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In a conference entitled "Les femmes tissent la toile du monde" given at MIM in Montreal in 2001 (and subsequently published in OASIS on Next Movies), Pierre Bongiovanni (director of the CICV Pierre Schaeffer) raises questions, amongst other things, about the role of artists using new technologies. In another text entitled "Les centres d'arts numériques en pleine effervescence", he mentions four attitudes of artists with respect to new technologies:
- The curious: those who hesitate between fear and fascination;
- The septic: those who seek to uncover the failings and dangers of these tools;
- The fetishists: those who are convinced that these technologies when widely used will solve all our problems;
- The experimentalists: those who seek to critically explore these tools setting them in the perspective of modern media.
In the first article mentioned above, Pierre concentrates on the fourth type, drawing up a list of aspects that should constitute an experimental approach or "posture" as he puts it. The interest of his list goes way beyond the field of art. For those of us who seek to be "experimentalists" in life, this list could be seen as an underlying programme for many human activities that require a creative and thoughtful approach.
I have taken those points raised by Pierre as stepping-stones from which to spring off in various directions within the field of creation and social change, exploring where they might lead.
"Si la sagesse reste ce perpétuel étonnement devant le monde, qui ouvre à la distinction entre jour et nuit, alors il y a certainement une place pour elle, non pas comme savoir qui libère le réel de sa multiplicité, mais comme dire qui continue à la maintenir!" [Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Lire aux éclats. Eloge de la caresse. Seuil, 1989]
Stepping-stones to a creative culture
In being creative, fixed ideas and familiar perspectives are barriers that are hard to overcome. To approach a situation from a different angle, one worthwhile possibility consists of cultivating a childlike naiveness in which we leave routes open to the improbable or even the impossible. We often see naiveness as a negative character trait. Naiveness is equated with gullibility. The naive get trampled on by the unscrupulous. But naiveness can also be a positive strategy. Why are some of those naive questions that children ask so fundamental and difficult to answer? Because they intuitively go beyond the well-traced lines of understanding that adults take for granted and ask simple but penetrating questions that unwittingly challenge the self-evident.
In a way, certainty is the enemy of creativeness and change. At the same time, doubtfulness is generally seen as negative and a sign of weakness. The Apostle Thomas, in wanting to see to believe, has been eternally condemned to be the negative symbol of doubt. We expect those in positions of power whether they be politicians, scientists or teachers to be certain of what they are doing, of what they know. Yet doubt can be construed positively as being the creative faculty to call into question that which is taken as self-evident. We take many of the things around us for granted, and thank heavens we do. Otherwise we'd spend all our time checking what was going on and reassuring ourselves. However, certainty is useful only so long as what we are certain about corresponds to reality. In a fast changing world certainties could well have a very short useful life span. In this context, the cultivation of positive doubtfulness, one that questions certainties, could be a very useful asset in the right places, at the right times.
Exploring multiple perspectives
There are always many perspectives on a given situation, yet we generally only adopt one that we may well defend ferociously against all other possible points of view. We identify with our unique perspective. It becomes a part of us. We defend it in discussions with others, often unable to hear that of others. This is especially the case when the situation is strongly polarized as in political debate or industrial negotiations. What if we were to explore multiple perspectives, suspending momentarily our tendency to judge and to choose one or the other as our familiar fortress? Wouldn't we have a much richer view of the world and be able to choose the best from amongst those many perspectives in deciding how to act?
We are not expected to be contradictory. It is as if our identity depended on the coherence of what we do and think. There's no room for contradictions in the image we give of ourselves. Have you ever been confronted with the anger of acquaintances when they discover that you are not as they imagined or you "made out to be"? It is as if what you were before was somehow a fake because you can't be two things at a time. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we all know we are full of contradictions, but something in us and in society finds that difficult to tolerate. To be able to explore multiple perspectives we need to be able to accept that we too are "multiple" and that there are often profound contradictions between these facets of ourselves.
Exploring the transient
Much of the money that society invests in art is concentrated on conserving it. Value in art is seen in terms of lasting works. In many ways, electronic arts are concerned with contexts and processes that are open-ended. This tendency shifts the spotlight from the lasting to the ephemeral. Beauty is in the fleeting glance. Trying to grasp at is snuffs it out forever. What remains is the experience and possibly understanding.
With the advent of new technologies, there is a growing polarization between those who bank on the short-lived and those who value lasting works. Typical of the first is the suggestion of John Perry Barlow to base value of online products inversely on the time between the act of creation and when the spectator receives it. Barlow's perspective is driven by a need to translate content into monetary value. But thinking in terms of such a polarization between the lasting and the ephemeral is likely to lead us astray.
