Steven J. Fowler - "Everything Humans Have Touched on This Planet Has Been Altered by Our Creativity"




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Mar 04, 2015
by Steven J. Fowler
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Steven J. Fowler - "Everything Humans Have Touched on This Planet Has Been Altered by Our Creativity"

Poet and Salzburg Global Fellow reflects on revelations at neuroscience of art session Steven J. Fowler speaks during Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity & Innovation?

This article was originally published by Salzburg Global Fellow Steven J. Fowler on his website, sharing his experiences of Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?

It’s necessary to couch my account of a week spent at Salzburg Global Seminar, for a gathering that explored neuroscience & the origins of creativity, with a decision to relate the mass of knowledge, the intensity of interaction and the potentiality of collaboration through my own understanding, or lack thereof. It must be an account given from a perspective of acknowledged limitation.

In fact, all the better that any account I give represents my excitement and privilege in being in attendance through the basic mode that I was utterly uninterested in what I already knew, in shades or depth, and absolutely enthralled by what I didn’t know, and that was at times revelatory for my understanding of creativity, and more specifically my poetry and its supposedly ‘experimental’ character.

If nothing else, what the week proved was that intellectual curiosity and ‘social’ expertise is not innately bound to other areas of knowledge (of course) but that a holistic understanding of both neuroscientific, social and creative means is the only way to progress into understanding in general.

The organisation, based in Schloss Leopoldskron, renovated by Max Reinhardt pre-war, and sat like some mad mini-castle chateau on a lake underneath the Untersberg & the city of Salzburg, was founded post-war, immediately so, in 1947, to bring together intellectuals and politicians and similarly powerful people to share ideas and information in order to prevent repeated mistakes of this scale. Seventy years on and I find myself sat by the lake. Well worth finding out lots more info on Salzburg Global here.

I was invited to attend through my residency at The Hub at Wellcome Collection, with the Hubbub group, led by James Wilkes and Felicity Callard. In more general terms, my presence was undoubtedly down to the nature of my curatorial-artistic practice, rather than the content or any expertise.

That is to say the guerrilla, roving, reflective, modernist aesthetic I have so often discussed, theoretically, which influences all my work, from teaching to poetry, has led me to be creative almost singularly from others' brilliance, or language which sits palpably in the world already.

This is an essential facet of what I’m interested in, which I shan’t go deeper into now, but in practical terms it means I’ve ended up following one path into another until I have found myself, as part of Hubbub, the first residents of the Hub at the Wellcome Collection, a major concern of which is also interdisciplinary work between researchers working in the arts, sciences and humanities, working with Neuroscientists and Neuroscience, and in turn at Salzburg Global through the generosity of the aforementioned Hubbub group.

This week specifically was about how neuroscience and art might intersect, and the endless questions, definitions, experiments and consequences which might arise from their necessary and inevitable intersection, as the former evolves into increasing prominence and viability,and the latter, in the hands of the contemporary, keeps pace with actual 21st century life and language.

The ambition of these basic terms, outlined here perhaps give clue to the nature of the week, in the sense that the questions were not really resolvable, but the human connections and expressions of expertise were being brought together to begin relationships which might take on their own exponential character.

I certainly benefited from this immense privilege of environment, not just because I was the stupidest in the room, and we were staying in a bloody castle next to a lake with infinite buffets, or because I’m so early in my professional process, but also because it was an opportunity for me to stress the ideas I’ve come to accidentally cultivate, which is the human connections, the friendships of a kind, which underpin any collaborations.

The week in the Schloss was, aside from all the below, a place where I’ve begun friendships which are likely to last many years, and challenge me in the intelligence of their character.

These friendships are perhaps special also in the fact they were founded in a kind of euphoria, the collective yin to the yang of a Jim Jones cult, whereby the intensity of the schedule (often 8 to 10 hours of lectures and discussions a day, discussion groups, focus groups, presentations, improvisatory performance sessions, food breaks full of conversation…) and the hermetic nature of the alpine retreat environment meant people who are by and large professionals, academics, etc… were freed, within limits, of their normal behaviour patterns.

We were a little bit sleepless, overfed, full of oxygenated air and hyper through the intensity of the conversations, and there was some immense personalities in attendance too.

It’s not possible to capture this occasional locus of the surreal in writing, nor the muted opulence of the surroundings, the power of the interpersonal politics (& I don’t intimate something negative there) and the variety of the people in attendance (this was a wonderful thing), but suffice to say I would posit there might be a general correlation between the profundity of knowledge potential in a room and the idiosyncrasy of the vessels that carry that knowledge when they connect with each other in such an intensive program and unique environment.

