ETH Zurich / Cortona.03 Conference - Science and the Wholeness of Life
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich

Motto 2003: C u r i o s i t y a n d C r e a t i v i t y
(September eleven, zero-three)


Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says, “I’m not feeling very well.
I think, I’ve just lost an electron.” The other says, Are you sure?”.
The first replies, “Yes, I’m positive…


The secret bonds of art and science — six easy pieces

by john wolf brennan

Music/intro: [Earthsteps]... (CD “klanggang”, nos. 1, 2 + 3)

Four preliminary, introductory remarks: (1) Artists have been a part of the Cortona conference from the very beginning in 1985. However, they were happily confined to the limits of workshops for most of the time. So it’s the first time in 18 years that three of them get a chance to step on stage: a true premiere! Therefore, warmest thanks to Pier Luigi Luisi and Reinhard Nesper, for the trust & thrust! (2) Three artists – Regula Vollenweider, Andreas Schneider and myself, as well as Barbara Jäckli, who formulated the six questions, spent quite some time working together on this joint venture, visiting our habitats with great curiosity, exchanging ideas. However, we chose contrasting angles to tackle the subject, trying a multi-dimensional approach. The following lecture is my contribution. (3) Since Cortona reaches out for a holistic concept of life, I hope our presentation will leave open a lot of “holes” — a vacuum in need of being filled by your questions! Remember "A Day in the Life” on the Beatles' album “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band”? .... now they know how many (w)HOLES it needs to fill the Albert Hall..." (4) Language is communication, interrupted by speech.

1. What is the goal of art?

As an artist, I can only speculate. Art reflects (mirrors) a subjective truth, born out of a speculation (lat. speculari = to look; specere = mirror), later taking on the meaning of “risky business” – definitely something art always has been – and hopefully will continue to be. And the ancient Greek notion TECHNE means “handicraft, art and science”, all in one.

Hence art is not the truth itself, but a reflection of it, with a certain relative distance (the distance a painter might take to view his picture on the wall, or the distance a composer takes over an entire opera score). The eye of the observer, in this case the artist’s eye, does not necessarily correspond to the perception of the museum visitor, or the concert listener. However, as long as a piece of art remains in the artist’s studio, it is still an artefact. To pick up a quantum physics metaphore: it stands by as a potentiality, as a field of expectation.

Only when art finds an audience, when it gets a chance to be perceived with all senses, can it escape oblivion. Then only can it start to please or tease people, to entice, to amaze, to astonish, to irritate, to aggravate them, to provoke and even sometimes satisfy their curiosity, to meet their expectations and their greed for the spectacular spectacle: panem et circences! This can take them on an unexpected expedition, making them either blissful or contemplative, leading to rejoicing or bursting into tears, or simply make them think… twice.

Like many living beings, art strives for attention, for perception, it wants to exist, to be born and live, not only on the dusty shelves of libraries and archives. It wants to waste itself, to taste the the fresh air of life, testing itself against the course of time. Perception is an inherent, constituent element of art. Without careful attention, sensitive awareness, maybe even a sense of devotion on the part of the audience – meaning YOU – music dies an instant, heroic death right on stage, in front of your eyes, the very split second the tone leaves the trombone or the violoncello, even before it gets a chance to reach a single ear.

This is good news for you – for without YOU, the audience - art simply does not exist. Audio means “I listen”. No listening, no watching, no “consummate experience”, as Mark Rothko calls it – no art. The goal of art is, in the original sense of the word, creation: to come into being. It’s existential: it simply wants to be. Alive. Once it lives, it can set off various chain reactions, reflecting its own mirror image, throwing it back to where it originated, not just to the artist as an individual, but to the fertile soil of his bio(u)topia. To paraphrase Tschaikovsky’s agri-cultural definition of creativity: It wants to grow. Up.

This source is always larger than the individual who happened to be present at the birth. In this sense, the artist is like a midwife, a go-between between the source and the mouth of the river,
in state of flux.

Music/intermezzo 1: Paraph(r)ase on Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (CD “Flügel”, no.13)

2. What is curiosity for the artist, and how relevant is it for him/her?

As we have learnt from Avshalom Elitzur (Bar-Ilan University, Israel): you don’t have to be crazy to be an artist, but it certainly helps… Hi/story states that curiosity killed the cat, but since we are among scientists here, let me tell you that the cat in question was black, in a dark room, sought by a quantum physicist, but turned out not to be there at all…

Switzerland has given the world seminal words like Muesli, autonomer Nachvollzug (that’s what the Swiss call the obedient adaption of EU regulations in Berne, despite being a non-member state) and Putsch. Now. I’d like to introduce another one: the Swiss German word “Gwunder” (as opposed to the High German “Neu-gierde” – “avidity or greed for the NEW”), which is derived from “wonder, miracle”, and marvellously means – “curiosity”.

A “Gwundernas” is a nosey person, somebody who conducts his own personal SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) programme, stretching his antennas out into the macro- and microcosmos, incessantly searching for signs of intelligent life on this – and other – planets. This Gwunder-miracle is the source of any knowledge (in the literal sense of insight, of recognizing), in science as well as in art. It’s the trigger point to embark upon the next artistic (ad)venture. It also helps to remember that in some African languages, there is only one word for “music” and “magic”.

