Alan Kirker

Wholeness

June 18th, 2020 by

According to Wiktionary, the first recorded uses of the word holy are a literal translation of “wholly”, as healthy and whole, in both Proto-Germanic, and Proto-Indo-European languages. This use predates more recent Old and Middle English ecclesiastical meanings of the word.

Physicist David Bohm points to scientific evidence for the wholeness of the universe as lying in two theoretical frameworks. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity whose key tenet that the universe is a continuous, dynamic space-time field, out of which particles emerge as singular, strong regions and whose stable pulses gradually merge with other particles, describes an underlying unity where space and time are themselves relative aspects of the whole. The second framework, Quantum Theory, describes three particular characteristics of wholeness. First, its processes, such as electricity and magnetism, are themselves whole and indivisible; second is the wave-particle duality which, dependent on the observational context, describes a wholeness from different perspectives; and third is the notion of non-locality, where particles exhibit properties of interconnection, hence wholeness, despite being physically apart.

These two broad frameworks run counter to classical Newtonian physics, if only in the sense that the latter highlights the study of the part, whereas Relativity and Quantum theory look instead at the primacy of the whole. Bohm illustrated this difference by equating a description of Newtonian physics to the apparent random behaviour of particle-like people at a busy downtown intersection, each moving under their individual directives; as compared to the fluid, quantum-mechanical motion of dancers in a ballet, where the whole is given salience, and thus points to pattern and process as integral to larger systems.

Philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead, each a naturalist in their respective times, described a wholeness, a God, in nature, and vice versa in their Panpsychic worldviews. Big-thinking renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake extends this notion all the way up to space, arguing that celestial bodies and stars, including our own sun, possess a form of consciousness. Such speculation suggests large, self-organizing space-time systems as exemplary of an even greater unity, not unlike James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis of planet Earth as a large, self-regulating system.

Despite our best intentions in attempting to perceive things from broader Systems Theory perspectives, a tendency to fragment and compartmentalize can arise due to an incomplete recognition of the wholeness, which is often hidden beneath layers of complexity and interdependence. When complicated challenges such as anthropogenic climate change are faced, Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus describes the vexing issue of comparing present and future costs and benefits of climate change mitigation strategies, and a tendency to “discount the benefits of the societal value of reduced damages in the future” (2013). In key environmental spheres of thought, meaningful opportunities at climate change mitigation are said to be nearly lost, with some suggesting the most cost-effective approach at this point is one of societal adaptation to its effects.

Bohm believes that a central incoherence which arises from failing to properly recognize wholeness, in all of its forms, is due to communication. The nature of language, according to Bohm, is that it has been developed to emphasize the part over the whole. Regardless, language can be used differently, as in the case of poetry, not to mention all of the various potentials held by new communication technologies. If we then draw parallels between naturally occurring systems and larger, more complex ones, does Bohm’s random crowd versus ballet metaphor not have particular relevance today? As a society, are we exercising our potential to behave quantum-mechanically, as coordinated dancers in a ballet, or rather as objects in a Newtonian space; each on our own separate path?

Nordhaus, W. (2013) The Climate Casino. New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

Metaphor and Myth

May 26th, 2020 by

Eloquent big thinker and scholar of comparative religion Joseph Campbell wrote and lectured extensively on the subjects of metaphor as myth, and myth as metaphor. According to Wikipedia, “Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths”. Dr. Campbell spoke of the great value of having a myth, not only from the perspective of a group, but also from the perspective of an individual.

Having a mythological story, hero, or heroine to identify with can provide a narrative seen to run nearly parallel, at least in certain regards, to one’s personal experience. Such stories thus provide a sort of sounding board and the requisite psychological balm for the current cause of one’s suffering or state of mental anxiety, or for example, the cognitive dissonance felt when several misaligned views are firmly held on to.

A myth may also provide a path forward for a person. One of Campbell’s popular mythological themes was that of the Hero’s Journey. Poignantly illustrated in Star Wars’ opening scenes when we find the conflicted young Luke Skywalker struggling to choose between a life of filial piety on a prisoner planet, or a life of mystery and intrigue abroad, finally choosing the latter. Apart from classic displays of good versus evil myths in Star Wars, this particular variety becomes a narrative with which we can each identify at separate points in our lives; having to move to another place, change jobs, or depart on an adventure. The aim is to ease suffering yes, but through making a choice, making a change, or embarking on a journey and accepting its risks in the interest of searching for, or finding meaning. The journey may only be in one’s own mind, and it may simply involve breaking a bad habit and charting a new course in life. As Joseph Campbell frequently underscored, we each choose our own spot along the dark forest edge through which to enter.