A proviso that pretty much everyone in attendance was worthy of multiple superlatives and so I won’t bestow that too much below, and there was so much on that this is just a snippet.

Day 1

We began with the big room intros, everyone talking about themselves, saying more than they were saying. Then we headed in to an introductory session led by the brilliant Charles Limb, the real powerhouse behind the conference. Immediately he prefaced the enormity of our collective task with a theory that straightened me - discussing the notion that creativity as the defining element of our evolution, that it must necessarily be a part of our brain’s nature, to be able to innovate, to create, to experiment, in order that we were able to evolve as we have, so cataclysmal and unique from other species. This is a primordial argument for experimentation, innovation and the avant garde!

The notion that we are even biologically somehow designed to innovate suggests that by ascribing our incredibly recent patterns of aesthetics onto forms of art like poetry, which is essentially about language and not emotions, sentiment etc… is an unbelievably limited, and frankly arrogant, way to conceiving of our potential and expressiveness.

Experimental expression, in linguistic and physical forms, has its roots in the very essence of our existence.

Moreover it became clear that neuroscience has become a cleansing force in the brain / mind sciences, that creativity has been identified as the root human characteristic, that it is recognised as transforming the fundamental nature of the world, that everything humans have touched on this planet has been altered through our creativity. So true as to be generally forgotten, I would venture.

This was followed by an inspirational talk by Kal Kallaugher, famed veteran cartoonist for The Economist et al. An absolutely charming man, he was as engaging and humble as he was thorough in his art. He had us all drawing Barack Obama after a slideshow of his greatest hits and some live artmaking.

Day 2

Intellectual landslide number two, Arne Dietrich.

The man embodied his theories, a powerful, rigorous and immediate speaker, without doubt he offered me, and many in the room, a critical insight into neuroscience.

I have no idea about the context of these ideas, but they are immensely valuable to me as they relate to my work, and our existence in general, with the language and conceptual frameworks we use in talking about ourselves so potent in defining what we do and what we are.

Arne began by smashing some myths, suggesting that all the theories, that have often bled into popular culture, that spring from an approach that posits certain locations in the brain as being solely responsible for mechanisms of creativity are utterly erroneous. This accounts for multiple false categories – left and right brain thinking, us using only 10% of our brain and other ‘phrenologies', as he called them.

Creativity is not monolithic in the brain, it is not an isolated process, it is interlaced. Creativity is distributed in the brain. He used a metaphor that always comes up in martial arts practise, that those who claim to be experts in violence are like blind men grabbing an elephant, they grab the tail, trunk, tusk or hide and each think they know the whole animal.

So it is with the brain, knowing one part of the whole gives you only that, and won’t offer insight into that which is distributed in its essence. Creativity, and the arts, are a domain of mechanisms.

Arne differentiated two systems, the Implicit and the Explicit. This formulation was revelatory to me, and though I must acknowledge my utter lack of knowledge about these ideas, my paucity in the face of the context, such were the formulations that they immediately felt valuable, and employable, in my own terms.

The Implicit system relates to processes in the brain (I don’t know whether to use the word actions, or something else) which happen at speed, that are simple in the brain, that cannot buffer in consciousness.

They are the things we are doing when we improvise, or play sport, the things I’ve spoken about for so long in terms of boxers being able to slip punches and throw combinations at speeds beyond the process of conscious thought, they are what I do when I do 30 minute sound art collaborations, generating noise outside of an awareness of my own self doing so.

The Implicit system is then outside of identity and self-awareness. In this sense, this system is what is generally associated with a kind of freedom, or belonging, away from any sense of self-criticism.

When Arne was describing this, I thought first of fighting. The Implicit system is utilized for actions that can be refined with repetitive practise in terms of motor output and then employed without active decision making but through environment stimulus or response.

The Implicit system can still use complex pieces of information as long as they are chunked and this is the system that picks up body language too, processes it without us ‘considering’ it, as it were.

The Explicit system on the other hand is the complex, slow, abstracted process which allows us to write (& exist in general) with awareness, identity, our entire cultural, critical self-consideration, selfhood itself etc…

It contains both conscious and unconscious processes, and maintains our ability to select from working memory the algorithm we wish to employ for the different tasks before us. It allows us to formulate and edit and conceive and reflect. This takes place in the frontal cortex, and this is why, arguably babies have no sense of self (though many postulated they do - I don't know), because their frontal cortex is not yet developed.

