Skype Chat 3.4: Research Statement I

Yesterday we went through some of the initial research statement ideas; next week we shall look at the rest.

My initial research statement outline is fairly advanced by this stage. I have been thinking about it for a number of weeks and it builds on notions I have had throughout the course as well as bringing in constant interests of mine including archaeology-anthropology, mythology, palaeobiology and big history. My trajectory has changed markedly over the past seven months. I started with the idea of looking at the relationship between sound and sculpture. However, I have moved away from this as has my work. I think it important that the RS bear some relationship with developments for it to be of use to me and open out onto avenues into the future whilst linking with my past practice. The ideas I am working with now I believe offer greater possibilities for poetic notions to infuse into what I do: what I was thinking previously in terms of sculpture and sound was more of an aesthetic-technical question. 

The response to the plain English summary I prepared was well received although I did feel that the lack of greater detail did lead to misunderstandings that might not have occurred had the text been written in more technical language. It is always a delicate balancing act between clarity and accessibility. Assumptions have to be made either way and reception very much depends on the audience. Nevertheless, I was able to answer and clarify queries during the chat and I also gathered useful reminders of what I need to bear in mind. 

Jonathan asked me whether the final questions regarding contemporary digital environments would be looked at through a particular lens for example any specific artists. I must admit that this is the area I need to research most. It is a large arena and I have to keep to very specific examples. What comes to mind is Asimov and the like but there is new work being carried out in the field of AI which presents a challenge but I am sure that once immersed in the details of research I will find a rich seam of examples. 

Danni suggest contemporary science fiction as a source. Although this is true in terms of fantasy, the field is vast. The Andromeda Strain by Crichton has sudden come into my head and is one way of looking at things. However, I wish to end the enquiry with more concrete virtual examples. 

I think Jonathan’s observation that the final question regarding perception of AI created mythological beings as philosophical rather than an exploration of existing work is a very interesting one. I must bear in mind not to loose my word count, way, by following this sort of enquiry which quite honestly can be never ending. 

I am very glad that Jonathan observed that the two contextual ideas of Dennett and Wengrow made what would otherwise have been a ‘way too big’ research question manageable. I was aware of keeping things tight and Dennett and Wengrow create a very neat way of encompassing what could become a titanic struggle. Today I made a break through in the correlation between the emergence of large metazoan Cambrian fauna and the proliferation of composite creatures in the Early Bronze Age. This offers a methodology that can be applied to many situations, not just this one. By comparing the energy input of both environments as causes and not the causes of the energy changes in both cases, the whole argument is simplified. I need only explain how increased energy input into each respective ecology occurred comparing the effects of that increased availability of energy: oxygen in one case and food supply in the other. The causes then become of secondary (but no less interesting) importance reducing the amount of contextual explanations. Increased energy levels then correlate growth and motility in both scenarios with Hox genes and writing the information codes that enable the development of complex forms. How I shall explain in the text which I believe can be done cogently. This correlate then sets up the scenario for considering modern and contemporary ideas.

I know that I will have to keep focused and as J says, I shall have to exclude a lot of the material due to the word count. Keeping to the contextual lenses will help. But this is all a good thing because it means that if I should wish to take things further in terms of writing. academic research,  or some other pursuit, there is plenty to expand on. 

Dannii brought up a parallel with music: composing with code to produce what does not look like music yet might be called such. This was interesting in the light of my previous ideas for a research paper. This is something I may still incorporate in the project proposal. Dannii referenced Mark Pilkington. Looking through some of his works on his web site I find some of the things worth listening to in parts but on the whole lack cohesion. The works seem to be predictably random and without shape with isolated elements presenting imaginative glimpses into what might be but it is never sustained. I think that the main problem is one of rhythm and pacing sacrificed to a love of novel effects. It follows the traditions of electroacustic tradition and musique concrete without a sense of the whole. 

 

Research Statement in Plain English

 

I have condensed the initial ideas for the research statement into as plain English as I can. This may help me see what lies ahead more clearly and explain what I am doing. After all, if I were not able to talk about the subject in an accessible way, what would it say about my understanding of it?

