Hacking Humanities

McGill’s very cool, very innovative, very cutely-named Institute for the Public Life of Art and Ideas (IPLAI, i.e. “I play”)  is running a fascinating workshop this Saturday on Thinking Art, which I was lucky to grab a spot in. The session seems akin to the participatory, open-ended unconferences of the barcamp model, displacing the “talking-head parade” which provides the skeleton for most academic conferences. In inviting working artists to interact with university-based scholars, it also promises to draw on the creative possibilities of bringing together different professional communities, much like the very successful launch of HackingHealth last fall (with a shout-out here to fellow Sauvé Scholar Jeeshan Chowdhury, a lead on this project).

In its format, then, the event opens a wide door on the possibilities for productive meetings in a university setting and, more importantly from my perspective, on the relationship between academia and the public. While there was an application process, the sessions – which are animated by such well-knowns as dancer Margie Gillis – are open to anyone who thinks they have something to learn and to teach about the interaction between the arts and the humanities as ways of interacting with and understanding the world.

Which also indicates that nothing is lost in the content, either. When people think of innovation, they often think about tech; the session is built on the idea that imaginative thinking is an important element of responding to our changing world. That theme seems to be integrated into the entire design of the session. The day’s activities include art-making, performance and discussion, but the theme of what art-making and humanities research can offer each other provides an orienting principle. The push against tired, repetitive thinking was at the forefront of the application process, which asked potential participants “In what ways does art think?”

Working through my answer was both intellectually invigorating and painfully humbling:

The difficulty of such a question is that we do not usually understand concepts or categories as themselves capable of thinking. Rather, the metaphor works this way: we think using conceptual objects; thinking is the manipulation of the boxes and bags of thought; it is the climbing on the net of ideas, not the net itself; certainly neither the net nor the nodes can do the thinking; the box cannot unpack itself.

However: when Winston Churchill (of all people!) remarked that “first we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us” he pointed to the possibilities of art as artifact. The making of art in the world gives ideas substance, and while architecture or painting leaves a concrete residue, all art makes its mark on us. And we are thus manipulated. Put before us, we cannot control how art, too, shifts around the bags and boxes of thought; how it adjusts its weight upon the net. We can hardly avoid it. Even those standing guard against the risk that art  might change them, inevitably adapt in response to each experience of art – and thereby change.

We might say, then, that art thinks by placing our own thought outside us, or before us. It thinks not only by acting as a distorted mirror but forcing us to act as mirrors ourselves. It shapes us just as we shape it. What we put of ourselves into us, it unpacks of itself in us, transformed.

Given that even the application was able to force me to think obliquely to my own habits makes me very optimistic about Saturday’s outcomes. The question, however, is what value such a session could have to a lawyer, or to someone studying legal institutions. They asked me that question, too. Here’s what I said:

I am interested in parallels between the ways that art creates artifacts of thought in the world, which then constrain and shapes our actions, and the way in which law does the same thing. Obviously there are differences. Our experience of law is inherently normative; it not only pushes upon our thoughts, but also places its weight on our conscience. What concerns me more is the dynamic relationship which exists between art as a reflection of our regularities of thought and action, and vice versa. The two obviously exist in an imperfect correspondence, and there is much of ‘culture’ as artifacts of shared, persistent belief which may not fall under the sweep of ‘art.’ Yet I think there is some parallel between art and law, in the factor of deliberate shaping, in the understanding that we can somehow have an impact on thoughts and behaviours which is determinate, or at least delimited. In particular, I am interested in how artists and lawmakers may think of their craft not as forcing us to think or act a certain way, but as providing tools to help others live well.