Art & Complexity
Bruce and I were interviewed on the topic of Art & Complexity on the Jim Rutt Show. Catch the podcast episode HERE.
Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill- The Jim Rutt Show
Excerpts From The Jim Rutt Show Interview
Jim: Nancy and Bruce have collaborated in thinking about the intersection of complexity, science and art, and on the blog on the website, there’s a whole bunch of very interesting essays which I’ve read and then followed some of the references from et cetera.
I think I’m going to run through what I extracted out of it as some of the main points. But before we do that, maybe you guys could both chat a little bit about what you see at a higher level at the intersection between art and complexity and how you happen to make that synthesis.
Being an artist is about continually evolving your art.
Nancy: For me, being an artist is about continually evolving your art. It is about stepping into the unknown and embracing that and accessing deep experimentation and then ultimately evolution.
The first step for an artist is to move beyond emulating others art, and to do that, you experiment and you ask yourself: What If? and you allow yourself to not know what’s going to happen and you even embrace what we call ugly art.
From Emulation To Innovation
You get to this place where you are deeply experimenting, but then you run into the next problem, the next trap, and that is the danger of repeating yourself.
And that’s where I found that from these intersections of evolutionary biology and mathematics, that we can access the adjacent possible
from evolutionary biology, we can access evolving our art. And in that way, continually move along into innovation rather than emulation.
Jim: You saw the article in today’s paper that a graduate student discovered that the first few of Edward Hopper’s paintings were actually copies that hopper made copies of other people’s art.
Nancy: Yes, isn’t that interesting. And there’s a kind of homage to Picasso or Matisse, and we can learn from and extrapolate from that.
But ultimately we want to get to that place of our own voice, vision, and articulation of our own lexicon and signature and language.
And yet also keep evolving. The risk that people run into is fear and this is where the inner journey, the psychology, is a big part of all of this in these intersections.
Fear stops us and tells us to emulate not only others, but ourselves and stay in that place of safety.
And yet that is a deadening place.
Jim: Yeah, that seems right to me that the good artists show no fear. And when they start to show fear, they’ve stopped being good artists.
Nancy: It becomes a success disaster. They might start experimenting deeply and they’re excited about their art. And then they receive kudos from their audience and start to sell out their solo exhibition only to find that they don’t move off the dime.
They keep repeating what has worked before.
That is not where you want to go as an artist.
Jim: Yeah. And I’m frankly less knowledgeable about the visual arts than I am about music. And, you know, we can see that in the various music genres, my wife and I follow. Some musicians continue to grow until they’re 80.
Billy Joe Shaver is a guy that comes to mind still out there doing original stuff at the age of 80 while others at the age of 34, kind of just stuck in their rut, so to speak and just go with what brought them there, make lots of money, but it basically become dead as far as being artists go.
Durchkomponiert & Monocoque
Nancy: Exactly. And recently, Bruce and I were talking about this concept of monocoque. Do you want to talk about that for a second?
Bruce: Sure. In one of the recent blog posts, we talked about things that are conceived all as a piece where it’s non-separable. There are pieces of music, the German expression is durchkomponiert – through composed, where there’s no repeat, there’s no logical place to break it.
The egg is something that has no natural dividing line and both pieces of music, works of art and people’s entire works throughout their lives can fall into this category.
Jim: That’s actually very interesting. Say more about that.
Nancy: Well, yes, the Sydney Opera House that was designed by a Danish architect and what is his name?
Bruce: Jórn Utzon- I think it was in the late fifties.
Nancy: So Jórn Utzon came from this concept of the monocoque and he was looking at the egg and the absolute perfection of the egg and being through composed, durchkomponiert and integrated.
He took that concept. It was a big idea, like the roots and trunk of the tree, rather than random techniques or repeating what others have done.
And he came forth with this idea for the Sydney Opera House with an egg shell type appearance, and it hadn’t been done before.
He won the contest, but they didn’t know how they were going to build this in a safe way. They did ultimately with structural engineers.
Breaking The Rules
What is interesting is that he broke all the ideas that have been done before by breaking the rules, by coming from a foundational concept of the monocoque, which had been done in the single hull boats and kayaks and airplanes. He brought that idea to architecture.
A big piece of being an artist and innovator is continually evolving and breaking those rules, but coming from deep underlying concepts from nature.
Jim: You could almost think of such things as emergent phenomenon. They’re at a higher scale. When I look at the, I suppose that’s probably the most famous building in the modern world- the Sydney Opera House- it’s got elements from different scales.
It kind of looks like sailboats or something at one level, but then it scaled up and I’m sure the architectural problems of making that all hold together, as you say safely, would be more than a little intriguing and had a whole bunch of underlying problems.
Bruce: Yeah, it had a cost overrun of about a factor of 25. I think it was originally supposed to cost 7 million and ended up more like 150 to 200.
Phase Transitions & Art
Jim: Interesting. Well, let’s hop into some of the topics that you guys lay out on your blogs that I thought were right interesting.
The first of these, and this is very important, not only in art, but in some of the socioeconomic political work that I do. And that’s phase transitions. Talk about a little bit, how phase transitions and art inform each other.
Bruce: Well, phase transitions come up in many situations. One is connectivity.
That goes back to Erdös and Rényi around 1960. Stewart Kauffman calls it buttons and threads. You have a bunch of buttons lying on a table and you have little segments of thread and you close your eyes and pick a pair of buttons and tie them together.
Then you look at what is the largest connected piece. You can have A connected to B connected to C and so on. You do this for awhile.
