Friday, April 18, 2014

Inviting Nature As Your Creative Collaborator

If we want to become more prolific, we have to create a more visceral and spontaneous contact with our work.

We have to invite nature as our creative collaborator.

Jackson Pollack famously laid his canvas on the floor of a converted barn instead of using the traditional easel. Back in the forties, he did an interview with an limited edition art publication called Possibilities, in which he made the following statement:

“My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor, I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting, allowing the creation to take on a life of its own.”

By changing the way he approached his work, he put himself in a position, quite literally, to listen for what wanted to be created. By changing the perspective of the canvas in front of him, he changed the perspective of the ideas inside of him. By relieving his body of the necessity of gravity, he freed up his brain to float wherever its fancy led it. And by grounding himself physically, he grounded himself psychologically, engaging a posture of humility, appreciation and respect for his creative environment.

But what’s really interesting about his process is the science behind it.

Physics Today once published a fascinating article that analyzed the application of fluid dynamics in Pollock’s art. Their hypothesis was, to the degree that he let science take a role in the painting process, he invited physics to be a coauthor of his art pieces. And by creatively ceding some of the responsibility for the appearance of his work to a natural phenomena, he used fluid dynamics to contribute to the creation of an art object.

Pollock, of course, was no physicist. Had he been asked to explain the application of scientific concepts like hydrodynamic instability, surface tension, gravitational acceleration, axial velocity, inertial force, flow rate, liquid density, fluid stream, kinematic viscosity and coiling oscillations, Pollock’s head probably would have exploded. Instead, through trial and error, through pure chance and guided inquiry, he intuitively assimilated the implications of those scientific relationships into his work. And thanks to this process, he became a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, inspiring an entire generation of painters.

The lesson, then, is to operate at the intersection of what is aesthetically viable and what is physically possible. To invite the collaboration of natural phenomena, forcing ourselves to think about art from a more scientific perspective.

I had my first experience with this practice a few years ago, when I started busking on the weekends under the historic Meadowport Arch, which is located at the entrance to Prospect Park. Over one hundred years old and one hundred feet long, this limestone tunnel has a unique double entrance onto the park’s great lawn, giving the traveler a choice of which way to go in their journey.

It’s quite breathtaking. The tunnel has benches built on both sides, a restored cedar sheathed ceiling and with paneling covering the entire surface, making it an iconic destination for daily joggers, curious tourists and frolicking children alike.

It also happens to have the best natural acoustics I’ve ever heard in my life.

And I’ve played everywhere.

Since I started performing music as a kid, I’ve been obsessed with singing songs in obscure venues, including apartment stairwells, old churches, long hallways, hotel bathrooms, even post office vestibules. These are the magical spaces where voices carry like bells and footsteps echo like gunshots, and frankly, it just seems wrong not to make music there. The spaces are aching for it. Like a match waiting for a spark. 

And so, on most weekends, I play a concert in that tunnel by the park. My shows usually last about two hours, I sing all original songs, it’s just me and the guitar, and I perform for anybody and everybody who walks past. By the time the show is over, I’ll earn anywhere between ten and twenty dollars in change.

But the revelation was, since I started playing these shows, the tunnel helped me create a more visceral and spontaneous contact with my work. Turns out, the physical act of performing music in a naturally reverberated environment changes the biology of the songs. Notes, riffs, rhythms, melodies and lyrics, ones that might not have worked when I was just singing in my bedroom, magically started to make sense under the arch. By collaborating with the tunnel’s scientific principles, I was able to do things I never thought I could do as a songwriter. It’s like I finally let out a deep breath I had no idea I was holding.

The tunnel didn’t just give me access to the park, it gave me access to myself.

The challenge, then, is for each of us to cede some of the artistic responsibility to an environmental phenomena. To invite nature, in any of its infinite forms, as the creative collaborator against which our work is hurled.

I’m reminded of famous study conducted by the Carlson School of Management, which explored how ceiling height affected the way people think and act.

Scientists tested how people processed information in different environments, and they found that a twenty food ceiling helped them feel more free, enabling them to brainstorm more creatively and process more abstract connections between objects.

Does your current project require you to discover innovative solutions to problems through divergent thinking? Find a room with high ceilings. Consider collaborating with that natural phenomena.

On the other hand, a person in a room with only an eight foot ceiling is more likely to focus on specific tasks, details and other tactical concerns.

Does your current project require you to bring thinking down to a more detailed and accurate level? Find a room with low ceilings. Consider collaborating with that natural phenomena.

Ultimately, there is no force more honest, more reliable, more ubiquitous, and more scientifically proven than nature. It’s not supernatural, it’s just natural. And as creators and communicators of ideas, as people with an inherent need to connect with something bigger than ourselves, we ought to design systems and structures that invite nature as our collaborator.

Because it’s hard to be creative alone.

It’s like playing basketball without a backboard.