Creative Thinking

a chronicle, a conversation, an exploration

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A Glimpse of REALITY

by Christy Casey, Creative Thinking student, Spring 2014

        1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… for me and my fellow students in the Creative Thinking course, those numbers adopted a brand new meaning during a workshop led by L.A.-based choreographer and director of the dance company REALITY, David Roussève. Days before the regional premiere of Stardust at the Kasser Theater, we had the pleasure of having David come work with us as a visiting artist.

        First, David led the group through a guided improvisation, assigning certain tasks or movements to the numbers one through eight: 

  1. walk through the space, trying to fill it evenly as a group
  2. stop
  3. run, still trying to keep the balance of the space
  4. melt slowly to the floor led by a specific body part
  5. get back up as fast as you can led by another body part
  6. devise a combination using a “dot exercise”
  7. yell out as loud as you can any thoughts that come to mind from a “menu” or topic
  8. create a personal movement phrase

Some numbers indicated a completely unrestricted improvisation, as in #8, the personal movement phrase; other numbers indicated a structure or boundary to the creation.  My favorite structured creation was #6, the “dot exercise.”  David told us to imagine there were dots all around us at varying distances from ourselves, then touch them as fast as we could with as many different body parts as we could, and set these movements as a phrase.  Everyone’s phrase looked different, not just due to the direction or level of the “touches”, but in the way each person moved. It surprised me how much variety touching invisible dots allowed.


Creative Thinking class in a movement workshop with David Roussève. Photo courtesy of Montclair State University/Mike Peters.

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The Fall Creative Thinking Course (CRTH-151) Winds Down for the Semester

by Mike Lees, Lead Instructor, Fall 2013

This awesome aspect of the universe is found in qualitatively different modes of expression throughout the entire cosmic order but especially on the planet Earth.  There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.

                                                  -Swimme & Berry (1992)


                                         photo by Mike Lees

          This sentiment from our course book, The Universe Story (1992), only begins to address the nature of creativity and creative exploration as our human endeavor continues to unfold, and we engage in processes that lend to the expression of who, what, when, where, and why we are.  As we moved through the third and fourth quarters of our course, questions surrounding community, collaboration, and innovation emerged as topics to engage with and discuss.  We delved into the nature of human innovation within the context of ecological and systems thinking themed elements (Meadows, 2008; Naess, 2008).  This line of inquiry brought to a head the question of human ideas in relationship to manifesting creative processes.  One student aptly asked, “How do we take an idea from realization to actualization and do something with that idea?”  One could see and hear the frustration behind the question on the student’s face and in the student’s voice, as we all agreed that everyone can always conjure plenty of good ideas.  The trick then becomes how one manifests these ideas in the world.  Our group wondered if struggling with innovation and manifestation might ultimately require the force of a “sonic event,” as visiting professor Marissa Silverman of the Cali School of Music at Montclair State suggested when working with the students for a day.

            Expression and its processes moved to the foreground in the exploration of innovation and renovation when Marissa asked, “What is music?”  The ensuing debate developed further with numerous videos illustrating creative innovations and processes involving individual and collaborative creative capacities.  Music made with a tree, a garden hose, and a Jeep Cherokee accented the discussion and left the class with more questions than answers and inspiration to be more creative ourselves!  Marissa also asked the students to work together in small groups to create “music” with found objects and voice inspired by the sounds of weather – any type of weather system that each group chose.  In a lesson grounded in systems thinking, Marissa compared the making of music to the making of “musics”, characterized by active pursuit and social construction, which left our group wondering about innovation, renovation, individualization, collaboration, systems thinking, and the creative process.

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The Immeasurable Mind

by Hannah Rolfes

In a recent visit to the Creative Thinking course, Ashwin Vaidya discussed the human curiosity at the heart of scientific and creative research.  Dr. Vaidya led us through an exercise in which we observed a group of four students, using only two fingers each, lifting one seated person.  Dr. Vaidya then asked everyone to list reasons for a successful lift and to categorize each reason as either “likely” or “unlikely.”  The importance of the activity lay not in finding the “correct” answer, but in the realization that humans LOVE finding answers. 

While discussing our collective explanations for a successful lift, students often cited “mind over matter”—meaning, the students successfully lifted a person because they believed they could—as both a likely and unlikely reason.  Dr. Vaidya did not say that “mind over matter” was “wrong” or “correct” but remarked that in the physical sciences “there is no room for the mind…yet.”

