As I lay inside the box in the pitch blackness waiting for the show to begin, I wonder if the operator forgot to start it. Nothing is happening – no sound, no sights…nothing at all. Ah, wait, did I just hear something? Maybe, although perhaps that was just part of the box’s machinery I am not supposed to hear. But now I’m hearing it again, more distinctly – a raspy visceral groaning.
Definitely the show has begun!
And now I feel it. The floor of the box upon which I am lying is doing…something. Yes, it’s vibrating, first under my shoulders, then under my feet, and now moving up my back.
I shift my weight on the firm rubber floor of the box, and the sounds and vibrations suddenly amplify. Did the box just react to me? I try shifting my weight again, and the box replies with a waterfall of tactile and auditory stimulation. The box is alive, and responding to my actions with an auditory-tactile symphony.
This 15 minute-long show-in-a-box is titled “Just Noticeable Difference,” and is the brainchild of Chris Salter, an artist and professor from Concordia University and author of Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (MIT Press). I got the opportunity to enter the box when his piece came to the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Renssleaer Polytechnic Institute this Winter, and I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about the work. Salter’s piece is an example of avant-garde, or experimental, art, because it pushes the boundaries of artistic experience.
And that brings me to the point of this piece I’m writing: my awakening to the importance of experimental arts.
You see, I have not always appreciated the experimental arts. As recently as several years ago I had the “scrooge” philosophy of the experimental arts, summarized aptly by “Ba humbug!” My reasoning at the time was that scientists are interested in creative work as well, but have more solid criteria by which to judge whether the scientific “product” is sensible. There seemed to be no standards for the experimental arts, as evidenced by the sheer unconstrained artistic craziness one finds among the avant-garde. (If I had a nickel every time I have found myself in a gallery asking, “Was it really necessary to use bodily fluid in the piece?”)
And here comes the irony… While I was bemoaning the “unconstrained artistic craziness” of the avant-garde artists, I was teaching my own science students to engage in unconstrained scientific craziness!
As a theorist, I live and breathe ideas, and must continuously come up with new ones aiming to explain heretofore unexplained scientific phenomenon. As a mentor to young scientists in training, it occurred to me that students need to learn more than just the science. They need to learn how to get an idea – how to discover. So I began an attempt to isolate principles that I thought had been helpful in my own creative processes, principles that eventually led me to begin writing a book elaborating on these principles, a book tentatively titled ALOOF: How Not Giving a Damn Maximizes Your Creativity.
In addition to principles with labels such as “Master of None,” “Aloof” and “Sloth,” the principle most relevant to the avant-garde I called “Crazy”, and it goes something like this:
If it’s not crazy, it’s not worth pursuing.
If your idea isn’t crazy, then even if you can successfully show it to be true, people will say, “Yeah, I pretty much expected that.” That’s not what one wants to aim for! One wants to aim for the crazy, so that when you’re finished people will say, “Well I didn’t expect that!”
This “Crazy” advice (and the other advice I put together) I believed applied to any creative endeavor, not just to science – and my book, ALOOF, was intended for artists and entrepreneurs in addition to scientists.
Let’s sum up the state of my mind at this point. I criticized avant-garde artists for their craziness, all the while explicitly aiming for craziness as a scientist! In effect, I was teaching my students to be avant-garde scientists, and trying myself to be an avant-garde scientist, yet somehow failing to notice that this outlook had transformative implications for my view of avant-garde art.
Just like me, avant-garde artists are trying to be “crazy”, hoping to make that next non-incremental advance. There’s a method to the madness: the madness is a fundamental facet of the mechanism of the creative process, a process that eventually can break new artistic ground.
Although avant-garde artists and scientists have similarities to the extent they are aiming for non-incremental advances, there are fundamental differences.
One especially relevant difference is that a scientist can usually tell whether his or her crazy idea will work without publishing it and making it public. In my case, for example, my notebooks are filled with hundreds of truly embarrassingly crazy ideas, most which thankfully never get broadcast. The standards by which my (hopefully crazy) science ideas stand or fall emanate from logic, parsimony and empirical fit, things I can gauge in-house.
Artists, on the other hand, cannot know for sure whether their crazy new idea works unless they try it out on people. Success or failure for the artist depends on how the piece “acts” upon the brains of viewers. Artists cannot hit the perfect aesthetic chord each time any more than a scientist can divine a new discovery without many failures. And usually the experimental art will “fail,” in the sense that it doesn’t tap into a rich new vein of artistic experience. And when experimental art fails, it will often be a more public failure than the failures for the creative scientist. Avant-garde artists must be brave!
So cut the experimental artists some slack. A lot of their work is crazy, indeed. And perhaps if experimental artists tried harder, all their work would be crazy.
This first appeared on April 26, 2010, as a feature at Science 2.0