Friday, November 30, 2012

Deep Learning, Abstraction, and Aesthetics

I just came back from a stimulating lunch meeting with my friend and colleague Nancy Coleman. Nancy is the director of the office of distance learning at Boston university. I am the academic coordinator of an online program that her office administers. We only get together about once a year but I wish we had a chance to interact more frequently.

Our discussion today centered around student learning patterns in the online environment. The focus of Nancy's PhD work examines this question. And as a professor who is always struggling with how to get the message across to students this is a question of central importance to me.

As my sabbatical proceeds I have been thinking more and more about how learning happens. It seems clear that there is a role for abstraction in the learning process, whether we are learning with our hands, our eyes, or our ears. As I've written in previous posts I think it is important that students understand the "roadmap" of their learning process. This goes beyond the question of whether assignments and assessments reflect learning objectives. In fact, in my experience, as long as students trust the learning experience and understand the learning environment you can push the envelope with difficult exams or even tangentially related assignments and still carry the confidence of the students.

How does this relate to the question of deep learning? For one thing, deep learning is based on a hierarchy of concepts. Higher-level or "large" concepts are constructed from lower-level or "small "concepts. In the online environment, with limited contact between professor and students, It is essential to establish the relationship between higher-level concepts and lower-level concepts. Somehow, in a seven week course, this must occur very early in the course and it must be reinforced from week to week. To me, this is laying out a roadmap that instructs students in why they are learning what they are learning. The more we can reiterate the roadmap the more we encourage metacognition.

But how do we accomplish this? This comes to the second point regarding deep learning. In deep learning, learning representations (objects) are images. Images represent abstractions of varying levels. The online environment allows us to present a great variety (more than we could in a normal classroom) of images and sounds. When used frequently but judiciously objects reinforce the roadmap of learning. Consequently, students examining images can learn from them at many levels.

The image may convey an unarticulated aesthetic. It may present a whole array of aesthetic sensations interpretable only to the learner. I discussed this last week when I referred to Aztec aesthetics and my struggle to understand them. This points to the reality that deep learning through abstractions is a deeply human process that transcends cultural boundaries.

In a community of learners there are many different styles of learning and perception. One interpretation of this fact is the idea of "multiple intelligences." So, a learning environment that is rich with images can serve the multiple intelligences of the targeted learners. A learning environment rich with images conveys many layers and connections between abstractions that may only be barely articulated. These abstractions communicate with learners, perhaps unconsciously, through the learners' personal aesthetic.

In the vocabulary of deep learning, this phenomenon may be framed as semi-supervised learning or even unsupervised learning. This does not imply a lack of planning for the course. Rather, it is a highly choreographed process in which students are presented with tightly focused images, text, and sounds that elicit a variety of learning sensations. Whether "semi-supervised" or "unsupervised," especially with seasoned adult learners like ones in my online program, this kind of learning engenders confidence and trust in the process. This I think, is the core to a successful learning environment that is characterized by metacognition among the learners.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interspecies Collaborations: How Was it to Make Art with Worms?

Every time I mention to someone that I was on a residency making art with worms they ask me how it felt. As I've written in earlier posts I still have to unpack that experience from early September. There was too going when I got back from the Catskills to be able to process it in writing.
So here's a start.

The residency was with a small, rather informal group called the Andes Sprouts Society in Stamford, New York. They took care of my accommodations (an off-the grid cabin) with no electricity, heat, or running water (no outhouse either...I had to go down to the farmhouse, about a ten minute walk for any of the conveniences). I had a small flashlight but basically I was in bed as soon as it was dark (about 7:30 PM). And every morning I was down at the farm feeding and milking the goats.

Right away I saw it was an opportunity for inventiveness and a sort of adventure. Interestingly, I had been discovering what it means to invent using clay for the whole year before. As my friend Renato Riccioni mentioned a few weeks ago, clay allows you to do just about anything but it also requires that you concoct methods to support your ideas. A wonderful medium that prepared me for the sparse conditions in Stamford. Even though I barely did any work with clay at the residency I used the sensory tools I had developed with it. I found myself very much in touch with light, temperature, wind, sounds, and the phenomenon of being all alone for long periods of time. Exhilarating and exhausting are two words that come to mind.

