Reading Analogically: Ideas From René Redzepi’s “A Work In Progress”

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“We’re always searching for an association that allows the dish to make sense on a fundamental level–a connection we can build the finishing elements on.”

“We made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands.”

Examining in depth a single ingredient.

Mapping ingredients and creating a knowledge bank.

“It’s almost as if our intuition wants more than our mind is capable of understanding. But from that moment, you subconsciously start gathering the tools for it to make sense down the line.”

“A new tool for us, a way of creating brightness…a way to sharpen anything, really.”

“Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens.”

“Gut reactions are just as important in discarding an idea as they are in generating one. The answer that appears milliseconds after a question is posed is likely to be the purest, most honest answer you have.”

“Efficiency and longevity are the difficult things to achieve in any creative activity.”
(Ferran Adrià)

100 Metaphors For Thinking Through Creativity

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Creativity is a balancing act.
Creativity is a candle that burns for a while.
Creativity is a circuit.
Creativity is a difference that makes the difference.
Creativity is a game.
Creativity is a key.
Creativity is a lone voice.
Creativity is an encounter.
Creativity is an outpouring.
Creativity is a radar system.
Creativity is a renewable resource.
Creativity is a response to a call.
Creativity is a series of small victories.
Creativity is a sum more than its parts.
Creativity is a weather system.
Creativity is additive and subtractive.
Creativity is adjectival.
Creativity is aiming.
Creativity is anticipation.
Creativity is anti-cliché.
Creativity is attitude.
Creativity is broad strokes.
Creativity is changing the frame of reference.
Creativity is coming up short.
Creativity is concept-stretching.
Creativity is contagion.
Creativity is conundrum.
Creativity is coping.
Creativity is cyclical.
Creativity is data management.
Creativity is deep fishing.
Creativity is derivative.
Creativity is designing.
Creativity is dialogue.
Creativity is disinterested.
Creativity is distillation.
Creativity is distortion
Creativity is doing it in a series.
Creativity is endurance.
Creativity is enthusiasm as a compass.
Creativity is exponential.
Creativity is everyday.
Creativity is fermentation.
Creativity is flow.
Creativity is focus.
Creativity is fractal.
Creativity is granular.
Creativity is harmonics above the fundamental.
Creativity is hidden competition.
Creativity is hyperlinking.
Creativity is hypothesizing.
Creativity is improving.
Creativity is incremental.
Creativity is judging proportion.
Creativity is juggling ideas.
Creativity is juxtaposition.
Creativity is leaping.
Creativity is learned.
Creativity is lift under the wing.
Creativity is liminal.
Creativity is linking.
Creativity is measuring.
Creativity is minimalism and absence.
Creativity is multitasking.
Creativity is pattern recognition.
Creativity is neural firing.
Creativity is noticing.
Creativity is numerical.
Creativity is off-road driving.
Creativity is ordering.
Creativity is overhearing gossip.
Creativity is playing the odds.
Creativity is polyphonic.
Creativity is pruning.
Creativity is question-asking.
Creativity is redirected desire.
Creativity is refraction.
Creativity is remixing.
Creativity is resourcefulness.
Creativity is rhizomatic.
Creativity is rolling the dice.
Creativity is round shapes into square pegs.
Creativity is seeing the two faces instead of the vase.
Creativity is spotlighting.
Creativity is step-wise.
Creativity is sui generis, a one-off.
Creativity is swimming against the current.
Creativity is switching gears.
Creativity is sympathetic resonance.
Creativity is tessellation.
Creativity is textural.
Creativity is therapy.
Creativity is timing.
Creativity is tinkering.
Creativity is toil.
Creativity is travel.
Creativity is tuning/turning the dial.
Creativity is uncertainty.
Creativity is variations on a theme.
Creativity is wonder.

Notes On Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.”

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“The uncreated is a vast, empty space” – Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is a memoir that explores and analyzes the history and creative life of Pixar, the American computer animation company. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, its current president, and an accomplished computer scientist, untangles the complex business of how to build a sustainable creative culture (xiv) that thrives by continually asking questions about its work and how to do it better (64). Creativity, Inc. brings a scientist’s rigor to the problem of how a group of creatives collaborate to make compelling animated art.

