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

 

 

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High Cove masala

AS IF Center has been a seed of an idea for many years, drawing on the nutrients of the growing community of art-science, then floating around on the wind for a bit, looking for the right place to take root. We have set down roots in the remote mountains of North Carolina for many reasons, some of them not so surprising: the rich diversity of flora and fauna, world-class geological sites, dark skies for astronomy, and the abundance of artists that buzz around Penland School of Crafts, just up the road. Nearby Asheville, known for its creative and funky environment, also hosts some excellent but lesser-known science institutions. For example, the National Centers for Environmental Information is the headquarters for the nation’s climate data, and the Southern Research Station of the US Forest Service does important work to study how our forests adapt to human impacts.

But there is another reason to be here, and that is the surprisingly cosmopolitan community that is High Cove, where AS IF Center is located.

High Cove is a magnet for visitors from all corners. On a recent night in May, we had a delightful gathering with Gary Martin, who had travelled from Morocco. Gary, an ethnobotanist who wrote a textbook on Ethnobotany, directs the Global Diversity Foundation for preserving the biological and cultural diversity of the planet. At our gathering, a dozen of us mingled, nibbled on local goat cheese and just-picked ramps, sipped some wine, then I asked Gary to tell us about his work. He pulled out a few dozen plastic bags and spread them on the coffee table, and suddenly it looked like a drug bust. What were all these things?

bags of spices on the table

Spices aplenty

He opened one bag, a potpourri that included ingredients from all the other bags. He rolled down its edges and offered it to me.  I stuck my nose down into the bag and inhaled. I was transported to a spice market in Morocco, with whiffs of cardamom, cinnamon, anise, pepper, and things I didn’t recognize. My olfactory world burst into complex chord: mineral, herbal, salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami, medicinal, fruity, woody, nutty… with overtones and undertones, foretastes and aftertastes, like a well-aged, complex wine.

We focused on the ingredients one at a time. Gary passed around a bag of Melegueta pepper, or “grains of paradise.” A member of  Zingiberaceae, or ginger family, the Afromomum melegueta makes seeds which sting the tongue, then reveal clean, citrusy, peppery clouds of flavor that entertain the nose and throat, and fill the head. There were spices that came from every part of a plant. Delicate red threads of the finest saffron in the world, highly valued stamens of the Crocus sativus. Golden, leathery-looking bits of mace, the fleshy aril covering the nutmeg in the Myristica fragrans tree. Orris root,  the rhizome of Iris pallida, used as a fixative to bind  flavors together.

samples of mace in a bag

Mace, the fleshy aril that covers the nutmeg.

an variety of spices in a bag

Take a whiff – incredible aromas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One highlight of the evening was passing around a small, round seed about the size of a peppercorn, with a smooth woody surface the color of rosewood. It was a guessing game. We scratched and sniffed. One said, “Cloves?” Another asserted: “Cardamom! No, wait. Cinnamon?” And “Hmm… it has a spicy bite, like ginger-ish. But with a deeper note, like maybe nutmeg?” Then we realized, aha. Allspice! Indeed, that is where the name comes from. From Jamaica, allspice, or Pimenta dioica, has flavors reminiscent of so many of these spices.

We expect variety in cities. I have lived in three cities and travelled to a dozen more in different parts of the world. But it wasn’t until I moved to this remote location in the mountains of North Carolina that I had the privilege of learning about ethnobotany from a guy who wrote a textbook on it. Just a few days prior to that olfactory feast of spices, I was at a different kind of feast: my first Russian Orthodox Easter breakfast, eating pascha and drinking tea out of glasses with silver podstakannik, thanks to a Russian artist living at High Cove.

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Russian Orthodox Easter pascha and eggs

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Russian tea glass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Cove has had visitors from Burundi, Switzerland, Austria, Morocco, India, and from all over the US. Folks who live here and those who visit have generally travelled widely, studied deeply, and do interesting work in the arts, the sciences, academia, engineering, journalism, and other fields. High Cove residents include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist / ceramic artist; a physicist / musician;  a Stanford University classics professor / woodworker; a radio engineer / meteorologist / Spanish professor. Incredibly, when I arrived, there was already another artist / scientist here, who became a friend and partner in crime.

Our feasts of culinary and olfactory delights are a common occurrence here, as are the equally intriguing curries of stimulating conversation. We relish our “sobremesa” (Spanish for “around the table”), that time of lingering after a meal to enjoy stories, laughter, music, learning, and companionship. It is this rich masala of bright minds, delightful conversations, creative work, and adventurous eating, and  that brought AS IF Center to this place.

The world comes to High Cove. We hope you will, too.

 

 

Why does art-science matter? Tell funders.

Over the past few years I’ve been doing some grant searches for funding opportunities that bring the arts and sciences together in some way. Grant programs focused on art-science are fairly sporadic. For well-established projects, the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning (AISL) can be a fit, but NSF grants are notoriously competitive, awarding about 10% of applicants. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funds a few projects through its Public Understanding of Science. The Wellcome Trust has a great track record of funding arts projects that deal with biomedical topics, for artists who live and work in the UK or Republic of Ireland.