You end up with lots of pairs of buttons, but then very rapidly it clumps together and you get most of the buttons all in one clump. This is a very abstract kind of phase transition that is just about links and nodes.
But a lot of things have this characteristic, including in art.
When I lived in Santa Fe, I observed that a many artists would work for years and be completely unrecognized. Then it would knit together for them very suddenly, maybe after 10 years of painting. They would suddenly start being in shows, be recognized, be known, be on everybody’s lips.
And I think that this was a kind of social phase transition, but even individual artworks also display this characteristic and Nancy can speak to that.
Phase Transitions & Artistic Breakthrough
Nancy: Yes. I believe that phase transitions map onto artistic breakthrough,
I have a story of an artist who is a very brainy woman.
She was a professor of French and Russian literature in San Francisco at a college. She’s got this big brain.
She would tend to overthink her art and she’s going along, trying to not only loosen up her art, but also trying to simplify it, kind of that elegant simplicity that DaVinci spoke of.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
And she was moving towards minimalism.
But she was having a difficult time because she tended to make things complex. Even though she liked her complex art, she wanted to go on this path towards simplicity and minimalism.
She said, Nancy, I had this breakthrough. All of a sudden I did it. My paintings are immediate and II just laid down a few strokes and I’m done.
And this was a breakthrough for her.
I believe that these breakthroughs are informed by getting into your studio, creating lots of starts and experimenting and really stepping into the unknown.
That’s when you have that sudden phase transition. And in my mind, I could see the graph of the phase transition when she described her breakthrough.
Bruce: You’re trying to knit together disparate elements in your art. And when you finally get it right, it comes together, apparently very suddenly, when of course it isn’t very sudden, you’ve been working at it all along to get there.
Jim: I love the quote I’ll actually read from your blog.
I submit to you that most epiphanies are not sudden and surprising if you dig into them deeply, they basically are the result of lots of previous work which the outside world may not recognize.
Jim: But you were building it in within yourself. That last bit was just the paraphrase by me.
Combinatorics & Art
Jim: Now let’s go onto our next topic. Another one of my favorites as people listen to the show know, I do some work in AI (artificial intelligence), particularly at the AGI level where we’re looking at human level and beyond artificial intelligence and there, we always run into combinantorics.
In fact, one of my little jokes, I tell people if you want to talk to people about artificial general intelligence, you don’t actually know shit about it, but want to sound smart, just ask the person, how do they plan to solve the problem, the combinatoric explosion of possibilities, right?
It’s the only question you have to ask that sounds sagacious. Even before I knew anything about it, I actually used to use that, but now I know it’s something about, so I don’t have to anymore, but anyway, let’s start off by explaining what combinatorics is. It’s actually very interesting. And when you think about it with respect to art and talk about how combinatorics informs thinking about that.
Bruce: Well, it’s counting patterns.
In fact, Donald Knuth, a well-known computer scientist, and one of the early founders of the Stanford computer science department, said once to me,
How do I love combinatorics? Let me count the ways.
And the reason is it’s about counting patterns, usually in numbers, but not necessarily- it can be in colors and patterns and shapes and musical sounds.
And so you can readily see how it might apply to artistic endeavors.
And in, in one of the blog posts, we give a simple example of combinatorics. If you have a pile of books and you’re going to put them on the shelf, let’s say you have 50 books. You can choose the first book.
One of those 50, you can put it there on the left end of the shelf. That leaves 49 and you can choose 49.
And so you get into these factorials and you end up with 50 factorial. 50 times 49 times 48 and so on all the way down to one, which is a very big number. It’s about 10 to the 60 something, one with 60 some zeros after it.
You rapidly get to astonishingly huge numbers. And this comes up in things like scheduling airplanes too, especially if you’re doing this dynamically on demand.
And so I encountered this and other aspects of my life also, but it definitely comes up in art in terms of the possibility of numbers of patterns.
Combinatorics In Art
Nancy: One of the things that we’ve done that was interesting is we took an abstract painting exercise called the Six Maquette™ Exercise that I developed. Maquettes are little studies.
And this was informed by Henry Moore, the British sculptor who created monumental sculptures. And he would create those by creating tiny clay maquettes, to play with ideas.
We would take the Six Maquette Exercise. And the idea there is you, you mark off six squares or rectangles on a piece of paper and on each square you go in with six moves or six marks or six shapes or brushstrokes or whatever you want to do.
But it’s basically six moves on each of these six blocks. And then we would have the students cut them up and move them around. And within that constraint of six maquettes, we found seemingly almost infinite possibilities.
I know it’s not infinite, but it has enormous possibilities within the constraint. That’s one of the ways we play with combinatorics in abstract painting.
Jim: As you point out, think about something as simple as a thousand by a thousand pixel black and white monitor. These days that would be a tiny little monitor and black and white. It would be a, what the hell what’s black and white, but just that very simple palette is two to the millionth possibilities, way more than a number of subatomic particles in the universe.
And that’s just one of the simplest and stupidest possible frameworks. I think you guys referred to TV static as an example, and the amount of TV static on a large screen HDTV is absolutely immense. The two will never repeat. They’ll never be a repeat of the static pattern.
The amount of combinatorics accessible in our universe is just ridiculously large and the only way to do anything interesting, whether it is, as you say, start thinking about constraints. So maybe talk a little bit about kind of the theory of constraints and its intersection with combinatorics.
