Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
Cello Bazaar, the cello-centric monthly music series founded and directed by BAASICS.3: The Deep End performer and presenter Hannah Addario-Berry, is named after its principal venue, Bazaar Cafe. The Richmond District coffee shop and event space is not far from Hannah's home, and Selene and I met her there on a particularly warm San Francisco morning to discuss her contribution to The Deep End program.
Hannah describes herself as "a fierce advocate of the music of today," and, like Selene and me, she is passionate about exposing a wide audience to that which she cares about; in her case, that's music and food. Along with Cello Bazaar, Hannah founded and runs Locaphonic, an organization dedicated to "connect[ing] Bay Area residents with our local musicians, food, and culinary artists, promoting sustainable livelihoods for artists and farmers and uniting our community through food and music."
I won't write much about Hannah's The Deep End performance here (it should be experienced without preconceptions), but we expect it will be a stirring representation of a mental disorder, and quite unlike any other component of program. Hannah will perform György Ligeti's "Sonata for solo cello." The first movement will open the program; the second will immediately follow intermission.
It's important that BAASICS programs are as poignant as they are informative and entertaining, and we're thrilled to have Hannah's talents and voice on board.
Image credit: courtesy, Hannah Addario-Berry
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
I recently promised this blog's monthly email digest subscribers that I would begin sharing updates about BAASICS (Bay Area Art & Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions), the non-profit organization that I co-founded and co-direct. Indeed, most of April's Hungry Hyaena posts are synopses of conversations had with some of the artists and scientists participating in BAASICS.3: The Deep End, our upcoming program on neurodiversities, mental illness, and creativity. (Readers can expect more of these vignettes in advance of the Monday, May 6 event.)
I've come to regard BAASICS as an important arm of my creative endeavor; it's a long-term project that provides me with a platform to help make contemporary art and science relevant and exciting to a broad audience. In many respects, BAASICS is a descendant of Synoddity, the cross-disciplinary organization I co-founded with my friend Michael McDevitt during our undergraduate years at The College of William & Mary. Synoddity made a case for conversation and interaction across professional boundaries and was, like BAASICS, animated by curiosity and wonder, something both Michael and Selene Foster, my BAASICS collaborator and co-founder, have in spades. Working on a project you're passionate about is invariably a good thing, but it's a particular pleasure when you team up with fantastic people.
Pleasant work though it may be, BAASICS is a labor of love that occupies many hours. Lest readers assume the time and energy required to nurture BAASICS has deprived my own art practice, I also promised HH digest subscribers I'd share updates about the body of work I'm beginning. The photographs that punctuate this post were all taken this year. I've been shooting a wide range of subjects in varied settings in order to hone my photography chops, which I'll need for the new work. Before I describe what the project consists of, I should provide a little backstory.
When I started Hungry Hyaena in March 2005, I wrote as many (if not more) posts about conservation, ecology, and natural history as I did art. At the same time, I was struggling in the studio, desperately trying to find a way to incorporate those interests into my artwork without producing didactic or mundane imagery. As a result, despite a number of shows and growing interest from collectors and curators, I condemned the popular series I'd been producing for several years as "self-absorbed fairy-tales," and began work on what I dubbed anthrozoology paintings, watercolors based on photographs (taken by either me or my father) of humans interacting with other animal species. A few of those works were strong -- "Ringed Seal Hunter" is a favorite of mine -- but most of the pictures in the series never met my standards; my watercolor ability was then relatively weak and I soon accepted that the imagery in the photographs was as compelling as the paintings (so why make the paintings at all!?). In 2006, I stopped working on the anthrozoology series and yet again sought to develop a series that would successfully merge my preoccupations. At last, I struck a rich vein. Some of the "Hysterical Transcendentalism" works are among the best pictures I've created to date -- "from the tangled vegetation," "the wildlings come to feed," "a retching," and "the banks of solitude" stand out -- and the quiet "drawings" I began creating as part of that series are probably the work I'm best known for. Even as that body of work developed and changed -- in some respects, I've been working on the series since 2006 -- I was haunted by the thought that it was but one facet of what I wanted to present. I've often described my artwork as pictures produced by "a naturalist working at [the] intersection" of the rational/observable and the irrational/mystical, but the work of the last six years or so has prioritized the latter.
