Meta-Practice, Research

words on social practice and creativity

Christoph Büchel’s Piccadilly Community Centre: an exciting example of social practice.

J.J. Charlesworth’s “Hidden Intentions,” (Art Review, December 2011) introduced me to this brilliant intervention transforming the tony Central London Hauser & Wirth location (formerly a bank) into a working social centre, and not just for in-the-know art students, but for the public—senior citizens, yoga practitioners and so on. Piccadilly Circus is a popular tourist’s nexus like Times Square, where simply winding through crowds, dodging street salesmen, and finding a restroom can be exhausting. So Büchel’s gesture of turning an exclusive, expensive, private space into a rambunctious, free, public one is quite satisfying. I was also intrigued to read that

much was made of whether Büchel’s project was a comment on David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

I find Büchel’s responsiveness commendable.

On irony, and bridging the divide between art and life

“Hidden Intentions” is not an exhibition review, but a speculative essay. Charlesworth also examines Matthew Darbyshire’s faux loft ads at Herald Street, writing that it

is interesting because, like Büchel’s community centre, it points backwards to interrogate the capacity of the viewer to recognise the gesture as ironic. Because irony always implies a ‘double’ audience—those who accept the gesture at face value and those who realise the gesture is simulated intentionally—it also implies a form of superiority, which is often couched in terms of criticism of another….

This is art that writes itself into the fabric of everyday life with only the fading trace of the artist as proof of its reality as a sort of ironic gesture, and in which the work’s audience is made complicity with the artist’s manipulation of the world of others…. Of course, it still needs the institutional frame of the artworld to allow it to happen, but in doing so, it takes to an extreme the postmedium scope of current artistic possibility, where in the end, the only thing that is distinguishable is the discursive setup of the artworld itself.

Conflict aids creativity?

So argues Jonah Lehrer in “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth” (The New Yorker, January 20, 2o12). He presents evidence contrary to the widely-accepted prohibition against criticism in brainstorming:

According to [psychology professor Charlan] Nemeth, … “…debate… will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

To Lehrer and Nemeth, I’d respond with a constructively critical, “Yes, but…”

Positive Sign #1, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen with holographic foil print on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm

Consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s five stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. I would think that debate is productive in some stages (such as evaluation and elaboration) and not others (such as preparation, incubation, and insight).

Perhaps more even-handed: sociologist Brian Uzzi analyzed musicals to find correspondences between social intimacy among creators and box office and critical success.

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable, but not too comfortable.”

For artists considering creative and professional collaborators, choose carefully.

Lehrer also makes an exemplar of the MIT “rad lab”—where a disused building became home to divergent departments, creating spillover, and presumably, lending interdisciplinary gusto to the work of Chompsky, Bose, and other paradigm shifters. Lehrer concludes

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition is right—enough people with different perspectives running into on another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself…. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together.

I cringed when I read that last sentence, after my experiences in open-plan studios in graduate school. Unwanted intrusions can make focusing attention seem like a Herculean task. Being hurled together say, when you’re reading or trying to resolve an artwork, with someone taking a phone call or playing music, is not creative, but torturous. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that humans can adapt to many things, but we never adapt to intermittent noise:

Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise … never fully adapt, and even studies find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York: Basic Books (2006) 92.
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