Combinatorics & Constraint
Bruce: Well, so this gets at my favorite approach to this or way to discuss it is the idea of satisfiability.
This occurs in the realm of logic, when you have logical statements. If you have a statement that says maybe two clauses, Nancy is a woman, and Bruce is a man.
If both of those have the truth value true, then the whole thing is true. So it’s satisfied. If you say Bruce is here and Bruce is not here, that’s unsatisfiable, they can’t both be satisfied at the same time.
So the satisfaction comes up in constraints. I think a good example that I use comes, of course, I think about this world of logistics and travel.
If you think of some kind of delivery service trying to deliver, I don’t know, food, food, somewhere in a town, let’s say you have two people who are doing the delivery.
Let’s say you have three things that need to be delivered. If they are at different times they can be satisfied.
If they’re at the same time, you can’t because two people can’t be in three places.
Constraints are things like when and where things have to be delivered. And sometimes if it’s over constrained, like they have to be delivered all at the same time, that’s unsatisfiable, it’s unworkable. Sometimes it’s under constrained and we’ll probably get to this later, but very interesting things happen when it’s right at the edge.
Jim: Yep. That will, we will certainly get to that. Nancy. I’d love to get the artist’s view of being a non visual artist myself. In fact, amazingly the opposite. I draw like a four year old, you know.
How Do Artists Deal With Infinite Possibility & Constraint?
Jim: How does an artist think about taking these essentially infinite set of possibilities and then constraining them down into something that is their style, let’s say.
Nancy: Yes. So this is a big one. I think oftentimes with artists in the beginning, there is almost an allergic reaction to the concept of constraint. As artists, we see ourselves as Bohemian and dealing with endless possibility.
There’s a paradox here.
Art is riddled with paradox. One of those paradoxes is the enormity of possibility and freedom within a constraint. Creating is about making decisions.
It comes from the Latin word decidire which means to cut through.
You must make decisions. Otherwise, it’s chaos.
Otherwise it’s white snow, TV snow, lots of static.
All sounds heard together are a cacophany. In music, we need constraints.
In art, one of the ways we do that early on is with a limited palette and limited values. The values are dark-light patterns. If we throw in every possible color, it is not compelling visually.
Visually, our eyes biologically are drawn to contrast- to a light-dark contrast, to edges, to movement. I believe this comes from survival.
We’re drawn to asymmetry and predominance. A lot of this, a little bit of that.
Simplicity & Constraint
All of these are getting at simplicity and constraint. When you really understand that, you have so much freedom within a constraint and it takes me a while to get the artists there.
But when they get it, they are on fire with innovation and creativity. It just fuels it. This is what I’ve seen.
Bruce: Right.Our brains are evolved systems that are the product of millions of years of evolution. And so they are particularly adapted to living in an evolutionary system. And so the way I like to think about it is that:
We create, as the universe created us.
Jim: Makes a lot of sense. And we live in a lawful universe which is the result of evolutionary emergence. Maybe talk a little bit about that. The idea of living in a lawful and evolutionary emergent universe and being an artist, trying to react with that.
Evolutionary Emergence & Art
Nancy: Wow. Well, I think if you understand some of these foundational principles that we’re talking about at the intersections of art, psychology, creativity, science, mathematics, evolutionary biology, and you really get that, that it’s continually evolving.
The world is continually evolving. You are evolving, your cells are turning over every seven days in your gastrointestinal tract. You’re emerging continually.
And you realize that
Your art is a mirror of you, of your states of mind, of your awareness.
And so if you can access these principles and bring that to your art, you’re doing what artists and innovators do, which is to evolve their art and their lives.
Bruce: I think of, well, for instance, an example might be what’s called the common practice period in music. I was an undergraduate music major.
The common practice period is roughly 1600 to 1900.
And it was the things we often know from at least learning music, which is keys, tonic dominant, the idea of harmonies of triad, chords of certain voice combinations, voice leading and counterpoint being kind of “legal” and not.
This gives us a universe with laws.
Artists are creating worlds all the time. They’re creating miniature worlds with their own set of laws.
There has to be a certain degree of consistency and constraint. It’s part of sense-making.
Why don’t we look at something and say: That makes sense, or that’s beautiful.
That comes from a certain innate ability to make sense.
Jim: Is that what the artist is actually doing, trying to make sense of the universe?
Bruce: Or trying to make a model of the universe in their artistic creation. That makes that a self-consistent that makes sense unto itself.
Art & Meaning
Nancy: Well, and I think that it’s also about getting at meaning, that which is most meaningful to one, and that evolves through one’s life cycle and living the most alive and meaningful life.
And I think part of that is creating and expressing meaning in and through art.
Jim: That makes sense. I’m going to jump back to a previous topic is Bruce’s discussion about the period of music, something I don’t understand at all, but would fit into the idea of phase transitions as the idea of periods of art or schools of art, the impressionists.
And we had the Dadaists and we had the abstract expressionists. I don’t know what the hell we had before and after- we have these relatively describable schools of art.
Are those essentially clusters of miniature worlds that have similar laws, something like that? And if so, or if not, tell me what they are.
And second, how do bifurcations occur? i.e. the equivalent of phase transitions. Was the phase transition into impressionism sharp, or was it gradual or something in between?
Revolutions In Science
Bruce: Well, I know in science that Thomas Kuhn wrote about revolutions in science and how it happens is that you think back to when people thought that the earth was the center of the universe.
As people got better at making celestial observations, there started to be more exceptions accumulating. Errors started accumulating.