The most striking aspect of Catmull’s narrative is the strange joy the author takes in recognizing and solving problems with a clear head. Catmull seems to thrive on problems small and large, because problems indicate not only new idea terrain, but also opportunities for improvement. It’s almost as if problems are themselves kinds of creative ideas, waiting for deeper understanding, one step at a time. At Pixar, ideas don’t come out of thin air–they’re “not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions” (75). In this way, creativity is about problem-solving and takes time. Pete Docter, director of Pixar’s film Up, tells Catmull that he simply makes lists of problems: encountered in his work “Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong” (151) he says. Good advice.

A persistent theme in Creativity Inc. is proceeding in the face of uncertainty, randomness, and the unknown, and it’s in this regard that the book might resonate with many readers. For Catmull, the key is recognizing the complexity in what we don’t know and what we can’t predict. In fact, the “unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs” (148). He urges us to embrace the unknown, but not to do so with blinders on “in the interest of keeping things simple” (157). Sometimes–oftentimes–new situations are complex and layered.

Catmull revels in complexity and figuring out better ways of doing things as Pixar creates its films. One strategy used by the company is to focus on what Catmull calls microdetails–tiny elements that inform the look and feel of a work on an almost subliminal level. Microdetails are “a hidden engine” (198) of creative work that lend it authenticity and conviction. Pixar employees go to great lengths to acquire such details. For example, they take field trips to research places and things (i.e. the kitchens of French restaurants for the film Ratatouille) to build a vocabulary of mircodetails that will inform their future work. Other strategies used include self-imposed limits and tricks of perception. Catmull spends several pages explaining some drawing exercises inspired by Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. One technique is to place an object we want to draw upside down so it can be looked at “as a pure shape and not as a familiar, recognizable thing” (212); another is to focus on the negative space around the object. These lessons are intended to help us “see shapes as they are–to ignore that part of the brain that wants to turn what is seen into a general notion” (ibid).

There are some general notions here that extend beyond the act of drawing. Catmull observes that a trained artist “is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their ‘recognizer’ functions tells them what it is supposed to be” (212). In short, trained artists–and here I don’t think Catmull means just animators–have “learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions” (213). Catmull is getting at a technique for altering the limits of perception that could be useful to anyone who makes things: “to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision” (214). Speaking of vision, given Pixar’s track record of hit films, a peculiar challenge they face is how to stay fresh and nimble despite their successes. Building on the Betty Edwards drawing exercises, Catmull mentions a few pages later the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” (222)–carrying on as if you don’t know anything, paying attention to the present moment and “trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention” (222). When a beginner’s mind isn’t feasible, having useful mental models is. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. What matters is having “a mental model that sustains you” (224).

What makes Creativity, Inc. such an engaging read is that its meta-theme is ecological: the sustainability of a creative culture. To keep our work vibrant, Catmull reminds us, “we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty” (295) and the fact that “complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways” (310). In other words, we’re surrounded by chaos. But isn’t part of the fun of creativity figuring out how we might make some sense out of it all?

On Twitter And Thinking

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You may well know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: Whether you broadcast or receive, Twitter can be a compelling tool for thinking. Reflecting on its virtues, a few points come to mind:

Twitter is brief.
One hundred and forty characters is just enough of a text allotment to say one thing and then be done with it.

Twitter is open-ended.
Depending on how you’ve set up your feed–do you follow one person or a thousand?–Twitter can grow along with you, as if mirroring the connections you make in your mind with ones in your feed.

Twitter invites you into the brains of others.
You follow a friend, but who is he or she (or it) following? You scan their list of who they’re following, and wonder why. If one or more seems interesting enough, you follow them too, tagging along down a new stream of information.

Twitter invites you to garden and curate.
As you follow one friend or a thousand disparate sources, you notice how often those tweets are appearing. Some pop up too often, like weeds. Others blossom once in a while, like flowers. You might choose to unfollow someone here and there, because they’re not adding much to your garden. And depending on who you follow, the cumulative weight of your feed can be striking–like the works of different artists hanging side by side in the same gallery.

