ETH Zurich / Cortona.03 Conference - Science and the Wholeness
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
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”,
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
Music/intermezzo 3: Alpha Bet [text by Ernst Jandl] (CD "sculpted
followed by a remixed version
4. How can you determine that a piece of art is good? Is there any
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
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,
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
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
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