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Art & The Bad Animal- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art & The Bad Animal- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


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The Bad Animal: Art Epiphany In A Restaurant


Bad animal, good thoughts. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. A simple dinner date presided over by a disco ball turned into a philosophical excursion through Calculus, Philosophy, and ultimately back to Art.

Yesterday, Nancy and I decided to play tourist in our very own town. The fact that it is changing rapidly combined with the reality that we don’t get out much except for outdoor exercise means that there’s a lot to discover, something new every week. 

We decided to try a new restaurant called Bad Animal in downtown Santa Cruz, which is a remarkable mashup of fine Thai dining, antiquarian bookstore, and nightclub with disco ball.

A bit of research into the name of the restaurant revealed a quote by the Canadian/British poet/musician/artist Brion Gysin (1916 – 1986).

Man is a bad animal

-Brion Gysin

Gysin also said:

Writing is 50 years behind painting.

-Brion Gysin

Combinatorics & The Adjacent Possible


Interestingly, Gysin is associated with the cut-up technique in writing. This is where text is sliced and rearranged. Combinatorics in action!

One day, Gysin laid down layers of newspaper as a protective mat on a table top to keep it from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade.

I had a number of sheets of newspaper, and I took a Stanley blade and cut through them, and little bits and pieces looked so amusing to me that I started jiggling them around as one would in a collage.

-Brion Gysin

This is an example of combinatorial collage. Yet another way of accessing the adjacent possible.

Disco Ball

And somehow this mashup of elements in the restaurant all works. And just when we conceived the idea of going there, it got written up in The New York Times.

Such a bright spotlight on a small out-of-the-way place can sometimes have a negative effect, especially if it is not prepared to manage the sudden press of popularity.


Success Disasters


This is a so-called “success disaster,” and the concept is not limited to restaurants–It can affect businesses, artists, and more.

There are even stories of restaurants suing newspapers for publishing glowingly positive reviews, leading to lines down the street, bribes to maitre-d’s, celebrity sightings, alienated locals, and other shenanigans.






The restaurant, named ‘Bad Animal,’ was refined without being stuffy. They had a terrific wine list of wines sleuthed from all over the world.



Bad Animal restaurant

Bad Animal restaurant


I imagined grapes that had only ever heard classical music or that were perhaps lovingly massaged and cooed to before harvesting.


Old Books


After our repast, we made our way back into the stacks and stacks of old books. Some just a decade or two old, a few a century or centuries old. We are suckers for books. We give them away frequently, but yet they pile up. No amount of shelving is ever enough.





There were a surprising number of people wandering the isles of the book area.

As we were in the ‘Classics’ section perusing Dante, we fell into conversation with a man who looked to be in his early 40s, sporting a neatly trimmed beard.

We found out that he was a vintner with his own label, making a modest amount of wine at his home a few miles away and aspiring to break into the oenological big time.  

Since we were sandwiched between ‘Classics’ and ‘Philosophy,’ the conversation turned to living a good life with meaning. Our new friend opined that seeking perfection was desirable, but attaining it was anathema.  


Asymptotic Curves


This immediately brought to mind one of Nancy’s favorite concepts, gleaned from honors calculus in college and in fact her most valued take-away from that entire course: Asymptotic functions.  

It means getting closer and closer to something without ever reaching it.

An example: Dividing 1 into larger and larger numbers produces a number closer and closer to zero, but never quite getting there. 




Asymptotic curves in green (straight and dotted lines are asymptotes)


Talking about this bookstore conversation later, we realized that there were two aspects of this asymptotic perfection: The first is that the essential tension that drives one forward in life comes from seeking perfection, but attaining it leaves nowhere left to go.

As the abstract artist Michael Cutlip of Berkeley, California said,


When I go into my studio, if I already know what’s going to happen, it’s all over.

-Michael Cutlip


In the mathematical example above, we can compute the asymptotes that the green curves are approaching. In real life, we often have no such luxury–the asymptotes of perfection are inferred and hence subject to error or perhaps even figments of our imaginations.

The second is subtler: In an open system (like biological evolution or artistic creativity) where new developments can change the rules as to what constitutes better or worse, perfection does’t stay perfect for long.

It’s like trying to climb a mountain where the landscape is more like the surface of a trampoline, undulating up and down and influenced by your motion upon it. By the time you get there, it isn’t “there” any more.



Trampoline being affected by three bodies



The ability to move and adapt in a situation like this is more important than the ability to identify perfection and plant yourself on top of it. This is the essence of the Adjacent Possible, a methodology for exploring this moving landscape and the subject of our latest book.  


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation is here!

Nab the eBook or Print book HERE










Nab the eBook or Print book HERE







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