Myths can span cultures, however, certain cultures exhibit their own specific and particular myths. According to Campbell, aboriginal cultures, whose nature-bound traditions are broadly regarded as precursors to more modern tribal rituals, place less emphasis on heroic figures and their journeys. Rather, in a manner holier in the truest sense of the word; their beliefs…

“… while unexceptionally ethnocentric, do not anywhere exhibit such an exclusive fascination with the people themselves; for every feature of the landscape, the whole world of nature and everything around them, is encompassed in their regard” (p.33).

Campbell, J. (1986) The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York, United States: Harper & Row

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

From afar a coastline might look as though it is smooth and inviting, whereas a closer-up, higher resolution view might reveal a rocky, forbidding shore. Similarly, standing directly beside a large circle painted on the asphalt might make it appear elliptical or oblong-shaped, as compared to looking at it from directly overhead. Even with adequate context, appearances can still sometimes be misleading. What we perceive as the truth is often just an emergent phenomenon and perhaps only a partial picture of the whole. Notions of scale, context, as well as the abilities and limits of our own perceptual systems, all play a role in interpreting how things look, sound, smell, and feel.

In stereophotogrammetry, photographs of a particular region, purposefully taken seconds apart from an aircraft flying high above, might initially appear identical. A closer look reveals minute changes, such as shadows shifted due to the slight difference in perspective. Nowadays this type of imaging data can be fed into complex algorithms, and in some instances combined with range-finding laser data (LiDAR) to generate accurate three-dimensional views of the landscape.

In days gone by, viewing such a stereoscopic pair of photographs, or stereogram, required a contraption called a stereoscope. You may recall the more recent plastic View-Master with its shutter-like lever that came with round disks of tiny, paired images, or 3D glasses based on the same principle, that are still in use today. These technologies present just the left perspective image to the left eye, and the right perspective image to the right eye, from a set distance. When the nearly twin images are viewed in this manner, the resulting three dimensional illusion does not appear on the glass of the device, or as on the page or screen of an artist’s drawn visual perspective, but rather materializes with realistic clarity directly in the viewer’s mind. Viewing an air-photo stereo pair would have hills and mountains rise up from the erstwhile flat land, while the valleys and lowlands receded. A rich gestalt sense of an area could be derived from such a  three-dimensional portrayal, not otherwise apprehensible from an individual air or satellite photo. Convincing appearances thus need not necessarily exist in just the physical world, and are sometimes purely figments of the perceptual system, or even of the imagination.

More broadly, beyond our hacking of binocular vision, nature has conferred on us the intrinsic ability to illude; to imagine what is and isn’t there. The world around us is perpetually being crafted as we perceive, as though we’re each an artist interacting with it, conjuring illusions and interpretations of what’s in front of us, and what lies beyond the range of our perceptions. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks remarked that, “each act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”.

Deep Design

March 10th, 2020 by

From the perspective of an artist or designer, deep design can have several, similarly-aligned meanings. Successful pieces of art, to use one of many subjective metrics to define success in this context, are popular, and often so because the audience sees in them some common, underlying aesthetic or informational aspect which is pleasing. Perhaps this is a result of mathematical symmetry or asymmetry, or that the piece in question somehow resonates in a particular way with their emotions, or their perception of reality.

An artwork may even go so far as to solve or reify some belief because viewing, reading, hearing, or participating in it evokes a particular memory or feeling. In Tim Parks’ book, Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, he describes Manzotti’s spread mind theory of consciousness, wherein images, and other sense gate throughput, don’t get stored in the brain, but instead create an impression upon initial exposure, which thereafter gets called up and compared with the subject’s live sensory experience, as a key trying to fit a lock. There are no vast libraries of images, sounds, or smells filed away up there, nor are there images or other sense data being found in any meaningful neurological sense in the grey matter, apart from correlated flashes of neural activity. Does such a view support the case of an artwork whose idiosyncratic qualities elicit a particular response, often among many people, and perhaps in a manner similar to Jung’s patients identifying common archetypes in their recounted dreams? Does deep design in this sense become a question of intention on the part of the artist, or does it have to do with perception, on the part of the viewer?

