Big Data Art

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Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”

 

Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.

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Masaccio, Holy Trinity

 

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Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.

Two Underrated Creative Strategies: (1) Start Now (2) Finish Early

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My classes are past midterms and now beginning to focus on the later part of our definition of creativity – usefulness. The definition of creativity we go with is, the production of something novel and useful. So far, we’ve covered the novelty side of things. We’ve learned a lot of strategies for generating more, unique ideas. But for the next step, we’ll find ways to make these ideas more functional. Two incredibly effective strategies to make creative ideas more useful are to “start now” and “finish early.” On the surface, these may not seem like creative strategies, so let’s take a look.

Start now: The sooner you jump on a project, the more time your brain gets to spend with it. If you begin immediately and work in a start-stop-start-stop fashion, you give your brain more time to reflect on what you’re doing. Therefore, by the end of the project, your subconscious brain has refined the concept many times. This is called, discontinuous problem-solving.

Binge working in one shot to meet a deadline forces you to continue in one direction until it’s obvious the concept isn’t working. Therefore, you really don’t know if what you’re doing is the best solution. However, by working periodically on a project, you utilize what’s called the incubation process where your subconscious brain makes random associations. These are where “Aha” moments come from.

Finish early: This is an excellent method to get all the kinks out. The way this works is to set the deadline a few days to a week before the real deadline. You finish the work early and get feedback from others. Having a real prototype enables you to gain empirical evidence and tangible feedback from your peers.

When a project itself is a hypothetical, the criticism others give you on it is totally dependent on those hypotheticals actually working. Your ability to convey your thoughts to another are very limited without a product. Also, having a finished product early allows you to see what tiny things should be tweaked to make it perfect.

So start now, and finish early to create more useful designs.

 

This is Water

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There are these two young fish swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them a says, Morning boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks to the other and goes, What the hell is water?

 

 

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 2005 is one of those speeches that deserves revisiting every once in a while. I often show the video made from edited parts of it to my classes. Above is the opening. Wallace follows by stating that the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The gist of the speech is that we have choices. And if we choose to acknowledge that we have choices, then maybe we can see the world through many lenses, not just through our default “me” setting.

Empathy may be the most underrated aptitude of the modern era. Being able to view reality from another person’s perspective is an incredibly powerful tool.  It opens the door to real conversations that can lead to a greater understanding of the world in which we live. We just have to understand that no matter how substantiated our view may be, another may exist that’s just as valid.

As Wallace states later in his speech, the “real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”

Teaching and Testing for Creativity

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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein recently posted, Do Arts Teach Creativity?, on Psychology Today. In their essay, they discuss the difficulties educational institutions face when trying to implement creativity as part of the curriculum. It’s an interesting article and they are correct in what they say.

First, they tackle tests designed to assess creative aptitudes. These tests include the Torrence test developed back in the 1960s. Creativity tests focus on stuff like the fluency and flexibility of an individual’s thinking abilities. Michele and Robert consider these tests shams, and they are correct.

Testing individuals on components of the creative process does just that, test individual parts. And possessing the ability to generate ideas, doesn’t mean you’re creative. It just means you can generate a bunch of ideas.

The authors also go on to explain how including art in a student’s curriculum doesn’t mean that creativity is being taught. And they are right again. Much of art making is craft oriented, technical stuff dealing with eye-hand coordination. In drawing courses, it’s very important to work on line quality. To do so, you repetitively draw lots of lines. But that’s not creativity. Yes, you could say that in a small, personal way it is. That’s because the person may not have drawn in this way before. But for most of us, changing a tire would also be a creative act since very few of us have done that.

So how do we include creativity in the curriculum? We do so through project base work where students go through the whole creative process to see how it works. That begins with finding problems. Then students should follow by conducting research, generating a bunch of ideas, synthesizing concepts, choosing the best ones, prototyping, reflecting on what’s happening, changing one’s mind and then making the final product. Only after going through that whole process time and time again do students get it. It’s not one step, it’s a process.

The good thing for art departments is that it’s most easily done through the arts. It can be done through any subject, but it follows naturally in art classes. That’s because the art departments employ this thing called the studio model. And by design, the studio model presents students with ill-defined problems which they are expected solve in novel ways. It’s real-world learning; there really is a product. So the knowledge sinks in.

