Theory of Action/Pedagogy/Mission
My inspiration starts with one big question: how do complex dynamic systems, like life, tend to persist? The investigation of this rather ambitious question has led me to the central paradox that events in nature are both distinct and inter-dependent, simultaneously. They are specific and general, individual and collective, local and distributed, coherent and decoherent all at once. Of course, these dichotomies, as a kind of abstract spectrum, are but metaphors that often create more labyrinth than progress. To escape this maze, I’ve been inspired by ideas from diverse thinkers and practitioners. Naming a handful: Hagel’s dialectic, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Mumford’s Myth of the Machine, Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, Heraclitus, Elizabeth Ellsworth’s Places of Learning, Lao Tzu’s “actionless activity” and Colin Rowe’s Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal. But, what is the common thread in this litany? And, how can I move the conversation of vitality forward with my design practice?
For me, the common thread, and a major impact on my design practice, is the realization that a person’s, or even a culture’s, purpose must evolve. As much as the next person, I’d love for there to exist some grand Modernist narrative; nevertheless, if Lao Tzu’s The Way and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle have taught us anything, the more one tries to control life and crystallize an understanding of it, the less we control and understand. This doesn’t mean one has to be fully post modern where everyone’s personal narrative floats independent of all others. There are ubiquitous tendencies to be discovered, shared and leveraged; but, these patterns are not algorithms, functions to be maximized or eternal goods to be enforced.
Life, like Heraclitus never standing in the same river twice, must change and adapt to its indeterminate environment to remain living. It’s tempting to conclude that life’s purpose is life. And, although this tautology may be true, it’s not particularly useful for day-to-day decisions. On my journey to be more rigorous and relevant, I came up with an expansion of that tautology, like what Douglass Hofstadter calls a “strange loop”, a journey to elsewhere only to find ourselves back again, yet slightly different. In the context of my own project, I call this looping tendency Refinement:
Refinement, a recursive idea, is the ever-increased capacity to face ever wider and deeper paradoxes, and not just continue to exist but increase one’s intrinsic capacity to exist. We are faced with contradictions and conundrums every day. For example: do I prioritize the self over the collective? Should one master one skill or survey many? Should one wait for the signal or wade into the noise? To live must I tempt death? There is no one rule or recipe to navigate these existential dilemmas; nevertheless, life has done it without interruption for over 3.5 billion years.
In practicing Refinement, my process remains relevant by embracing the contradictory constraints, hopes and dreams of each task at hand. I let them occupy my mind, creating a dissonant and tumultuous terrain that I then experience with as little preconception as possible. It is a process of immersion and sensitization to the relevant parameters. In the presence of this discord, our minds beg to synthesize, as in dreaming. I listen and wait while holding the cacophony in my mind as best I can; and, without fail, the solution presents itself. To me, this is Lao Tzu’s “actionless activity” and Hegel’s dialectic; except that, instead of a deliberate step-wise thesis/anti-thesis, an ecosystem of constraints and emotions superpose to both constructively and de-constructively interfere. This interference pattern is the lens by which the path forward is revealed. This is how I’ve practiced Refinement to date.
Moving forward, my design process will similarly synthesize conversations on ecology, phenomenology, intuition, semiotics and critical regionalism to explore possibilities beyond our hegemonic techno-capitalism. Building off my decades of design experience and scientific research into living systems, I intend to build a body of work that exemplifies our human capacity to transcend the inherited narrative and to create a more viable ecosystem of cultural possibilities.
As Mumford has warned in Myth of the Machine and like Daedalus in his own labyrinth, our clever tools and technologies have ensnared our attention. The mechanical metaphors we live by have muted our inherited intuitive and synthetic capacities, thus collapsing the cycle of Refinement. Despite their promise of connection, today’s technologies encourage solipsistic consumption by hijacking our limbic system; and worse, they supplant the rituals that support complex communities and reverence for dream-time. To try and bring back a sense of sublime wonder for our only known biosphere, I have created a novel technology that implements Refinement to be integrated into my immersive and interactive installation practice (see Social Works for details).
This new body of work will take in multi-modal stimulation and synthesize it like sentient perception. These works will then create light, sound and movement patterns by harvesting the sparse order from the noisy stimulation of human participants in and around the installation. These patterns will forever evolve, each iteration being novel, yet familiar. In turn, the intent is for the participant to then be primed to observe similarly complex patterns, perhaps even being inspired to create novel adaptive patterns themselves. I call these installations "sentient observatories".
As our species ignores Rachel Carson’s warnings in Silent Spring, art can inspire a more vital vision that can transcend our self-made existential labyrinth. For me, Lebbeus Woods’ urban parasite sketches, Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Pollock’s One: Number 31 and Bjork’s Homogenic all speak to a more primal, complex and even sustainable human impulse that embraces disorder towards a more resilient higher-order. Their efforts harness the sparse order from the noise of our human consumption. The work of inspiring artists shows us a sustainable path forward by reminding us of the creative impulses that keep life living. Via sentient observatories, I will extend our sentient and synthetic spirit into the lifeless skeletons of our urban fabric; I yearn to turn our insulative technologies and structures inside-out, so they can contribute to Refinement, not mitigate it; and, like other artists, I aspire to create a lens through which we can see our self-created existential labyrinth and conjure wings to transcend it.