The essential is elsewhere. What is at stake is our capacity to shift our attention from the goal and its materialization as a definitive "work" to the experience of the road we are travelling along. How we walk the path becomes the work to be cherished, but then how do you share such a "work" with others? By exploring the path with them. Such a perspective necessarily changes the stance of the individual creator who looses the monopoly of creativity and authorship. What's more, you can no longer possess the work (of art) by buying it. You need to live it, to earn it, a perspective that leads credence to those who plead for life itself as the ultimate work of art. Not life created ex-nihilo in a test tube, nor life as some sort of fashionable artifact but our lives and how we live them seen as permanent creation to be worked on.
A culture of conflicts
Our culture is largely based on conflict. Does that make us cultural cavemen waving our clubs in the air and bringing them down on the heads of each other? The confrontation of ideas, for example, is the foundation of public debate and democratic decision-making. We take it for granted that the best idea will emerge from the fray if we give all ideas an equal chance. But will it? Probably not. What happens if the best answer lies in neither of the confronting positions but rather in a careful mix of parts of them? Unfortunately thinking based on conflict works by opposing ideas rather than by exploring them and recomposing them. Energy flows into the confrontation itself rather than into exploring and comparing the ideas. The goal is to win and not to develop the best idea. Could there not be a new form of hand-to-hand battle with ideas (not with people) in which a number of perspectives on a subject or problem are explored to their fullest before picking the best all the ideas can offer? Imagine working in a group with widely differing ideas in which all members bring energy and support to each member so that he or she can develop and explore his idea to the fullest.
Looking backwards and forwards
One of the major problems facing those who are at the cutting edge of new developments is the relationship they uphold with the past. One of the characteristics of all innovation is the tendency of its authors to stress the manner in which their new way of doing things breaks with all that had gone before. How curious it would seem if an innovator were to begin by exploring the ways in which his innovation tied into the long line of tradition that has led up to that discovery. Would we still consider it an innovation? In a conference the other day in Lausanne, the architect Mario Botta described the stratification of towns as you move from the outside towards the center, penetrating further and further into the past. Botta insisted that a town without such stratification is a town that lacks sense. The ultra-modern is perched on a pinnacle that reaches down into layer upon layer of cultures passed.
Very often the ancient or even archaic values that underlie culture are immensely rich and extremely fragile. Change is often used as a bulldozer that flattens everything in its way, taking no heed of the wasteful tragedy perpetrated. Think of the ill-fate of the nature-loving Celtic Christianity that set God in hearts rather than in temples and preached openness. In 664, at Synod of Whitby, the decision was taken to choose between Celtic and Roman Christianity with the result that Celtic Christianity was violently ousted (*). Or think of those missionaries who swept through Africa in an attempt to wipe out "pagan practices". Believing in the rightness of a unique new idea is generally devastating. We need to be very wary of such a totalitarian attitude when it comes to praising the merits of new technologies as the solution to all our problems.
Is there no way to move forward into new pastures without willfully destroying the riches that brought us to that point? We seem to have forgotten that newness is not a value in its own right. The marketplace would have us believe that newness is the highest of all values, such that the salesman's goal is to make us avid for all that is new. No doubt part of the answer lies in rediscovering ethics, not as a set of morals born out of authority but rather as hard-worked underlying guiding values to accompany us on our path.
Is not limiting ourselves to a partial vision of the world a first sign of coming blindness? To understand, we need to strive to attain an ever more embracing perspective rather than to take refuge in a reduced vision of the world, however reassuring that might be. What lies, above, behind, beyond the limits we have set ourselves? The message at the end of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Saga springs to mind as all run into the heart of Narnia "Don't stop. Farther up and farther in!" Or - from a completely different culture - the words of Marc-Alain Ouaknin quoted above about the perpetual astonishment at the world around us. In seeking to grasp the world from the perspective of the untouchable scientific observer and to improve our material conditions by goods bought on the market, we have paid a heavy price for our progress by cutting ourselves off from the inexplicable oneness. How can those who push ever further forwards and upwards in their artistic, scientific and human quest, reset the material world firmly where it belongs within the transcendent whole? No doubt the first step is to reconnect ourselves, but not with wires and the Internet, but with our eyes, our breath and our hearts.
Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.
(*) See J. Philip Newell (1997) Listening for the Heartbeat of God. A Celtic Spirituality. Paulist Press, New York.
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Created: 25th January, 2002 - Last up-dated: 25th January, 2002