Re-read the first part of that statement one more time: In the physical sciences, “there is no room for the mind.”

When thinking about the physical sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc.), one thinks about, well, great thinkers: Newton, Einstein, Hawking.   When we consider the body of research and theoretical work produced by these individuals, the mind seems intrinsic to the field, not inconsequential.

Yet, Dr. Vaidya’s statement is true in the context of his brief synopsis of scientific discovery: the mind, as a subjective mode of perception, is not the tool of measurement on which scientists rely.  Everyone on Earth saw things fall to the ground prior to Newton; they just created differing explanations, as varied, unique, and inaccurate as all the other thoughts in their minds.  For example, one individual may have thought invisible ancestral spirits pulled apples from trees, and another may have thought the apple fell of its own volition.

Newton’s explanation was revolutionary, not just for its complexity, but for the universal and consistent logic of mathematics with which he used to argue his theory of gravity.  Anyone that understands calculus has the ability to see where he found his explanation. 


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The Creative Thinking Course (CRTH-151) So Far

by Mike Lees, Lead Instructor, Fall 2013

The ring of a meditation bowl sounds, and we settle into another five-minute sit, to pause in space and place.  We take a moment from the fast pace of our everyday existence as instructor and students living in the world to reflect and breathe before beginning our further explorations into creativity.  On the opening day of class, we explored thoughts on creativity by asking questions such as, why promote creativity, what is the problem or why do people need help being creative, and what is involved in the ideas surrounding creativity (Robinson, 2011)?  From this point of departure, our class has taken off in a number of interesting and amoebic-like directions surrounding creativity in our universe.

During the first quarter of our course, we explored the nature of self in relationship to creativity.  Addressing issues pertaining to fear of failure, cultural contexts, comfort with ambiguity, blockages, and relative notions, we engaged in a number of exercises, practices, and discussions through a number of different mediums in order to examine how these ideas relate to the individual.  With the course situated in a living-systems lens and supported by readings from our main text (Swimme & Berry, 1992), an awareness of the inherent nature of creative capacities within all living things aids in addressing these constructs.  The students and I have been working with a tree journal: each student has found a tree on campus that they have befriended. This relationship with a tree addresses philosophical, poetic, and artistic exploration exercises of the self in relationship to another, non-human being in the world.


Photo by Michael Lees- inspired by Creative Thinking class discussions.

We have had the unique opportunity to attend shows that are part of the Peak Performances series here at Montclair State University.  After performances of glacier, Brandin Steffensen and fellow dancers from the Liz Gerring Dance Company visited our course and led us in practicing a number of “visual thinking strategies” relating to perception and interpretation of creativity. A performance entitled Open City, by composer/musician Vijay Iyer and a jazz ensemble that included author Teju Cole and rap artist Himanshu Suri, explored the cognitive relationships found within intrinsic and extrinsic responses to creativity.  The opportunity for our course to examine creativity in this particular context encouraged further reflection on the self and our own unique responses to what we feel defines creativity.


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Filed under creative thinking peak performances liz gerring vijay iyer himanshu suri teju cole liz lerman thomas berry brian swimme

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ON PARADIGMS, or, A Brief Report on the Class

Over the last couple of weeks we have been digging into the ideas of Systems Theory. The goal is to fold these powerful concepts into the students’ creative experiments. Systems Theory offers both a way to understand the underlying processes behind how/why things happen, and gives us pragmatic insights into how we can intervene in larger systems to make change happen. All of which is crucial to actualizing a creative possibility. The students’ introduction into understanding reality from a systems perspective has been the wonderful book on systems by Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems).


The book begins with this quote, which has become a touchstone for the class:

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves… Thereʼs so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

Here the stress is on two things: (1) the rationality which produces a system and (2) the pattern of thought that are behind this rationality. Meadows understand these as being part of the paradigm that a system operates within. Or the mindset which comes out of the system. For Meadows these two words are interchangeable.

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Filed under Iain Kerr creativity paradigms Thinking in Systems Donella Meadows revolutions creative process creative thinking Ian Hacking Thomas Kuhn

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Laurie Anderson: Lessons on Forgetting


Last week Laurie Anderson came and spent a class with us. For the students it was an ideal moment as we had just finished a series of experimental projects and we were beginning to look at ways these projects “resist the present.”