Twitter invites surprise and serendipity.
Depending on who you follow, neat things pop up and here and there–a recommended article, an interview, a new blog post, a photo, a video link. These neat things popping up increase in impact as they’re read side by side other, unrelated tweets. This nudges you to reconcile your own diverse interests within some kind of broader thematic frame. In this way, Twitter can illuminate a kind of cognitive diversity.

Twitter promotes a bee hive mentality.
This isn’t a bad thing. Attending to your own little garden and curating your own part of the gallery, you become part of a larger, non-stop information-sifting and sharing organism. Buzz Buzz!

Twitter promotes thinking about pacing.
Sure, Tweets are brief, but how often do we need to be broadcasting? As you notice the rate at which others are tweeting, it prompts you to think about how often we need to be saying whatever it is we’re thinking. In this way, Twitter foregrounds the distinction between signal and noise: sometimes “talk is cheap” for a reason.

On Philippe Petit’s “Creativity: The Perfect Crime”

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“When is something worth pursuing?
I think when the outcome advances the efforts of humanity.”
– Philippe Petit

In his recent book, Creativity: the perfect crime, Philippe Petit reveals the elements, flows, techniques, and routines of his very long career as an artist. Petit is high-wire walker, juggler, magician, lock-picker, and all around street entertainer, perhaps best known for his walking between the Twin Towers of World Trade Center in the early 1970s. He’s currently (and intriguingly) artist-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At once a mix of memoir, how-to manual, and an empirical-phenomenological exploration of the kinesthetic foundations of craft, Petit’s Creativity is inspiring and informative, revealing the inner life of a most interesting individual.

Petit brings the reader into his world by drawing on his various performances or artistic “crimes” from over the decades, especially his wire walks, which require meticulous planning–from staking out locations, making plans and organizing equipment, rehearsing and setting up, to taking that first step out into the unknown. Each component of each performance is an opportunity to engage creativity and think rigorously through the act soon to be, to “toy with an idea until it becomes a fixation” (20). For Petit, a performance is a crime in the sense that it’s an opportunity to find “imperfections in the system…as tiny portals through which…to explore, to understand, to create” (22).

One of the book’s many charms is the extent to which it conveys its author’s sensitivity to his environment. Petit believes that “the tactile experience provides a tangible link between what I formulate and the solid creation I must achieve” (26). Among the things he notices is the influence of his immediate surroundings on his work, including what he calls “negative space” (57), and the importance of maintaining an intimate connection with one’s artistic tools. Explaining a difficulty he once had with a juggling trick, Petit describes perceptual sleights of mind in which he imagines himself becoming the moving balls, and then transforming himself “back into being the juggler” (83), setting his senses “into a state of wild openness” (97). Passages like this recall the work of philosopher-ecologist David Abram, specifically Abram’s discussion of training in East Asia. (See my notes on Abram’s Becoming Animal here.)

Petit notices his environment because his attention is constantly fluttering about, observing, remembering, and interrupting. But Petit always goes with his own flow. The problem with paying attention, he tells us, is that “the seriousness of it will rarely allow for uncommon intellectual detours, for mental demultiplication” or what he translates as a reduction in gear ratio (97). The key is to trust that order will eventually emerge out of the chaos of deep perception. Petit even suggests the term sensefulness to describe blending one’s senses to make a new, composite meta-sense. Elsewhere, he encourages his readers to experiment by questioning their own work–and questioning the questioning–to create openings and provide connections (145), to experiment with “the mirror image of a concept” (163), and to notice the aliveness of seemingly inanimate things. “Inside the most ordinary objects” Petit says, “hide the richest creative opportunities, waiting to be awakened” (197).