My plan was to bring a bin of compost worms with me and experiment with them, what kinds of habitats, foods, and conditions they preferred. I was also hoping to experiment with them making art, which I think was the more successful experience.

For "painting" with worms I set up a sheet of polyurethane-coated paper and had an assortment of inks available. I pulled a dozen or so worms from the bin and kept them in a moist environment at my work table. I started by handling the worms with a tweezer but soon realized that the best way to do the job was to take them in my fingers.

I would put a worm on the paper and put the smallest drop of ink somewhere on its body. The worms have thin skins and I think the ink irritated them. Depending on the color of the ink (and its chemical makeup) the worms responded differently. In some cases (usually with purple ink) they just crawled ahead to get away from the ink. 

Sometimes they flayed around (this was the case with yellow and with the organic walnut-based ink I had bought in the hope that this would irritate them less). I think the "flaying" inks must have been pretty uncomfortable for them. 

Red ink, which seemed less caustic, caused them to lift up their frontal end and "search" for a way out. All of these different responses led to different patterns. So the ink was "put down" on paper differentially depending on the worms' behavior and movement.

The experience was amazing. In part because living closely with the worms I experienced their movement and life more closely. It was also remarkable to experience the immediacy of the worms' movement and its result, the not-so-random art we created together in an interspecies collaboration. 

When you look at some of the pictures I did with the worm you might get a feeling of chaos and confusion. Interesting to me is that the overall feeling was of great peace and sensitivity to the worms and our mutual environment during the time I spent with them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Abstraction, Critical Thinking, and Postliterate Learning

In my last post I mentioned that instead of teaching scientific "facts" to my undergraduates I encourage my students to think critically about abstractions. Abstractions like protein folding, membrane permeability, mycorrhizae, and ecosystem diversity. Pretty wide ranging stuff, all part of the backbone of evolutionary biology, and all of it hopelessly abstract to a second-year undergraduate.

Marching to the library this afternoon I got to thinking about how a year ago I was writing about the importance of taking a break. Suddenly now, halfway through my sabbatical, I find myself thinking and writing about teaching. A strange dialectic.

So what about critical thinking in a postliterate world? I've always been big on showing my students images. I learned to use powerpoint to my own purposes, no bullet points, no wordy outlines, mostly images. I found that my students used their cellphones to photograph me during my lectures. They would come in for office hours with a printed version of my lectures, highlighted by pictures of me next to a gigantic mitochondria or chlorophyll molecule. Wow. Images (with a side serving of words) as a way of learning. Maybe deep learning!

This brings me back to the "Man in the Holocene" exhibit at MIT. One of the artists featured there is the Futurist artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose early 20th century work used mathematical symbols to evoke the sensations brought about through modern technology and science.


Thinking about Marinetti's work brought me back to my NEH trip this summer, where we learned that among royals of the Mexican central highlands, iconography evolved as a lingua franca to accommodate feasting and gift giving associated with ethnic intermarriage. Iconography and glyphic communication systems allowed diverse peoples to make meaningful, long lasting, and politically potent contact with one another.

We discussed this in the perspective not of a prehistoric, non-literate cultural milieu, but in the context of an advanced, highly refined set of human interactions that had cast aside the written word in favor of images.

So here we are in this century in this world cascading toward an international, intercultural, postliterate system of communication. How can we harness this cultural trend to make our teaching and learning environment more effective?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Metacognition and Knowing Where You Are

In my post yesterday I wrote about metacognition and connectedness. I addressed the importance of having a contextual framework for understanding, and how perceiving connections adds to that framework. I want to add something related to those thoughts.

When I teach my undergraduates I encourage them to construct a map of what we've learned over the semester. This is a bit different than an outline and much different than the flash cards they love, in that a map implies movement over connected terrain, not a hierarchy (like an outline) nor definitions ( flash cards). When you have a map you stand a good chance of knowing where you are and where you're going.