Artists and designers often approach a creative undertaking as a problem that demands a solution or some form of reconciliation. On one level, a designer might identify such a problem as finding an appropriate “look and feel”, however socio-culturally defined, which will help achieve the aim of attracting attention, clarifying information, educating someone, or marketing a product or service. Design in such cases might not only seek to achieve such an aesthetic benchmark, but also to convey messages beyond the overt. For example, Google is noted for their various interfaces’ clean, uncluttered design, and judicious use of white space to help steer and focus users’ attention. The hierarchies, menus, buttons, the geometry of the layout and other virtual affordances, all combine in a gestalt manner to enable information coherence. Not only does design support the key function of helping such data assimilation, it performs an additional, deeper function; embedding in the user’s mind the sense of an efficient, precise, perhaps even trustworthy organization. This is translated into, for example, the obtained service or commodity being perceived as pertinent and up-to-date. The simple, colourful treatment of Google’s wordmark brand performs a similar deep purpose; namely, conveying a sensation of broadly appealing approachability. One may even be moved to feel that this is an organization they want to interact with, despite it being merely an algorithm. Deep layers of meaning can therefore be embedded or projected in a variety of ways using design.

Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek similarly states that the structure of reality is far richer than its surface appearances, and that this underlying order itself may be regarded as exemplary of deep design. He points to the analogy of using visual perspective in art, where it’s applied to create an illusion of space. A flat, two-dimensional portrayal springs to life in illusory three-dimensions with careful attention to drawn perspective. Using mathematics, such an approach can be applied even more deeply, as in the case of projective geometry, where specific math is applied to create the appearance of a measured reality. One example are the various mathematical formulae used to create geographic maps. As an artist or draftsperson uses perspective to reduce a scene’s three-dimensional appearance to two-dimensions, a cartographer would employ a map projection, created using geodetic datums, to reduce the three-dimensional nature of the earth’s surface down to an appearance in two-dimensions, and enable the precise transposition of different measures from a curved, irregular surface onto the projected two-dimensional plane. Math imparts a deep, meaningful design to the projection, and the resulting map.

Taking these ideas a step further, if the reality that we inhabit, or perhaps more appropriately, if the appearance of a reality that we experience is in fact a projected, unfolded space-time construction, what does the original source look like, or where does it exist? One of David Bohm’s thought experiments used to help illustrate his theory of the invisible, implicate order that underlies reality, involves inserting one hollow, clear plexiglass cylinder inside a similar, wider one. The space between them, wide enough to allow rotation, is filled with a viscous, translucent substance such as glycerine. A drop of black ink is inserted into this medium and the outer cylinder is then rotated against the inner one in a given direction so that the ink droplet stretches to become a thin line coiling around the inner cylinder with each successive turn. In theory, the cylinder could continue to be turned until the line winds up disappearing from sight, creating the illusion of having completely vanished, and becoming enfolded within the otherwise clear viscous medium between the nested cylinders. Due to this viscous nature, though, a careful rewinding of the outer cylinder back in the opposite direction causes the line to recompose and reconstitute as its original particle-like droplet. In such a manner, can some tangible aspect of our perceived reality be reverse distilled, its projection run backwards, and its higher-order essence revealed, or modeled in some way? 

Is the ultimate essence simply numbers and math? If artistic beauty, for example, can be boiled down to such a fundamental level, does it not still speak to the need for there to be some underlying impetus driving the whole affair? Does the framework of Panpsychism, where some form of consciousness, and thus intention, inhabits everything in the universe, offer a reasonable explanation? Does physicist Frank Wilczek’s phrase “nature’s deep design” evoke the notion of an artist, designer, or some other pre-ordained intentionality that’s currently beyond our grasp? Importantly, if we are part of a projection that has been created in a manner metaphorically similar to that of an artwork or a map, is this resulting construct which we have come to know as reality therefore completely illusory, in some grander context?