We know more about the Implicit than Explicit, and Arne discussed how artists might use methodologies to down regulate their Explicit system to the Implicit in order to gain insight in practice, to overcome blocks creatively – be it through exercise, drugs etc…

In this sense when an artist or human being in general is limited and fixed in their behaviour they have narrowed the frame of search in their Explicit system to pre-established and constrained patterns.

The creative, and I would suggest, experimental, thinker, is able to open this search up to new conceptions and possibilities and on a personal level, my practise of using martial arts and sound poetry in my work has clearly been a way to enter into Implicit modes (which I’ve called authentic) to inform and contextualise my more Explicit poetry and artworks. Pretty significant stuff.

Arne suggested this is why so often artists or athletes cannot properly express their own actions because they happen in the Implicit system and they being asked to relate them using the Explicit system.

I could keep writing about this, to try to understand more myself, and there’s so much I’ve left out even from what was related in this short lecture, but the implications are profound for me, and all of us, I would venture.

You can find out more about Arne’s work and a talk here.

Moreover I would suggest this talk is a perfect example of the kind of thinking that is, and at times at Salzburg Global, was, confused with a positivism that people consider reductive. To my thinking there is nothing within these mechanistic explanations of our behaviour which reduces the profundity of our achievements, as a species and as creative beings.

If anything, having such a grounded notion of where these potentials come from is inspirational in and of itself. I think many made a grand error based on their own creative insecurity in taking Arne's concepts as an attack on something they hold precious, and I felt a great kinship with his thought precisely because I'd have more rigour applied to what we do in poetry, which requires a similar criticism of people's anecdotal, sentimental approach to the art. Something which is not personal, but is often taken to be such.

We were then split off into discussion groups. The  groups were fascinating, I really got to know Ben Ehrlich and Noah Hutton, beyond the friendships that had begun amongst the surreal setting and social interactions, and their project The Beautiful Brain, which I sincerely recommend you seek out.

Both Noah and Ben maintained a considered ethical engagement with their ideas and their general comportment which I’ve come to associate with the essentially objective search of tested truth which underpins the best of scientific thinking, and which contains at its heart a complete acknowledgement of limitation and lack; of the possibility of failure inherent in all our ventures, and at the wonder which emerges from a mind that knows what it doesn’t know, and is hungry and curious to discover what it can.

In general terms, at the conference, this profound but humble characteristic was being applied to the scientists but not the artists, and this infuriated me, as it always does, in these moments of discussion.

Artists who invest their fragile identities in this retrograde notion of ‘inspiration’ and ‘genius’, who proffer an essentialist and theological notion of art, separating it from human life as lived and can then claim to be offended, as the religious do, about logical and objective criticism, because their work is about their desire to represent themselves and their thoughts and their emotions (assuming they matter and are interesting) and desiring to be heard or valued.

This fallacy, that rigour and humility in the face of mortality and limitations of knowledge should be a scientific principle, was perpetrated occasionally during these discussions, and it did slow things down. This is not a scientific idea, not a positivism, it is the foundation of a considered, contemporary ethics, and the artists should have been upbraided, as the scientists would've been, for their indulgence in these terms.

Noah and Ben were the exemplars of immensely creative people who would not allow themselves to be closed off to a ‘special’ realm of aesthetic meaning that supposedly scientists (who are also creative humans) could not access. This myth, long attacked by Feynman et al, is about insecurity, about artists feeling they are being lessened by science.

It seems clear to me that the opposite is taking place, they are being exalted by it, but it is human qualities which will allow the individual to recognise, or be blind, to this fact. Noah and Ben, in their artworks, their conversation, their approach, were so developed in this openness and engagement, I was continually learning being around them.

A case and point came up during the fascinating discussion groups which included the brilliant educator Lisha Lescari and Wendy Sternberg, whose Genesis at the Crossroads project seems an ambitious initiative. The discussions became framed around the idea that science could be a justification for the arts being more properly and richly applied to educational and cultural life.

This was an admirable goal of many of those in attendance. Yet it supposed science as a subjective tool to be employed in the support of an argument, albeit an argument I utterly agreed with. In that sense what Noah was doing was trying to emphasise was that the power of science as the dominant principle of justification in our culture is based on an objectivity and rigour which can’t be played like a card before it's been dealt.

The research that suggests creativity is good for us at a biological level is yet to be resolved, and in fact this conference was defined by this process still being in its infancy. That was indeed the exciting part of our coming together.