 

The Genesis and Proliferation of Natural and Virtual Monsters

The ways by which things come about in different areas of life often appear to bear little resemblance to one another. But if you look closely enough you can see that they often share processes that, regardless of the what, where and when, give comparable results if not the same: biology and art are no exceptions despite their very great differences. I am looking at correlations between how large animals evolved – the number of body parts, their shape and the way they are put together – and the creation of the mixed up creatures described in art, religious texts, mythologies and other imaginings. There are strong connections between the ways these real and imaginary animals evolved and spread in nature and across cultures. My research statement will explore the similarities between these processes and their conditions helping to understand how the digital world might influence the creation of future composite mythological beings.

Throughout the time humans have been on this planet, the overwhelming majority of imagined creatures have been what could be called intuitive forms. That is to say, they come readily to mind, eating, breathing, moving and living emotional lives, much in the way we do. However, with the arrival of non-living mechanisms such as computers and their programmes the question arises, what forms might such artificial creators bring forth? Virtual or real, these new organisms might not be readily recognised. as such by we humans. They might well be described as non-intuitive creatures, in other words not coming easily to mind, alien.

A very long time ago, over 500 million years in fact, the world was a very different place. The environment was changing radically, opening out new opportunities for early complex life to evolve new forms or body plans. This was the time of the Cambrian explosion when genetics and the oxygenation of Earth were great driving forces that led to the rise of totally new animal body plans and ways of living. Free movement, predation, heads with sensory organs were formed during this time. Moving forward half a billion years, the world was still changing but in different ways. Ice Age glaciers had long receded and gradually people started to live in large cities leaving their old hunter gathered ways of living, embracing the new sophisticated urban centres in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the Indus basin and the Far East. This changing social environment also brought with it opportunities in which different ideas and beliefs could come together and forge new mythological beings. They grew in number, variety and extension during the Early Bronze Age, promoted by ever greater and finer divisions of labour, growing trade and the invention of writing. These composite creatures like chimaeras and sphinxes breathed, reproduced and lived emotional lives much as we do. These two means of creation share a great deal in fundamental processes despite their very obvious differences.

Today we are on the threshold of another new world, one we share with machines. Machines affect us profoundly and it seems reasonable to predict that their intelligence may also, in the not too distant future, conjure new mythological beings. Present day conditions too can be seen as corresponding to those of the Cambrian and Bronze Age. However, the internal processes of artificial intelligence are rapidly becoming a mystery even to those that create the programmes. If artificial intelligences were to one day create their own mythological beings, what form might they take? One could say that the old familiar creatures are intuitive to our sensibilities but would we even recognise the new non-intuitive artifices as virtual or living organisms? How would we react to them, with fear, revulsion, wonder, understanding or even empathy?

Initial Hypothesis: Research Statement

I prefer to use the term hypothesis to thesis because what I am proposing in the research statement constitutes a series of inferences with wider implications in different contexts inviting further investigation whilst maintaining a tight focus on the subject matter.  

The following summary makes a series of assumptions that will be dealt with in the paper.

Hypothesis

  • That the process by which the increase and proliferation of the depiction of composite creatures in art is partially analogous to the life processes giving rise to body plan diversity in fauna
  • that this proliferation is catalysed and facilitated by novel ways of encoding information
  • that composite creatures arise spontaneously under conditions where an increase in ‘ecological’ niches occurs;
  • that this process is neither dependent on substrate nor content, that is to say it is algorithmic.

Theoretical Context

  • Daniel C Dennett’s idea of algorithm 
  • David Wengrow’s hypothesis, ‘The origin of monsters: Image and cognition in the first age of mechanical reproduction’.

Temporal Context

  • The Cambrian Explosion
  • Early Bronze Age Civilisations
  • Late Medieval Period
  • C20th and C21st information and communication culture including digital

Summary

The paper will explore correspondences between the radiation of diversity of body plans in fauna during the Cambrian Explosion and the proliferation of composite creatures in art production during the early bronze age city civilisations. The paper will focus on the role of HOX genes and the emergence of writing as corresponding ways of encoding information capable of responding to changing conditions as well as the increase in ecological complexity in both contexts. It will also look at the recombination of modular components of information that give rise to novel composites and their spread in the environment as catalysed by an increase in kinetic modes such as motility in fauna and trade and migration in human societies. The process of expansion and diversification of ecological niches in fauna and increase in the complexity and diversity of division of labour in urban settings will be considered as an important contributors creating new environmental conditions that offer increased opportunities.

