Saturday, 6 May 2017

@siobhandavies and Double Description at @WhitworthArt ... and reflections on Music and Education

Living around the corner from the Whitworth Art gallery means that I often make serendipitous discoveries. I popped into the gallery on my way into the city centre centre this morning and found Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski doing this as part of their work "Material / Rearranged / to / be" - a dance work inspired by photographs from the Warburg Institute collection:

There's something very cybernetic about what they are doing - indeed, the whole installation's emphasis on action and reflection is very similar to the theme of the American Society for Cybernetics conference in 2013 (see This is rather better than we managed in Bolton!

If the cybernetician Gregory Bateson wasn't the first thinker to have considered the importance of 'multiple descriptions of the world' - particularly in the distinction between connotation and denotation, he certainly thought more analytically about it than anyone else. We live with multiple descriptions of the same thing. In cybernetic information-theoretic terms, we are immersed in redundancy. Why does Siobhan Davies have two dancers mimicking each other? Because the dual presentation is more powerful - perhaps (and this is tricky) more real  - than the single description.

In a world of austerity, what gets stripped away is redundancy. We streamline, introduce efficiencies, 'de-layer' (a horrible phrase that was used to sack a load of people in my former university), get rid of the dead wood (blind to the fact that the really dead wood is usually making the decisions!). The arts are fundamentally about generating multiple descriptions - redundancies. It's hardly surprising that governments see them as surplus to requirements under austerity.  But it spells a slow death of civilisation.

Warren McCulloch - one of the founders of Cybernetics and the inventor of Neural Networks - took particular interest in naval history as well as brains. He was fascinated by how Nelson organised his navy. Of course, there were the flag signals from ship to ship. But what if it was foggy? Nelson ensured that each captain of each ship was trained to act on their own initiative understanding the heuristics of how to effectively self-organise even if they couldn't communicate with other ships. McCulloch called this Redundancy of Potential Command, pointing out that the ultra-plastic brain appeared to work on the same principles. This was not command and control - it was generating sufficient redundancy so as to facilitate the emergence of effective self-organisation. In effect, Nelson organised the many brains of his naval captains to act as one brain.

That's what Davies does here: two brains act as one brain.

This also happens in music... but it hardly ever happens in education. In education, each brain is examined as if it is separate from every other brain. The stupidity of this is becoming more and more apparent and the desperate attempts of the education system to scale-up to meet the needs of society stretch its traditional ways of operating to breaking point. Yet it doesn't have to be like this.

In a project with the China Medical Association we are exploring how technologies might facilitate the making of collective judgements about medical conditions. Using an assessment technology called "Adaptive Comparative Judgement" each brain is asked to make simple comparisons like "which of these scans displays a condition in more urgent need of treatment?". With enough people making the judgements and each person making enough judgements, many brains act as one brain in producing a ranking of the various scans which can then be used to prioritise treatment. In practice, it feels like a kind of orchestration. It is the most intelligent use of technology in education I have ever been involved with.

Orchestration is of course a musical term. Musicians are traditionally orchestrated using a score, but there is much more going on. The fine degrees of self-coordination between players is heuristic at a deep level (much like Davies's dance). The performance and the document which describes the manner of the performance are all descriptions of the same thing too. It's redundancy all the way down.

I was mindful of this as I put together this video of my score for a piece I wrote 10 years ago called "The Governor's Veil" with a recording of its performance. In video, with the score following the sound, the double description and the redundancies become much more noticeable.


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