Moreover, and this is where Ben, Noah and I really connected, it also served to pre-suppose art and creativity as an essentially positive and progressive thing, something which I utterly reject in my work. The group was conflating high art principles with a populist view of arts effects, and this was again down to science being subjected to quality control, while art was not.

The same questions were not being posed of both domains, and terms of use were not being equally resolved. Of course the former, science, might be at times more quantifiable, and the latter more subjective, but still there is enough aesthetic rigour in the world to be able to discern good art from bad, given a definition of art, which was being used in this context, which was utterly relative.

Here, again, my more specific, intensive definition of poetry as something which refuses emotion as the constituent element in favour of language itself, seemed to be a new and novel idea to people. This idea in fact caused a significant response from many; mostly positive, but some negative.

What I mean to say is that scientists were offended that I savaged their notion of sentimental poetry, that it wasn’t poetry but indulgent speech with line breaks (the conversation with oneself), despite their own comfort with their science being peer tested and criticised as a fundamental, objective methodology.

This was a key issue of the global, that stereotypes and destructive affordances around the issue of aesthetics were allowed to stand in a way that would never be tolerated in the field which we were supposed to be enjoining them to.

We were also treated to a panel about music, really exploring improvisation, and how the process of creative improvisation is different in the brain than other kinds. Shodekeh Talifero, a beatboxer from Baltimore, was really the creative star of the week, an extremely generous and positive presence, really down to earth, and here he gave us a performance of his extraordinary vocal abilities.

It was quite strange to have such a performative form of art in the context of a plenary discussion, somehow there was a disjunction in the environment that was perhaps accidentally pleasing, but in no way of course removed from the experience of being so proximate to such an amazing talent. Charles Limb even showed footage from his lab where they filmed Shodekeh’s larynx as he beatboxed, and that he was using techniques of manipulation in the larynx and tongue once thought impossible by those in the field.

Day 3

Some interesting talks on approaches to research on creativity to begin the day. James Murray-White, a documentary filmmaker, whose work on dementia seems wonderful, and Patricia Leavy, a prolific writer and social scientist, whose energy was infectious. I especially liked her framing her research in disappointment, after her realisation, once within academia, of how little impact academic papers actually have, and how little they are read. Something I’ve experienced too, that has shaped the way I engage with people with my work.

This was followed by a panel on music and Nigel Osborne was a revelation. So charismatic, gentle, and such an intellect. To hear him speak of his use of experimental pedagogy, often sound art, as a therapeutic tool working with children with disabilities, and later with people around the world, while he has maintained an immense creative output, and taught, and led the field in his area of scientific discovery, and learned numerous languages and been an activist and humanitarian and done so in warzones - well it was stunning.

Then he told me he was also a friend of Bob Cobbing, that they met in the 70s in Sweden, and that just knocked me back even further.

He talked about his work with communicative musicality, with music therapy, studies relating to the pivotal role mother and baby communication plays in sound, how this kind of musicality in the voice, abstracted, slowed, has been belittled but is profoundly important for our development. His research is always rooted in science, speaking about the Anoetic, Noetic and Autonoetic processes in the brain, but emphasising absolutely the human, emotional empathetic impact of this research.

This is key stuff, a grounding on why sound art, or music, is so important, bringing back to the root of our learning to be empathetic and our physical development too - it all has its base in our first understanding of sound and this understanding can be used in real terms in the world, to make people’s lives better.

What Nigel offered me was inspiration that my work in pedagogy, leading workshops with people outside of my experience of the world, through avant garde methodologies, was completely sound. It relates purely to the loss we have enacted as a culture by enforcing types of artwork which are measurable, critical and from the academy, that isolates those who don’t share our educational background. Sound poetry is closer to us as humans than the lyric.

I also actually managed to visit Salzburg during the day! I performed in the city a few years ago, so it was nice to revisit the chocobox glory of the Hof and the cliffface modern art gallery, though I didn't get a chance to revisit the amazing zoo, which is built on a hill, so all the animals lean. Back in the Schloss we had another infinite buffet of magic foods, as we enjoyed three times a day all week. Madness.

Day 4

We began with a panel on experimental pedagogy, and again it was rooted in pragmatic, real world application. Usha Goswani related her work on early childhood learning and spoke about the presence of analogies and metaphors in scientific thinking and in early human development as vital. She spoke of the pre-verbal processes by which babies develop, their endless practice in development, that they crawlwalk a kilometer a day in learning how to walk and how vital sound and speech are to development.

