes and microscopes suggested to their human operators that the world around us could be broken down into parts, and that we ourselves are unique entities that are distinctly separated from the environment in which we find ourselves. Galileo declared “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”  That which could not be made measureable was granted an air of dubiousness, if not eliminated outright.

The scientific method (i.e.: formulate a hypothesis, design and implement an experiment, analyze the result, repeat), however useful it may be for technical applications, was never really intended as an all-purpose standard to which social and philosophical principles should also be applied. Just because we cannot measure intuition, love, compassion, grief, or inspiration certainly does not mean that these things do not exist, or that they are somehow inferior to that which is tangible. Over the course of the past 400 years as human culture has become increasingly industrialized, we have also become more compartmentalized. As we’ve come to put less value on the immeasurable, we’ve rationalized ourselves into a state of intolerance of the nuanced, the complex, the seemingly paradoxical. Things that could be taken as two sides of the same coin are instead viewed as diametrically opposed: art vs. science, religion vs. reason, classical vs. quantum physics; determinism vs. free will; left (hemisphere of the brain or political party) vs. right.

Ironically, at the same time that scientific rationalism has come to dominate prevailing thought, science itself has taken a turn towards subtlety. With advances in quantum theory, we are moving into a strange new domain where things do not function according to the orderly and predictable rules that we have come to rely upon. Tests with subatomic particles are not only practically unrepeatable; they reveal that the very nature of our experiments makes objective observation impossible.

Fortunately there are many other ways to collect and interpret information about our reality. The ability to hold several seemingly contradictory views simultaneously, the willingness to cultivate, explore, and trust subtle sensory signals, the boldness and endurance required to set a course that defies the dominant paradigm – this is the domain of certain artists, poets, musicians, shamans, ecologists, permaculturists, philosophers, and others adept at seeing and feeling connections to the obscured dimensions and forces of nature that others neglect to notice.

Throughout history visionary practitioners from every field of human knowledge have felt compelled to share their particular mode of data processing. A few notable examples might include musician John Coltrane, conceptual artist/social-environmental activist Joseph Beuys, quantum physicist/philosopher David Bohm, writer/scientist Wolfgang Von Goethe, physician/natural scientist Hans Jenny, spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, inventor/futurist Buckminster Fuller, and poet Allen Ginsberg. Through their work, each of these individuals has given form to the otherwise invisible/inaudible. The products of their inspiration resonate in those who experience them – our senses know them to be true without analytical proof.

Goethe called investigation that involves a kind of connectedness to and empathic understanding of a subject delicate empiricism. Beuys believed that by becoming more attuned to the subtle forces of the ecosystems we inhabit we can rediscover innate aptitudes that will help us to mend ourselves, our communities, and the planet. He believed that it is the job of both shamans and artists to shake people out of ordinary, habitual states of mind and to reawaken latent faculties.

Even slight shifts in individual and collective values and intentions could quickly bring new sets of priorities into the mainstream, radically altering prevailing thought. Like a flock of starlings that moves in an elegant cloud of instinctive, constantly modulating cooperation, changes of mind can have an instantaneous ripple effect across an entire culture. When Beuys said everyone is an artist he implied that each of us is not only capable of accessing the same mysterious, improbable, constantly unfolding, infinitely creative phenomena – we are the phenomena. Each of us is an outcropping, an empathic agent of transformation, wired to receive, process, and transmit.

To hone one’s connection with this font of supreme imagination, Allen Ginsberg prescribed this simple but profound experiment to aspiring creative practitioners: “Notice what you notice.” Like a single pebble out of thousands that catches your glance on the beach, the things you find yourself aware of – and the state of awareness itself – these are the clues. Each of us is a receptor for a different part of the same sublime puzzle. Evidence is everywhere. The investigation never ends.

Published in the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly, Dec. 2012