Realizing Possibilities – Rediscovering Eden in the Co-Creativity of Scientific Information and Artistic Space
BY ALAN RAYNER
Bath Bio*Art and Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, U.K.
For much of my adult life, I have tried to keep my work as a professional biological scientist separate from my personal enjoyment of expressing my feelings artistically. Perhaps partly in consequence I eventually started to become disenchanted with my scientific work and to lose confidence in its relevance and validity. Finally, a few years ago, I began to dream that some kind of revival might be possible through bringing my artistic sense of kinship with the living space within and around my self into communion with my scientific knowledge. I took the opportunity to share this dream by specially preparing and presenting a painting entitled ‘Fountains of the Forest’ as part of my Presidential Address to the British Mycological Society, in 1998.
Fig. 1. ‘Fountains of the Forest’ (oil painting on board by Alan Rayner, 1998). This was painted to depict the intra-connectedness of trees and fungi. Within and upon the branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of forest trees¾ and reaching out from there into air and soil¾ are branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of finer scale, the mycelial networks of fungi. These networks provide a communications interface for energy transfer from neighbour to neighbour, from living to dead and from dead to living. They maintain the forest in a state of flux as they gather, conserve, explore for and recycle supplies of chemical fuel originating from photosynthesis. So, the fountains of the forest trees are connected and tapped into by the fountains of fungal networks in a moving circulation: an evolutionary spiral of differentiation and integration from past through to unpredictable future; a water delivery from the fire of the sun, through the fire of respiration, and back again to sky, contained within the contextual boundaries of a wood-wide web. (From Rayner, 1998)
At about the same time, an interview with a well-known scientist in response to growing interest in re-connecting art and science, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. To my dismay, the scientist pronounced that Art and Science were completely different human endeavours and should therefore keep a respectful distance from one another. I was taken aback, because the scientist seemed to be arguing that difference was a reason for staying apart, whereas I thought it was a reason for partnership, an opportunity to realize the new possibilities implicit in complementary viewpoints, as in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.
So, the difference between me and the well-known scientist seemed to lie in our attitude to difference. He wished to exclude it, for fear of the contamination, take-over and dysfunction it could bring about; I wished to include it for the new opportunities it might bring. He wanted Art and Science to agree to differ – each to adopt their own distinctive one-sided view of the world and not intrude upon one another, especially not art into science. I wanted them to differ to agree – to discover through their diverse perspectives a common but many-stranded reality all views of which were necessarily partial but for that very reason also unique contributions to the overall picture, as in a hologram.
Increasingly, it seems to me that this tension, this difference in our attitude to difference epitomized by the difference between Art and Science, lies at the heart of the way we human beings relate to one another, other life forms and the living space that we all share. It persists in all kinds of adversarial debating systems, philosophical concepts and approaches to problem solving that presuppose the need to choose between one and the other. Do we try to eradicate or exclude difference in a quest for safe conformity, or do we nurture and include it as the very foundation for the rich heterogeneity and ultimate resilience and creativity of life? Do we take an antibiotic or probiotic view of those differences that can be seen both as life’s problems and as life’s opportunities, depending on how we interpret and respond to them?
Here, it’s worth appreciating that this tension is by no means unique to human beings, but has deep biological roots, evident in the contrast between the widespread tendencies of all forms of life both to conflict bodily with and unite sexually and symbiotically with their neighbours. From molecular to global scales of organization, encounters with what may be perceived as ‘other than self’ bring both the risk of damage to individual identity and an opportunity for renewal and innovation.
So, how can differences be reconciled, threat diminished and promise fulfilled without abandonment of individuality? To understand that, we have to appreciate the dynamic contextual origins of difference itself and realize the possibilities it gives rise to for mutual transformation as well as damage. This is the kind of understanding that I think we might have access to through examining the difference, and consequent potential for relationship, between Art and Science.
I have come to think that currently the most fundamental difference between Art and Science concerns the way we perceive and relate to the concept of space. Moreover, I believe that this difference engenders enormous psychological, social and environmental damage, akin to the symbolic separation from Eden that followed Adam and Eve’s abstraction of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, egged on by serpentine curiosity. But I also believe that this same difference, seen another way, might offer a path towards deeper resolution of the conflicts that abound within and between our psyches, and so lead to some peaceful sanctuary, some sacred space, some place.
For Science and Art, as they have both lost touch with one another and reality, have abstracted Knowledge out of Context in divergent, but ultimately complementary ways. On the one hand, the fixed reference frame of rationalistic Science has tended to treat space as an insubstantial and consequently passive absence, whose dynamically transforming shape can safely be excluded from any consideration of the assertive material properties of explicit things. On the other hand, Art has increasingly excluded the explicit aspect of things in order to explore an implicit space in which anything goes, thereby revealing, as often as not, absolutely nothing! Whereas Science has left no room for imagination by getting too much of a grip on explicitly packaged bits and pieces, and so mistaken the reference frame for the whole picture, Art has loosened the frame so much that it can’t keep hold of the picture.
