“Art is an intimation of the fundamental reconciliation of contradicting possibilities” – Joel Upton
Without contradiction, there is no art. Art itself is about juxtaposing ideas, tensions, concepts and working with form and space. The artist, whether consciously or not, is balancing contradictions in space, medium and form to challenge themselves and their audience to explore an idea, a feeling, concept or all three.
Engaging with art is about beholding. To behold requires focus, attention and some enthusiasm for the subject matter (knowledge doesn’t hurt much either). It requires time to contemplate the elements above and explore the contradictions and the perspective of the artist and the beholding audience. Health promotion and social change is full of contradictions. For example, how to promote freedom and self-determination while ensuring appropriate regulation to protect those who’s self-determined choices put others at risk? How do we create community and common space while respecting diversity and uniqueness — including those perspectives that don’t support commonly held values?
The list can go on. Art and the art of beholding can offer some ways to address this complexity through contemplative inquiry and learning about perspective and perspective taking.
Claude Monet in painting the Maintee sur la Siene did so from the river in his boat. By being on the river Monet was able to gain a perspective that is fundamentally different than had he painted from the shore, which he also did in other works. To behold Monet’s painting yields insights that cannot be gained by simply passing the image over.
Spending time before the work yields perspectives that cannot be obtained through mere casual observation. One is immune to the overlaying circles, the misty cornering of the Siene, or the fact that nearly all of the painting exists in reflection. When one looks at the painting in the context of others using the same angle and different colour shades, we see that this is a work that is distinct. Searching through the various forms of the work, one sees new layers of possibility and complexity emerge as the tones change, the textures shift and the intensity of the work alters. The version held at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where Professor Upton teaches, is particularly complex in how subtle the reflections and use of colour and texture are parlayed on the canvas.
Learning more about Monet at the time he did this painting, his life, the fact that it wasn’t like he painted it from the water, he DID paint it from the water.
But we might have known that had we not spent the time in contemplation of the painting. Got to know it, and understand it deeply. Submitted ourselves to the work with a level of intimacy that can only be obtained through the act of contemplation and engagement with the art. The longer one beholds the work and sees the various forms within it, the greater the complexity that emerges — qualities unknown or unknowable without the contemplation of the work in depth.
Monet knew that he had to survive, to produce a work of art that was in demand and could sell. He had to survive, but also did art to ensure that people were inspired and challenged. His wrestling with contradiction, his application of knowledge to a medium, and the expression of his creativity through both is what made him one of the most widely renowned impressionist painters who ever lived.
Health promotion is about contradiction. It deals with complexity all the time. How do we inspire change in others and still support self-determination? How can we change a system when that system has no single voice? How do we get individuals to do what we want, yet simultaneously respect what they want?
Health promotion also seeks to respect diversity, but at the same time, what does it do to truly understand this diversity? Do we take the time to get to know the communities it deals with. Really, truly know these communities. Do we give the time to be intimate with them?
My experience is sadly, no. In public health we use focus groups — which were initially designed to focus a research question, not serve as a means of research unto itself — to generalize from a group-think scenario to an entire community and then claim that we know them. Really? Is this beholding? Is this the kind of contemplative inquiry that makes sense for public health.
Could we learn more from artists? Our methods certainly could (see art of public health), but perhaps the way of the artist is also something we could learn more from.
Clowning might seem either silly or scary to some, but the art of non-verbal communication is just that: an art. And like art, it opens the door to myriad interpretations, but also to greater empathy and that only benefits design.
Tonight I attended my first of what I hope will be many monthly meetings of the Design With Dialogue community of practice being held at OCAD University in Toronto. The topic of the evening was What do clowns know that you don’t ? The hosts were an international clown troupe comprised of Patricia Kambitsch, Heidi Madsen, and Elsa Lam. The answer to the question posed by the evening is: a lot.
The night began with a series of exercises done first in pairs, then pairs of pairs, and then as teams of four. What struck me was that, prior to this evening and a few Twitter follows, I didn’t know a single person at this event. Yet, after the course of two and a half hours, I felt I had a room full of new “peeps”. I was thrilled to find an interesting, engaged and dynamic group of people who could perform for each other without the safety net provided by familiarity.