The class quickly became an open-ended discussion about creativity, student projects and Laurieʼs work. It was quite an amazing few hours of sharing ideas and digging into concepts. Students jumped in and talked about their ideas and Laurie responded with hers. The discussion ranged from:

-  how to choose what one should do (Laurie offered her three criteria “(1) is it going to be interesting? (2) is it going to make money? and (3) will it be fun?” (she would settle for two of the three)) 

-  how to avoid becoming a brand 

-  making work for audiences of dogs 

-  and to the works of the 13th century philosopher Dogen.

Something that really struck me was her answer to the seemingly innocuous question: How do you write a song? She answered (and I am paraphrasing as best I can) — “every time I approaching writing a new song — I donʼt know how to write a song. I start from scratch with no idea of what a song is.” 

I love this approach. For academics and for institutions of higher learning, myself included, even when we are teaching creativity, this is a tough response to hear. It is a response that champions the great neglected art of forgetting. Learning is all about knowing and accumulating knowings so as to be knowledgeable. And knowledge is all about memory — which is the opposite of forgetting. In bringing up knowledge and memory I do not intend to invoke that old dreaded image of pure rote learning. Not at all. But what we do, as teachers, is ask people to learn and remember things. Each class builds upon the next. From the introductory class, year by year, memory by memory to the upper level classes where one is (reasonably) expected to have an enormous amount of knowledge at one’s disposal. A knowledge that forms the breath a depth of a tradition or a discipline. But what of forgetting? Laurieʼs answer suggests that creativity involves a pedagogy of un-learning — of active forgetting. And that this key skill for creativity is in direct conflict with a great deal of what is crucial to much of higher education. 

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Filed under Iain Kerr creative thinking Laurie Anderson forgetting higher education universities Nietzsche Deleuze

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Don’t Make it Good

— Iain Kerr

Good, as Bruce Mau says, is a know quality — to make something new you cannot focus on if what you are doing is good or not. This is really difficult. We are as individuals and as a culture organized around things being good. We want things that work and ideally work exceptionally well. We are always making things better. Creativity has a hard time in such ecosystems. The new usually does not work and when it does it does not work along the lines of how things worked in the past. There is wonderful saying I remember reading somewhere on this: You cannot make a transistor by trying to make a better vacuum tube. In the creative process we are working in a field situation — things come from everywhere and go off in all sorts of tangents. We roam across these fields following hunches about novel processes. Our everyday lives are far from field situations — they are mostly goal directed — which is to say we are doing the work of the good — which is following a path and improving upon it. A key questions for creativity is how do we set up field situations? How can we roam?

To dig into this question we’ve been watching the movie on the last year of the great experimental restaurant El Bulli (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress) as part of the class. El Bulli is famous for being only open for a few months of the year and that when they are closed they are at their secret research lab inventing new ways of cooking. And over the last couple of decades they have won every possible accolade for their creative cooking. Anyway, it’s a pretty astonishing movie that spends half of its time in their research lab (you can watch it on Netflixs).  The big assumption about the lab is that’s where you would assume they are coming up with new dishes for the next season at the restaurant. Ironically, as you watch them do all sorts of things, they seem to do everything but this. They are not making any new dishes. This makes the movie have a very odd tone — cooks who do not cook (dishes). The one major rule they seem to follow in their lab is “no dishes”. The question that I asked my students was “so if they are not making dishes what are they doing in the lab?” 

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Filed under Iain Kerr creation projects

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79 Axioms of Creative Processes

It is the mid-point of the class. I thought I would share some of the ideas that keep appearing in the class. Perhaps it is too much to say they are “rules” — but they are pragmatic things to consider none-the-less. Here they are:

Provisional List to Consider for Creative Processes:

  1. In the beginning was the act (Wittgenstein).

  2. This is about creation and the making of the new — what we often call creativity for the lack of a better term. “Novelty.”

  3. The new, creation and creativity can be over valued. Much of what is most interesting and important in life is not radically new.

  4. The new should be approached with an experimental caution. To make great art (or anything else) does not require radical creativity, so let us not fetishize this.

  5. The new will not be understandable when it first appears.

  6. The new will be non-cognitive and non-conceptual when it first emerges.

  7. Come in third. The first time something new happens it is too unique to even be seen. The second time something new happens it is an echo — a fleeting unstable double. But it is only when something happens for a third time that it can be recognized. Be there.

