Livestream of Ashley writing the essay that that appears below. Refresh occasionally to see the actual essay in its updated form.
Creativity In Progress
Progress as a concept is a variable. To be progressive is the political opposite of conservative, however progress itself is what drives a capitalist economy. In the context of creativity though, progress is a constant, in that creativity is always in progress. Almost by definition the creative act is never complete. We might finish individual works of art, writing, or music, but creativity itself is bigger than those individual works. But ‘being in progress’ has a character of instability: the possibility of unknown outcomes, no expectation that the work will remain in the state that one encounters it in while it is ‘in progress’. This transient state however also elicits some amount of curiosity in viewers. Think of construction sites where windows are provided in the barriers that otherwise prevent public access to the site.
— Worcester Uni Sociology (@sociologyworc) March 5, 2017
As shown in this tweet from Worcester Uni Sociology, the window is as much about transparency as it is about satisfying the curiosity of onlookers. “Considerate Constructors” provide viewing windows as a way to demystify the construction process that is often hidden from public view. As a child walking past boarded up building sites, I can remember feeling frustration at the hidden nature of such work. An unintended gap in the boards occasionally allowed a limited view of the work, but there was a sense that spectators were not necessarily welcome. I wonder, though, if my curiosity would have been sparked at all if there were no barrier, if it was commonplace for construction sites to be in full view of passers by. Was it indeed, the enigmatic, hidden nature of the construction that generated my interest in it rather than any actual desire to see a building being built?
Perhaps it was this same enigmatic nature that characterised Jackson Pollock’s creativity in the public imagination in 1951 when the photographer, Hans Namuth filmed Pollock creating his drip paintings ‘in progress’.
The film is unique in its documentation of ‘Pollock at work’ in that Namuth convinced Pollock to paint on to glass so that he might film the process through the glass from underneath. Like the construction site, a literal window is used here as a metaphorical window, one that attempts to provide some deeper insight into a process that has some level of mystery, or at least curiosity surrounding it. In Namuth’s case this is ironic in that Pollock was essentially re-enacting his process. It was not an authentic insight into the real process of the artist, he did not normally paint on glass, and unlike the iconic photographs Namuth took of Pollock the previous year there is no actual ‘work in progress’ that could be identified.
But what is the attraction of capturing the artist’s process at anyway? If indeed it is something to do with the enigma of creativity, will observing that creative process render it any less enigmatic? I’m still baffled by building sites. The Worcester Cathedral Square works that feature in the tweet above included information panels along side the viewing window, which may well have left me less baffled in this instance, but possibly less interested. Part of what still fascinates me about building sites is the uncertainty, not knowing how the hell the building will stay up. Of course it will stay up but there is some excitement in not fully understanding how it does so – it looks risky, it looks dangerous. Creativity is similar in that the observation of the creative act is really only fascinating because we don’t understand it. If there was a way of knowing exactly where an artist derives their creativity, if we were somehow able to see through the shade cloth and scaffolding and fully grasp exactly how their ideas are germinated and their creative processes are initiated, there is the potential that the risk and danger and uncertainty that make it interesting could be demystified to a point of becoming uninteresting.
The creative product – the work of art – though remains, most of the time, an interesting object even if we do not have access to the creative process that produced it. But as stated above, creativity is not fixed in any one object, particularly not from the artist’s point of view. Gilles Deleuze discussing the work of Michel Foucault offers an interesting take on this aspect of creative production:
There’s something great writers often go through: they’re congratulated on a book, the book’s admired, but they aren’t themselves happy with it, because they know how far they still are from what they’re trying to do, what they’re seeking, of which they still have only an obscure idea. (Deleuze, 1995, p. 104.)
It is often the same case with artists, a completed work may be successful and well-received but the artist may see it as missing something, large or small, but that missing element is the continuing driver of future creativity, the thing that inspires the next work, and the one after that, and so on. If there is a unifying factor among the diverse artists exhibiting at the CreateWorld exhibition it is this. Many of the works either elicit a sense of their own future possibilities, or appear as an obvious part of a greater project.
Artist, David Harris is exhibiting two works, one is a collection of living cells, multiplying themselves around letter shaped matrices. The work is living and therefore always in progress but because of this, the “font” being created is also constantly, ever so slightly changing. Harris’s interest in typography continues through into his other work. An open book with the laser etched text raised a couple of millimetres. Blue liquid trickles from holes at the top of the page and travels down through the text following a path created by the gaps between the words. The work enacts the technical term for the way the white space between words on a page form “typographical rivers” generally avoided in type setting as they are considered distracting for the reader.
The river as literary motif is used as the setting for the clash of metaphor and its literal counterpart revealing the poetry that can occur even between the words on the page. While the works are quite different in nature they share both an interest in typography as well as a mode of communication that relies on a sense of continuousness, the works’ movements and changes occurring in-situ are crucial to the unique experience they offer. The creative act itself is continuous not only as a characteristic of their kinetic features but as an idea that is continuously manifesting itself in different forms.
These ideas of creativity as a non-static feature of artistic practice are somewhat easier to comprehend in the context of performance. At the opening of the exhibition, Sebastian Beswick performed For Clarinet and Tape, a piece of music written by Martin Wesley-Smith that incorporates computer generated sounds played on tape while the clarinetist plays along live.