We can solve problems all kinds of ways, but knowing where we are at a given juncture helps. This isn't easy. When Renato suggests that I work more on an abstract sculpture I usually have no idea where I am or where I want to go with the work. Personally I have struggled with developing a metacognitive model for what I'm doing there. His class has been so helpful to me because I have begun to find that roadmap. It helps to have a nudge from someone who sees the situation from a different perspective, and who has experience with this kind of problem solving. Renato came to sculpture from a background as a theater director. I came from Planet Biology.

This gets me to think... when we are working on a scientific problem we can find ourselves in a thicket of observations that tend to confuse us about how we want to go forward. Of course you can see there are analogies here to all kinds of problem solving.

I've often considered that I teach my students not facts about biology but how to think critically about abstractions. I realize now how close to the truth that is. It seems to me that the more abstract the concepts we are working with, the more it helps to have a metacognitive roadmap.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Metacognition, connectedness and the built environment

Just returned from a great walk with my colleagues Margarita Iglesia and Jim Newman. We visited the amazing site at Northpoint in preparation for our sustainability course in January. Riding my bike around the site before we met a few ideas crossed my mind. These had to do with metacognition and connectedness.

There has been a lot of talk about metacognition recently among educators.
Through metacognitive process we hope to encourage students to understand why they are learning what they are learning. Metacognition helps us deconstruct the learning process so we can come to understand how we learn what we learn. Potentially all of this leads to a more productive process of gaining and using knowledge.

Looking around Northpoint Park and its surroundings it's remarkable how geographically isolated it is from nearby neighborhoods. Yet the recent improvements in the park have led to very great connectivity between parts of the park and between neighborhoods on either side. Walking around the space you get a feeling not only of expansiveness but of connection with the built environment of the city. All this with surprising moments of visual intimacy.

The site is large and complex and as we walked we grappled with the problem of how to introduce it to the students. With its long history of multiple uses and the current iteration which suggests those uses, why not provide students with a series of historical maps and accompanying images to help with them contextualize the site. Then we thought we would be able to bring students to the site at least a couple of times for them to get their bearings and make observations. Finally, we hope to engage students with a set of questions that will help them frame their designs for the future of this built environment.

So in preparation for our course in January we exercised metacognition in planning how we will utilize the site with students. We also built in a metacognitive component for the students. By observing recording and analyzing the site they will gain a connection with the unfolding process of its development.

This on top of the fact that the Northpoint site is so connected in its design. In a built environment the feeling of connection seems so important. The same can be said for any intellectual model. By feeling connected, by understanding the context of a problem, and by participating in analysis of the problem, we come to understand the process of our understanding. This, I think, is the essence of metacognition.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Art, Aesthetics, Evolution, and Work in Progress

In my last post I wrote about the nature of abstraction and the (possible) responsibility of the artist to work the abstract idea until it becomes somehow understandable to a viewer. We might look at a successful abstract artwork as a conveyance of the artist's ideas, something unique to the artist communicated to the one engaging the art. This challenging idea, suggested to me by my friend and teacher Renato Riccioni, led to more challenges.

Once again the "Man in the Holocene" exhibit at MIT provided a nourishing substrate for new ideas that arose from Renato's challenge. Lots of sparks there and as an aside, a great example of how it helps to take in an exhibit several times. The heuristic nature of a well curated show emerges as you study it more. Just like nature.

All of the ideas of a scientist arise from observing nature. Though they are processed in some subconscious, the fact of nature provides the material for the scientist's thought.

Roger Caillois, a thinker whose work I had never heard of was featured at the Holocene show. He wrote that biological mimicry is a form of photography. Here is my interpretation of that idea.

Everything alive is a product if evolution. Though we cannot see the process of evolution, every form, every living tissue, every biologically derived molecule reflects the evolutionary process. In a lab manual I wrote for my undergraduates I noted that the world as we see it is a sort of snapshot, the physical manifestation of an instant in time that is constantly, inexorably changing. The words of Caillois put this idea in another, perhaps more nuanced light.