  8. Be a follower and not a leader. Follow the odd, unusual, perplexing.

  9. Donʼt judge good or bad, that comes later — just follow.

  10. Pay attention not to “what it is” but to “what can it do.”

  11. Curiosity curiosity curiosity — always ask of things and events — what can they do? What else can they do? And what else can they do?

  12. Produce variations then select then repeat: multiplicity — selection — multiplicity — selection…

  13. Do it again differently. And then do it again differently. Then see the patterns, and frameworks now step outside of these and do it again.

  14. Creativity = constraints. Freedom = constraints. Actively producing constraints = being creative.

  15. Donʼt break all the rules but develop new rules that break the old framework.

  16. Creativity is not just craziness all the time. All activities have phases. You will need to act differently in different phases. Be disciplined about this.

  17. Paradox: only dumb people are capable of doing something new, and only smart people can recognize that they have done something new. Become both dumb and smart all at once.

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Filed under Iain Kerr creative thinking creation creativity John Cage

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Where do we go with all of this creativity stuff?

We inhabit a world stuffed full of an ever expanding set of “creatives” arising as fast as the marketing and managerial gurus of the self innovation branding industry can push them out. We now have the “creative class,” the “cultural creatives,” “digital creatives,” and “productive creatives,” amongst others. Given this riot of possibilities, I thought it might prove useful to backtrack into creativity’s history to help us understand some of the possible trajectories of creativity today.

To some, I hope, it will come as a shock, given our current boisterous profusion of creatives, that the word creativity is of very recent coinage. As absolutely crazy as it sounds, “Creativity” first shows up only in 1927.


Why so long in developing?

Why so long in developing? Just to be clear, it is not that we just didn’t have a word for what people had always understood they were doing and thinking about since the beginning of time when they made things. The modern idea of creativity did not exist (at least in the European tradition) until the early twentieth century. J. S. Bach was not trying to be creative, nor was Michelangelo. They were trying to develop a way of expressing the fundamental truth about reality. They understood this goal, and their actions, as being fundamentally conservative acts. What we might hastily and anachronistically term creativity was on their part a desire to always go deeper towards the full uncovering and expressing a fixed, singular, stable, and most importantly preexisting truth. We see this clearly in the terms they used to describe their actions. They spoke of return, renewal and even revolution. These are all ideas of that stress both stasis and conservation, while implying a movement away from (misguided) innovations and a turning back to towards the original source. The major developments of the European tradition are events that were framed by the participants as part of an arduous journey to return to the original truth that had been lost by generations who strayed from the ideal path. Within this orientation to a fixed truth ideas of novelty and creativity had no place. This was because general understanding of creativity and creation within the European tradition was that god alone could create. The production of the genuinely new was a power reserved for god, and was an act carried out only once at the beginning of time. And in relation to this singular act of god’s creation the role of humans was to reveal this truth and show it in all of its perfect glory. This meant that nothing truly new could exist at the level of human action, and that reality was a playing out of god’s original foundational creative act. Without generalizing too much we could say the whole of the history of European Tradition is metaphysically anti-creative.



While this is a strong claim and a full understanding of these ideas that make up our history is critical, I’d like to swerve away from continuing to dig into this history and pose a question: Does the massive rise of interest in an individual’s creative capacities, and all of the talk about creatives actually mean that we are now shifting our model of reality away from our historical conservative metaphysical models?

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Filed under Iain Kerr creative thinking creativity

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violence fear forgetfulness: a dialog on creativity

(For this week’s blog post, here are a few questions and some possible ways to answer them.)

What stops us from being creative?
Well, because we are afraid.

Afraid of what?
Of failing.Or of being seen to fail? 

Why are we afraid to be seen to fail?
Because we have come to like the rewards of being successful. 

And what is successful?
Success is something measurable, knowable and concrete. So we focus on what can be clearly known, and measured. We avoid the indeterminate, vague or merely curious.

There are no rewards for the vague, no judgement can be applied and so it cannot be determined if we are good, better, or much better than the rest.

What happens then?
Our identity is caught up in being good and being seen to be good. So now we cannot fail — or be seen to fail, because we would be shown to be like everyone else — failures.  

Where did we learn this?
The obvious answer is at school. School teaches how to be afraid. how to judge right and wrong, good and bad.

Right and wrong on what scale?
A known pre-existing scale of reason and truth. Could be anything.

So, how do we get out of this?
We have to unlearn our habits of fear and judgement.

How do we do this?
We go back to when where we not afraid? Before we learned how to be afraid?

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Filed under creative thinking Iain Kerr dialog