The implications of the proposed hypothesis will be considered as to its possible effect on contemporary culture, specifically in the context of the digital environment and what the role of AI might be in the creation of hybrid creatures in art; particularly in terms of non-intuitive organisms arising out of inorganic systems and how human perception might receive and contribute to such a scenario. 

Hieronymous Bosch may also be considered as a bridge between the Early Bronze Age and today in the context of religion. Set in the Late Medieval Period, at the end of ‘The Spiritual Age’, Bosch exemplifies the role of religion and its hermeneutics in generating composite creatures in a novel way within a changing information environment (religion, trade, exploration, writing in vernacular, printing, etc), crossing the boundary between intuitive and the non-intuitive notions, through imaginative speculations that offer diverse symbolic representations of composite creatures.

Research Statement: Preliminary Title

   

A preliminary title is an uneasy mapping out of a journey towards an idea without necessarily knowing the best route. This preliminary title is somewhat long winded but it does contain the elements of subject area, context and argument which may well serve as a condensed abstract. The fact that it will need pruning goes without saying but a kernel of an idea does reside in its immature state.

Composite body plans and their proliferation: A comparative examination of the algorithmic increase and propagation of hybrid creatures in the Cambrian, Early Bronze Age, Late Medieval Period and the Digital Environment in the context of D. C. Dennett’s definition of algorithm and D. Wengrow’s archeo-anthropological hypothesis ‘the origin of monsters’. 

This is basically looking at how analogous outcomes can arise from disparate cultural and biological substrates and what this might say about ongoing contemporary developments. I see the Late Medieval element, seen through the optics of Hieronymous  Bosch, as a bridge from the ancient to the modern. However, I need to think about the length of the RS and it may prove too much to weave Bosch’s particular narrative into the whole: his hermeneutic influences may be too mono-cultural relative to the other areas under examination providing an antithesis to the general thesis of the cultural and biological emergence of composite creatures or so called monsters which, it could be argued, depend on more complex environmental conditions. Nevertheless, as a counter argument it creates an interesting dialectic which unfortunately may be beyond the constraints of 3000 to 4000 words.

Skype Chat 3.1 – An Introduction to the Research Statement

 The first Skype chat of the third term was an introduction to the Research Statement.

Research Statement Brief

Using Zotero

The following are additional observations regarding writing such a document.

The RS can take many forms so long as the central methodology is based on critical thinking. For example, it can take the form of a dialectic or the stepwise construction of a hypothesis to be tested. In the current context of the MA tested in the realisation of the project proposal. 

The RS could deal with any area of interest but it would be a good idea to make it useful in terms of relating it to my practice with a link to the project proposal.

To make the RS distinct from the area of interest with respect to the PP would be to loose the main benefits of writing such a paper which I would summarise as follows:

  • build a framework on which to base the PP and final project outcome 
  • creating a conceptual platform/framework, wholly or partially, on which to base future work
  • contributing to my artist’s statement and other forms of presentation
  • contextualising my practice
  • and perhaps start the process of outlining a statement of intent for a doctoral thesis

Both a research statement and a research paper contain a developed argument. However, a RS is not quite a research paper but more something that might be presented at an academic conference: 3000 – 4000 words represents a presentation of around 20 to 30 minutes. It is more a description of an intended area of research or of the context in which one’s practice/research is placed but not about it. On the other hand, a paper is more likely to document an element of some actual research focused on ones own practice. 

Writing objectively, outside my practice can positively impact on it:

  • developing a critical articulation of what I do
  • building meaning into work
  • broadening and deepening the context of work 
  • writing generates – as Jonathan says – contexts. It is actually hard to find a context that is coherent and articulable, particularly without thinking about it critically all the time. The MA has set the context for constant analysis and thought running alongside making which has helped immensely in developing a contextual framework (which is in constant development).
  • A corollary of this is that theoretical thinking, reflection, introspection, observation, etc can stimulate the production of work and not simply be its post-production explanation. 

This latter point is very important but it is also important that the area of research or theory, should sustain my interest. 