So what brought this about and what does it have to do with clowns? Actually, the clowns were not made up nor was there even mention of clowning beyond the introduction of the hosts. In the case of tonight’s activity, the clowning was due more to physical performance, and particularly the use of non-verbal communication. Over the course of two hours we went through four sets of activities:
1. In pairs, determined by how tall you were (which isn’t relevant, it just allows for a creative way of splitting the room up), introduce yourself using gestures — particularly exaggerated ones — and then mirror that response back to your partner with no words expressed between you.
2. As a pair, join with another pair and use the non-verbal communication rapport generated from the first exercise to work together to non-verbally communicate a particular emotion (including some tough ones like passed over and pity — try acting these out, you’ll see how hard that can be).
3. Working with both pairs together as a foursome, the new group of four is asked to act out a particular phrase. They are to do this while walking across the room where the rest of the participants are asked to guess the phrase. There is little communication between the four people in this new group.
4. The four individuals sit on four chairs and acts out a skit called “four clowns on a bench” where one person is whispered a scenario and the other three are asked to follow along, not knowing what the actually phrase is.
What happens after all of these is remarkable. I found myself acting in a group on something I didn’t know, yet perceived because of the empathy that I developed over the course of two short hours of working non-verbally. As a result, my group — team — and all the others put on performances that were funny, coherent, and creative with little to no verbal sharing of information.
This stoking of empathy and the insight it produced demonstrated enormous potential for design and teamwork. Building on work that Keith Sawyer has done looking at improv and creativity, this session demonstrated just how powerful non-verbal, emergent communication can be and how us designers — in whatever situation we inhabit — dismiss such opportunities for learning, creative expression and community building at our peril.
I wasn’t really a fan of clowns before tonight; now, I am.
** Photo by Peter Pearson under Creative Commons License from the Flickr pool
I teach a class on systems thinking perspectives on public health. This past week we discussed the role of narratives and storytelling as ways to learn about systems and how to organize diverse information and how to make sense of it all.
For those working in systems thinking and complexity science within a public health context, there is much to be excited about in terms of opportunities, much less to be excited about when it comes to knowledge synthesis. That is, there isn’t a lot out there to synthesize when someone wants to study a problem from a systems perspective. Particularly if one is looking for clues as to what kind of evidence can inform decision making. Indeed, a great deal of the problems that systems thinkers face in many fields have no substantive body of evidence to support decision making.
And even if there was such a body, complex systems are often so dynamic that evidence becomes hard to apply because the contexts in which that knowledge is generated is so particular. Even on the same subject, a study of complexity or system dynamics might only provide guidance on ways to approach other problems, rather than prescriptive strategies. That’s complexity and systems for you.
But knowing that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the problems in some depth. Those looking to take on systems problems tend to find two main questions (challenges) starting out: what are the boundaries of the system, and how does all the information within those boundaries fit together?
To answer these questions, I had my class consider the story of their problem. As part of the course, each student is asked to concentrate on one subject of personal interest and last week I asked the class to consider the story of the problem that they are wrestling with in their research and health promotion work. These public health problems include issues of workplace wellness, HIV/Hepatitis co-infection in prisons, healthy fathering, the application of design to health, youth engagement, environmental sustainability and resilience and more, so there is much to talk about.
Storytelling suffers from being that thing you did as kids like the photo above or something you do for fun, but isn’t widely considered a valid tool for exploring complex systems. It is this myth that I sought to dispel in my class, because when you start telling the story of system, remarkable things happen and much sense can be made from relatively little information.
I started off with some reference sources from the always interesting and insightful Dave Snowden, drawing on two of his earlier papers on narrative and organizational strategy. Dave’s written extensively on this topic, including role that paradox plays in stories, with many other resources found here. What this did was frame the issue not just of one of stories, but large and small narrative patterns that shape the way that people understand the system they are in.