The living world is an evolutionary work in progress. Whatever we observe has been shaped by billions of years of evolutionary history. Any living body, whether a single cell or a redwood tree was literally formed and survives by the forces of evolution. Its physical existence captures all the forces that shaped it in a visible, tangible, albeit temporary presence. Like a photograph that captures the moment, the living body is a proof of the physicality of evolution.

We could take the idea of Caillois a step further and consider the life as a sculpture molded by the "hand" of evolution. In a sense, this makes a satisfactory connection to the concept of communicating abstraction. In another sense the question is left unanswered. Darwin and modern science understand that evolution is the force of change behind all life. And it's hardly rocket science to understand the biological function of most of the things we observe in nature. The difficulty comes in trying to understand the smaller nuances, a curve, a color, a combination of shapes and angles, the folding of a bud or the trail of a slug. How has evolution shaped these things?

A further look at this question may reside in the realm of aesthetics, a work in progress we still need to uncover.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rethinking the Abstract

A great conversation with my friend Renato Riccioni today as he coached me through an ongoing sculpture challenge. In yesterday's post I wrote about the abstract. I suggested that ideas emerge in an abstract fashion. I also wrote that abstract ideas need to be translated in order to communicate them. I implied that in the act of translation something may be lost.

In our discussion today Renato suggested a different interpretation. Where I implied that the abstract idea he emerges in a burst of creativity, Renato countered with the idea that the act of translation extends the creative process. In my artistic process I have tended towards the immediate. This tends to result in pieces that are difficult for other people to interpret.

Renato put a more blunt interpretation on this. "If you want to stay in your own bubble you can focus on the immediacy of the creative process. But if you want to communicate with others successfully you need to extend the process by working on your piece."

Renato's idea remains a challenge to me. But if I want to communicate with others through my art it makes sense for me to pay attention to this challenge.

Of course there is no "right answer." But it's amazing to have the opportunity to discuss the creative process, cognition, and the way we do art with another person.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Adorno and the Abstract: Innovations, New Ideas and Non-Judgemental Judgement

Still finding food for thought in the crammed alleyways of Adorno's brilliant writing. The other day I found this quote:

       ...the new is a non-judging judgement...(it) is 
       necessarily abstract

Always at work in the abstract I found that this sparked many ideas I've been trying to articulate.

New ideas it seems, always must be abstract. They come from recesses of imagination where they are processed by a brain constantly challenged by what's "real." In other words, as we observe the everyday world our brain processes it into abstractions. These abstractions may be translatable only to the individual, or they may not be translatable at all. When an artist or scientist shares his abstractions they become articulated as new ideas, novel ways of visualizing the world. And because they are original, they must be communicated out of the abstract into words or visuals that are understandable to the non-self. 

I envision Adorno's "new" as new ideas, these partially-to-fully formed original ideas that come out of the artist or scientist. They are a judgement in that they may determine the future of thought. But by their abstract nature they cannot judge. New ideas translated into a hypothesis may revolutionize culture. Darwin's ideas for example revolutionized biological thinking and continue to influence ideas in other sciences such as physics. They were not judgmental (thought they were judged!) because they stated the facts as Darwin processed them in his brain. Darwin attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully I think, to take them out of the realm of the abstract. But if you read his paragraph on the "tangled bank" you get a feel for Darwin's struggle to put into words a very complex set of ideas. For most of the world, and I think even in academic and intellectual worlds, his ideas remain abstract. 

Likewise in the world of art there are innovations that are abstract when they first come to be created. This applies not only to "abstract art" but to abstract moments in depictional art. Consider the Renaissance innovations of perspective, torsion, and light. These visual "moments" represented a revolution in painting. They represented the development of an aesthetic that came to define the way art was done and seen for centuries. More than that I think, they came to define the way the Western eye saw its world. Oddly, as much as these innovations became the standard, they remain profound abstractions, something we may not be able to quite "put a finger on."

