by Michael 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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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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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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— 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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(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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As we rev our engines for this semester’s iteration of the Creative Thinking course, we’ll share some of the materials and discussion topics here. A good place to start is this list of “rules,” originally aimed at art students, but applicable to anyone, anywhere. Maria Popova of Brainpickings provides the backstory:
Buried in various corners of the web is a beautiful and poignant list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers, attributed to John Cage, who passed away twenty years ago this week. The list, however, originates from celebrated artist and educator Sister Corita Kent and was created as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967-1968. It was subsequently appropriated as the official art department rules at the college of LA’s Immaculate Heart Convent, her alma mater, but was commonly popularized by Cage, whom the tenth rule cites directly. Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner and the love of his life, kept a copy of it in the studio where his company rehearsed until his death.
What would you add?