A useful algorithm Jonathan gave us to formulate a research question:

  • Find a broad subject area
  • Narrow this interest to a specific topic
  • Question that topic from several viewpoints
  • Choose the question whose answer is the most significant to you

The blog journal has been immensely useful in finding patterns of thoughts helping to identify the subject area. I feel as though I have already gone through this process of selecting and filtering. During the Skype chat I took away a very useful approach. That two or more ideas can be looked at in the context of a third idea perhaps suggesting a thesis which can then be further examined.

I would like this to be the case for my RS: to extract a thesis or more correctly a hypothesis; in art nothing can be proven, only argued and subjectively appreciated. If it were to hold under critical evaluation I would be very pleased. In truth, what I have in mind is more a set of correlations between causal circumstances that have certain conditions in common. These conditions are not substrate dependent and can contribute to the described outcome spontaneously. Not being the whole picture I would say that what I am looking at is a partial algorithm, a part driver in the given process. 

Research Statement: A Start

Six months ago I started with a loose pool of ideas flowing from existential themes. My main aim since then has been to find a cogent argument that reflects my various interests and that could place in different arenas. This quest has been exciting if onerous; I have gone down many wandering pathways. However, I also have had to discipline my thoughts within a varied practice since many of my ideas emerge synchronously with my practice and two years is not that long to develop a coherent trajectory. I know that the Research Statement will need to be started soon and that it needs to be well conceived at the outset in order to avoid time consuming blind allies during the Summer months, a period good for making. 

In view of the upcoming RS, I have looked at the problem both taxonomically and mereologically, reductively and holistically. The tension between these two ways of organising thoughts has helped me identify those ideas and practices that would fit a tight set of self imposed requirements: 

  • original
  • cogent
  • flexible and focused
  • contemporary
  • leading to a project proposal and higher research
  • poetic

A thesis emerged ten days ago in conversation with Janet, not by logical deduction but in moment of gestalt in which I saw a bigger picture. With few words I was able to state the obvious precipitated out of the wanderings and writings I have done over the past six months. But how could I be sure this would hold together? I wrote a preliminary abstract or outline of the thesis in a surprisingly short amount of time, much shorter than the time it has taken me to get this far on this post. Since then I have been able to add content and ideas without disturbing cogency. I was concerned about having to read scores of papers and dozens of books in search of an idea. Instead, I know where to go and what to read for corroborative material and help to shape the argument. 

I shall write about the RS in future post but for now I wish to continue with what I am doing. Instead I have opened a folder for placing material separate to the blog. Today (yesterday) I went to Doncaster to buy materials, time flies.

Briefly the RS tries to bring together in artistic thought:

  • The Cambrian Explosion
  • Early Bronze Age civilisations in the Fertile Crescent
  • Medieval thinking
  • Science fiction
  • Myths
  • The digital environment 
  • Coding of information
  • Algorithmic development and chaotic order

Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology

Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)

I have been thinking about the direction of my work so far during this MA. It has been a period during which things have moved from one thing to another, a period for exploring ideas and dipping my toes into all kinds of areas. With the Research Statement in mind, I need to move things onto a more decisive footing in order for me to have the time to complete an ambitious project proposal next year. 

In the past I have written about my practice as a molecular construction from atomic elements giving way to a more poetic, informal modelling of material.  I have also written about a search to unify my disparate practice; something that has proved elusive. I remember what Will said about my Mid Point Review presentation, that he would like to see a whole room full of works which are not necessarily interconnected. He spoke spontaneously about something that I have continuously reiterated in everything I do. Collections and series, sequences and lines of descent have always fascinated me and heterogeneity has been constantly manifest. Dannii also hinted at another aspect which I have worked on previously, that of creating a legacy from a speculative world that is not necessarily ours. Some of my past exhibitions have touched on these aspects: Chaos Contained, An Artificial Natural History, Traces of Life, Sacred Places, Steel to name a few. These projects have contained an element of evolutionary repetition in a rational collection form. 

What I have largely done so far is attempt a synthesis through a taxonomic approach: seeing the whole as a collection of different elements and trying to connect them by defining their degree of connectedness or relatedness. This approach can work as a system of classification, atomising the properties and characteristics of a practice. This in turn is helpful as a means of combining and recombining things in novel ways. However, this approach can also be divisive creating boundaries and exclusion.