Gwunder begins with the first exciting idea, catches fire, induces the initial process, stimulates the brain cells, evokes a chain reaction of associations on (in Bruce Chatwin’s words) a long daydream walk along the hidden songlines, sends notions in (e)motion and shoots thoughts like rockets up into orbit. Musings meander like rivers, over cascades and cataracts, cutting through canyons and valleys, thus planting the first seeds of a concept, the first rough, hastily drawn sketch, the hazy, vague outlines of a silhouette, swiftly transmuting into a form, a gestalt, a systematic approach, a matrix, a mathematical operation, permutation or reiteration, even the first glimpse, the faintest idea of a drammaturgia.

Sometimes, this is already where the story ends. Plenty of art projects are never given a chance to get any further than this stage, but curiosity has the additional benefit of assuring that you sooner or later come back to it, sooner or later. And, just as in science, what follows then is very often tiresome, arduous – but nevertheless necessary and, in the end, rewarding. The search for financial fundings, a thorough-going re-search, hovering in hermeneutical circles full of unexpected surprises around the subject, leaves the artist – more often than not — in a bewildered, flabbergasted state of chaotic, strange attraction. Even with this onto-logical (or rather illogical) hole in the middle, the whole is more than the sum of its parts – just remember the particles forming Hans-Peter Dürr’s virtual cake, safely stored somewhere in the PowerPoint on his harddisk.

A question often raised is: “When do you compose? My answer is: inspiration (or what we like to take for it) can HIT you any time of the day or night – so you better be prepared. It’s not a soft breeze, but an obnoxious gale or sometimes even a hurricane. The artist has no choice, really: He has to sit in the rain, get soaked, endure the storm and work it out of his system in order to ban the (“evil” or “heavenly”) spirits. But guessing the skies can often turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Music/intermezzo 2: Pumpkinet(h)tics (CD "Flügel”, no.15)

3. How can you know – or even prove – that something is “right” in art?

"I cannot prove it to you, but I know!” (Herbert Pietschmann)

One could argue that history can provide an answer to this question: if a piece of art stands the test of time, it has succeeded and therefore feels “right”. But since this evaluation process can last for some time, and very few artists are willing to wait a century or two, there’s got to be a slightly quicker way of assessment.

Of course, there is no “insurance policy”, as it were. An artist can never be sure (in the proper sense of the term) about the “true value” of his work, the only guarantee you get is constant change. But having said this, I believe he instinctively “knows” if he failed or not – if only because of being “nosey”. Thank Goodness, curiosity always wants to drive and dive for more, and sometimes it also helps to dig out the remains of the day, tieing some more knots into the secret web of life.

Also, in the world of art, we are not exactly alone. Thousands of years of global culture provide ample reference points, and the local (agri)culture can always serve as a backing background for putting things into a larger, more cultivated perspective. When I attended the Cortona conference for the very first time in 1985, I will never forget taking in the breathtaking view of the Toscana landscape from the terrace garden of the Oasi monastery, exclaiming “Che bella NA-TURA!”, abbot Padre Angelo immediately corrected me: “Che bella CUL-TURA!”

Music/intermezzo 3: Alpha Bet [text by Ernst Jandl] (CD "sculpted sound”, no.2),
followed by a remixed version

4. How can you determine that a piece of art is good? Is there any quality control?

Buzzwords like “total quality control” are ubiquitous marketing myths. In spite of the hype and zealous promotion in the “new public management” manuals, it doesn’t make any sense to apply predetermined gauges, yardsticks or survey maps. Any form of “unfriendly takeover” or even usurpation through technocratic concepts will kill the very essence of art. Nothing worthy of observation would be left, especially in the creative process, but also it in teaching, scientific research and in all forms of artistic endeavours. What makes sense for the electronic brake system at a Volvo car plant cannot be transplanted and applied one-to-one to the rhythm structure of a poem, the construction of a curriculum, the composition of a choral or the fabric of a sculpture. As in the book “Zen and the art of archery”, only if the arrow is aimed to just miss the target, the object will be hit in the bull’s eye. And as we know from Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, nothing is precisely known in the quantum world: not just that it is impossible to measure things like position and velocity accurately, but that entities like electrons literally do not have definite positions and velocities.

It is precisely a characteristic (a curse, a chance) of art to have to re-invent the set of rules right from scratch every time; to modify the methodology constantly; thus constructing a kind of perpetuum mobile in a continuum immobile, in synchronicity with Hermes, the ancient divine messenger. His jumping and dancing on the hermeneutic circles and spirals – from one time-space level to the next in this cosmic game of chess – puts chaos in self-similar, self-organizing order (and vice versa). Zooming up and down non-linear micro- and macro-scales, he throws around some wild, but nevertheless educated guesses, thereby positively establishing potential semantic patterns of probable or possible texts, contexts, co-texts & co-co-texts.