When these ideas are applied in architecture or in a landscape, even when they seem to exude an order, a logic, or a satisfying sort of beauty, they remain a challenge to the observer, something of a hypothesis that once stated, needs to be experimented with.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Repulsion, Cessation, Suspension, Opening the Box, and Scientific Method

Delving deeper into Adorno's "Aesthetic Theory," wading through some pretty hoary stuff, finding gems where they gleam through the mud and muck. The searching through this is in itself similar to raking through piles of data or groping through bags of clay. But the relevance to both art and science is unmistakable.

Here's the quote...

"The act of repulsion must be constantly renewed. Every artwork is an instant; Every successful work is a cessation, a suspended moment of the process, as which it reveals itself to the unwavering eye. If artworks are truly answers to their own questions, they themselves truly become questions."

And my interpretation...

The act of repulsion is a stocktaking of the work, the project, the experiment, the published paper. The "final draft" or the completed sculpture may have been prepared to be "perfect" but there are always errors. Errors in typography, errors in execution, the error of a curve gone wrong, a problematic methodology. In hindsight, the finished piece is by nature unfinished. It is dynamic, boiling, and only a step on the way to yet another hypothesis, whether scientific or artistic. It is either a knot being untied or a knot that you are continuing to tie.

The artwork, like the scientific work is truly an instant, waiting to be superseded, undone by a critic (or by yourself), reinterpreted. Its physicality is temporary, part of iterations of work. The iterations may be layers of effort spent on the individual work or new related projects. This is art and science at its most active, at its best. 

Amazingly the art, or the science, is connected to the living world, either literally or through the artist's brain and body, which are alive. The constant change of the living world necessitates re-interpretation and reiteration, and posing new questions about the work. This is scientific method. But it is also artistic method.

Finally, artworks and scientific works are "answers to their own questions" (I explored this briefly in the previous post); They are epistemological (a way of knowing) but above all they pose new questions. They are heuristic in that they prompt more questioning. This is the heart of creative exploration. Why it is that Adorno wasn't able to link science and art through processes that are nearly identical in both, is a strange question to me. Was it the time that he wrote? The conditions of the world? The strong conceptual division between arts and sciences that was being plated at that time? 

I think we need to be careful not to get ourselves stuck in one mindset or another, regardless of our personal biases. It's less thinking out of the box than opening the box to explore what's inside.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Material and Consequence and Solving Puzzles

Works of art "are real as answers to the puzzle externally posed to them."

Another quote from Adorno's "Theory of Aesthetics."

What does it say about science? Although Adorno insists that art is non-empirical (presuming the opposite for science?) I think we can apply the quote to science as well as art. Our projects are particular, perhaps particularistic, and in the sense that no one may care about them (tree falling in the forest) may be considered not to have a grounding in reality, even though they may spring from observations or thoughts about the natural world.

So the scientific project, the experiment, certainly the hypothesis--are all puzzles "externally posed" by the scientist, just as art derives from a puzzle externally posed by the artist.

In my opinion the acts involved in posing and solving the puzzle, as well as the media used, the standardized framework involved, and the potential for isolation (or connection) are remarkably similar in art and in science.

Looking at this rotting concrete wall on the MIT campus, a mixture of physicality and theory, design and destruction, time vs. purity, material and consequence, convinces me that creating boundaries between art and science is a futile endeavor.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Art, Science, and the Sacred Landscape

I'm reviewing an interesting book called "Earth Perfect?" edited by Jannette Giesecke and Naomi Jacobs. It's a look at nature, utopia, and the garden, loosely organized around themes of design, ecology, and aethetics. As I explore the book it strikes me that in spite of an introduction that retells an ancient Chinese tale, the book is solidly western in its orientation. This is an unfortunate oversight that results in a limited view of the topic.

For this summer's NEH travel seminar one of the highlights of our reading was a text derived from an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum called "Road to Aztlan, Art from a Mythic Homeland." As the title suggests, the theme of the book is a retelling, in many media and over many hundreds of years, the "Eden" story of the Aztecs. The book (as well as the seminar) opened my eyes to the fact that in pre-conquest America there were many interpretations of human cultural origins. All of these centered around the sacred landscape.