Implication

February 24th, 2020 by

How would one witness or experience the effects of Bohm’s underlying implicate order? If such a realm – invisible, underlying, but integral to that which we know as reality – really exists, and if it is as pervasive as he would like us to believe, should we not see or otherwise be more aware of it? Beyond analyses of subatomic particle behaviour, some imprint of the implicate order must be available to us in the explicate; in our manifest perception of reality. Or so one would think.

Because of how we perceive, there is a correspondingly incomplete recognition and defining of the substrate in which, as constituent beings, we are enmeshed. As humans, we certainly seem to be aware of, if not connected to, our physical surroundings, not to mention our connections to each other. We often experience inexplicable serendipitous, synchronous phenomena which underscore these relationships. Despite this, however, there can be a feeling of separation; a strong sense that we are distinct, autonomous entities scrabbling about on nature’s stage. Does our orientation, however conditioned, prevent us from truly recognizing the appearance of some underlying invisible source? And, if this is the case, how do we change our perspective?

According to physicist Brian Greene, the main reason why we have such a difficult time wrapping our heads around any broader view of reality is due to our brains having evolved to think in an environment that necessitated, for example, the throwing of spears, in order to survive. As a species, we have adapted to thinking in the unfolded, cartesian space-time world of Newtonian physics, not in the enfolded pre-space realm of quantum mechanics, nor the enfolded pre-thought realm of the human mind. Even beyond such leaps of understanding, is the question of how do we reconcile this world that we are most familiar with an underlying implicate order, which for all intents and purposes remains invisible to us? Moreover, why even consider the existence of such an order?

Serendipity

January 25th, 2020 by

Serendipity is a phenomenon that reveals itself in both art and life. According to Wikipedia, “Serendipity is the occurrence of an unplanned fortunate discovery” (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2020).

This photograph of the Cadillac Motel sign on Victoria Street in Kitchener, Ontario, taken back in the mid-nineteen-nineties, reminds one of how much things have changed in a relatively short span of time. Not only is the content of the image itself emblematic of change; a fifties-era motel sign sitting abandoned in an empty field, but its recording using film and subsequent printing onto photographic paper are now processes reminiscent of a bygone era.

The photo, taken with Kodak high speed infrared film using my father’s appropriately-designated fifties-era rangefinder 35mm camera, required precise handling and developing in total darkness, as well as a degree of guesswork when it came to making the actual exposure. This latter fact was not only due to the camera’s tiny viewfinder which sat outside and parallel to the lens and necessitated intense squinting at the subject, but also because it was difficult to predict, unlike with the case of more modern imaging technology, how the finished photo would turn out. There was no “preview” mode other than what could be seen through the tiny viewer, and even this did not show what this particular film would ultimately reveal; the infrared light and heat radiating from a scene, similar to, but uniquely different from what would be imaged in the visible spectrum. Compounding this were the unpredictability and idiosyncrasies of this variety of film itself, where slight adjustments to the camera angle in relation to the subject, or exposure under subtly differing lighting conditions, could dramatically affect the result. The film’s interesting attributes included its ability to create dark, dramatic skies, and to capture green plants’ “chlorophyll effect” (greenery becoming white, often glowing, in black and white infrared recording) when the camera was appropriately oriented in relation to the subject and direction of the sunlight.

This uncertainty is very often prized by artists and photographers. Having an element of surprise in the production of an image or an artwork can enable the creation of magical, serendipitous “happy accidents”, where added beauty is revealed by a confluence of factors, often unforeseen and sitting outside the creator’s control. Elements within the frame can become unexpectedly highlighted, perhaps imparting an otherwise plain image with a unique, vibrant appeal. Granted, this uncertainty would have contributed to a larger share of “not-so-happy accidents”; instances where the frame wound up being simply blown-out, drastically dark, some measure between, or perhaps another variable would intrude into the process and destroy any potential aesthetic value.

A state where events and outcomes can be predicted with increasing accuracy, often as a result of the influence of technology, is of obvious benefit to many aspects of modern life. Does a collection of data pointing to some future outcome mean it will necessarily happen? Do some predictions defy any margin of error? Is complexity guaranteed to play a role in confounding the results in some way? Despite our technological advancements, the ability to make accurate predictions often remains elusive. As in the case of creating art or a photographic image, are there places where serendipity can arise in forecasting within the complexity of the wider world to reveal new facets of a subject or topic when precision and prediction fail?

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