An analogy would be seeing all living organisms as somehow related and attempting to systematise this connectedness in a meaningful way. I feel that what I have done is akin to constructing a genetic tree of my own practice. In the case of biology this throws light on the mechanism of evolution and descent. However, evolution does not have foresight, it is not teleological. Artistic practice on the other hand, has a strong element of aiming for something, a goal or purpose be it wealth, influence, change, discovering or what have you. Taxonomy although useful, is an analytical tool that does not provide all the answers, it is not contextual. Another analogy would be that of taxonomy in biology only tells us about how related organisms are, but to find out more about how they interact, we need to look at their behaviour in their given environments, their ecology. I am not surprised that the Linnean system of classification predated by a considerable period the first ecological observations by Humbolt.

The shortcomings of taking a classification approach was highlighted in the two group sessions we had on Elusive Taxonomies. In short, taxonomy is only partially helpful in giving a synoptic view of a practice or in developing a methodological and philosophical synthesis. In order to get a fuller picture I need a different optic, invert things so that instead of looking at the relationship between areas of work, I look at how each component relates to a whole. Respective interaction then become predicated on inclusion, as part of the whole in which they participate. Each component then shares a parthood with every other component in relation to the whole. Connections are therefore a function of this parthood rather than a more reductive inclusion exclusion defining their place and function.

This is a subtly different way of thinking. Taxonomy is useful in seeing how things relate to one another; parthood, or mereology, helps to conceptually bring together things that might not appear related in the first place. With respect to my practice, looking at it mereologically, what brings together its different aspects would be things such intent, response, experience, circumstance. (There is one element, modality, that seems to straddle the two ways of thinking and presents and interesting conduit between the two.)

All this of course is an analysis of what arises out of intuitive thinking. It is also complicated by how my practice has changed over time. This introduces an evolutionary element which needs to be largely set aside for the moment: I need to concentrate on the now. However, it does highlight an important element that goes into the heterogeneous character of what I do, that I cannot endlessly repeat an idea or process. The reasons for this are for another time. 

To summarise: using taxonomy and mereology together is a powerful way of critically analysing my practice… after the fact. This analysis  influences but not necessarily directs what I do  in action . Taxonomy is a means of understanding the component parts and their interactions a way of building a framework; mereology on the other hand helps identify the context and reasons for my particular methodology.

Mea Culpa Leads to a Unification

This piece was the one that exploded in the kiln and caused the damage. I am now reaching the end of its reconstruction and there are two more well on their way. This small project is running parallel to the main project proposal. It is a reconnection with clay and the organic. However, it is not a caprice, as I reflect on what I am doing, pertinent ideas come to mind: composites, contingency, deep past and cultural transitions, modular thinking, dialysis and synthesis, destruction and construction. The list is endless and endlessly layered. What might be the locus of the Research Paper begins to come into view.

What is emerging is a synthesis of ideas that have so far only existed as a coherent ensemble by virtue of my imaginings and feelings that they are in some way connected. I also begin to see how they relate to present day concerns in articulable form.

Patterns exist at all levels and scales of existence, repeating cyclically, each iteration different but nonetheless containing within itself a core that binds them together. Contingent events can cause large ruptures in systems, nothing is certain or inevitable but seen with hindsight, they appear inevitable and progressive, even predestined. This latter fallacy is a function of how we think, as though things have an aim or purpose. Algorithms are dispassionate and impartial. Disparate life processes, their repeating patterns throughout the planet’s history and from early civilisations to today’s society all bear the imprint of algorithms that might provide one with a glimpse of the future. But this vision cannot be discerned in detail but rather a direction of travel, subject to contingent events, the unpredictable.

What I am sensing is the repetition of patterns within patterns, fractals of fractals; that the history of life, human culture, and the future, are iterations subject to principles that become evident in different ways according to circumstance. The word I have identified as emblematic of what I might explore in the R.S. is metamorphosis. But this does not tell the whole story. Things come together to form more complex, sometimes simpler more efficient systems. Whether they be societies, organisms or ideas. All these things are subject to common laws, the same principles that defy entropy and sometimes succumb to it. Another word close to metamorphosis is emergence, the result of a traversal, a change in kind as from simple chemical reactions to ‘self interested’ replicating molecules or at a higher level of complexity, from sentience to consciousness.