In the case of the students in my class, they are all dealing with subject material for which there is little material on systems thinking to use as a start point. For most of them, they have little idea of where they are within that system relative to the problem at hand. Storytelling provides an opportunity to cover a lot of ground and organize the information that we already know about a system into a manner that allows us some sense-making opportunity. Sometimes there are large stories and grand narratives to which they belong, but often it is the small exchanges or micro-narratives that we work with. Both provide much fodder for systems thinking.
What makes a story is a coherent organization of information, characters, a plot, tension or conflict, a setting and a point of view. With these elements one starts to provide the context and boundary conditions for imagining a system and thus, the foundations for a model of it.
This can be done through long-form narrative or something simple like a haiku (in fact, one of the learners in the class wrote a series of haikus on her topic).
When you write out your story, notice what gets included and what does not.
- What emotions are present (if any)?
- Is there any reliance on past knowledge (or evidence)?
- Are there characters that are more prominent and, if so, why?
- What is the tension or unresolved conflict in the story?
- Why was the setting chosen and what limits does it impose?
- Are you avoiding parts of the system in storytelling intentionally? Or, are you choosing to tell the story in a manner that hides or obscures parts of it you feel uncomfortable with?
These are some of the questions that a systems thinker can ask of the story that is produced, and the answers provide insight into what the system holds, how its organized, and how you as an agent of inquiry and change intend to influence it. The goal isn’t to create the best model or the right model, for neither of those exist. What is about is creating appropriate, useful models. And as George Box famously said about models:
All models are false. Some models are useful
All stories are fiction, but for systems thinkers, some stories are useful.
** Photo from the New York Public Library via The Commons Flickr pool . No copyright exists.
Among the most frustrating aspects of being a systems thinker/actor/researcher is the “one thing” question: What is the one thing that we can do to solve this problem?
The answer is almost always: there isn’t one thing you can do, the problem requires a complex response*
*That isn’t always the case, but in my line of work, it pretty much is true that the problem and its solution fall within the realm of complexity.
When you work in complex systems, the problems are nearly always multifaceted, convoluted and multi-dimensional in their scope and impact. Yet the “one thing” request comes up all the time.
Dave Snowden, from Cognitive Edge, in his work with the Cynefin Framework nicely points to the difference between best, good, and emergent practice. In public health and medicine, the term “best practice” has been so dominant that it is hard for people to lose the terminology, even if they acknowledge that it sometimes doesn’t fit (the concept of “better” practice is often snuck in as a way to placate those who subscribe a model of thinking that challenges “best” practice thinking). While this is very useful, the problem that even useful frameworks like Cynefin produce is a tendency for people to put whatever they are doing into boxes.
Looking at Cynefin, you can see the world compartmentalized into four nifty quadrants, making the world simple — or at least complicated, but certainly not complex. Dave Snowden himself has been critical of this tendency in his writings on Cognitive Edge’s blog, yet time and again I see this type of thinking come alive. I currently am teaching a course for graduate students on systems science perspectives in public health and this is one of the pitfalls that I hope the learners in my class can avoid.
It’s not easy. We humans love to compartmentalize things. Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science, famously began his career putting things in literal and metaphorical boxes. Classification is something we do from our earliest years and do all the way through school. Indeed, a brilliant and somewhat depressing look at how engrained this thinking is can be seen in Sir Ken Robinson’s animated TED Talk on the history and possible future of education.
Systems thinking requires spectrum thinking. People must be able to see things on a gradient, rather than in absolute compartments. Students can’t be faulted too much for having a hard time with this when they are graded based on letters where a B+ is a 79 and an A- is one percentage point higher, yet the mere presence of a B (anything) on a transcript can mean the difference between an award, admission, or a job and not.
This is in no way a criticism of Cynefin or other frameworks used to explain or assist in the understanding of complexity, but rather a statement of the problems inherent in our quest to teach others about complexity that is intellectually honest, reasonably accurate, yet also effective in helping people understand the gravity and scope of complexity in practice. I don’t have an answer for this, but do find using a spectrum useful.
And on a side note, the multi-coloured palette of the spectrum also allows for an introduction of the concept of diversity and human relations at the same time as it illustrates a way of thinking about complex systems.