241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

The Novel of Nonel and Vovel 

The Novel of Nonel and Vovel 

The art world is enamoured with many “-isms”: they sound distinguished, contemporary, intelligent, and articulate. But more than anything else an “-ism” is an idea-clustered temporal designation, right for a specific space-time coordinate. It has become a protective cloak for art workers to arm themselves with “-isms” when venturing out on a mission, as it supposedly demonstrates an understanding of a current moment, false or not.

There is one “-ism”, however, which seems oblivious to trends, hypes, and professional commodification, yet which is markedly contextual and genuine, and demands you to undo any protective clothing: heroism. Though its ring might sound unfashionable and outdated, yes even archaic, artistic practice and the heroic make for good bedfellows, yet recently this natural match has been prone to amnesia. Heroism, in this sense, is not at any time to be confused with ego, politically correct righteousness or misplaced didactic sentiments. For are we not grandly fed up and done with chatter about morals and values from a pedantic and paternalistic state, and societal pressures to perform in some way or other?

Do we really need post-modern tales of the epic, populated by modern-day art heroes who are larger than life? (no, please) Have we not regurgitated art movement after art movement, biennial after biennial, the next big theoretical turn after the other, and the – pick a number – next “radical” vision of the next star curator on the block? All that has nothing to do with heroism. So what is this notion that allows us to accrue a particular value from our precarious labour that is not measured monetary terms. Is there, in an era of capitalist consumption, room at all for an artistic heroic that refuses to comply with flavour-of-the-day expectations, and generates meaning out of necessity rather than out of market or policy demands. (yes, there is!)

Heroism is not to be found in tweaking the market till your fingers bleed, lest your concepts dry for a few crumbs of recognition and square metres of gallery space…or that coveted thank you note in an expensively produced catalogue. Heroism is modest, often undetectable, for it goes against the grain of our conditioned and framed vision. To have the courage to read, create, think, write and perform against the grain is what constitutes the life and blood of critical intellectual and creative practice. Somehow we seem to have lost this in the maze and haze of appropriating other “-isms”. So say it softly and say it sweetly: “there is no -ism in heroism”.

If an idea to research something crazy suddenly befalls you, it’s well advised to go just through with it, complete it, and publish it. I once had the idea to visualise human coitus using an MRI scanner. It was a spontaneous idea; like the French poet-statesman Lamartine said, ‘I never think, my ideas think for me.’

I immediately received criticism. ‘What’s that good for?’ ‘You don’t even have a question! ‘We know everything already.’ But also enthusiasm: ‘if you want to research something that’s never been done, and easy as pie, do it! Why not?’

And so, we were able to conduct this study, but only in secret. Subsequently, the first scan was immediately compelling, iconoclastic even. It turned that all Da Vinci’s drawing proved to be fabrications, without anyone ever objecting (we and I included). The scans showed the previous depictions had originated partly from the bedroom (before death) and partly from the cutting table (after death).

The article about our research was rejected three times. That’s just how deviant our findings from the scanner were. Even our fourth article was considered to be ‘made-up’ by the British Medical Journal. The article wasn’t considered an actual report of an actual study until the magazine had done a thorough research on the accuracy of it, without us knowing. They even asked to include us in their Christmas edition (where every year strange studies are bundled).

Meanwhile, the study is the most clicked article on their site, while images of the scans weren’t even on the cover of the magazine. The film version of the MRI scan on the ‘Improbable Research’ site has been watched over a million times. It also immediately received the LG Nobel prize, because it makes one laugh before it makes one think.

In retrospect, the study is a classic example of Spielerei nebenbei to Ernst im Spiel and freedom in research.

Like Johan Huizinga argued in his Homo Ludens: play is indeed a higher order than severity because play includes severity, whilst severity excludes play.

Tags: serendipity
Related: Sex

Personal research. Fleming wrote beautifully about it: the researcher must be free to find new discoveries, wherever these may lead him. Every researcher needs a certain amount of personal time to work on his own ideas without having to justify them for anyone, unless he himself wishes to. After all, extraordinary ideas can form during one’s free time. The desire for immediate result is common, but can be detrimental. Truly valuable research is a long-term ordeal. In fact, it’s very possible that nothing of practical use emerges from a laboratory for years on end. Then, quite suddenly, something may appear. Something that is so innovative that its impact could cover the costs of the lab for a hundred years.

This bootlegging, this ‘playing in the boss’s time’ is zu lehren und zu lernen, at school and university, in theory and in practice. For example, you might soak peppercorns in water and ask students to observe them through a microscope to find out why they’re so sharp. Are they spiky? It then seems that something is moving under the microscope. Art there students who see this? If so, who? The participant is then asked to draw what they perceive. “You’ve only really seen something after you’ve drawn it,” Da Vinci wrote. Then you reveal that van Leeuwenhoek was also looking for spikes on peppercorns, unsuccessfully, and instead found what we now call bacteria. This experiment was done one my request in Amsterdam at a lyceum with success; the students were moved. This is how you uncover latent talent: by hiding unexpected findings in practical assignments, unannounced of course. The participants who missed the unexpected observations, or who did not pay enough attention, learned that they were insufficiently observant, surprised, flexible and active in comparison to their peers. Like behaviourist Skinner said, when you encounter something interesting, you must study that and leave the rest to wait.

The Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye so captivatingly wrote: ‘In my opinion, this is one of the most precious gifts for a scholar to enjoy. We tend to focus ourselves on what we are researching to the extent that other facts simply do not reach us, regardless if they are of far greater importance. This is mostly the case with things that deviate so greatly from the ordinary that they seem implausible. In the end, however, only the implausible is truly worthy of our attention.’

If an idea to research something crazy suddenly befalls you, it’s well advised to go just through with it, complete it, and publish it. I once had the idea to visualise human coitus using an MRI scanner. It was a spontaneous idea; like the French poet-statesman Lamartine said, ‘I never think, my ideas think for me.’

I immediately received criticism. ‘What’s that good for?’ ‘You don’t even have a question! ‘We know everything already.’ But also enthusiasm: ‘if you want to research something that’s never been done, and easy as pie, do it! Why not?’

And so, we were able to conduct this study, but only in secret. Subsequently, the first scan was immediately compelling, iconoclastic even. It turned that all Da Vinci’s drawing proved to be fabrications, without anyone ever objecting (you and me included). The scans showed that the previous depictions had originated partly from the bedroom (before death) and partly from the cutting table (after death).

Play
Seks in de MRI

The article about our research was rejected three times. That’s just how deviant our findings from the scanner were. Even our fourth article was considered to be ‘made-up’ by the British Medical Journal. The article wasn’t considered an actual report of an actual study until the magazine had done a thorough research on the accuracy of it, without us knowing. They even asked to include us in their Christmas edition (where every year strange studies are bundled).

Meanwhile, the study is the most clicked article on their site, while images of the scans weren’t even on the cover of the magazine. The film version of the MRI scan on the ‘Improbable Research’ site has been watched over a million times. It also immediately received the LG Nobel prize, because it makes one laugh before it makes one think.

In retrospect, the study is a classic example of Spielerei nebenbei to Ernst im Spiel and freedom in research.

Like Johan Huizinga argued in his Homo Ludens: play is indeed a higher order than severity because play includes severity, whilst severity excludes play.

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roughly speaking, there are three ways to find something new:

1. Non-serendipity

Finding what you’re want while specifically searching for it. A good example is the discovery of the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague. Convinced that the p­lague was an infection, Yersin, a student of Pasteur, travelled to South-East Asia to find the cause for the disease. He wanted to perform autopsies on people who had died in the hospital from the plague, but was not allowed to. He then commissioned a straw hut to be built on the hospital’s lawn and, with the help of a bribe, was given access to a plague victim. He sliced his knife into a pustule from which oozed a ‘puree’ of pus. Underneath the lens of his microscope he spotted the bacillus, which would later be named after him.

2. Pseudo-serendipity

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Finding something you’re looking for while not actively searching for it. A classic example is the ‘vulcanising of rubber’. Goodyear mixed latex with sulphur to make it more durable: it was a ‘why-not’ sort of experiment. He heated the mixture and while stirring it spilled some on the hot oven. The spill scorched. Underneath the burnt surface was a transformed layer, underneath which an unchanged layer lay. This change is what we now call vulcanisation. Goodyear, being a man of faith, believed God himself had helped him a hand in this discovery because he had been working so hard and trying his very best.

3. Serendipity

A chance discovery, found without searching for it. As Dijksterhuis commented, it’s still unknown what aspect of cathode rays Röntgen was investigating when he discovered X-rays, or Röntgen radiation. He darkened his laboratory, covered what is now named an X-ray tube with black carton paper, electrified the tube, and saw to his great amazement a nearby fluorescent screen light up. Röntgen himself termed these rays permeating the black carton ‘X-rays’, because ‘X’ is the mathematical symbol for the unknown variable (a discovery of genius within Arabic algebra). The rays were invisible and passed straight through many materials. To convince himself of his findings, Röntgen captured the results on light-sensitive plates. When asked what he thought he had discovered he answered: ‘I wasn’t thinking, I was experimenting!’ After the publication of his discovery, it turned out other researchers had made observations that were also linked to X-rays. This is called ‘negative serendipity’: these other scientists made unexpected observations, but failed to interpret them correctly.

This is similar to the discovery of America: when Columbus landed in the New World he deemed himself to be in India, which is why he spoke of ‘Indians’. It was Amerigo Vespucci who made the right interpretation! What Röntgen experienced was ‘positive serendipity’: he not only made an unexpected observation (the fluorescent screens lighting up in the dark in the vicinity of an active Crookes-tube covered in black carton), he was also correct in his interpretation of this wondrous observation.

Ultimately, in practice, non-serendipity, pseudo-serendipity, and serendipity are not always discernable from one another.