"Desiccated European starling"
Now, I hope to straddle that divide. My new project will utilize diverse media -- photography, mixed-media painting and drawing, and collage -- to explore our relationship to the ecosystems we inhabit and to the other lifeforms we share space with. Initially, I'm going to focus on two regions, my present home, the San Francisco Bay Area, and my childhood stomping grounds, the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay. The project will focus on the field work and activities of Bay Area naturalists, conservationists, wildlife biologists, and researchers, as well as artists also wrestling with similar ideas. I will visit with, accompany, and/or work alongside individuals long and often enough to develop a sense of their motivations, their personalities, and their relationship with the landscapes and species that they interact with and/or study on a regular basis. The project will be presented as a mix of texts and pictures, both in exhibition and print, and I hope to get involved in digital publishing experimentation (e.g., Triple Canopy) so that I can devise accessible and inspiring ways of experiencing the work on a computer or tablet. Additionally, all speaking engagements, essays, and blog posts relevant to the work are, as I see it, part of the project.
One branch of the project will occur this summer, in conjunction with artist Laurie Halsey Brown's Nomadic Nature In Situ seasonal project. From the project's website:
"Nomadic Nature In Situ is a seasonal project curated by senseofplace LAB, in/for the landscape. For 2013, each of the four works in this project will focus on and take place in the Presidio, San Francisco. Each piece will contribute to the development of a shared ‘language of place’. Each season, an artist or artist group will be invited to respond to a landscape/situation chosen for them by senseofplace LAB. This project is primarily an invitation for artists/architects/designers/urban planners/writers to work in response to the landscape as an experimental aspect of their practice, not just those with backgrounds working in response to the natural environment.I wear many hats -- painter, writer, photographer, naturalist -- and this new body of work allows me to wear them all at once. I wish I could express how good that feels, but an emoticon will have to suffice. :)
Beginning with the SUMMER project, Christopher Reiger will be writing about Nomadic In Situ as an observer/documenter/commentator. He will also be will be conducting a quadrat study in conjunction with the project. At different times of day (e.g., dawn, mid-day, dusk), he will regularly return to the site, each visit sitting for 2-4 hours and recording all that he observes and experiences (e.g., wind, temperature, light, other organisms, etc.). Unlike a traditional ecological survey, however, Christopher’s quadrat will also incorporate historical details and notes on his own mood and thoughts. His quadrat is principally concerned with the various forces that inform our understanding or perception of a place. The resulting document will be a traditional lab notebook filled with written observations, typed additions, drawings, photographs, and other details of his sits."
Image credit: all images, Christopher Reiger, 2013
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
A few weeks ago, Selene and I met BAASICS.3: The Deep End presenter Leeza Doreian at her home in West Oakland. She and her partner, John, an artist, furniture maker, and contractor, have lived in the house for three years, and are remodeling it in their limited spare time. Shortly after moving to the Bay Area from Brooklyn five years ago, Leeza began working at Creativity Explored, a Mission-based non-profit organization dedicated to "provid[ing] artists with developmental disabilities the means to create, exhibit, and sell their art."
We sat around Leeza's dining room table, chatting, admiring reproductions of artwork, and sipping coffee in a brightly lit room that opens to her backyard; the liquid warble of a House finch punctuated our conversation. Leeza suggested that Creativity Explored and similar organizations -- Creativity Explored, Creative Growth, and NIAD Art Center are all Bay Area organizations dedicated to working with artists with developmental and/or physical disabilities, and all three were founded by Florence and Elias Katz -- aim to help people "access their own abilities."
Leeza described the role of the teaching artist, her official title at the organization, as that of a facilitator. It's not art therapy, she insisted, but "it happens to be therapeutic." One gets the sense this salubrious effect is a two-way street, benefiting both the Creativity Explored studio artists and the teaching artists. Leeza described how freeing she finds the Creativity Explored environment because most people exhibit a healthy lack of self-consciousness, staff included. "I'm generally a shy person," she told us, "but not there."
Please join us on May 6 for Leeza's presentation, "Con-Currents: Creativity, Individuality, and Community." Leeza will share with the audience an overview of a typical day at Creativity Explored, and then showcase the work of five or six studio artists.
Image credit: courtesy Leeza Doreian
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
Dr. Walter J. Freeman
"One profound advantage chaos may confer on the brain is that chaotic systems continually produce novel activity patterns. We propose that such patterns are crucial to the development of nerve cell assemblies that differ from established assemblies. More generally, the ability to create activity patterns may underlie the brain's ability to generate insight and the 'trials' of trial-and-error problem solving."On a sunny Tuesday morning when most of the University of California, Berkeley student body was away from campus for Spring Break, Selene and I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Walter Freeman in his Donner Lab office. He provided us with a simple introduction to neurodynamics -- brain waves are a "special kind of noise," he explained -- before expounding on the theoretical outgrowth of his neuroscience research. Many of Walter's conclusions about the workings of the brain have an unexpected antecedent, the philosophy of the 13th century theologian, St. Thomas of Aquinas (Walter prefers the Italian formulation, Tommaso, so I will use it here).