And so they started coming up with increasingly complex explanations of what would cause these strange motions of heavenly bodies.
I think they called them epicycles. Then there became epicycles on epicycles, all to explain the fact that the fundamental theory wasn’t working well.
Eventually it collapsed under its own weight and a far simpler explanation of the sun being the center of the solar system took over and was by Occam’s Razor, able to explain a lot more observed phenomenon with a lot less complexity.
Things should be as complex as they need to be, but not any more than that.
And I think that drives revolutions in science,
Jim: I think in art that there can be, I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, because there isn’t really the comparison with outside experimentation and evidence.
Bruce: So it’s more about self-consistent worlds.
I think that maybe when one mode of expression becomes tapped out, the system becomes ripe for another one, but I also believe that what happens in art is connected to what happens in lots of other aspects of human existence. And so it can’t be explained by art alone.
Nancy: Well, and I think too, that it reflects changes in the culture in terms of understandings. For example, there was automatism or automatic drawing, and then action painting by Pollock in the forties.
This was coming out of the awareness of the early 1900s from Freud and others about the unconscious and stream of consciousness. Abstract expressionism came out of automatism and the awareness of the unconscious, and that you could bring that automatic drawing or those unconscious stream of consciousness marks to the canvas.
And that’s of value, that is, expressing deep gestural expression that comes out of you, that’s unique to you.
Jim: So why do things like that emerge as a school as opposed to just one person doing it?
Nancy: Well, it’s a very good question.
It seems that we are very social beings and there will be certain pioneers. And then there are followers. For example, Freud, and groups of people following him and, various artist are right out on that edge.
And then they also are in community with one another. Picasso was in there with Matisse and oftentimes they were in competition, but they were also informed by one another and Brach. And they would play off of ideas.
I think about too, like I always think about calculus and Leibnitz and Newton, the simultaneous bubbling up of awareness around certain concepts. Bruce and I have talked about this a lot. It’s like, why does that happen in different fields?
Bruce: It’s almost like there’s a machine language to use a computer metaphor- machine language of these things that has higher level languages associated with it, like art and science. And that we don’t really understand this machine language- it is in the deep unconscious, but how revolutions or changes can occur in many different areas of human endeavor before people have the cognizant ability to discuss and relate them.
Jim: That’s quite interesting. One of the examples I kind of independently discovered just from my readings over the years was probably not a coincidence that Freud and surrealism overlap. Hmm.
Nancy: Yes. And he was very much about, you know, lying on the couch basically, and very much kind of stream of consciousness, also dream images where the value of the imagery and the kind of symbology and meaning and dreams.
And then there was Lacan who was interested in language and what that represented. But I also think about Jung, Carl Jung, and the collective unconscious. He and Freud were contemporaries and also competitors, quite frankly. Jung talked a lot about these deep symbols that emerge.
Bruce: And we talk about bifurcations. I suspect for every school that happened when you talk about a school as a way of doing art or music, there were probably 99 schools that tried to happen and didn’t.
I suspect there’s a strong selection process going on. There are certain ones that just are the right place at the right time and take off like a match in a dry forest.
Jim: A lot of drift and evolution.I think that’s always something that’s important for people to remember that random movements do and frozen accidents as Stuart Kauffman used to call them are an important part of what happens in history.
Aesthetics & Constraint
You also write a little bit about aesthetics with respect to constraints. It’s interesting.
Aesthetics is a curious thing. People can come to very different opinions about it.
There was a great flowering of new kinds of art during the Weimer Republic in Germany, in the twenties and early thirties. And then when the Nazis came to power, they declared it all degenerate art.
Hitler who was sort of a half-assed artist, I guess said this was horrible, ugly stuff, and it needed to be burned in the city squares- a little bit of an excessive overreaction there, I’d say.
Talk a little bit about how people raised in the same general culture could come to such radically diametric views about aesthetics.
The Subjectivity Of Art & Aesthetics
Nancy: Aesthetics is subjective. it’s a combination of the art and the observer. And art itself is subjective.
I’m not a big fan of art critique for that very reason. We would have to go on for hours about that. Art reflects the person creating it.
It reflects the culture, the movements, the ideas, the evolving ideas that are happening, the particularities of a person.
The Surprise Benefits Of Ugly Art
There’s something very important here. It’s the surprise benefits of ugly art.
So ugly art, I believe is the art we’re uncomfortable with. It’s the art we reject. It’s the art that is unfamiliar, but I believe that we need to embrace this ugly art because it comes out of experimentation and evolving the art.
Ugly art is often the nascent embryonic forms of new work, new art that is trying to emerge and be born.
But sometimes we reject it at first. So it’s allowing for that unfamiliar art and seeing where it goes.
Jim: And in our political work where we’re trying to bring into being a new social operating system. We say the hardest thing is to remain in the liminal state where things are not nailed down. And you’re still exploring, you know, Homo sapiens seem to have a tendency to crystallize too early, perhaps and not search long enough.
Nancy: Yes, yes, yes. I love that. We talk about that a lot. it’s the search.
Bruce: And Donald Knuth, the computer scientist again, said:
The greatest sin is premature optimization
In other words if you try to optimize a system where you don’t know all the variables yet you can end up in a suboptimal place.
Jim: I used to say the same thing. I manage software development for many years and manage businesses that were involved with heavy software development.
That’s what I’d always say. Get the functionality first, before you optimize performance, you start to optimize performance too early.You’re never going to get anywhere because you’re not exploring a big enough space in the functional route.