The whole is not made of separate things but we perceive it as such by our own modularity in thinking which in turn could be postulated to be reflection of how consciousness emerged from simpler, chaotic but ordered, causal processes. Time is the function of such changes. We measure time by the rate of change in things whether while looking at a second hand moving across a clock face or our own faces in the mirror as we age. However, time is a flexible construct. It is not uniform or fixed in the physical world; the mind is inconsistent in how it perceives time. The notion of time of itself is meaningless.

But what on earth am I talking about? Whether I am talking about societies, organisms, consciousness or an artwork, the way these things are built is piece by piece, each component interacting with other components in reciprocal feedback relationships. Components group to form units at a higher level of organisation. Levels ‘talk’ across boundaries of complexity and with the outside world. It is a wondrous web of regulated processes of ‘communication’, regulated if that term can be used, by blind, impartial algorithms. Daniel Dennett talks about the nature of algorithms at length in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By their very nature, algorithms are independent of substrate which means they can apply to different systems whether chemical, physical, biological, ecological, linguistic or cultural.

I am seeing how what happened during the Cambrian explosion as an analogue to the rise of complex urban societies: new ecologies, innovative strategies all based on modularity. The modularity of body plans and their genetic control and modularity of thinking fostered by the coming together of disparate modes of living encoded in art, religion and writing respectively. And if one looks close enough one might see a common thread made evident in the evolution or building of new blueprints whether they be organic or behavioural. And the drive for these changes may differ, whether it is an increase in oxygen levels in the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago, the increase in meat eating (and therefore scarce fat) helping an increase in brain activity many tens of thousands of years ago or more recently the retreat of glaciers a mere twelve thousand years ago. Changes in the environment give rise to changes in life: a thought well worth pondering on with respect to human induced climate change in the Anthropocene.

Can equivalences be made between world events? Can we infer sufficiently accurately to postulate what might happen in the future given certain conditions? And what of contingent events, is human unpredictability that difficult to allow for or are there only a few variables on a large scale? The scale at which something is looked at can alter conclusions. It is hard to predict the behaviour of one single item in the midst of the countless, but the whole will follow a pattern much easier to understand. What is the link between the two, between the individual and the collective? 

Our ability to alter the planet surface gives us power over our future but can we learn from the past to avoid the inevitable or are we condemned to repeat a pattern which, while different in broad details, is the same at a higher level? This may be where the digital revolution might have a decisive role for the better or the worst. If we want a degree of stability, we cannot leave the future to the contingencies of human behaviour. But is human behaviour contingent or predictable? It seems more and more the case that it is the latter but does this reconcile with individual freedom, if such a thing actually exists? To what extent are we free to decide as individuals and more importantly as collectives? Is it enough to say that the collective is made up of countless individuals or is some new paradigm needed? How dangerous could this be? Social engineering is not a new thing.

The Origin of Monsters and Imaginal Discs

Bronze Man and wounded Centaur, mid 8th century BCE

Having started to read The Origin of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction by David Wengrow, many ideas are forming in my head relating to the way I work, metamorphosis and modularity.

The basic idea behind the book is that the assemblage of imaginary creatures comprising body parts from different species including human, is a construct that became established and spread primarily out of the urban way of thinking during pre-Bronze Age civilisations in regions such as the  Indus and Mesopotamia. Wengrow invokes contemporary cognitive research positing that the creation of such creatures conforms to our modular way of thinking and our cognitive understanding of the world from a non mono-causal complex mix of social, technological and moral processes. The most culturally stable composite creatures are those that can function ‘normally’ in the world, breathing, eating, moving, seeing, hearing. They are the most enduring and widespread being the least counterintuitive, least fantastic and most believable, such as dragons, griffins and centaurs. This way of thinking was fostered by and proliferated in early urban societies where the codification of a variety of ideas in the state, organised religions, and writing in particular, promoted modular thinking or as I would say, synthetic poietic thinking. In such environments, counterintuitive views made of composite elements reflected the complexity of city life and intercommunal communication. Represented in object and pictorial form, and propagated and ‘reproduced’ through literature, they became culturally significant and widespread, their metastasis fostered by trade and commerce. Before the bronze age, composite creatures appear much less frequently in the artistic output of cultures, a correlation that Wengrow uses to support his thesis. The one question that is outside the scope of the book is the actual genesis of composite creatures in the imagination. The thesis simply states that the establishment and proliferation of these composites is an emergent property of our way of thinking combined with cultural transitions. Wengrow admits that this is a mid-range study, however, it is rich in imagination and fosters further imaginings. 

