An End to Venn

I’m all for insisting on intersectionality. But there are multiple ways to go about integrating ideas: some redundant, some genuinely translational, some that lead to mutual growth. 

 

Reflect for a moment on the oft-used designer’s tool, the Venn Diagram. Two thematic areas find common ground at their respective edges. Fringe focus areas bring together the necessary insider-outsiders: those thinkers with the fluency to engage serious classical scholars in their fields but with a personal pull towards the edges, an urge to step outside of their own fluency and engage with new vocabularies and sets of expertise. They meet each other at the edges. An artist exploring eye gaze and a neuroscientists exploring theory of mind realize they’re circling the same drain, and decide to slip in together.

This sort of thinking can empower fringe thinkers, provide them with collaborators and interlocutors. But the job of a provocateur, a bricoloeur, an edge-thinker, can’t end in overlapping space. The Venn Diagram suggests the final goal of a collaboration is to agree on ideas already within each other’s purview, to validate one another’s vocabulary.

I’d like to live instead within a pyramidal model for intersectional work. The issue in interdisciplinary collaboration is one of making meeting points based not only on breadth (fringe intersections) but depth. Where one discipline gets deeply niche, becomes atomized in gazing at atoms, it suddenly meets another at its broadest, its impetus and inquiry, and begins to ask new questions. The two form the foundation for new inquiry built on top of their collaboration: where broad meets niche, where fringe meets focus, where answers meet questions, novel work begins.

This is not working in overlapping territory. It is entering new space together. It is not quibbling over jargon but opening up space without previous owners. Building layers of foundation so we are allowed distance when we are too focused to see our collaborators, and allowing focus when we are too broad to see our opportunities.

from venn

from venn

to pyramidal

to pyramidal

Inscribed Disciplinary Deconstruction

It is, somewhat ironically, an often echoed worry that media offers an echo chamber for all of us today. Facebook algorithms sort media content on your feed by likelihood of garnering a click—so people see the things they already agree with—and sort friends higher than media content—so content is filtered through a self-selecting social circle, not journalists. Curated media often fails to push people outside of their ideological comfort zones to encounter other ways of approaching the world, polarization follows. But people not only curate content, they curate models of thinking, encountering or avoiding an expansion of a lens on the world.

The scientific world espouses, of course, science thinking. And it’s a world where expertise is rewarded: in grants, promotions, accolades etc. And expertise is, by it’s nature, exclusive. Experts are myopic. They are peer reviewed. Look at Steven Pinker’s writing on science lingo to understand why there are actual incentives for writing inaccessible science. Think of how relevant genetics is to you, and how inappropriately intimidating it is to approach the science of the stuff that makes you up. Think of the same with philosophy, neuroscience—concepts that form your core rendered irrelevant by expertise. Like so many spaces, the scientific worldview can become an exclusive, stuffy silo.

In my mind none of these siloes split or bubbles burst without some show of proof, an example of an object or happening that exists in between or outside of the boundaries you preach opening.

So you build amazing projects. Projects that couldn’t come from just one world, that cut across boundaries of culture, geography, discipline. See Margaret Livingstone use the neuroscience of human vision to explain Mona Lisa’s smile here. It’s an example of science taking seriously another discipline, opening up vocabularies and tools for a deeper reading of overlapping space with art. And there is much work to be done to expose and expand overlapping areas of art and science. But I think the integration of disciplines must be taken further than exploring overlapping space.

See Neri Oxman build a fully functional digestive system in a fashionable futuristic dress. This project is not about overlapping space between fashion and biology, not about art and science sharing space. It’s about the two coming together to create something completely new, something an expert in either could not create alone.

Examples from my own ‘making’ process are informative. I did a piece titled Small Beauty. I was curious about intimacy in detail—I’d had my cheek pulled, back slapped, belly patted by a Jewish grandmother for so much of my childhood and wanted to explore both this fine line between care/violence and the amazing differences in everyday experience between micro and macro scale.

And I’m proud of that image. But it simply takes an 1000fps imaging tool from a Physics lab and repurposes it for art. It is interdisciplinary, rather than anti-disciplinary, to borrow a term from MIT’s Media Lab. It finds common ground, rather than letting two disciplines rise together to new ground.

A better example of what I hope for is this project. Using some robotics, extending the myth and science of divining rods, and open to interruption and improvisation, I created a strange situation in which people could encounter their own subconscious through an interaction with a mechanized tree. Nobody had any way of accessing this archetypal ‘tree’ concept before engaging with this project. It sits neither in siloes of art or science, and takes people to a space that is an existential ‘in-between’.

Breeding a culture of curiosity is breeding a culture of diversity. It begins with ‘Inspiration at the Intersection’ between disciplines. Building projects that function as lightning rods to integrate and electrify.

And it’s not just to inspire people to create cool stuff. It’s because it often takes an outsider’s eye to see complex systems that experts mired in one niche fail to notice. Incredible work happens when newcomers look with fresh eyes at old problems, when teams are comprised of as many disciplines as there are directions to take a challenge.

This is why Proust revealed the fallibility of memory centuries before neuroscientists. This is why data scientists are inviting designers in to point out new connections in complex systems and help tell the stories in systemic connections. This is why education policymakers are inviting neuroscientists into their offices and vice versa, working on amazing science based policy work. This is why metaphor is often so useful in mathematics, why phase transitions in matter are often created by the same math that differentiates levels of complexity from neurons→mind, from city→culture.