Nancy: I love that. And in art, we don’t want to reduce it down. We want to open it up. I say,
More starts fewer finishes, lots of starts, lots of exploration of possibilities.
Don’t be too quick to try to finish the art.
A lot of artists run into the struggle in themselves where they’re just so focused on finishing. They talk a lot about finishing and they are focused on creating the masterpiece, but great artists have said, if asked the question, Is it ever finished? It’s kind of like a river.
I don’t think personally that art is ever finished.
You stop somewhere and you decide because you’re the composer and the artist and the author of this work. You decide that you’re going to stop here, but it could go off in any potential direction.
Art Is Riddled With Paradox
Jim: And yet at the same time in that same section on your website, you guys talk about the power of simplicity. So contrast that and with the fact that simplicity is also a goal.
Nancy: That’s right. Art is riddled with paradox.
Art is absolutely riddled with paradox. So we’ve got to hold that paradox. On the one hand. Yes. Simplicity and constraint.
Within constraint is infinite possibility.
We sometimes decide to stop on our paintings and “finish” them, but are they ever really finished?
We’re continually living at that edge of those paradoxes, understanding that there isn’t really an answer…it’s more about living into the questions, continually questioning and evolving and allowing.
Some art will be minimalist and some art will be complex and all of that is reflective of different aspects of you, the artist, and aspects of the environment you’re in that is continually evolving.
Art That Makes You Think
Bruce: I think of this as resolvability and resolvability has to do again with sense-making when you experience something, a combination of your state, your internal state with what you are experiencing or interacting with has to be able to make sense for it, to be it, to be somewhat challenging.
It has to make you think, it has to make you ponder on it. If you look at something and then immediately can resolve it, it’s not very interesting. But something that resists categorization, I think that’s one of the ingredients of lasting art.
The Edge oF Chaos
Jim: Let’s move on to another topic a little bit closer to the edge of chaos. That was your idea of satisfiability phase transitions.
You guys wrote that in a system with an increasing number of constraints, there’s eventually a point where they can’t all be satisfied, but just before that point is a place where they might all be satisfied, but it’s laborious to figure it out if it’s possible or not.
That’s pretty deep.
Bruce: Well, so this is related to the edge of chaos. And there were many conversations while at the Santa Fe Institute over margarita about the edge of chaos. Some of them, I remember people like Stuart Kauffman and Seth Lloyd and David Wolpert and Bill McCready were often parts of these conversations.
The Edge Of Satisfiability
And I started thinking that maybe it’s not the edge of chaos per se, but the edge of satisfiability- that Darwin had a metaphor of pounding wooden wedges into a floor.
Most of the time, if you try to pound a wooden wedge into a floor, you don’t hit a crack. It basically just breaks apart. It doesn’t succeed in entering, but once in awhile, it’s in the exact right place and find a purchase and you can hammer it in.
And so I think of evolution happening this way. New species try to enter all the time. Sometimes they can find a way in and sometimes not.
In the satisfiability phase transition, you start with no constraints, just a bunch of disparate facts. What happened when it starts getting complex is when you start tying those facts together, like buttons and threads.
So you say, well, Nancy and Bruce are in California and Jim is in Virginia. That ties two facts together.They both have to be true for the overall thing to be true.
As you start piling on ands eventually you might get to a point where it can’t all be true because either a simple or complicated conundrum in there it’s been shown relating this process of adding constraints has been mapped onto a phase transition in physics, by Sherrington and Kirkpatrick in the seventies and Bart Selman wrote a critical paper in the nineties.
And they compared it to a system of spins, which are models of magnets. And so you have a bunch of atoms that line up or not. And there’s a phase transition between those two states. So it turned out this logical situation of satisfiability can be mapped onto physical material phase transition, but this is a different kind of phase transition.
That’s not one we want to hurry through, like from disconnected to connected.It’s one we want to poise right at the boundary because that’s where the mystery is.
Jim: It’s a stay of execution that I’ll get back to you, pending, processing that it takes a while. And on average, too, if you’re confronted with a system of logical statements, that’s right at this phase transition, it takes a lot of exploration to find whether it’s satisfiable or not.
And before you find that you are in the state of not knowing Nancy, could you talk about that from the artist’s perspective? This sounds very rich.
Artists & The State Of Not Knowing
Nancy: For the artist, you are definitely at that edge, at that place of not knowing, and you’re embracing uncertainty and stepping into experimentation to evolve the work.
Art is a kind of poised instability. Art is poised between creation and collapse and the juice is at the edge.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s entrepreneurs. We like to say, if you don’t fail enough, you’re not trying hard.
Bruce: Yes. Well, and entrepreneurs are definitely a part of an evolutionary system, all trying to find cracks to hammer their wedge into.
The Power Of Mistakes
Nancy: It’s embracing so-called mistakes in art.
You could even ask the rhetorical question.
Is there ever a mistake? Is it really a mistake in art? Or is it something new emerging, at that edge?
Jim: You mentioned poised situations or poised systems that kind of ties back to Bruce’s work on self-organizing criticality. Could you maybe tie those two things together between the two of you, you ought to be able to?
Bruce: Well, I think of this great statement that’s often told by economists Brian Arthur once said that economists were people who didn’t have the charm to be accountants.
And Brian, of course, he’s very entertaining and regaling, but a story it’s not from him, but it’s an old economist story:
The economist was walking with one of his students, undergraduate students across the quad of a university.
And the student looked down and saw a $20 bill on the ground, but he didn’t want to interrupt the economist talking. So they carried on and they got to his office.