As German composer Wolfgang Rihm pointed out: “Finding the first note is never the problem” – the world is full of sounds, all we need to do is pick them up – “but finding the second note is the real challenge!” Entropy is lurking just around the corner, so the metamorphosis of what has been, is and will be “good” in art continues, going on and on. Die gesicherten Erkenntnisse von heute sind die grossen Irrtuemer von morgen – the fail-safe, foolproof knowledge of today will turn out to be the great failures and errors of tomorrow – not only in science, but also in art.

One opponent of art is kitsch, and it’s a highly intriguing question to ask: “What is the equivalent of kitsch in science?” (if it does exist in a scientific context…*). Most simple definitions of kitsch fall short. Let me try a complex one: kitsch is “too beautiful to be true”, an often banale, decorative, but stale, self-indulging caricature of a grotesquely exaggerated beauty ideal, celebrating itself for the price of its own inner truth. Nevertheless – let’s admit it: every now and then we all seem to need a tiny little prescription of kitsch. What’s wrong with looking at a postcard sunset, or watching “Pretty Woman” Julia Roberts flirting with Richard Gere? Is it merely self-indulgence? Maybe kitsch is as vital for the human well being as gossip in the streets, pubs, parliaments, universities or theatres.

Music/intermezzo 4: Dance of Kara Ben Nemsi (CD pago libre: cinémagique, no. 14)

5. Are there any lessons to be learnt?

In terms of quality, my first advice to the artist as a young woman or man would be: “Stay away from the thundering herd!” This picture I got from a lunchtime conversation with Chinese filmmaker John D.Liu. Don’t feel obliged to fall into pre-fabricated pigeon-holes. Don’t get trapped, always try to stay at least one step ahead of the “fine arts”, the dealers, historians and critics. Make their life as hard as possible. After all, they usually get far better remuneration for writing about the art than the artist him- or herself.

My second advice: “Learn to restrain the scissors in your head, this ever-present inner censorship voice”, especially during the delicate phase of conception. Welcome the fancy state of flux! Later on, it will be early enough to cut away all the excessive parts. After all, art is about making choices, about throwing out 97,34% of the ideas floating around in your brainstorm (or rather typhoon). Therefore, we ought to be grateful for any generous flood of ideas in the first place.

And finally, my third advice: “Improve your skills, your craft, your sense of rhythm constantly. You’ll never have enough of this mind matter, and “life on the road”, actually learning by doing it, is the most sustainable academy on earth. Never stop to be a scholar, because that way you’ll be a bad teacher very soon. In other words: “How can you be an artist, a musician (or, for that matter, a scientist), without continually becoming one?”

An interesting phenomenon in this context is, that frequently the creative process starts off al fresco, rubato (stolen), as it were, from the very split second of time, extemporized, like a Japanese painting, where the artist sits in silence and, after hours of meditation, lets his brush sweep over the blank paper in one quick move. Then, the “know-it-all” brain enters with all its power, never satisfied with the “most obvious” solution, bound to explore many sideways and by-ways during countless, sleepless nights; only to find, in the end, that you were “right” in the first place. Following Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we can only guess that all these detours are inevitable steps to reach your goal. Just like in ZEN archery, the arrow never is aimed at the bull’s-eye, but in a slightly blurred way, in a “fuzzy-logic” state of mind, somewhere between sharp focus and wide-angle lenses seen through a twinkling eye, swinging like a chaotic pendulum. Another mind movie running simultaneously in the turbulent, flowing fields of slow motion and time lapse – a conZENtration of time jumps and space cracks.

So, in some curious and secret ways, the beginning already contains the end.

Music/intermezzo 5: Ron d’eau (CD time jumps – space cracks, no. 3)

6. Are there any laws in the world of art? If so, how do they originate?

Every age has its own heroines and heroes, and as Brother David Steindl-Rast has told us, according to Joseph Campbell (“The hero of a thousand faces”) every hero needs three phases to become one: (1) S/He grows up in a community; (2) goes out into a foreign world, embarks on a discovery, a journey to the unknown (or “Immram” as it was called among the ancient Celtic tribes) to fight the (metaphorical) dragon, either defeating him or dying and (3) then comes back to the community, thereby sharing his/her re-discovered love, passion and com-passion, or, if s/he died, passing on the metaphorical lifeblood through his/her heroic act.

So, if art wants to become part of us (a part, and yet apart), and we a part of art, even after experiencing the most advanced adventures, the utmost far out avantgarde expeditions, it must come back to the community, sharing what it has learnt during the encounter with the unknown, the argument with the dragon, the probation period across the borderlines, and maybe even the knowledge of the beyond, in a transZENdental, meta-physical way. What good is a hero, a heroine, if he or she has not found any love to share?

Needless to say that, on a military level — the “martial art & science”— I believe in zero heroes.

john wolf brennan, Oasi, Cortona, September 2003

Music/outro: Anyway – was there ever nothing? (CD zero heroes, no.2)
adding live music elements (John Wolf Brennan - melodica, Barbara Jäckli,
Regula Vollenweider and Andreas Schneider - percussion)

*) in the discussion following the lecture, Prof. Herbert Pietschmann (Vienna) remarked that, in his view, the academic pressure to “publish or perish”, resulting in huge piles of uninspired, unnecessary papers, very often amounts to scientific kitsch

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