- Walter J. Freeman
Thomism, Tommaso's philosophy, postulates that individual choice is foundational to the action and development of the mind. Although Walter was quick to point out that "free will" is something of a misnomer -- since all choices are constrained by reality and informed by multitudinous factors -- he explained that Thomism posits that the mind is supplied with information through observation and that the individual then takes action based on the information received. In Tommaso's lexicon, we derive such information from the "phantasm," an external sensory stimulus. How the received information is processed and acted upon, however, varies widely. Tommaso writes that "the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver." Whatever action results, that very act supplies new information to the brain (through observation and experience), and the brain accommodates accordingly.
Wikipedia helpfully informed me that "Thomas's epistemological theory would later be classified as empiricism, for holding that sensations are a necessary step in acquiring knowledge, and that deductions cannot be made from pure reason." This element of the irrational becomes especially important when we move away from more routine mentation. What happens when life only gives you lemons...really dreadful lemons? Then, Walter says, it must be "creativity all the way." Unpredictable and extreme situations give rise to a different kind of accommodation.
As an example, Walter told us about a curious, last-ditch evasion technique employed by some moth species when pursued by a bat. If a moth's primary and secondary evasion strategies, adaptations and behaviors intended to allow the moth to avoid sonar detection altogether, fail and the insect realizes a bat is "locked on" for the kill, the moth will fold its wings and tumble from the sky. How well does this surprising maneuver work? Walter couldn't say (and, frustratingly, I haven't been able to hunt down data online), but the technique's efficacy is less interesting to Walter than the moth brain's creative solution. The brain is accommodating itself to an untenable situation not by giving up, but by trying something unexpected, unpredictable.
And so it is with all brains; chaos in that organ endows us with the ability to respond flexibly to the outside world and to generate novel ideas…whether when running from a tiger or painting a picture. As part of BAASICS.3: The Deep End, Walter will present "Persevere or perseverate? How brain chaos surmounts our daily challenges."
Image credit: photo ripped from Machines Like Us website
Monday, April 08, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
A couple of weeks ago, Selene and I met Dr. Indre Viskontas for coffee in the Fillmore District. Although Indre's BAASICS.3: The Deep End presentation, "Release from Inhibition: The creative impulse in patients with dementia," draws primarily on her neuroscience research experience, she is a scientist and an artist. She earned a PhD from UCLA as well as a Master of Music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she now serves on the faculty.
In the course of our conversation, we learned how Indre's experiences as co-host of OWN's Miracle Detectives buttressed her commitment to secular humanism, and about several exciting art and music projects she's currently working on. Mostly, though, we learned about the research Indre did into the workings of creativity in patients with frontotemporal dementia.
As Indre put it, "the brain doesn't break." Instead, it "reshuffles," and in many cases that reshuffling results in the loss of one or several skills/abilities -- word comprehension or impulse control, for example -- yet will "enable [the patients] to be better at something" else. Indre stressed that each patient is distinct, but that similarities across the patient body suggest some universal effects; she'll present her findings on May 6.
Indre is also invested in making science accessible to the general public, and Selene and I will be closely following her work going forward.
Image credit: photo from Indre Viskontas' website
Friday, April 05, 2013
Posted by Hungry Hyaena
When I was eighteen, I had a passionate argument with my father about my life's priorities. I insisted that producing good art mattered above all else. Because I was a teenager who still boiled down everything to causative choices, I declared that I would happily die destitute if doing so meant I'd produce a few revelatory works in my lifetime. My father angrily dismissed my stance as romantic and foolish, but I held my ground (as is the wont of eighteen-year-old ideologues), and proclaimed that I'd sooner kill myself than create artwork for money or popular acclaim.
I've forgiven my teenage self his ridiculous pretension. He was just reflecting the prevalent narrative of the tortured artist, of the mad or misunderstood genius, and I appreciate the appeal of that account; we're storytelling animals. Unfortunately, we too often allow a compelling tale about an artist to trump our experience of the artwork he or she produced. We struggle to look at a painting by Henry Darger, Louis Wain, or Vincent van Gogh without foregrounding the artists' biographies, and the same is true of our dead-at-27 rock n' roll heroes.
This double-edged contextualization of artwork will be touched on in the course of BAASICS.3: The Deep End, albeit with a special focus on "outsider" or "visionary" artwork and the artists producing it.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons