horizonmachine by Crystal Heiden

horizonmachine by Crystal Heiden.  Image courtesy of the artist.

Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation by David Edwards is a dense book chock full of interesting ideas about the ways in which art and science not only overlap, but can result in the kind of synergy that crosses multiple barriers to lead to innovative projects of great social and cultural benefit. The book is written in a somewhat dry academic style, and is sometimes repetitive. Nonetheless, it contains remarkable examples of how art and science have become intertwined.

Edwards notes that the gap between the two is fairly recent: “Long ago, scientists cared deeply about aesthetics. They did not reveal a major theoretical insight without presenting it in literary language, perhaps accompanied by beautiful hand-drawn sketches, with evocative prose and visual imagery. Great British scientists from Newton to Reynolds wrote like poets.”

Examples of artscience type thinking can be found in “. . . Benoit Mandelbrot,whose invention of fractal geometry has helped artists and scientists probe more deeply into the beauty and complexity we encounter in nature. As Mandelbrot writes in his book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, ‘Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, and bar is not smooth.’ Nor are scientists and artists the pure right- or left-brain thinkers we may assume them to be.” Another example is the poet Andre Breton, once a French medical student, who developed his philosophy of Surrealism from his study of hysteria.

Contemporary examples include Doris Sommer, founder of Cultural Agents, an organization that sends artists and humanity majors to work in Boston communities. “Others explore today within and outside research institutions how the arts can mediate human behavior by understanding the effects of music on intelligence, color on mood, and improvisational theater on patient care,” Davis writes. Mark Fischer, an engineer and artist: “. . . uses wavelets to transform ocean mammal sounds into beautiful visual images that express distinctive structures human ears cannot detect.”

The idea of the “lab,” a fluid place of experimentation and interactivity, is Davis’ vision of a place where creativity and education mixes with industry, society and culture. “Process matters, more than results,” Davis says, an observation that will ring true for any writer or artist.

To me, the artist’s studio is a similar kind of lab, a place where many ideas and disciplines may become synthesized and coalesced within the artistic process. Art is no longer contained in rarefied realms such as attics and museums – it is an exciting confluence of ideas, events and projects that increasingly spill into society.

Crystal Heiden is an artist who occasionally combines her multiple disciplines of photography, sculpture and woodworking into visionary pieces such as her horizon machine, through which the viewer watches a constantly approaching horizon. It is exciting to live in a time when the conventional methodologies and territories of art become more adventurous every day.

horizon machine (detail) by Crystal Heiden.

horizon machine (detail) by Crystal Heiden.  Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Everything Is a Mirror

Organic Fractal by Sven Geier

Organic, an original fractal by Sven Geier

Everything Is a Mirror was the title of the “Night Owl” adult workshop I attended this week at the Telling Room. Subtitled “Nonfiction and the Art of Interpretation,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Instructor Jaed Coffin turned out to be a great teacher, full of energy and ideas. Although the workshop was targeted to memoir and nonfiction, most of the ideas were applicable to fiction as well, and since I am interested in essay writing, criticism and journalism, besides fiction and poetry, it sounded interesting. And it was.

I have been to a small slew of creative writing workshops, and a lot of them feature a published author, writing prompts, writing time, and some relatively gentle critiquing. I’ve always found them valuable for the interactions, insights and motivational aspects, but sometimes they can get repetitive. It’s hard to teach great writing — to convey where it comes from and how you do it. This workshop was a departure from the norm, in that there was a lot of discussion about narrative structure and theory. Jaed had some extremely practical advice on how to tap into the most energized synapses within a narrative. We also discussed how narrative often has an underlying theme or themes of which the writer is not even aware. Some of his ideas were a little formulaic, but they were good and useful ideas.

This workshop made me really think about how dominant the desire for linear narrative can be. Life isn’t really linear (though we often look at it that way), but chaotic. We try to impose order on reality, but we actually experience it in complex and startling ways. Reality is often synaesthetic. Every moment is a fragment of a multidimensional web of memories, thoughts, cultural references, psychology, fears, desires, etc. We are interconnected with the world in aggregates of ways. We don’t live, we collide. Why should writing or art be any different? Truly interesting writing explores those interconnections, the places where the synergy happens. In my own writing I can tell the difference between a boring, plodding passage and a lively, gripping one. That excitement needs to drive the narrative. Sure, order is useful and traditional narrative is very effective. But sometimes mixing up the process a bit can be good too. There is magic in the unexpected. New approaches are invigorating. There are patterns in the chaos.