As we learned during the five-week seminar, sacred landscapes are part of an historical and contemporary world vision that extends over thousands of miles and hundreds of cultures and languages among indigenous peoples in the Americas. It is a different conception of landscape than our "western" vision, and it is worth studying in detail. Beyond art and beyond aesthetics, the concept of the sacred landscape is one in which humans, as part of the landscape, are part of a larger, living, spiritually charged world.

In that landscape, every rock, every tree, every hillock, holds meaning and a connection with the supernatural. It is a landscape that humans are part of, but also a landscape in which humans must tread respectfully to maintain balance. It fascinated me to learn that this concept was shared by tiny native communities in nearly inaccessible forests or deserts, as well as mighty empires like the Aztecs or Toltecs.

I had a chance to learn more by taking pictures that told their own amazing stories. One example is Teotihuacan, the gargantuan pre-Aztec city north of contemporary Mexico City. The pyramids of Teotihuacan were built in a distinctive talud y tablera style, a style meant to mimic terraced agricultural fields. In their bright white coating of lime they must have shimmered against the blue sky. These pyramids, and the city in which they were centered, may have been built to invoke an Edenic, pre-empire concept of Aztlan.

Teotihuacan was a built environment. It was designed to mimic a domesticated natural environment (terraced farmlands). But wild natural environments were (and remain) primally important to indigenous peoples. For example, we consider the Grand Canyon as a transcendently beautiful, perhaps even spiritual space. But to the contemporary Hopi who live in the vicinity of the Canyon, the space is more than beautiful. It represents the place of Origin, the sipapu, from which a new generation of humans emerged into today's "Fourth World," after the collapse of an earlier generation.

Not far from the Grand Canyon lies the mysterious city of Chaco, remotely sited in the Chaco Canyon and abandoned for centuries. Chaco is a quiet, almost desolate place now, accessible via a miles-long gravel road in the heart of Navajo country. Chaco's amazing sandstone formations are a dramatic backdrop to the ruins of the largest ancient cultural center north of the Rio Grande. A close look at its architecture suggests that the distinctive style of building at Chaco mimics in some way the sacred landscape in which it is found. 

Teotihuacan, Chaco, and the Grand Canyon are outsize examples of sacred landscapes. All of them incorporate the idea of humans and their place in nature. But the same ideas apply to small communities such as the Nahua settlements in Veracruz described by Alan Sandstrom in the Nahua Newsletter

and in decades of scholarly papers in which he has contributed immensely to our understanding of humans and their relationship to landscape. 

In the interest of keeping this post short I've written only the shortest summary of my thoughts. In keeping with my theme of art and science I want to stress that non-Western concepts of landscape are yet another way we can consider how things are looked at in many different perspectives. The relationship to the landscape of the builders of Teotihuacan, Chaco, or a tiny village in Veracruz all are mightily different than that of the planners of New York or Boston. But in all these cases, humans have beheld the natural world and struggled with their place in it. In upcoming posts I want to explore more the differences and similarities in these world views.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Seeing Things Differently and Building Bridges

The major goal of my sabbatical is to build bridges between the sciences and humanities. The role of art as an interpretation of scientific facts, something I have explored deeply in these pages, is getting a lot of attention these days from a number of directions. I think there's still so much to be done. Art can serve science and science can serve art, but these seem to be less philosophical and more practical aspects. Although I'm not a philosopher (far from it) my focus seems to be headed more in the direction of philosophical (or perhaps anthropological or maybe cognitive) connections between art and science. For me, the most interesting question is how processes of doing art and doing science are similar. Do people who see things differently act differently? Do they approach some things differently but others the same? How can they work toward some shared goal?