And finally, the student said, after a while, you know I have to ask didn’t you see that $20 bill on the ground?
And he said, yes, I did. But if it had been real, somebody would have already picked it up.
So it’s this idea that that’s a true equilibrium world. Everything happens in an equilibrium world that would be true, but anything interesting happens far from equilibrium, which means that physics has concentrated on learning about the equilibrium world, because the mathematics is very powerful there.
A lot of the interesting stuff happens far away from equilibrium, such as evolutionary systems.
Jim: I was a little bit surprised at the Santa Fe Institute. People always give me dirty looks when I mentioned Ilya Perigogine and his work on, fundamentals of non-equilibrium system and dissipative structures. So even the Santa Fe Institute folks, well, yeah, you know, they, by far from equilibrium, but they won’t go as far as Perigogine.
Bruce: That’s true. And a part of it is that the Santa Fe Institute, it has a little bit of a bias toward digital systems.
So Perigogine studied systems that were described by differential equations. And I think people at Santa Fe Institute like discrete math and bits a little more, and that comes up in self-organized criticality. There was Per Bak, who was a frequent visitor to the Santa Fe Institute.
And he, along with Tang and Wiesenfeld invented a model called the sand pile model, which was to describe how the sand pile. If you’re pouring sand on it eventually gets a certain shape characterized by the angle of repose.
And when you keep on dribbling sand on it, it avalanches off in a statistical sense, the amount of sand coming in balances the amount of sand coming out.
But if you look more closely, it doesn’t happen. Every grain of sand in does not equal a grain of sand out. It’s bursty.
Sometimes there’s one in one out. Sometimes there’s one in none out. And sometimes there’s one in 357 out. And this is a non-equilibrium system characterized by these fluctuations.
I think of evolution like the species trying to be hammered into the wooden floor, like those grains of sand, none of them stay in the system forever, but they have different stays of execution. Some very short, some very long.
And this is corroborated in the fossil record of the duration of species. They follow a similar statistical distribution to the avalanches of sand off of these computational sand piles.
Artists & Poised Systems
Jim: And the artists. How does the artists think about these poised systems and these small, big, and medium moves along some predictable in the aggregate, but not predictable in the individual trajectory.
Nancy: You are on this life cycle as an artist and it’s interesting. I kind of think about asymptotic functions here of going from one point to the next, but you never quite get there as you go up on that curve. You’re getting closer and closer and closer.
At first you’re going up steeply and you’re learning all these things and you’re changing and experimenting. And hopefully you’ll keep that experimenting and all of that.
As the stakes get higher, it gets harder and harder to keep going to that edge of poised instability, to keep evolving the work. But it’s so important to do that.
Bruce: It’s like you start by loading up that sand pile where you just pile all the sand on and none of it falls off because it hasn’t reached the angle of repose yet.
But as you get close to that angle of repose, it gets harder and harder. And there are more avalanches and readjustments. You’re running into constraints.
The Pervasiveness Of Constraints
Jim: The balance of constraints, we’re back to constraints back to constraints. People say, I got to get rid of bias. You know, bias is another constraint. It’s ridiculous. It’s got to be biased or you don’t accomplish anything.
Right? And these are, you know, bias constraints are pretty much the same thing. Let’s move to the next step that we’ve been setting up.
Bruce could lay out a little bit, Stuart Kauffman’s work and thinking and other people too. Stuart, you know, obviously borrowed some from other folks, but he added a lot of his own. This idea of co-evolution to the edge of chaos. Co-evolution means that there’s lots of things evolving together.
Co-Evolution To The Edge Of Chaos
Bruce: You could think of this. As at first, there are plenty of niches, plenty of ways to fit in more species. And since evolution involves variation, there are new candidate creatures, entities entering the system at all times.
And so things get more and more crowded. And it’s like the sand pile piling up that eventually you get to the point where it’s harder and harder to fit something in without driving something out.
And so this tends to look more chaotic. There’s endless churn.
I think that the edge of chaos is also related to the edge of satisfiability and phase satisfiability phase transition in that sense that generates a lot of fluctuation that looks kind of chaotic. These are related concepts.
Jim: How does the artist think about the domain? There’s a chaotic domain static on the TV ordered domain. That’s a, I don’t know what a plain white wall, how do you think maybe a little bit less mathematically and more personally and aesthetically about evolving one’s work towards the edge of chaos where you’re not too ordered and you’re not too chaotic.
Nancy: Yes. That’s an excellent question.
Being an artist, you’ve got to make decisions. You’re continually making decisions. You’re continually problem solving.
You’re continually responding to the mark you just made. And it’s an interesting kind of uneasy truce between on the one hand constraint, simplicity, decisiveness on the other hand, experimenting and moving into creating ugly art.
And sometimes that can devolve into chaos. And I believe that that’s essential to experience the place where it devolves into chaos.
And then your body tells you, this is not reading. This is not moving me. I can’t read this painting. I don’t feel it. It has gone too far. And yet that is very powerful to have that experience because then you can feel intuitively where you want to stop on that particular painting. And perhaps you want to simplify even more.
Maybe you want to bring in more constraints. Sometimes chaos reflects indecision and just kind of throwing anything up there. And then it becomes throwing the kitchen sink at your painting.
So I think that this is an ongoing, uneasy truce to be aware of and to experience over and over again, and to keep working with the paradoxes of being an artist, which is all of this shows up for you.