This idea of modularity relating to cognition and composite creatures brings to mind the non-teleological evolutionary processes that gave rise to the Cambrian explosion, the advent of metamerism, predation and nature’s ‘experimentation’ of body plans. In order for body plans to be transformable and parts to be interchangeable, a form of modularity is required. Multicellularity is not enough, it is inconceivable that the simple, relatively loose agglomeration of specialised cells in, say a hydra, could be recombined to give rise to a new body plan, only another version of the same. There is a problem in creating a variety of body plans without a form of modularity. During the Cambrian this problem was resolved with the emergence of metamerism or segmentation. If an organism is made up of segments, the genetic regulation of each segment’s respective development becomes much simpler. Each segment can bear relation to the others and yet develop to accomplish different functions such as the head, limbs and tail. We know that HOX were critical in metazoan evolution regulating cell differentiation and thereby the morphogenesis of plants and animals. Modular segmentation allows for a high degree of interchangeability of body parts through genetic recombination without necessarily causing  disruptions that would make any change unviable. One can imagine that this modularity reaches right down to the fundamentals of multicellularity including the brain itself. It is not too far a reach to think that the our thinking reflects that modularity and that that in turn reflects our way of thinking and the imagination. Ray Kurzeil, describes how complex mammalian brains function in a hierarchical modular fashion and how workers in artificial intelligence are trying to create homologues of this architecture. (Kurweil posits a future, in which a traverse in human development occurs through hybrid thinking: simply put, the downloading of network information into the brain, accessing the combined computing power of the web, or similar structure. An interesting idea in which our intelligence can be enhanced by means of ‘plugging in’ to an artificial neural net capable of far faster computations than we are.)

 

Artist’s impression of Anomalocaris, approx. 500 M yrs ago

The flexibility in body plans meant that complex ecologies could arise with the important and transformative emergence of predation. The new relationship between predator and prey brought about the necessity, probably synchronously, for movement, vision, an alimentary canal and a form of awareness of direction. Vision, to see your prey or attacker; movement to catch and evade; a head to distinguish direction of movement. With all these new perceptive and locomotary abilities, the sense organs and mouth would be best placed at the anterior end of the body or head: the first part of an organism that meets the approaching environment when moving forward. 

The alimentary canal is an important part of this new development in survival strategies and must have developed very early on in segmented animals. It is essential for motile organisms, enabling them to ingest, digest and assimilate food on the move. This allowed animal life to expand into environments that would have been otherwise out of bounds. A homologue to the alimentary canal features in many of my works. It is of primal function with a great number of metaphorical connotations. Not only is it of biological and evolutionary significance, the gut from mouth to anus is also the prime organ of the deadly sin of gluttony; it is an internal boundary with the outside world that we share symbiotically with a diverse, and for each one of us, unique flora; the gut is recognised as being in close and complex communication with the brain via the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the human body; and we figuratively make decisions using our gut instinct. 

 

Organic form in as yet unfired porcelain: length 590 mm

The project proposal at the moment features metamorphosis as one of its main themes. I work modularly: when thinking critically about something I break the whole into components which can be loosened and rearranged into new configurations. This is the nature of metamorphosis from within, dialysis followed by synthesis: as a caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis, it keeps structures known as imaginal discs for each body part as proto-building blocks around which the future butterfly will form. In my case, the soup is as the negative capability from which creative thinking is shaped; the imaginal discs, the prior knowledge applied to give shape to abductive notions. Call this intuition if you wish, but this belies the formal structures that underlie what appear to be informal processes. And so my project proposal continues by harvesting, selecting, distilling and assimilating and intoxicating ‘soup’. 

I am still forming, synthesising, juxtaposing and assessing. It is a long slow process that must fail before it can succeed. As in the case of the Creature narrative I am currently working on. More on this in a later post…