Writing on the morning after the election, I am exhilarated and buoyed by the fact that the American people have seen through the lies promulgated by a political entity that pandered to the so-called "tea party." So much of the practice of the Republican Congress over these past four years has been simply to block Obama, acting as if there were not shared goals that the country needs to meet. There is no question that people see things differently from one another politically but isn't there some common ground? In a large, complex society there has to be room within political communities for so much variation in thought and practice. In the broadest sense, people of all convictions need to be tolerated, at the very least. In some ways this sounds libertarian, which is very far from the way I approach things. But as my friend Saul Tannenbaum has written, "right libertarianism wraps around to left direct action." Incredibly, the Republican right (represented by Romney and others who might have been considered the Republican "mainstream") has shot itself in the foot with recent comments on a whole range of topics; women, rape, climate, the economy, immigration, etc. Demonizing any group is a recipe for disaster.

So how does this connect to art and science? Besides for the fact that both disciplines would have risked becoming endangered species in the Brave New World of Romney/Ryan, I think both disciplines have much to learn from one another. Creativity, spontaneity, and aesthetic are wonderful aspects of art, but they are not restricted to the artist's world. Analysis, critical thinking, and precision are not the sole domain of the sciences.

My friend Renato Riccioni uses his background in theater to search for aesthetic pathways in his sculpture practice.
As a trained scientist who does art for a living (that is, to live), I dig and delve into all my recesses to find solutions to problems of form, composition, and balance. Our common goal is to create. And in the same way, the common goal of our newly reconstructed legislature is to find a way to make this a fairer, more balanced, and more functional society. Here's hoping that we can create this monumental work for human good together.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Adorno and Aztec Aesthetics

I was affected by the MIT exhibit "man in the Holocene," and especially the work of one artist, Germaine Kruip, whose 2009, Video "Aesthetics as a Way of Survival," documents the presumed "aesthetics" of a bowerbird preparing its shelter in order to attract a mate. A little research into the matter shows that Darwin himself considered this behavior and other aspects of sexual selection to represent an expression of aesthetics, so it's not something new. However I began digging a little more and came up with the writing of Theodor Adorno, whose controversial and convoluted writings I've shied away from (scholarship of the Frankfurt School was banned at BU when I started there in 1993!).

Anyway I came across a very interesting quote by Adorno that spoke to me in terms of barely articulated but strongly felt questions I pondered during my NEH trip to Mexico. I don't know whether I interpreted Adorno correctly and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, but here goes.

Adorno wrote in his book "Aesthetic Theory", "Aesthetic reality seeks to aid the non identical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identify."

As a scientist these words struck deep. My work as a taxonomist was entirely focused on a "compulsion to identify." For better or for worse this is what taxonomists do, and recently I reviewed a paper that was so hidebound in its need to identify that the authors were unable to allow new perspectives in their work. More to the point, as I grew dissatisfied with mere identification I tookwhat I  came to call an aesthetic approach that tried to qualify subtle shapes, growth patterns, and dimensional relationships among the organisms I studied. As I have written before in these pages, the attempt to jump off the reductionist, identity-obsessed taxonomic bandwagon resulted in disfavor among my colleagues. But I think I was onto something.

How does this relate to my question of Adorno and Aztec aesthetics?

This past summer as I observed closely the murals, the monuments, and the stone sculptures of ancient Mexico, I began to discern certain angles, curves, and ways of massing space that appeared unique and consistent in the works. This is something I had noted before, for example in Mayan work, but which I had never formulated into a question.

It occurred to me that there might have been an Aztec aesthetic that somehow transcended Aztec religious practices or polity. Instead of considering the aztecs on a "grand" scale, what if we considered the subtleties of Aztec art, with the goal of coming closer to it?

Now let's take apart Adorno's quote and see how it applies to this question.

When Adorno wrote "aesthetic reality" I think he might have meant a way of seeing or interpreting the world not on a grand scale, but by looking at its curves, angles, shades, and mass relationships. Exactly what I was trying to do in Mexico (often to the woe of our visiting scholars whose iconographic interpretations seemed to exclude my queries).

Second, when Adorno writes that aesthetic reality seeks to aid the non identical, I think he meant foremost, things that defy identity. A curve, a shadow, a relationship is not a pyramid or a mural. It is something without identity. And by non-identical I think we can conclude it is also unique. So we can say in this framework that aesthetic reality provides a framework for observing and interpreting non-identifiable, unique things.