Unlike a regular musical performance where there is some level of organic character to the performance with players intuitively responding to other players and perhaps adjusting their timing slightly, or the way they are playing, the tape track in this piece is a concrete element of the performance with very little, if any, tolerance for such organic variability. In terms of creativity such an exercise may seem less creative than playing along with human musician, a machine after all is so much more reliably rigid and precise. But it is this precision and rigidity that present the challenge to the musician, pushing them out of their comfort zone, and comfort zones, generally speaking, are not the most creative of places. The kind of sounds played on the tape too, are often not “musical” in the conventional sense, faithful to their digital origin, the sounds are identifiably computerised bleeps and pings presumably impossible to replicate on analog instruments. This performance then is not really about questions of whether or not computers (or tapes) can preform the task of a human musician, rather it is about introducing something into the musical experience that we – musicians or audiences – may not expect.
Therefore, to think about Beswick’s performance as rigid or restricted in any way is to miss the point. The tape and the sounds it plays create a kind of musical performance wholly different in nature and content to conventional all-human performances. The moment we compare a human-tape performance to an all-human performance, too many unnecessary parallels are drawn that tell us very little about Beswick’s actual performance and in fact impose restrictions on it that stop us from seeing the truly interesting nuances of the performance as it takes shape. There were some genuinely thrilling moments where, as the tape track played these sounds, I wondered how Beswick would make the clarinet fit, and while it is almost the antithesis of a jazz improvisation, it was still this tension of the work in progress that made it exciting.
Sonic Objects, created through a collaboration between Daniel Della-Bosca, Andrew Brown and John Ferguson are similar in that they are the product of three creative paths converging, each artist bringing their individual creative concerns to the project. The objects are variously tactile and sonically responsive to various physical interactions, such as movement and touch. The angular jagged crystal form object, for example responds to the pressure of touch through the use of capacitive paint that feeds the charge through circuitry to make a variety of sounds. In a sense it can be “played” as if it were an instrument, albeit an obnoxious and awkward instrument. The shape is actually an attempt to characterise, in three dimensions, the sounds conceived by Ferguson that the object emits when touched, as opposed to a shape design for ease of playing. In spite of the awkwardness invoked by this shape when “playing” the object, participants often attempted to create something vaguely musical from the sounds they were producing. In this case the continuousness of creativity follows an arc toward to the viewer from the work rather than simply ending with the work, or being contained solely within the creative product.
Keirra-Jay Power’s work continues this arc in another way that is illustrative of the non-static nature of creativity more generally. While Anatomise is based on an organic form it does not contain any mutating cells, music or other moving parts, but it is an interactive piece. Power acquired a digital anatomical model of a cane toad normally used for biological study, 3D printed it, and then cast the result in silver. While there may well have been an original living, breathing cane toad from which the digital model was originally derived, the model has added synthetic structural features which Power has maintained in her silver model. The silver cast also retains the stepped effect created the printing process as the polymer layers are set down to gradually build the object. So while, at first glance, the object is a cast silver cane toad figure it also bears the trace of the many stages of intervention it has been through, speaking much more about process than actual cane toads. This is of course notwithstanding the capacity of “intervention” itself to operate as a metaphor for the existence of cane toads in Australia.
Perhaps extending this metaphor further, Power has added manipulable joins at articulation points where limbs bend or meet the body allowing viewers to change the configuration of the toad. Invariably, this led to mutant toads being created with odd and humorous placement of body parts taking precedence over the natural form. The “work” in this case is an ongoing collaboration with the viewer. Taking the toad structure and its component parts as a starting point, the viewer is implicated in the creative process with the result not predetermined. The cyclical nature of this process calls to mind another familiar amphibian metaphor in the form of the educational diagram explaining the life cycle. A usually circular diagram, it shows the stages of the frog’s life from egg to tadpole, to growing legs, then to a fully formed adult frog. In looking at Power’s work we can imagine another circle growing out from the adult frog stage illustrating the creative cycle: the actual frog/toad, to its digital rendering to its polymer print, the silver cast, through to the exhibited piece where the final stage is also the germination of a new idea in the viewer’s mind. The diagram we might end up with would look more like an infinity symbol (∞) with the “egg” phase on the original circle taking on a metaphorical character as the beginning of a new idea or creative trajectory. Creativity in the is sense is shown to be a cycle of thinking, rethinking, building on ideas that came before and crucially, building upon those ideas. The infinity symbol is all the more appropriate here as there need not be an end to this creative cycle.
The consideration of ‘creativity in progress’ that is presented in this exhibition, and indeed discussed in the conference proceedings surrounding it, is not so much an idea of looking through a window onto to some hidden process, but rather a prompt to rethink creativity. A somewhat overused word today, ‘creativity’ has become synonymous with innovation and even progress itself. However if there is any single claim that this exhibition can make on the topic of creativity, it is that it is not any single, static, isolatable thing. Paul Bardini’s riff on the arcade claw prize grabber, Gerard Rutten’s device that responds to ambient sound waves by creating ripple waves in water through which light waves are projected, Ning Yi Yeoh’s treat-yielding alarm clock that reminds you to rest instead of wake up, are ideas that are progressions on other ideas that themselves will progress new ideas. They are cane toad eggs, they are buildings that may or may not stay up, and these are good things.