Doing a grant search on the Foundation Center Online, using the controlled-vocabulary search terms, there is no entry for art-science. Writing in “art-science” as a keyword turns up a modest number of grants nationwide, many of which are “state of the art” science technology, or general education grants for “arts and sciences.” “STEAM” yields even fewer results, often for things like “restoration of steam engine,” etc. Once you further narrow the searches geographically (to make them most useful for actual grant writing) the field is pretty limited.

from little acorns...

from little acorns…

Philanthropists want to make a difference. Funders want their giving to have the biggest impact it possibly can, effecting change in the areas they care about. What can we do to convince funders that art-science matters? How can we change the funding landscape and increase art-science opportunities?

Here are three ways to start making change in the philanthropy environment.  Please add your own and share!

One. Reflect: As practitioners of art-science – whether it’s using science materials and methods to make cutting-edge art, using arts to communicate science narratives, blending both art and science to explore in an open-ended manner, using art to teach science in or out of school, or whatever you do that brings art and science together – ask yourself, why does art-science matter?

Two. Communicate: Each time we convene in a think tank, seminar, symposium, workshop, etc. let’s invite funders as well. We know art-science makes interesting work. We know that our culture’s habit of thinking of art and science as separate  has not served us well over the past few centuries, and that reuniting them is important. We know that art-science is nearing a tipping point, with myriad projects germinating in every discipline, in many regions of the country and internationally, in formal education and outside of it. How can we communicate that excitement to funders? With education in crisis, how can we help funders recognize that interdisciplinary art-science is an effective way to re-ignite curiosity, to help learners think of themselves as investigators, as makers, as fully human, with voices worth hearing?  At every art-science event, small and large, let’s invite funders to the table. Ask for their input, give them a role in this movement.

Three. Measure: With every art-science project, keep track of its outcomes. It’s a pain, but it can help you think about what you are aiming to do, then track how well you did it. If you go for funding, tuck a little bit into each budget for evaluating outcomes, even if you don’t have to. It shows you mean business, and it will help us as a movement to make a better argument for increased funding.

In talking to neighbors, friends, and coworkers about what I do in art-science, I’ve been so surprised lately at the rapid growth of this movement. A decade ago, mentions of my art-science collaborations were met with cocked head, furrowed brow, and queries of “How would you bring those two together? They seem so diametrically opposed!” Now, when I talk about art-science, it’s more often met with “Oh, yeah, I went to this cool poetry reading about physics last week” or “Do you know about _____ (insert name of art-science person I’ve never heard of, whom I then tweet next day on my #artscience du jour).” The fact that art-science is becoming not only well understood but even familiar to the general public is a sure sign that we are building a movement.

Getting on board with funders takes more time. The philanthropic landscape changes slowly; Philanthropy by its very nature is a rather conservative sector. But it does change, and it takes our effort and intention to help it change.  There are new search terms listed in Foundation Center online: Environmental justice. Climate change. Agrodiversity. Circus Arts. Those are subjects now listed by funders as areas of focus for funding, that weren’t there a few years ago. Let’s put “Art-science” on the list.

 

Nautil.us – brain candy, eye candy

I’ve been enjoying the delightfully cerebral articles I find in the science journal, “Nautilus.” This sample article on the topic of Why Nature Prefers Hexagons is exemplary of this journal’s artful appeal to the senses and cultural relevance, and with firm roots in science.

Venus' Flower Basket, Dmitri Grigoriev, Shutterstock

Venus’ Flower Basket, porous skeleton of a sponge.  Photo: Dmitri Grigoriev, Shutterstock

Nautil.us, the website of this sumptuous art-sci magazine, was originally funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The website offers its articles online for free (seven free articles per month), but for full access, also offers subscriptions for both hard copy and online versions. There is also a store for its delightful science-inspired visual art offerings.

To explore a bit of background on science journalism over the past few decades, check out this NYT article. Nautilus quarterly issues are organized around particular topics, such as “Boundaries,” “Adaptation,” “Attraction,” “Space,” “Stress,” “Identity,” “Scaling”…

Some sample article titles, for further enticement:

Why It’s Hard for Black Holes to Get Together

Why We Swim in Quarries

Describing People as Particles Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

Dive in, enjoy, and tell me what you think.

 

We begin.

Sunrise from the Yellow House porch

Sunrise from the Yellow House porch

This is not really the beginning, it’s a continuation of many art + science collaborations, some that have grown over many years and some that lasted only a few days… with many artists, scientists, visionaries, educators, explorers, innovators, crazy people, scholars, children, neighbors, ancestors. It’s just that now, we have a PLACE.

We are glad you are here in our virtual place. We hope that you will find inspiration in these pages, but above all, that you will come to this physical place, the AS IF Center, and help shape a think-and-do community of art-science creativity, play, scholarship, and exploration that will grow for generations.

Let us know what you think! Email us with feedback. Write with questions, comments, constructive criticism, suggestions for events and workshops, contact info for art-sci people we should know.

Hope to see you soon! Come have coffee with us on the Yellow House porch, watch the sun rise, and begin your day of art + science inspiration.