Openness, constraint and emergence

Openness does not mean that anything goes. Even openness of mind does not mean this. In our work on emergent learning, we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou and I) have in the papers we have published (see here  and here) suggested that constraints are needed for emergent learning to occur. I have been thinking about this further over the past week or so in relation to the work of two artists – Jackson Mac Low, the American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright and Edmund de Waal, the British ceramic artist and author.

Jackson Mac Lowsafe_image.phpSource of image:

Jackson Mac Low featured in Week 9 of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo).

Edmund de Wall 348664217_640Source of image:

Edmund de Waal featured in a BBC One Imagine arts programme (see below). The two seem connected to me in the way in which they use constraint to fuel their creativity. They have both challenged conventional thinking in their own fields.

Mac Low created a memorial to Peter Inisfree Moore  by using the three words of his name to find 960 words, some recognisable and possibly meaningful and some nonsensical. His idea was that the words become less relevant because they are produced deterministically through a set procedure and not egoistically. Mac Low then got together a group of collaborators to perform this piece. (Click here for a recording).

He gave them rigorous instructions on how to collaboratively perform. He wanted his piece to be collectively intelligible. Each performer must be present with complete concentration, singers must use clear diction and move their eyes freely from any word to any other word and so on. There are a lot of ‘musts’ in his instructions. This was a random piece meticulously performed.  It forces us to shift our attention and listen. Its making and performance relied on constraints.

Jackson MacLow, wrote to Al Filreis about this piece as follows:

The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics  that I would like to see abound in the wider society. The individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also constructing an oral situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses but an oral construction that has a being of its own.

This for me resonates strongly with the original philosophy behind cMOOCs and the idea, which we have discussed in our papers, that emergent learning depends on frequent interaction and self-organisation of learners.

When I watched the BBC programme about Edmund de Waal, I was equally fascinated by how his emphasis on repetition ultimately led to a similar collaborative ‘performance’. deWaal for his exhibition A Thousand Hours – created a thousand porcelain pots through a quite deliberate and repetitive process. He was then meticulous about how they were exhibited in vitrines, using drawn plans which a team of collaborators were required to follow to place the pots in exact positions.

To watch Edmund de Waal at work, view this video.

Edmund de Waal: a thousand hours from Alan Cristea Gallery on Vimeo.

For both artists, the hard work, the open thinking, the collaborative physical experience, shift of attention, the community of performance and the open listening resulted in outcomes beyond anything that could have been predicted; the outcomes were emergent.

As one of the ModPo teaching assistants (Amaris Cuchanski) said in the week 9 video discussion about Jackson Mac Low

‘The individual constraints liberates the community as a whole. Meaning is created in the space between the subjectivity of the people involved’.

I am still grappling with the relationship between openness, constraint and emergence, but both these artists sparked off these thoughts. Edmund de Waal opened his mind to the possibilities of porcelain pots and Jackson Mac Low opened his mind to the possibilities of words and sounds, but both applied constraints to their work.

12 thoughts on “Openness, constraint and emergence

  1. Scott Johnson November 12, 2013 / 12:02 am

    Openness has us in it, with it and of it.

    In the Performance Instructions I hear a call for the deliberate avoidance of nonsense. To be human is to be intentional and to emerge from chaos as something comprehensible. We make things that have meaning and we self-assemble on purpose. Unlike things that are determined by physical or chemical process, we determine ourselves and even our failed outcomes are from deliberate attempts. Even in fun, we are not foolish.

  2. jennymackness November 12, 2013 / 4:52 pm

    Hi Scott – many thanks for this ‘poetic’ comment 🙂 Have you studied John Cage and Jackson Mac Low? What is interesting about them is that they were interested in chance-generated and aleatory and quasi-nonintentional writing – generated through deliberate procedures. In Week 9 of ModPo we have been looking at mesostics – – and one of the assignments has required that we create one using this site – . It has been fascinating to ‘play’ with this to explore the relationship between intention, chance and creativity. If you are interested in these sorts of ideas, then I can really recommend ModPo. it will run again in 2014.

  3. Scott Johnson November 12, 2013 / 7:27 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Both the structure / chance subject and the study of poetry interest me. Will Try ModPo next year. How things come to be is important. Especially in a time when new things are appearing and maybe before they freeze into place.

    There must be many paths to the emergence of something and I wonder if we spend too much time trying to decide if that something is valuable, functional or “true” when the vital part is emergence itself? This has come to my mind as I try and understand why the college where I worked could never pull off a MOOC and why it’s so broken. There is just no sign of life coming from the place and it comes from a lack of potential. Nothing is waiting to happen, nothing even really wants to happen. Hard to explain.

    I’m reading “Where the Heart Beats” by Kay Larson on the life of John Cage. My daughters’ ballet teacher used to background her recitals with a few pieces by Cage, they younger kids loved to “interpret” his work. It confused the older kids.

  4. Mark McGuire November 13, 2013 / 6:32 am

    Hi Jenny

    This is a very interesting issue. Too much choice can be debilitating (I’m thinking of Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” A well-designed civic plaza allows freedom of movement, but the building facades and street furniture define and contain the space and privilege some paths and positions over others. It provides a framework that supports a sense of place and location while also allowing for chance encounters. Patterns of movement and activities can be traced and documented over time (the analytics of spatial use and behaviour). A wise designer works in concert with the actors/participants and constructs and adjusts the stage/architecture accordingly. Now, I’m thinking of “A Pattern Language” ( I suppose a similar balance between freedom (of action or choice) and constraints (imposed through barriers or rules) can be seen in a square dance or a game of bridge. In any case, the examples that you discuss are very helpful, because they encourage us to think metaphorically.

  5. Scott Johnson November 13, 2013 / 2:59 pm

    Hi Mark, Jenny,
    The playing field itself affords activities. A patch of pavement on the grounds of a university is surely more fertile than a similar patch in front of an industrial building.

  6. Scott Johnson November 13, 2013 / 11:33 pm

    On this video Haida artist Bill Reid speaks of the tension of strict design guidelines in traditional art pushing artists to be even more creative. Small line changes can carry great significance.


  7. jennymackness November 14, 2013 / 10:02 am

    Hi Mark and Scott – many thanks to you both for these interesting additional examples of where we can see constraints working to the benefit of creativity. Fascinating 🙂

  8. Brenda Kaulback November 14, 2013 / 8:00 pm

    Jenny – I love how you mingle what you are studying and thinking about.

    I was quite taken with deWaal’s book The Hare with the Amber Eyes when I read it some time ago. In your post, you comment on how he gave close attention to the positioning of the pots in vitrines – which harkened back to the book and the stories of the netsuke which carried the history of his family and which also were positioned over and over again in different cities in vitrines. And (I just opened the book again) he speaks of the chaos of the front hall of his home and the contrast with what people expected it to look like and in contrast to the organization and care of the placement of the netsuke in the vitrines. Anyway – just another take on constraints and how they live among the wildness.

    And I just reread Stephen Downes description of networks as halfway between chaos/ anarchy and the closed structure of groups. Half-way.

  9. jennymackness November 15, 2013 / 3:17 pm

    Brenda – many thanks for your comment. I haven’t read de Waal’s book, but the BBC documentary certainly made me feel I would like to. I love the idea of constraints among the wildness and de Waal’s chaotic front hall – the latter is difficult to imagine – he is an artist who wears a suit for many of his public appearances – which is unusual!

    If you come back here – could you post the linnk to Stephen Downes’ description.

    Great to have you visit my front porch 🙂


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