Simplicity & Constraint
Jim: When you go into your studio, You actually see this learning happen in your students where they’re able to sense when they are too ordered and sense when they’re too chaotic and develop some ability to navigate towards the edge of chaos.
Nancy: Yes, this is a big one that comes up for students. I have online courses and some people come in with the issue of I’m so controlled.
Like my friend who had that breakthrough to, some people say I’m too controlled. I need to loosen up. And so there’s ways that I can help them to loosen up. Whereas others may come in with the issue of my paintings are absolute chaos.
So we work with the concept of simplicity and constraint for both of those situations, but it plays out a little bit differently.
You just have to go through it and you have to get into the paint and grapple with it, wrestle down these dark angels of despair. And, you know, you’ve got to wrestle down these difficult areas, whether it’s too much control or too much chaos.
Bruce: Nobody said evolution was easy.
Jim: Yeah. A lot of deaths along the way, right?
Yeah. It’s the dark night of the soul. Evolution, progress. One failed reproduction at a time. Right.
Bruce: And also evolution doesn’t keep its mistakes.
Jim: And of course, evolution doesn’t have agents to have to try to sell the shit either.
The Adjacent Possible
Jim: Another concept we talked about in passing a couple of times, is the idea of the adjacent possible, you know, the idea that at any given time, especially if you assume some constraints, there’s only some set of moves that make a lot of sense. There’s a bunch of them usually. Talk a little bit about how the idea of the adjacent possible is so central to the kind of work that you all do.
Bruce: It first came up to me before Santa Fe, when I needed to come up with an algorithm for preparing organ recitals. I played pipe organs in cathedrals and I was a music major.
I would choose several musical pieces I knew, and then I would choose one or two that I had never learned before and learn them. In that way, I had one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown.
This turned out to be a very good way to develop a repertoire.
And then I would use the sensibilities developed and the pieces that I did know to inform how I was going to perform the pieces that I didn’t know.
The interaction of the known and unknown would affect my desire as to what I was going to learn next. And I couldn’t have gotten there any other way.
Later, this came up again when I moved to Santa Cruz, I learned how to surf. And I discovered that at any point, there’s like a quantum mechanical wave function of possibilities radiating out from the nose of your surf board, where you can go next.
And so you have to choose one, you have to choose something.
And I found that if you did not choose, you ended up on the beach with your bathing suit full of sand. And if you said the Frank Sinatra approaches, I did it my way. I’m going here. You got the same result.
There had to be this in-between interplay. And that’s the avenues that make sense that Ryan Arthur and Stu Kauffman talk about. (openness to possibility in this interplay…)
I also talked to some other people, Seth Lloyd and Jim Crutchfield and others when I first came to Santa Fe about this idea of as a physicist, I’m used to very well mathematically defined systems.
And so look, you have a standard thing is a box full of gas, a box full of hydrogen atoms. They’re all the same. They’re interchangeable with each other.
Biology talks about things that are different.
The interaction of things that are different can produce something that wasn’t there in the first place.
Whereas electrons and photons and positrons are going to interact. And they’re just going to create more of the same. And so this requires kind of a different formal framework to think about is systems that can change their own participants.
And I think that this applies definitely to the world of creativity because it’s adding new degrees of freedom, new things in there. A Platypus came from somewhere, but there wasn’t a platypus to begin with.
Jim: Yeah. I was thinking about it when Nancy was talking about a stroke at a time. You know, it’s funny as you add each stroke, you’re reducing some possibilities because you can’t put a similar stroke in the same place, but you’re also now adding an adjacent possible that other strokes now start to make sense.
Is that a reasonable way to think about how an artist might think about the adjacent possible?
Nancy: Yes. You start and you’re experimenting and you’re making a move.
And as you make that move, you respond to the move you just made.
Each movement, each step, illuminates not only that which was invisible before, but that which didn’t exist before and so you are essentially co-creating and co evolving by your action. You are changing the environment you’re in.
And then what we do is we take that even further and we work in a series exploring associated possibilities.
And it’s so important as an artist to evolve, continually evolve. To me, that’s the deepest definition of being an artist- you’re continually evolving, continually stepping into the unknown.
The deepest definition of being an artist is that you’re continually evolving, continually stepping into the unknown.
Jim: In business. I always counsel young entrepreneurs that where you think you’re going is probably not where you’re going to end up, but you can’t see where you’re where you should go until you’ve made a couple of steps.
Making The Invisible Visible
Nancy: That’s right. It was invisible, you bring visibility to the invisible and there’s often many pivots.
Jim: Yeah, well, too many of these days, that’s an excuse for not just admitting you are stupid and shutting the show and going home sometimes as long as you can find a sucker to give you more money, one or two pivots. Okay. But you want to hear about five pivots. I go, eh, probably the wrong team on the wrong project. But anyway, that’s another story for another day.
Bruce: My favorite pivot story is we all know that a jacuzzi is a kind of hot tub. Well, Jacuzzi did not originally make hot tubs. They made airplanes in the 1920s in the Bay Area.
And when the depression hit, they found there wasn’t much of a market for airplanes, but they found that the fuel pumps were really good at circulating water, very successful.
So sometimes the pivots can be quite distant and quite successful.
The Known, The Unknown & The Unknown Unknown
Jim: Absolutely. I’ve, I’ve known a few. Well, let’s go on to our last topic, which is this very big area, you know, kind of the limits of knowledge, et cetera, the known, the unknown, and the unknown, unknown.
