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|In his new book, Emergence, Steven Johnson argues that bottom-up thinking works best. We got to wondering how Johnson's ideas apply to art. Anne Pasternak, director of Creative Time in New York, pops the question.
ANNE: Your book, Emergence, hardly mentions art. I'm curious whether or not your ideas are applicable to artistic movements and artistic practice.
STEVEN: The caveat is that I'll probably be learning from you about this, because I'm not totally up on the art world.
ANNE: Well, let's see what happens. Can you give me an example of an emergent system?
STEVEN: In the book, I write a lot about ant colonies. Despite the fact that we talk about queen ants, the ant colony doesn't actually have a leader in any traditional sense — the queen is just a reproductive unit. There's no master planner telling the ants what to do. Nonetheless, the colony manages to pull off very complicated feats of social engineering and task management. There are thousands of ants, all following very simple rules, interacting with each other using chemical signals called pheromones. That decentralized system relies quite a bit on random encounters between the ants. So if you look at an ant colony, you think, "Look at what they manage to pull off." You feel there must be some ant that knows the big picture, that's aware of what's going on. But there isn't anything like that. The colony solves all its global problems through micro, local interactions. The movement from those low-level interactions to that higher level intelligence — that's emergence.
ANNE: The other night, I was watching a show on The Discovery Channel. It featured a school of dolphins wildly attacking a super-organized vortex of sardines. I was wondering, "Who's giving the sardines the directions? And how is the leader dolphin communicating with the rest of the dolphins? Is there a leader?" It turns out their communication is localized, and that's how they act and respond as a group.
STEVEN: I also write about city neighborhoods, and what kinds of patterns they form over time. For a hundred years, a given neighborhood will have a certain flavor or personality — Jane Jacobs talks about this in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She cites the example of downtown Brooklyn, which basically shuts down every evening after seven o'clock. This was true in 1961, and it's true today. It's not like there's zoning, or the city planners said, "Okay, all shops must close at a certain hour." But for whatever reason, something about the way that particular space is laid out has this effect. The emergent property of being shut down after dark comes out, and it sticks around. It happens because of lots of different local interactions between people. And who knows, it might be the same way for another fifty years.
ANNE: Examining how emergent behaviors appear in cities and ant colonies really fascinates me, but I wonder how this applies to the evolution of art. Our early ancestors made cave drawings and then they decorated pottery, weapons, and tools. This eventually evolved into the practice of making art for art's sake, making decorated objects. How can we apply emergent principles to this evolution?
STEVEN: That's a big one. There are several theories about how a new way of looking at the world breaks out. On the one hand, there's the traditional notion that there is a single great visionary who has a breakthrough idea and changes the world. On the other hand, there's the concept of a shift that just somehow happens, in which, you suddenly go from one paradigm to another. An ant colony is a good example of the way that sort of thing actually works. In order for a shift to occur, you need to have enough ants exploring the space — not five hundred, but ten thousand, say — and you need to have enough of the pheromone signal to cause the other ants to change their behavior, which in turn causes the overall system to kick in. So you have a very clear tipping point, where if you have enough ants and enough signals, the system will go from just a mess of random ants to something much more organized and systematic and emergent. Intellectual movements, to me, are much closer to the way that an ant colony locks itself into place than they are to the traditional idea of the lone genius. In order for a breakthrough to happen, you need to have enough people working on a problem, and you need to have a significant trail of their ideas — in published papers, or speeches, or interviews in magazines.
ANNE: Or, in the case of art, exhibitions.
STEVEN: Yeah exactly. You hit a certain critical mass. Suddenly, a bunch of seemingly isolated ideas come together, because there are enough ants thinking about them, and their trails are long enough.
ANNE: Isn't that also the nature of artistic movements?
STEVEN: The appearance of art as a human social function may well have been related to increased interconnection between groups. Experiencing the pleasant feeling of contemplating a work of art — not because someone believed it would make the harvest or hunt more successful, but because it was a beautiful image — may have been a practice that took place on isolated occasions. But once you had enough people interacting with one another, that experience of looking at art — given that people liked it and were interested in it — took off and became a permanent part of culture.
ANNE: And when did that experience of culture appear in human history?
STEVEN: About one hundred thousand years ago, cave painting suddenly took off. That was before the great agricultural settlements, so the fossil record is a little shaky about what was going on. But something happened to human cultural practice at that point. One argument is that different regions of our ancestors' brains were specialized for very specific tasks, like tool management, language, spatial organization, and stuff like that. And then a neurological shift occurred, which enabled all those specific subsystems to suddenly talk to one another — and have a shared, working memory space where the inputs all came together. It's conceivable that the idea of art for art's sake may have spread through human culture because in each particular person's brain, the systems were getting more interconnected.
ANNE: Any thoughts on the role of zeitgeist changes — how art and culture suddenly shift and align in contemporary culture?
STEVEN: Ideas flow through networks of people talking to each other. If ideas get enough force, and if enough people relay them to their friends, they take on a life of their own and become an emergent phenomenon. I acknowledge that the genesis of some artistic movements is small enough that they can be driven by one individual, when somebody just comes along and paints in a genuinely new way. But there are also many other movements that seem to flow out of broader social currents.
ANNE: In many cases, artists are responding to political, social, and economic events. For example, World War I had a tremendous impact on an artist like Picasso. You can see Cubism, in part, as a lens for examining and understanding the mutilation and destruction of the war.