And creating spaces where disciplinary outsiders feel welcome to provide insights and inspiration begins with flinging the doors wide and recognizing that an expert may be the wrong one for the task at times. I’m excited about citizen science. I’m excited that the MIT Media Lab is anti rather than interdisciplinary, learning without boundaries, not breeding boundaries into people again to push against them. I’m excited about educational models that don’t just break down disciplinary boundaries, but refuse to introduce them in the first place. I’m excited about creating a spark, and not fearing a fire.

Step 1 is accessibility. If it’s tech, make like littleBits or Makey Makey and take advantage of how powerful play can be as an opener. If it’s Science, maybe write like Joi Ito’s Journal of Design and Science—cut peer review out of the equation and create a conversation where, since nobody could possibly be such a broad expert, everyone is welcome. If it’s content, put it online, open, free. I see a world rising where expertise is democratized by work like this and it’s hugely exciting.

My two cents, my two projects I’m working on at the moment, are this and this. Hopefully you all see how they contribute to this rising tide. Please reach out and engage.

Adam Horowitz

Other references:

Not an intersection. An otherwise unachievable shared space. 

Not an intersection. An otherwise unachievable shared space. 

Mad and Civilized

Often the creative process involves singular amounts of discipline: Mary Oliver walking the same path in the woods a hundred times, Yayoi Kusama committing to explore polka dots for 4 decades, Jackson Pollock’s apparently random ‘action paintings’ produced by committed process repetition. There is, to pinch an oft-applied aphorism, “method to the madness”. This seems to complicate the cultural icon of the scatter-brained, even ‘insane’ artist. Perhaps a little complication is in order.

 

It is worth considering why the word ‘madness’ enters into common parlance regarding creativity. Why the Ancient Greeks refer to an occult daimon driving their creative process, why performance artists often refer to out-of-body experiences, why William Blake claimed his poetry was ‘dictated to him’.

 

It would seem, and modern neuroscience affords hints as to why, that moments of creative brilliance involve the introduction of madness to the method, rather than the other way around. Dr. Rex Jung’s work focuses on transient hypofrontality in the brain--in short, the hypothesis that creativity is a sudden loss of executive function, a passing deactivation of attentional supervision: A passing entrance into a state of executive dysfunction, which would, if not transient, likely be diagnosed as dis-order per the DSM (EFD, ADD, etc). Captured within this transient hypofrontality is the medial prefrontal cortex, locus of the default mode network, thought to play a key role in ego-related thought; perhaps here is the root of the out-of-ego experience Blake mentions above.

 

Point being, our brain-states are malleable, we are composed of many selves, and the creative spark appears to be in the transition between ‘madness’ and method. This hypofrontality allows for intense, novel associations, ones that would be otherwise restricted by the repetition of previous cognitive pathways (same question→ same answer) and the nearly automatic surveillance and redirection of our cognition straying from them. Its transience, in turn, allows for effective attentional orienteering necessary to grab hold of valuable novel associations and mold them into plans of action.

 

The creative process internally involves allowing free association and then backing away from these momentary lapses of supervision to pull out the best new connections, so what are its external parallels? What can we learn from understanding the mechanisms of creativity to ‘create creativity’? What sort of space would work like a creative brain? Structures, physical and organizational, that permit and promote cross-pollination and the marriage of dis/organization. Creativity across scales, as is were, rhizomes with depth. Paired with the powerful realization that we are all creatives on a spectrum, containing both madness and method, this concept calls for a new, anti-disciplinary approach to creative production across industries, and invites a new wave of as-yet contained creatives to enter the fray.


A panel discussion on this topic would begin with recent contributions from neuroscience to our understanding of creativity, implications for how and whether to change spaces we work in accordingly, successful projects that exist across disciplines and methods, and, importantly, the technologies and tools that allow for maximal creative output building on the wisdom gained from peering into artistic and scientific inter/anti-disciplinary practice.

Mythmakers

BILL MOYERS: I think of a … remember that wonderful pygmy legend of the little boy who finds the song of the most beautiful … the bird of the most beautiful song in the forest?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And he brings it home, doesn’t he? And he asks his father to bring food for the bird, and the father doesn’t want to feed only a bird. And one time the father kills the bird, and when he killed the bird, he killed his own life, and he died.

BILL MOYERS: That’s it. And the legend says, the man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song himself. Isn’t that a story about what happens when human beings destroy their environment, destroy their world, destroy nature and the revelation of nature?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Destroy their own nature.

BILL MOYERS: Human nature, too. They kill the song.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: They kill the song.

BILL MOYERS: And isn’t mythology the story of the song?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Mythology is the song. It’s the flight of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body and in its life.

BILL MOYERS: What happened as human beings turned from the hunting of animals to the planting of seeds? What happened to the mythic imagination?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I try to think of it this way. An animal, as I think I’ve said before, is sort of a total entity, and when you kill that animal, that animal is dead. But when you cut down a plant, new sprouts come out. Pruning is, you know, helpful to a plant. Also in forests where a good deal of the origination of myth is to be recognized, out of rock comes life, even in these forests here, of the beautiful redwoods. I was in a wonderful forest right near Mendocino, and there are some great, great stumps from enormous trees that were cut down some decades and decades ago. And out of them are coming these bright new little children who are part of the same plant. So there’s a sense of death as not death somehow, that death is required for new fresh life and so on. And the individual isn’t quite an individual, he is a member of a plant. Jesus uses the term, you know, where he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” That vineyard idea is a totally different one from the separate entity of the animal.