Make an interesting mess

Kid art

Recently a colleague shared a disturbing event that occurred years ago when she had taught pre-school. In her own pre-school environment, there was an enticing geography of different “stations” for creative play. Kids could visit the art table, role-play in a dress-up corner, curl up with a book, build things with blocks, mess around with nature stuff, and just generally satisfy the curiosity of the moment. One day this inspired pre-school teacher took her art materials to a local kindergarten. But instead of grabbing materials and messing around, these older kids had clearly been subjected to some kind of training, because they just sat obediently and did nothing.

They were waiting for instructions.

This story brought tears to my eyes, both for what the kids themselves had lost at such an early age (they were five!), and for what we have all lost, when we fence in our natural creativity. It may not be the goal of formal education to wring the last drops of “what if” out of our kids, but it’s certainly a result. I ran into a similar situation a decade ago when I managed a science lab at a liberal arts college. Students would come up to me in the lab and stand there waiting for me to tell them what to do next. I said, “You tell me! Here is what we do know, here is what we’ve tried so far. Here are some papers about what others have tried. Here are some ideas you might explore, and here’s how to use these materials safely. I’ll be here if you need me. Go for it!”

Silent stares.

These were smart students, with good grades and a willingness to work hard. But their innate ability to imagine had been so tightly reined in, so deeply buried, they had forgotten they had it. A lab, like a studio, is a playground for the mind and hands. There are tools, there is guidance from past generations who already tried a few things, there are a few rules about not burning the place down or slicing yourself, but for the most part it’s a place that welcomes some open-ended exploration: “Hey, what happens if we try this? Oh, whoops.” Or “What about putting this with that?” And “Gross!” or “Cool!” or “Sigh.. OK let’s try something else.” It’s in a lab or studio that you hear one of the most important phrases in science or art, that so often leads to an unexpected next step: “Huh… that’s weird…” But who could blame my lab students for not knowing how to play in this way? They had been trained for years to use a pencil for filling in multiple choice tests, not for drawing or writing poetry or poking into the dirt or journaling about things they found outside.





In our obsession with outcomes, with return on investment, with limiting our liability, with maximizing efficiency and avoiding dead ends, we’ve drained all the life out of learning. We’ve placed a higher value on getting the right answers than on asking the most interesting questions. Failure is discouraged, from a very early age.

ROII’ve been following (and have sometimes been invited to participate in) an online discussion about art-science called YASMIN, a Mediterranean Art Science Technology Network associated with Leonardo. This week a significant topic popped up – how do we as artists+scientists find the necessary support to continue our work, when funders so cautiously avoid open-ended projects? Funders tend to reward low-risk projects with high probability of results.  Science funders in particular require reassurance in advance that a project is going to work, and even demand projections of what its products will be.  This kind of culture is a great way to ensure mediocre science (or art) will be done. No new paradigms, just incremental steps that reinforce accepted ideas. Strict adherence to ROI is a great way to kill innovation.

Once I worked for an extremely bright and capable scientist who, when we hit an obstacle, would just smile and hum the inflection of “I dunno,” the way a ten-year-old does, in a kind of singsong way but without words. As if to say, “just between you and me, I’m totally making this up as we go along ha ha ha!” I feel that way a lot. Sorta lost, and yet stumbling along anyway into the thick dark jungle of “I dunno” with my clumsy machete of courage and curiosity. Just between you and me, sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. Sometimes I walk on air thinking AS IF Center is just the coolest thing ever.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what the hell I am doing with this Art + Science Center. It’s my own experiment, and I know it is likely to fail in small ways (as all good endeavors must do). How do we make it work? What will be the “product”? What are we making? And how will we know when we’ve got it? I don’t know yet. I think more than any art we make or research results we find, it’s the process itself that is most important. It’s the recognition of our natural ability to be creative and curious, to see ourselves as investigators, as makers, as both artists and scientists. To let go of fear and fail splendidly, and often.

What do we want to “make” at AS IF Center? A place where you can feel safe to make an interesting mess.

Finger Painting