Finally, his judgement about the compulsion of reality to identify refers to the hard wired nature of human cognition. We need to identify in order to understand.

But looking at it in another way, if all we do is identify, them we lose the subtle tools that help us identify in the first place. Identification is in a sense machinean, either a thing is or is not what it is identified as. But describing the hidden folds, the subtle shades, or the unique curves of an object, all of which contribute to its identity, require a willingness to shed the compulsion to identify and embrace the will to interpret.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

More on "In the Holocene"

One of the amazing things about living so close to MIT is that we can just walk out of our house and stroll around the campus. They have a wonderful collection of monumental sculptures that have caught my attention recently as I work on thinking more in three dimensions.

One of the best is a large work by Alexander Calder. 

<a href="" title="Cool Alexander Calder by Plant Design Online, on Flickr"><img src="" width="375" height="500" alt="Cool Alexander Calder"></a>A different view from every angle, it is even more dramatic from the inside. 

<a href="" title="Before the Hurricane by Plant Design Online, on Flickr"><img src="" width="375" height="500" alt="Before the Hurricane"></a>

A smaller model in the lobby of the List Center shows that Calder was still working through problems of form and engagement before the final construction. For example, the openings to the outside, which are such an appealing part of the monument, are lacking in the smaller model. The finished sculpture is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. What strikes me the most about it is that you are engaged with the sculpture as a viewer. You get inside it while it enters you with its wit, its life, and its aesthetic. How does this relate to the interesting, challenging, and provocative exhibit at the List Center?

<a href="" title="Contrasts by Plant Design Online, on Flickr"><img src="" width="375" height="500" alt="Contrasts"></a>

The curator, João Ribas, proposes that art is a "speculative science" that "acts as an investigative and experimental form of inquiry..." Somewhere on these pages I know I've written the same thing, but not as well articulated as in Ribas' introduction to the exhibit.

Ribas put together a sensational collection of work that challenges the line between science and art. Like the Calder sculpture, the work suggests the struggle of artists trying to depict scientific concepts through their process. As an observer I found myself struggling as well. Not with the question of art/science connections, but with trying to figure out how some of the pieces in the show connected to the question. 

I left with a sense of exhilaration but also frustration, as though all the thinking had already been done for me. The overall impression was that the exhibit was cold and not particularly engaging, which I think is not what the curator had in mind. 

There are many memorable pieces at the exhibit. One of them is a video of John Baldessari singing the Sol Lewitt's canonical Sentences on Conceptual Art. It occurred to me how many of these sentences relate to questions I've been posing about the art/science connection. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have the opportunity to engage the sentences with this question by using the video as a touchstone? What I'm thinking is this: Why not have the focus of the exhibit as the Lewitt Sentences, and ask viewers to seek connections between science and art through observing the various pieces in the show? 

<a href="" title="Lewitt Partial Cubes by Plant Design Online, on Flickr"><img src="" width="500" height="375" alt="Lewitt Partial Cubes"></a>

This might have proven a challenge to viewers, but I think it would have been a positive one.

As the World Turns...

Getting back to my studies of art, science, and how they connect. It's been a difficult several months filled with illness and loss, but punctuated by many happy moments, especially Julia's wedding. My trip with the National Endowment for the Humanities was an outstanding experience, and I hope to continue to unpack it (I feel like I've barely begun) on these pages. In addition, a wondrous two weeks making art in collaboration with composting worms in the Catskills; memorable and productive. I've posted pictures of all this great stuff in my flickr pages

but there's so much more to share about these experiences. Especially how they have helped me arrive at new understandings about the intersection between art and science. 

Here's a short vid that shows you what I did at Andes Sprouts. Looks like fun doesn't it? It was!

So let's start with this past week, where I visited a provocative show at the MIT List Center that was brought to my attention by Julia. More on this tomorrow after I learn how to use the new blogger format...grrrrrr.