100 Coin Tosses and Self Expression

Metanoia Catalyst, Ceanothus Velutinus Seeds

How are you able to build your “self expression”, to capture your interpretation of the subject? Or do you see yourself trying to take the artist out of the art? That is a critical factor in Science. The answer to the question shouldn’t vary depending on who asks it.

Listening to the Forest Process - Fred tagging a Pacific Yew root

Listening to the Forest Process – Fred tagging a Pacific Yew root

Art does not need to include an explicit element of self expression. My creative process is in service to developing a relationship with place rather than expressing myself. A relationship mindset is open and inquisitive. It’s like improv. I invite any variables and curveballs the place might throw in my direction and then I accept and respond to them. The land offers far more varied expressions than I can provide with deliberately infusing self expression, and the process of relationship intensifies and multiplies the complexity and nuance. My role is to play with that.

However, this does not. mean that there is an absence of self expression within my art.  The amount of self expression depends on the project and the rules I have set for the game, but there is always an inevitable element of self expression present. Part of the game I set up within my projects focused on systems is deliberately taking myself out of the art and trying to make the work as objective as possible. When I try to remove myself, I find that paradoxically, I can’t do it fully. I am present in the artwork with every choice, including the system’s design. Additionally, every system I have created presents situations where improvising is required. Part of the gambit of creating the work includes responding to compounding choices bubbling up from a supposed objective system.

Sunrises January - April

Sunrises January – April 2021

One of the rewards of suppressing the urge to make subjective self expressive choices is the inevitable surprise and delight that comes from being as true as possible to the patterns of nature. A tendency of the human mind is to flatten the pattern – to smooth out randomness, or to force the pattern into revealing a particular aspect of wonder or beauty. Attempting to faithfully follow the pattern reveals unexpected discoveries.

Nature’s patterns at times can seem very random. Human minds routinely set limitations on randomness. I once conducted an experiment with my students based on a story I heard on RadioLab year ago and I wanted to test it: One group was to flip a coin 100 times and record the results. Another group did the same, but there was no actual coin, it was a mental exercise. They too were to record the results of their meta flips. A third group, left the room until the 100 flips were completed and recorded by each group. I prepped the group. The job of the third group was to determine which set was the actual coin toss and which was the meta coin toss. I prepped them for what they should look for in each set to be able to figure it out. When the returned to the room to study the sets, it took them little time to come to a consensus about which set was an actual coin toss and which was the meta coin toss. It’s easy to see: the actual coin toss will have long strings of heads, and/or long strings or tails. The meta coin toss rarely records more than 3 or 4 of the same result in a row. But the real one will have at least one improbably long string. Our minds resist true randomness. But nature does not. Nature routinely offers unlikely strings of events. My systems are built with the intention to overcome my own limitations placed on how natural patterns should or should not unfold.

White Rock

White Rock in Watershed 1 for Ambient

My path, however, rapidly veers away from science because of my intention. I look toward science for examples of field research processes and systems designed to look at the world objectively. It is a noble goal, and one that I’m not certain is possible to fully reach. Unlike scientists, I do not set up systems to ensure that whoever asks the question gets answers consistent with another artist. In fact, the opposite is true. From the outset, my goal diverges from a scientist’s: I do not aim to answer questions. Instead, my intention is to develop a relationship. I am not seeking truths or consistencies. I am embracing randomness and I allow that randomness to guide me. Just like with any relationship, mine will be different from yours because of how I choose to respond to a place, and my relationship with it will also evolve over time. The results that I get today can differ greatly from the results I get if I create a similar project years from now. The same holds true if I share my procedure with you and you attempt to replicate my art. You will not replicate my art. You will create your own because in essence, what you would be doing is inviting and cultivating your own specific relationship to the place. The simple fact that my results will vary from anyone else’s, including my own, is an aspect of art which continues to fascinate me. I never know the results I will get until I follow a concept through to the end. Intrigue carries me through the often tedious process of making art. When I finally see what I made, I consider it successful if it manages to surprise and delight me. This to me is a critical factor in art.

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Western Hemlock Mid Bole, 21, Leah Wilson 17 of 27

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Western Hemlock Mid Bole, Leah Wilson

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