You guys talk quite a bit about that and you know, the dynamics of evolution in that kind of context and how one can think about that in terms of self-explanatory concepts.
Bruce: Well, I think in our previous topic of the adjacent possible that the unknown unknown describes what you are going to encounter.
If you continue exploring with one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown, you will create things that you weren’t able to see before. And in some cases didn’t exist before. That’s the unknown, unknown.
Vanilla flavored unknown is what’s the temperature in Taos? Well, I don’t know it, but I know that it’s knowable and I know how to go find it. So I would consider that just plain unknown.
Something in the unknown unknown might be like, well, temperature is important to us. What might be important to alien creatures? Well, we don’t know anything about alien creatures let alone what’s important to them. That’s more like the unknown unknown and do aliens on Arcturus 4 measure temperature. Do they measure something else?
Cultivating Luck & Surprise-ability
Jim: You guys talk about how we can find luck for ourselves moving from the more abstract down to the much more tangible. Let me talk a little bit about how do people become lucky?
Nancy: Well, you know, firstly, I think it’s important to cultivate an attitude of surprise-ability. The willingness to be surprised by accessing and activating that you begin to set up possibilities to bring luck to the foreground by going places you wouldn’t go before by changing up your routines.
Bruce: By not being, over-scheduled, by having gaps in there. Those are like the wedges in the floor that new species can enter in.
The Power Of Weak Ties
Jim: Yep. Very, very important. The other one you said that was quite interesting and this was, I think something I’ve always practiced as you called it. The power of weak ties.
You know, the idea in addition to having your solid close collaborators and friends and lovers and family and all, there’s some real benefit to having a big network of weak ties. I hear about all kinds of stuff from people I barely know, but I do know a little bit and that’s very useful.
Bruce: Well, this relates to that economist in the $20 bill, mainly that if you need connections to advance in your life, whatever you consider advancement to be, chances are the people you know are like that $20 bill. You would have already picked it up.
You would have already contacted them for help. So therefore it’s going to be people you don’t know well.
So that’s the strange strength of weak ties. And it’s compounded by the fact that in general, it doesn’t take as much effort to have weak ties. So you have more of them.
And so when you look back at places where your life bifurcated from a possible different future, it often has to do with a weak tie, right?
And this was studied by, I think my name is Granovetter in the late sixties who wrote a, wrote a paper on it.
Nancy: It’s like that chance encounter that conversation that came out of nowhere of someone you may not even know. And yet you’ll start talking about something and you have something in common and then they have an idea that they put forth.
And then that takes you on a new trajectory. Just being open to those adjacent possibilities.
It’s allowing in the unknown and continually going on long, long walks and seeing what emerges, having more downtime, time of seemingly doing nothing.
That is the space where things happen. It might be taking a shower. This is where ideas show up
Jim: The shower. I definitely appreciate this and sometimes people give me a dirty look. And I tell them if I like their idea, I’m going to upgrade this to shower time. That’s the highest compliment an idea can have in my space.
It literally is right now, the next level down is walking time. But shower time is the ultimate. Something about the noise of the random waterfall and you know, the warmth and the cold, all that stuff that doesn’t get any better than that for doing serious thinking.
Nancy: And if you’ve got a glass door shower, you can write equations on the glass or you can draw pictures.
Bruce: They do at the Santa Fe Institute on the office,
Jim: Mostly for show, as it turns out, Mostly for show. It’s true because so many mistakes otherwise, which evolution hides. Actually a yellow pad, just crumple the paper up, throw it in the trash. Right?
Bruce: Well, a lot of these ideas that came out in blog posts started out as walks that Nancy and I take, we walk along the ocean here. We walk up at a track at University of California, Santa Cruz, both with tremendous views. And it inspires conversation.
And a year ago, Nancy gave a live workshop at a place called 1440 Multiversity. And it was very successful and very exalting, but she was completely exhausted afterwards. And she had been writing a blog post for four years or so. She said, I’m too tired to write this. Why don’t you write it?
What am I going to say? It turned out, I had a lot to say, so that’s been going on for almost a year now. And I think it will become a book.
Jim: I think I really like it. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I decided to put you guys on the show,
but I, you know, dug into it and I sort of had a good time going through it. And it sort of made sense to me. We had a couple of final words.
Complexity & Art
Jim: We’re going to wrap up here in a few minutes. You know, how complexity perspective and artistic perspective can work together to produce greater art and greater artists. I’d love to kind of end with that.
Nancy: It’s been so meaningful to me to have these conversations with Bruce and to bring in not only art, and I do abstract art and teach abstract art, but psychology, which is also my thing.
I’m a psychiatrist and creativity- I’ve been fascinated with my whole life, but also bringing into that concepts from evolutionary biology, from mathematics, from the work you’ve done in theoretical physics and all of that and how we can take that and bring it to art as a foundational structure and concepts that can inform artists.
And what I see from that is it really hits at three big areas for artists.
One is starting and we didn’t get into that here today, but zero to one, start. From nothing to something is larger than something to something. So starting is extremely important.
As an artist, experimentation, stepping into the unknown, asking: What if and allowing for the ugly art is extremely important to get beyond emulating others work.
And lastly, evolve. Evolving your art, accessing the adjacent possible, poised instability, going to that edge.
The place between creation and collapse is the place where the juice is as an artist. Ultimately, getting at expressing your deepest, most meaningful art is about the inner journey of allowing and trusting yourself enough to step into the unknown and the unknown unknown.
Jim: Very good. I think I’m going to wrap it right there.
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