In their keynote address at the inspiring initial meeting of symbASA (Warren Wilson College, July 26-28, 2013), artist Elizabeth Mead and molecular biologist Carey Bagdassarian set the tone for our meeting in their presentation about emergence. Their jointly taught course at The College of William and Mary, titled “Emergent Dialogues,” informed not only this pithy little startup meeting, but also will help direct the entire organizational structure and process of symbASA itself.
Emergence is a study in math and science that looks at self-organizing phenomena as diverse as ant colonies, cities, the internet, evolution of species… any kind of processes that emerge without a hierarchical leader, that are self-organizing. These processes arise when as a result of individual entities obeying local rules, the collection of these individual behaviors becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
A familiar example of emergent behavior in animals is the flocking of birds or the schooling of fish. The set of “rules” that any given bird in a flock is fairly simple.
In the keynote address, Mead expressed these in the form of a poem, evocative of human relationships:
If I am too close, I must back off.
If I am too far away, I must catch up.
If distance is optimal, I will align in the direction you are heading.
Flock of birds, photo by עליזה צומר לוי
This elegantly simple set of rules, when followed by each bird in a flock, results in what looks like a choreographed group behavior, but it’s not a top-down, predetermined choreography but rather an organic response to environment, each individual responding to its neighbor. It’s an improvisational dance, shifting and responding in real time, that can result in breathtakingly beautiful group behavior like this video:
Bagdassarian shared another powerful phenomenon about swarming behavior. He has witnessed schools of fish with millions of individuals, the entire school the size of a whale. But unlike a whale, which takes a few minutes to turn and change direction, a school the same size can turn almost instantaneously. How potent a metaphor for how this organization (and any organization) can work beautifully in concert and still remain flexible!
School of Big-eye Scad, photo by Steve D.
One of the most powerful experiences of the meeting came as a total surprise: Buncombe County dance teacher Amanda Arrowood actually teaches “flocking” as an improvisational dance exercise, and serendipitously, she led us in a few of these. The result? We actually DANCED the science. We got to feel a little bit of what it might be like to be a bird in a flock. Each group of dancers grouped closely together in diamond formation, and the dancer at the front started off as the leader. The individual dancer’s “rule” is to keep optimal distance (as in the poem above) and to align with / mimic the dancer who is closest, in front or in peripheral vision off to the side. Once the leader turns and changes direction, a new leader emerges. It’s a real challenge to pay attention to the closest dancer rather than to the leader. In a large flock of birds or school of fish, the way this manifests itself is that there is a slight delay from the leader to the rest of the group; the movement transfers through the group in a kind of a wave. For me, the powerful metaphor inherent in this beautiful and entirely satisfying exercise was that we stay not too far and not too close, pay closest attention to those closest to us, and the group’s cohesiveness emerges out of all those individual balanced relationships.
Of course, in a real flock or swarm, as in human behavior, a rogue individual can also break off and others may follow it, thus splitting the group into two. Splitting is a trade-off for trying new options on the one hand, but also risking a danger of leaving the protection of the larger group. On the other hand, multiple groups can merge into one. I’m hoping that symbASA is a way of bringing together some disparate groups doing similar things in art+science. As a larger flock, we will be pretty powerful!
At our meeting we heard a wide variety of presentations – Warren Wilson College faculty members Amy Boyd (Biology) and Bette Bates (Fine Art) presented about student work that used art and science to study botany. Paleontologist Tony Martin of Emory University and visual artist Ruth Schowalter shared their beautiful visual art about tracks and traces of ancient creatures. Mark Hanf and Garius Hill of Geometry of Nature shared their art-geometry-geography tools based on Buckminster Fuller’s maps of the globe. Educator Carrie Lewis demonstrated how she uses dance to teach math to middle schoolers.
We dreamed, we schemed, we made a little art, we made a lot of new friends. Can’t wait until next year…. so we’re not waiting! Full STEAM ahead.
What’s next for symbASA?
- Planning next year’s meeting to be bigger and better – arts exhibits and performances, science poster sessions, art-science workshops, panel discussions, presentations, and whatever else folks (you!) may want to do.
- Inviting folks working in art+science from all over the country, from every arena, to join us for next year’s meeting and in all our endeavors.
- Developing a guide for collaborating called “What’s a System? How Artists and Scientists Can Work Together.”
- Writing a White Paper.
- Submitting grants to federal agencies and private foundations.
- Building a network among arts organizations and science organizations to promote collaborations between artists and scientists, and serving that network.
- Catalyzing some art-science projects of our own.
- Flocking. Join us?
Contact me at sciencecandance (at) gmail (dot) com and find out what cool projects you can help with over the next year! And we hope to see you at the symbASA meeting next summer.