Art as Research, Expanding the Ideas of Visual Complexity

I received an email this week announcing that a video archive for the following symposium was available:

Remaking Research - Emerging Research
Practices in Art and Design

Remaking Research was hosted by the Emily Carr University of Art + Design and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) and took place in Vancouver, Canada, in November 2012.

What I find fascinating is that, given the profound visual nature of much of research today, combined with the challenges of information management and overload, artists are becoming more and more viable as partners in the research process.

Here is what their announcement said:
Remaking Research was an AICAD 'working symposium' centered on the pragmatics and possibilities of creative practice as research, both within art and design institutions and in the context of interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and partnered relations. This gathering was organized with the intent of sharing existing knowledge, showcasing new projects and contemporary methodologies, and addressing practical and ethical concerns involved in building successful research partnerships. Presentations, featured projects, and dialogue addressed three themes:

• The Production of Knowledge in Art and Design 
• The Political Economies of Art and Design Research
• Networked and Partnered Research

The outcomes of this gathering, which brought together practitioners from over 40 institutions, include the publication of an exhibition catalogue on research methodologies developed and employed by artists featured in the exhibition that accompanied the symposium.  

A complete video archive of the symposium's content is now available online, including the keynote and plenary addresses, given by Graeme Sullivan, Director of the School of Visual Arts, Pennsylvania State University and Carol Strohecker, Director, the Center for Design Innovation, University of North Carolina. 

Panel discussions and presentations on current research practices include contributions from Joanna Berzowska, Associate Professor and Chair, Design and Computation Arts, Concordia University, member, Hexagram Research Institute; Anne Burdick, Chair, Media Design Graduate Program, Art Center College of Design; Sara Diamond, President, OCAD University; Lisa Grocott, Associate Dean, Parsons, New School; Pamela Jennings, Director, Brenda and Earl Shapiro Centers for Research and Collaboration, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Debera Johnson, Academic Director of Sustainability, Pratt Institute; Sanjit Sethi, Director, Centre for Art and Public Life, California College of Art; Rosanne Somerson, Provost, Rhode Island School of Design; Ezri Tarazi, Head of Industrial Design, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem; and Laurene Vaughan, Nierenberg Chair, Distinguished Professor of Design, Carnegie Mellon University.


Evolutionary Psychology, I Don't Think We Can Date

I was reading an article in today's New York Times Sunday Review, titled Darwin Was Wrong About Dating--the picture to the right, copied from the Times, is by ChloĆ© Poizat.   The article reminded me of a similar critical review of evolutionary psychology in a recent New Yorker article, titled It Ain't Necessarily So; as well as books like Fodor's critique of Pinker, The Mind Doesn't Work that Way.

All of these writings make the same critique, which a lot of evolutionary psychologists of late, particularly the more vocal ones, seems to keep right on ignoring.  The point of these critics is simple enough: it just isn't that simple.  And still, many evolutionary psychologists plod on.  I think it might be something in their genes?

Now, mind you, to be fair, there are a lot of level-minded evolutionary psychologists out there.  Problem is, they don't seem to be writing top-ten, pop-science or undergraduate psychology books.  Common folks!
Case in point.  About month or so ago I was at a dinner party and happened to find myself, during the course of the evening, in the middle of a conversation with a small group of professors and doctoral students, who were discussing, amongst other things, the difficulty of ABD's (all but dissertation) sitting down to write.  "We all go through it," I interjected, awkwardly.  "For most, the dissertation is that first piece of real solo work."

Anyway, no sooner did I start saying this when I realized--as the grad students stood there looking at me with glazed eyes--that I sounded just like my dad telling me, when I was a kid, to go finish my homework. Suddenly I felt really old, as if they were all looking at my grey hair and hoping, right at that moment, it would all fall out.

One of the profs (the alpha male of this paleolithic small group), tired of me, returned to talking about his work.  After a few minutes of trying to hear things above the din, I leaned in and quickly interjected, "So, what is your area?"  He looked at me with confident eyes.  "Evolutionary psychology," he said"I am studying the mating preferences of college students."

I had a sudden wave of panic.  I thought, "Oh no, I have got to get out of here fast."  But, I couldn't get away, at least without being rude, as my back was to the wall--which is a bad place to be at an academic party; unless, of course, your drink is full, and mine wasn't.

Bottom line: he had me cornered, like an antelope.  So, I decided to just listen, node, and find a way to leap and escape.

But then it happened.  This guy, without ever asking me my background or what I study, suddenly decided, without warning, to lecture me and the rest of my new paleolithic friends, on the grand insights of evolutionary psychology and mating preferences, stringing together a litany of impressive, polysyllabic words and theories that spun around us with such sudden density and intensity that I immediately became disoriented.  And, for the record, it is necessary to stat that my "dizziness" was not entirely a function of too much vodka.  Okay, maybe it was.  But, still, he didn't need to be so rude!

Now, mind you--and as a point of caveat--my own work, as a complexity scientist/medical sociologist/clinical psychologist is heavily grounded in sociobiology.  For example, the current book I am writing, Human Complexity, From Cells to Society, essentially reviews what complexity scientists (circa 2013) have to say about the interconnections between biology and cognition and sociability, from bacteria to globalization.  So, I have no problems, whatsoever, linking biology with psychology or society.  We are, after all, social animals.   

The problem I have is that a lot of evolutionary psychologists seem to ignore the fact that society is an evolutionary force and that social relations, even at the level of bacteria, play a key role in the evolutionary success of many species.  As an easy example, look at the work by Eshel Ben-Jacob on the social behavior or swarm intelligence of bacteria or the more recent controversy over multi-level selection theory (aka group selection) between Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson--click here, as an example.
Now, even if you do not "buy into" group selection theory, you at least have to acknowledge it as an important caveat, sufficient for you to say, "Wow, life really is complex and maybe, just maybe--given that we don't even know why humans are hairless--it is a bit of a leap to explain, so easily, the mating preferences of iPhone carrying college students.

And, it is the failure to acknowledge such complexities that makes someone like me, an otherwise enjoyable party guest, so grumpy.  In my own defense, I actually enjoy listening to ideas that differ from mine; in fact, in a Foucault-like manner, I seek them out, as they help me think in new and different ways.  But, when advocates of a position ignore their critics and are sloppy with their ideas, as we saw with postmodernism and the famous Sokal Affair--or, as we see, with all the overzealous pop-science books in my field, complexity science--I just cannot understand it.  I find myself getting a headache.

Again, case in point, my conversation.  As this guy went on and on, I kept thinking, he is aware of his critics, isn't he?  So finally, I just decide, quite innocently, to ask.

"Have you have read Pinker's How the Mind Works?" 
"Why, yes; of course!  I am an advocate of his massive modularity theory"
"Then, you must have also read Fodor's The Mind Doesn't Work that Way?  

He just looked at me, with that "deer-in-the-lights" stare; which reminded me of two things my mentor, Lee Spray, always said.  First, never assume to know the background of your audience, because you will most likely be wrong; and, never say you know something you do not.

I continued, "Fodor wrote it because he was frustrated with Pinker's misuse of Fodor's computational theory of mind, as Pinker over-asserts that high-order mental processes, like the socio-biological complexities of attraction and mating preferences, are massively modular; when, in fact, Fodor's theory does not support such claims?"

As he stood there, in that split-second pause, I felt bad.  But, then I thought, "C'mon, if you are going to go around asserting such claims, how can you not know your critics and the important things they have to say, especially when you are using their ideas. Or, not to assume that other, educated people, even if not in your field, might know such things?"

Anyway, the split-second was so fast (as a split-second generally is--ha!) and the room was so loud that nobody heard what I said.  Come to think of it, I am not even sure he did; as, no sooner did the split-second end when he moved on to a different topic, turning away from me and indicating, with his non-verbal, paleolithic gestures, that the group no longer, if ever, found my presence appealing.

"Phew," I thought.  I had the opening I was looking for; and so leaped away to the bar; where, finally, I got into this really cool conversation with a neuro-musicologist.  His work was on people's neuro-cognitive responses to bands like the Ramones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Now, I thought, this is good evolutionary psych.  one big mob, oh yeah oh yeah...


My Sabbatical Blog; Or, My pilgrimage to Michel Foucault's Square in Paris

Since September of 2012 I have been on sabbatical in Europe; stationed, primarily, at Durham University in the UK, where I have been working with David Byrne and several other colleagues, developing our mutual interest in a case-based approach to modeling complex systems.

During my stay, I was overwhelmed by my attempt to keep my family, friends and students apprised of my adventures, so I decided to start a
Sabbatical Blog.

My favorite travel writers/commentators are Bill Bryson and Anthony Bourdain, so the blog is a goofy combination of my off-the-cuff, sociological observations about the weird things Europeans do (like putting the toilet and the shower in two different rooms) compared with the even more bizarre things Americans do (like consuming over half the world's resources).  Stuff like that.  Plus, you get a front-row seat to all the self-deprecating, ridiculous situations I tend to get into, such as trying to purchase rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol in the UK, for my swimmer's ear, only to be asked, out loud, by the clerk, and without any whiff of irony or sarcasm, and in front of several dozen people, why I wouldn't want to drink my alcohol instead of rubbing it on myself.  Let's just say I ran out of the store.  Anyway, you get the point.

On a more positive note, I spent the last week of my trip in Paris, with my family, for Christmas.  Without a doubt, other than New York City or Rome, I think Paris is the other greatest city in the world. 

Most important, I got to visit a little known memorial near the College of France for the most influential thinker in my life, Michel Foucault.  It is called the Le Square Michel-Foucault.  Here are a few pictures of me at the square.  I was sort of amazed that, given Foucault's impact on French thinking and scholarship worldwide, that this was the extent of his recognition.  Oh well.  Anyway, it was wonderful for me to see it.


And, again, if you like travel journals that aim for the weird and the sociological, check out the Blog.