The trick for art departments is to stress ideation and for students to record the process.  Recording the process helps students reflect on how they came up with their new solutions. It’s easy for students to forget how they came to a solution. Process books serve to refresh their memory.

Creativity isn’t a trick. It isn’t a single task. And it isn’t just for artists. It’s a process—one that can be learned. Testing for creativity can only come when the whole process is taken into consideration, not just one part of it.

 

What Project Haven’t You Finished?

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So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

Contribute to SCAD student, Lisa Levine’s Kickstarter

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A past student of mine, Lisa Levine, has a Kickstarter running called, Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s a great student and it’s a great idea. Please contribute at Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s only asking for $1,100. It’s part of a “traveling community mining and recycling project.” Small contributions count.

Interview with Angel Abreu from Tim Rollins and K.O.S. – a must read

If you’ve ever doubted the influence of a single teacher, read my interview with Angel Abreu, a member of  Tim Rollins and K.O.S. His story is incredible. And it all began with his middle school teacher, Tim. The interview is in the new edition of ArtPulse Magazine. Their website should be updated soon to include it. The intro is below and the link takes you to the full interview.

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Heraclitus once claimed “no man steps in the same river twice.” His insight points to the universe as being in a constant state of flux. Thus, change is an inevitable component of existence. Even if we try staying the same, the world around us continues pace. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. know this all too well. Over the last 30 years, their unlikely collaboration has defied all odds. Beginning when a young artist turned special ed art teacher met a group of at-risk teenagers from one of the worst school districts in America, their career has been a roller coaster ride from abject poverty to international stardom, a fall from grace and now back to the top. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) epitomize the philosophy of Heraclitus as their improbable relationship has evolved over time to be one of the longest lasting artistic studios in history. Even though many of the members are still the same, the ensemble is effectively different. So it is fitting not only for the content of the work, but also for history of their adventure that they’ve chosen a river as the metaphor for their latest works.

It all began in 1981 when Rollins was to begin his first day as the Special Ed Art teacher at Intermediate School 52 in the Bronx. Stepping cautiously from the safety of a New York subway onto a platform stationed in the heart of the Bronx, Tim had no idea of what was to come. To understand the area’s sense of the despair, the opening scenes of “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” which opened that same year, provide a congruent setting1. To Tim’s surprise, when he met the principal, the principal yelled, “I won, I won; pay up!” and began collecting his winnings. The teachers there had waged against Rollins making it the short distance from subway station to school.

The building—in total disrepair—was situated in an area Rollins refers to as “hell on earth.” The art room that Rollins called the Hip Hop Sistine Chapel was floor to ceiling graffiti. The sink didn’t work and there were no supplies. But for some crazy reason, he stayed. And over time, he and the students began building a unique artistic relationship. After a while, the collaboration between Rollins and the kids became recognized for its large scale works related to classical literature.  Their momentum continued to increase until they received international acclaim. Then, the collapse of the art market combined with a personal tragedy to one of the K.O.S. members threw the group into a time of despair.

More than thirty years after that first day in the Bronx, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. are back with large scale exhibitions, reviews and collaborations all over the world. Additionally, K.O.S. is all grown up as they and Tim are now colleagues and friends. Recently, I spoke with Tim and one of K.O.S.’s longest standing members, Angel Abreu. Afterward, Angel and I emailed back and forth the following conversation. With a degree in philosophy and a new appointment as senior professor at The School of Visual Arts in New York, it is fitting that Angel, and artist bearing little resemblance to his image as a teenager in early days of K.O.S., chose to quote Heraclitus in his closing response for our exchange.

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Certitude – The Creativity Killer

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Mindset may be the best determinate of one’s level of creativity. Creative people tend to be curious. They question their surroundings and seek out new things. While those with a strong conviction toward having all the right answers don’t.

This can be related to relative knowledge, or perception of relative knowledge. I often see people who are less informed on a topic being more certain they know everything about it. And as they learn more, they learn that there is much more to be learned. Teachers regularly witness this phenomenon in students. When students are freshmen, they are less inclined to question their opinions. As they advance, and learn more, they become more aware of the vast number of approaches to any given task. Thus, they are less obstinate about being right and more inclined to conduct research to confirm their opinions. The philosopher Dylan once said, “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” That sums it up.

In his essay, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” George Loewenstein states how knowing one doesn’t know something increases their level of curiosity. Those who think they know everything aren’t compelled to learn more. But those who know they don’t know, especially those who are aware they kind-of-know, feel compelled to seek more related information.

To ensure that we maintain a curious mindset, we should constantly be learning more stuff. Through learning, we find how entropy works. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And we become more aware the universe is a very complex thing. This means there is always something new to learn. Any topic is complex when looked at from a variety directions. And several viewpoints may be correct all at the same time. From this, any one problem can have many solutions that are equally viable.

To further embrace curiosity as a means to creativity, we should embrace process as a means to a better outcome, even when we know we have the right answer. The more time we spend researching, brainstorming and reflecting, the better our ideas become. And from these better ideas, the better our solutions will be. How do you know you have a good idea? It’s when you have a lot of others to compare it to. There’s no magic number on how long one should spend on ideation, but the more one works on a problem, the more one knows the complexities related to it.

Why are Art and Design So Important?

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We live in a time when almost everything we do is related to art and design. This is different from times past. Utility, and scarcity determined value before. And there were few choices. It used to be that sharing a photograph was just that. You’d pass your friend a print. They’d view it, cordially comment and then hand it back to you. From there, it went back into its Kodak envelope to be filed in a shoebox under your bed. Other parts of life were the same; many aspects of life had little choice. For hardware, you went to the hardware store in town.

Now things are different, we have lots of choices for everything. We can choose an unbelievable number of venues to share our experiences. That’s great, but accompanying that is the curatorial and aesthetic decisions associated with doing it well. That’s design. And design is everywhere.

Additionally, we have the power to reach many more people than in the past. My posts are regularly read by people in a huge range of countries including Pakistan and Indonesia. Ten years ago, that was impossible. What that means is that when I post something, I should consider that. The flipside of that is more people have access to me. That means competition is greater than ever before.

When I go to the grocery store, I am overwhelmed by choices. My Walmart has 72 choices of tomato sauce, and the cereal aisle is five shelves tall and about 60ft long. Which cereal do I buy, the one designed to fit my interests. If I want healthy, it better be brown and green. If I want cheap, it better not look fancy.

Many of the skills related to artistic production like creativity, expression and design are important because we live in an era of abundance where choice abounds. To be heard, to be seen or to be chosen, one needs to consider that there are others out there who want to be heard, seen or chosen. So developing what are often considered soft skills, the ones related to art and design, is essential for anyone’s success.

How Do You Know If You Are An Artist?

Last week a colleague of mine, Patrick Mohr, sent me a bunch of links related to art careers and how artists see themselves. They were enlightening. But honestly, for a person who teaches art and design, they weren’t that surprising.

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Here’s one: Sure, I Do Creative Work, but I’m No Artist

This information comes from a research group named the Strategic National Art Alumni Project (SNAAP). Generally, many artists don’t see themselves as such. Many, who often engage in artistic practices, don’t classify themselves as professional artists. Maybe it’s the term professional that skews the data. How much of your personal income do you have to make from art to classify yourself as such? Or, is it the term “artistic” that should classify our professional path. There are many “artistic” things we do at work now that for some reason, don’t add up to make us artists.

Maybe it’s because we’ve put too much weight on the term “artist” for it to be attainable. However, the romantic definition implies that you make almost nothing from long hours of labor and slight neurological disorders. But what artists do is observe, express, collaborate, empathize and design—among other things. So if your job includes these things, you might be more of an artist than you think.

Another way to put it could be “creative career.” If we classify ourselves as creatives, that makes it a little easier. Why separate art and design when they are so closely aligned to begin with? Just because we intend to make money off what we do, does that make it design? I’m sure Jeff Koons intends to make money off his work. And I’ve seen plenty of designs more transcendent than some work sold in galleries. So maybe all of us who make designs, films, illustrations, music, paintings, performances, sculptures, stories, and videos should just consider ourselves artists. As a bunch, I think we’ll have more leverage and reap more benefits.