I write this with a nice glass of Pinot Noir next to me in hopes this will aid the creation of moments of insights, as suggested by Jonah Lehrer in his RSA talk on creativity last night. Indeed he speaks of the increase of alpha waves that lead to those ‘aha’ moments being induced by putting your mind at ease – hence the wine. Do I regard my glass of wine as leading to a wasting of time? Certainly hope so, but Lehrer spoke of how we have too narrow a view of what productive time looks like, critiquing our obsession with efficiency and lists. He quoted Einstein with ” Creativity is the residue of wasted time ” in making his point about wasted time leading to new discoveries.
Joe Hallgarten’s recent blog speaks of the value of cross disciplinary reflection and it is the potential for new insights unlocked through imaginative interplay between incongruous influences that drives a project we are doing with Kings College. In the Artist as Citizen and Cultural Intermediary , we are looking at the conditions that enable partnerships between artists and academics from very diverse areas of practice but also at what practical benefits might be realised from these differences.
The project was also inspired by Richard Sennet’s recent book Together which explores how we are losing the ‘cooperation skills needed to make a complex society work’ and of course these skills exercised through working with people who think and practice differently to ourselves. But I wanted this project to go further and consciously create an environment where curiosity about the ‘other’ and accessing new lenses to re-see one’s work was the driving force with a valuing of difference as the underpinning principle. The invitation for difference worked – the project attracted interest from across the College, mostly from science and medicine and we have attracted artists and small arts organisations, who for the most part, have no history of working with academics. The ‘with’ word is critical. We tend to settle in transactional partnerships,that can suffer from being utilitarian and miss the possibilities generated from real exchange. There can be a failure to grasp what the ‘other’ has to offer.
I’ve long been a believer in epiphanies being more likely in such places as the shower where, as Lehrer suggests, one has the space from incessant external voices such as mobile phones. Putting your mind at ease releases our alpha waves which in turn offers a chance for the inner quiet voice and those discoveries which can come out of the blue. As an actor, I always learned my lines while walking – the combination of activity, mild distraction of the senses and the rhythm of my steps worked for the most demanding of speeches. But how can you bring a metaphorical shower to a meeting of strangers that will lead to the formation of partnerships? Interestingly I found many of Lehrer’s prompts for the generation of creativity worked for us in practice this last Tuesday.
We began our first day together with metaphor, each of us sharing an object that would illustrate what excited us most about our work, in the hopes that this would create connections between us. Of course, this also required all our participants to be willing to take a risk, enter a world quite unfamiliar to their normal working lives and give time for partnerships characterised by difference. Dare I say it, the additional willingness to experiment was a crucial criteria and I think this involves an awareness of the wasting time principle that Lehrer speaks of – getting away from the focused rational and linear approach to problem solving and trying perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive approaches. Lehrer speaks of the brain being particularly good at metaphors helping us to bind things together. This technique of working through metaphor to describe what we are curious about can develop a collaborative language that helps to transcend the challenges of the differences in our working languages and our usual referential shortcuts. If we agree that we need a different kind of conversation to generate transformation, then a language rooted in metaphor is a good beginning.
Another challenge for this first meeting was how to get beyond politeness and the inevitable desire to please, natural to a meeting of strangers and move to a dynamic of critical friendship where each partner could assess the relevance of these particular strangers’ approaches to their own working practices. And this is where we applied the ‘shower principle’ with enforced moments of observation, reflection and prioritisation. Like many in the arts, I use a technique called the ‘silent gallery’ where participants can observe each others’ ideas in silence in order to conceive critical responses. Dissent and refinement of ideas is encouraged, but importantly within an environment of trust where each voice has an equal status, silence can have a distinct role in exchange.
Lehrer was very critical of the use of brainstorming techniques and quite right too in the regard that used unwisely, this provides fresh but superficial and ill expressed ideas without critique. However, as a technique to get everyone’s voice heard and to loosen rigid thinking, they can be helpful if used in conjunction with refining and critiquing the ideas expressed.
But for all this commitment to new ways of working, new perspectives and trying experimental approaches, it does also get down to the people themselves and the relationships formed. That’s another thing Lehrer spoke about - that it is still important to be there ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. The extraordinary value of just showing up. He spoke of a very revealing statistic; that in spite of the huge increase in skype as a remote communication tool, attendance at conferences has doubled. In spite of increasing demands on our time, people value being together. I’ll continue to blog about the development of this project and hope that some of our partners will be doing so as well, but for all of us it will be curiosity that sustains the exchange. And of course, a commitment to wasting time…