She was followed by Mariale Hardiman, whose work was equally extraordinary. She had applied artistic methodologies of pedagogy to the learning of non-artistic mediums in order to measure how well students in a school in Baltimore responded to innovations in the way we related information erroneously assumed to be communicable only in traditional learning environments.

Her emphasis on creativity, dialogue, revision and context in the real space of teaching was amazing, she had done the work for many of us interested in this idea conceptually, and shown rather concretely that it was immensely beneficial to children and young people.

The arts deliver a system of knowledge is better for learning, is far more active, while in no way denigrating the use of testing and other forms of learning which could compliment such an approach. It was simply and rightly stated that these, however, should not be the only approach and should not lead to 'target' orientated education environments, for both students and teachers.

The panel I had been awaiting from the start of the program, entitled Visual Arts & Neuroscience, was not a disappointment. Noah Hutton, Daniel Glaser and Rebecca Kamen were all extraordinary. Noah spoke about his work with film that intercedes in both fields, that is founded upon a concrete, symbiotic relationship between neuroscience and creative practise, and he shared some of his work from the Venice Bienniale and Brain City, which was exhibited on the screens of Times Square.

Rebecca Kamen, whose persona embodied the warmth and humility and humour of the best moments of Salzburg Global, presented her brilliant sculpture projects, sitting firmly in the nexus of art and science informed by her research into cosmology and various scientific fields.

She also evoked the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a man whose work has clearly been of immense importance for the crossover field between aesthetics and neuroscience, being spoken about by Ben Ehrlich too, the founding editor of The Beautiful Brain, who has been active translating his work. Ignorant of me perhaps, but it's the first time I've come across Cajal's work.

Rebecca's work was conceptually brilliant and beautifully rendered, highly sensitive to the centrality of science as a mode of thinking and as a vehicle of understanding. It is another example of an artist who understands their medium properly, who utilises their own personal wisdom for profound effect, without declaration or sentiment.

She also had great socks.

Day 5

The final day was a presentation day. We had been assigned focus groups to explore issues with the hope that we might bring to bear some concrete ideas from the conference as future outputs in practical terms.

Through this process I realised properly that my place in the conference was unique, in the sense that I wasn’t required to present or read, as I almost always am. How beautiful to be free of this, to be able to really listen.

Yet here, in the final presentation, after our focus groups had met a few times, it was suggested my opinions on the foundational human context of this week, and perhaps what had been missed in such a frenetic schedule, might be worth sharing, and so I did, over a single minute to the conference attendees at large.

It felt contradictory being critical in the face of such a wonderful experience, but I believed what I said to be true, that non-determinate curatorial practices, which take into account that human beings, no matter their profession or expertise, must like each other, as friends, to collaborate properly, from inception and with endurance. And that by trying to pack so much in, tiring the eyes and mind, leaving no space for rest or exercise, that the process itself had smothered some possibilities for the product, as it were.

I meant these remarks with great respect for the ambition of the project, and even I would say I enjoyed the pace of the program, it suited me. But still, as something, through the Enemies project, I’m beginning to gain experience in, in the intangible world of bringing people together to collaborate, I felt it worth saying. In no way was it to the detriment of Salzburg Global or its incredible impact for all who attended, just an addendum of sorts.

It was a really exuberant final meeting, one of the focus groups, led by Daniel Glaser presented their findings with real dynamism and even set up a ‘blind date’ recreation to get over their findings, of which I was involved, as a wee theatre piece.

The energy and enthusiasm was overflowing, and led us into a beautiful, at times breathtaking piano recital, and then the final dinner, a banquet, which was somewhere between heaven and hell, as the wine and sleep deprivation flowed freely. One toast become a dozen, and then some tears, some justified, some not. I was winged by Ben and Noah, and managed to yell a toast to the Schloss itself, which was appreciated by Max Reinhardt’s ghost, who was clearly present.

My last Salzburg Global moments were spent with people I genuinely respected and who I now take to be friends, declining participation in a 12-person table-tennis round-robin melee and watching Ben Ehrlich grinning like a devil child as he played sexually explicit hip hop on a jukebox in a bar containing some of the world’s most renowned, middle-aged musicologists.

Huge thanks to Susanna Seidl-Fox, Clare Shine, Charles Limb, Julia Stepan & the many others who put it all together, it was one of the more extraordinary weeks of my life.

Steven J. Fowler was a participant at the Salzburg Global program The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity & Innovation?, which is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here: You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.