STEVEN: Artists were also responding to advances in technology. If you think of Picasso's modernism as this explosive thing, remember that one of the realities people were dealing with at that time was that it was just much more common to have things suddenly explode. People died in lots of other ways before, but they tended not to blow up. Because of a new technology, explosions suddenly became part of people's consciousness, and a part of the art.
ANNE: In addition, artists also tend to respond intimately, spontaneously, and intuitively to their own materials — whether they're using paint, molding clay, or moving land masses. If you look at Jackson Pollack's drip paintings and John Cage's sonic compositions, in which chance and random encounters were central to the process, could you argue that their processes and practices evidenced emergent behavior?
STEVEN: Randomness is a key component of all emergent systems. When I talk about city neighborhoods, I refer to random "swerving." For example, in order for a neighborhood to grow and develop a personality, you need to have a sidewalk culture that enables somebody walking from point A to point B to stumble across C. Let's say a person randomly discovers a shop, walks in and says, "This is great." Word of mouth attracts other people, and suddenly another shop opens up next door, and an interesting cluster evolves.
ANNE: So if you don't have the possibility of the swerve, you can't have emergent systems. They just won't develop.
STEVEN: Exactly. There has to be that element of random swerving. The tricky thing is that it has to lead to some higher-level shape as well. Random exploration of space isn't emergent — it's just random. With someone like Pollock, it seems to me, you have a single unified consciousness sitting there and evaluating the random production, deciding whether it's good or not. What would be more interesting to me is an artistic project where you have a set of rules of interaction with some randomness built in. You might have a system where, say, an audience is evaluating what's working and what's not. You'd have a collective decision-making process, where the artist himself created the initial conditions of possibility, and then literally pressed ‘play.' You'd have feedback coming not in the form of the artist deciding what's good or not, but from an audience deciding what's good, and pushing the system towards new rules and new possible configurations. In some cases, that's already happening.
ANNE: So take an artist like Andy Warhol, who was extremely responsive to the public psyche, mass culture, and the role of capitalism. He used feedback he got from his audience to push the direction of what he would do next.
STEVEN: Another role that artists have is to represent the emergent phenomena that they see. I'll give you a literary example. One of the realities of nineteenth-century urban life was the explosion of giant metropolitan spaces like London and Paris, as well as industrial centers that emerged out of nowhere, like Manchester. Important urban novelists like Charles Dickens took that phenomenon and represented it in the form of the novel. The books weren't emergent phenomena, they were top-down linear narratives. But they were trying to represent and turn into a conventional form an experience of emergence that was new and fresh. To some extent, it caused them to change the way that they wrote their narratives. When thinking about art, it's important not only to think about art as emergence, but art representing emergence as well.
ANNE: You know, I was trained as an art historian. It's part of our practice to take a look at complex factors that influence individual works and movements. How could art historians, critics, and curators think about principals of emergence in terms of their own research?
STEVEN: Well, I think emergence is a very powerful model for how movements happen. Take chaos theory, which is closely related to the idea of emergence. To put it in the simplest terms, before chaos theory, scientists used to study stable systems. But chaos theory was interested in the little transition point between two knowable states. It was not a celebration of chaos — it was a way of looking at systems that we had previously thought to be chaotic and finding laws that underlay them. To me, there is a comparable opening right now in terms of our study of artistic and social movements. It's increasingly pressing, because the technology is advancing so quickly — and culture has sped up so rapidly — that we are in almost permanent transition now. Instead of having twenty years exploring modernism, twenty years of postmodernism, and then twenty years of something else — now the changes are coming every five years.
ANNE: In my line of work, I have to participate in a lot of negotiations with individual artists. Most of them feel that so-called movements are imposed on them. They generally feel that their practice is completely distinct.
STEVEN: I think you can be an active participant in a movement without necessarily being conscious of it. If you look at neighborhoods, they're big collective projects. Just by choosing to move somewhere, just by choosing a particular restaurant or shop, you are participating in the collective work of neighborhood-building. It's not something you're necessarily aware of day-to-day. And you're not basing your decision-making on it, you're not thinking, "I need to go visit this shop because I want to contribute to the creation of this burgeoning little neighborhood." I would think that the same thing would apply to artists.
ANNE: In your book, you refer to cell collectives, in which each cell looks at its neighbor for clues about how to behave.
STEVEN: Yeah, cells decide to fire or not to fire based on the inputs coming to them from their neighbors. This happens in cells in general, but also in neurons and brain cells. Effectively, there are emergence systems all the way up and down the chain.
ANNE: You say in your book that giving up control is extremely important, letting the system govern itself, and letting it learn from its own patterns. That seems to have a lot to do with the creative practice, whether in art, design, architecture, or music. It's all based on instinct, experimentation, and learning. Except with creative practice, you don't have a lot of individual cells ruling the process and determining the outcome.
STEVEN: Well you do, if you want to back up and say that the lower-level components of the emergent system of an individual's creativity are the neurons in their head, and that larger aggregates of neurons are devoted to specific tasks.
STEVEN: So for an artist to perform in an emergent way, he or she would have to dampen down the parts of the brain that are executive-like in their behavior. The artist would have to let systems that aren't necessarily always present in our conscious awareness, but which nonetheless shape our activities on all sorts of levels, express themselves. This is something that athletes do, as well as creative people.
ANNE: So, then, you can see creativity as an act of emergence?
STEVEN: Yes, it's just that you have to go down one level, to the actual inner workings of how the mind puts itself together. Brains can be pushed to filter out the swerves that they are constantly producing, or they can be encouraged to pay attention to the swerves, which is probably what happens when you're in a more creative mode, where you're open to more possible interpretations of the world. [laughs] So yes, I've come around to agree with you entirely.