There’s a lot of detours in this book too. For instance, every so often Petit has a word in blue type (boldface on my Kindle edition) that leads, like a secret portal, to a mini essay on the topic elsewhere in the book. He also includes hand drawn illustrations of his idea lists, schedules, tools, performance and living spaces, and so on. The idea lists are particularly compelling, especially as Petit explains how he cross links the concepts and re-writes them to reveal new relationships. And yes, Petit talks about–and talks to–his tools (juggling balls, floppy hat, among other props), all as part of maintaining his life at a particular pitch and allowing it to be an ongoing ritual full of hidden meanings, his projects ongoing explorations of epiphany and getting into the zone.

These are just the highlights. By turns maverick, playful, serious, and fearless, Creativity is a book to remind you how art can be a very, very special kind of intellectual and physical adventure story.

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From Coi

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“Perfect food is born of perfect order.” – Daniel Patterson, Coi

I have written previously on this blog (see culinary arts posts) about connections between cooking and music. To add to that mix, I recently read Daniel Patterson’s excellent Coi cookbook. The book is structured around a series of short narratives that provide context for his recipes. For me, the narratives steal the show insofar as they engage with the themes of perception, taste, memory, style, and creativity.

Patterson makes a distinction between being able to perceive and distinguish among different tastes, and having the know-how and experience to understand what these perceptions and distinctions mean. They key, he says, is having a well-honed sensory memory: “Sensory memory is the most important attribute of a cook. Without a database of experiences to contextualize flavor, a good palette means nothing” (142). Patterson’s dishes grow out of his experiences–many of them fleeting, by now only traces of a memory of an experience. One dish, “Summer, Frozen In Time” (plum, frozen meringues, yogurt), he describes in terms of references that seem more experiential than specifically food-related:

“This is a dish of memory triggered by form and smell, with points of reference that are so varied that they defy easy categorization. I created it thinking about the way time seems to move differently during the warm months–one minute lasting an eternity, the next passing in a rush” (146).

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Drawing analogies with writing and music, Patterson also discusses style in cooking–that combination of elements that add up to a recognizable imprint: “In writing, it’s called voice. In music, it might be called sound, the combination of tone and rhythm that makes a performance unique” (180). In Patterson’s case, some of his style, his voice, is the result of removing the non-essential from his dishes, or distilling his ingredients down to their essence. In a passage on what makes minimalism (in cookery or the arts), the chef quotes the architect John Pawson: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction” (242).

Ultimately, what makes Coi so interesting is how poetically it describes the varied sources of Patterson’s creativity. Chefs are like composers and writers and artists in this regard–they receive inspiration and ideas from all over. The techniques of their craft are ways to reign in and organize this inspiration and these ideas, but the creative process remains fickle–always an open-ended, ever-shifting flood of sensations to pay attention to, distill, and make sense of. And the smallest details matter. Patterson: “sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is finding that one grace note, that little twist of technique, seasoning or texture, that lifts a dish, making it extraordinary” (198).

Near the end of his book, Patterson recalls San Francisco when he first arrived there from the East coast in the late 1980s. One evening, a cab driver tells him about a time in 1968 when he saw the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk standing alone by the roadside, looking up at the sky. Patterson, who plays piano, recalls listening to Monk when he was a kid:

“[Monk] was my hero, with his jerky syncopation, idiosyncratic voice, and harmonic dissonance that would resolve, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, into the sweetest melody you’d ever heard. His sense of balance was perfect: complexly wrought, deeply human” (282).

None of this seems to have anything to do with the book’s final recipe on the facing page. Or does it?

 

On Wit And Work: Adam Gopnik On Two Kinds Of Creativity

In his recent New Yorker essay on creativity in jazz and popular music (drawing on recent biographies of Duke Ellington and The Beatles as his case studies), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between idea-based and action-based notions of creativity:

“Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by the fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea ‘contributed’ by the work matters more than the work itself” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, p. 123).

In the music world, critics are ever alert to characterize and describe the next big idea that manifests itself through an emerging style–whether it be minimalism or dubstep, post-classical or vaporwave. But how easy it is to forget that creativity in music lives on the ground, at the intersection of body-minds and instruments, unaware of its outside interpreters trying to make sense of it. And while any individual musician-composer may not overtly “know”–that is, be able to tell you with certainty–why they do what they do and what to call it, the value of their work remains within the practices that constitute it.