Herein lies, for me, the tremendous prospect of bringing art into science and science into art: that we can appreciate the reciprocal interdependence and consequent inseparability of implicit contextual space and the explicit information that gives heterogeneous expression to that space in the form of features. This is the aim of the philosophy of ‘inclusionality’, currently being worked on by myself and others, whereby all things, our selves included, are viewed as dynamic contextual inclusions, no more separable from their containing space than are whirlpools from a water flow. In this view, insides are not sealed forever within the boundaries of outsides. Things are not physically discrete bodies, isolated by space, nor even are their outsides all interconnected by some explicit external web of material presence. Rather, they are embodiments of that implicit space which is not the physical absence that separates them, but rather the labyrinth of immaterial, non-resistive, inductive presence that intra-connects them by uniting their insides through gaps to their outsides.
To try to get some feel for what this means, try to imagine a world or universe with no space. Is there any possibility for movement or distinctiveness? Now try to imagine a world or universe of pure space. Is there anything there? For me, the conclusions from such imaginings are inescapable. Space is pure, implicit, insubstantial possibility, but for that possibility to be realized – expressed in distinctive, heterogeneous features – it has to be given shape, that is in formed, by something explicit. Gregory Bateson alluded to this explicit something as ‘the difference that makes a difference’, information. But, by the same token, this information without contextual space is meaningless, makes no difference, has no possibility for independent expression.
Explicit information and implicit space are therefore both inseparable and dynamically co-creative. They make and are shaped by the other in the same way that the water in a river system, makes, shapes and is shaped by the space through which it flows, as it erodes rock and deposits sediment. And the making of space makes possible a flow that makes more space – an ‘autocatalytic flow’ - as when people walking across a meadow create and consolidate an inductive path by following their leader.
This inclusional view of information as content in relation to spatial context contrasts with the discretely packaged informational units of rationalistic, binary (either/or) logic and digital computers. Inclusional information, far from being broken up into transmissible bits and pieces of pure machine code that need to be protected from contamination by ‘outside interference’ or ‘noise’, produces vibrant, flexible language. It folds into and around the space it relates to as a dynamic matter-energy-containing boundary that nests inner spaces within outer spaces across all scales from sub-atomic to universal. This boundary is not the fixed limit of particulate things – it does not define – but rather provides the mediating surface or interface through which inner and outer spaces reciprocally and simultaneously transform one another.
So, the Big Story of Life and the Universe is the ‘Hole Story’, not the ‘Whole Story’. To be dynamic, things are necessarily incomplete: they consist of informational holes – lined spaces – not wholes and parts complete, and so static, within themselves. These holes are inductive, attractive – they have pulling power: the beauty of a Cathedral is in the space that its walls line, not in these walls alone. And the holes puncture the rationalist’s box that has held us like Schrödinger’s Cat in secure paradoxical bondage, longing to escape into the real world where inner space connects with outer. And, as I have hinted several times, if there is anything on earth that can find these holes and show them to us for what they are, we need not look for anything rare. We need only to regard that overlooked, taken for granted commonplace – water, the dynamic contextual medium without which the genetic code of DNA could not be translated into the informational surface that co-creates the diversity of life itself.
I recently tried to express these thoughts in a painting entitled ‘Future Present’ and a poem, ‘The Hole in the Mole’.
Fig. 2. ‘Future Present’ (oil painting on canvas by Alan Rayner, 2000). The gift of life lies in the creative infancy of the present, whence its message from past to future is relayed through watery channels that spill out and recombine outside the box, re-iterating and amplifying patterns over scales from microscopic to universal.
The Hole in the Mole – an ‘inclusional’ poem, by Alan Rayner
IAM the hole
Thatlives in a mole
Thatinduces the mole
Todig the hole
Thatmoves the mole
Thatforms a hill
Thatbecomes a mountain
Thatreaches to sky
Thatconnects with stars
Andbrings the rain
That themountain collects
Intostreams and rivers
Thatmoisten the earth
Thatgrows the grass
Thatfreshens the air
Thatcondenses to rain
Thatcarries the water
Thatbrings the mole
To resume, we are not complete and separate but become our living space as it becomes us. By taking care of this space, and ‘others’ within it, we care for ourselves; ignoring it, we neglect and ultimately conflict with our Selves. Informed by Science, made imaginatively aware by Art, perhaps we can learn to care more, attune to our nature and realize the true possibilities of human kind.
Many people have participated in the exchange of ideas that has led up to my writing this article. I would like, however, especially to mention members of two discussion groups. These are the ‘Inclusionality’ group, notably Ted Lumley, Doug Caldwell, Dirk Schmid, Lere Shakunle, Martine Dodds, Sidney Mirsky, Seb Henagulph and Songling Lin, and Bath Bio*Art group, notably Caroline Way, Sandi Bellaart, Geoff Abbott, Jeff Schmitt, Linda Long, Kevan Manwaring and Christian Taylor. I would also like to thank one of my project students, Juliet Muir, whose artwork, ‘Human Kind?’, so beautifully portrays the paradox of rationalism and the holes through which we may pass beyond it to a richer relationship with nature.