Transcript of Episode 88 – Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill on Art & Complexity

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guests are Nancy Hillis and Bruce Sawhill. Nancy is an abstract artist, author, and Stanford trained existential psychiatrist. She has a very interesting website, and has a book, The Artist’s Journey to spark creativity. Bruce is a complexity guy. He was a postdoc at the Santa Fe Institute. I don’t know, did we actually meet out there? I don’t recall. When did you leave SFI?

Bruce: 2003. Well, went from SFI to BIOS in 1997, but it was still in orbit in the area until 2003.

Jim: Well, I got out there in 2002. I know we chatted sometime along the way, but anyway, I read one of his papers a long time ago, Phase Transitions in Logic Networks, a very good paper. As part of prepping for this show and as my audience knows, I typically spend several hours prepping for each episode, read the Self-Organized Criticality and Complexity Theory, another good paper, quite accessible actually. And then after SFI, as he mentioned, he went to the BIOS Group which was a group of essentially applied complexitorians trying to do consulting and build products and stuff like that.Today he is the CTO at a very interesting startup company called the Personal Airline, kind of sort of doing for private jets what, I don’t know, what Uber does. Not quite exactly but the idea of letting you sign up for individual seats on private jets rather than having to pay the rather extreme fee to charter one on your own. You want to put a little color on the Personal Airline there, Bruce, before we jump into the substance of the call?

Bruce: Well, sure. There’s a company in between the BIOS Group and Personal Airline called DayJet, which was an attempt to do this with small business jets, which actually were built in Albuquerque. That ran from 2002 to 2008 and the idea was that you could buy seats on those and that it was completely dynamically scheduled, a good application of complexity science and flew about 6,000 flights and that lasted until the financial crash of 2008.

Bruce: Revisiting the idea, has some more psychology and game theory in it and also probably not going to use jets, but we’ll use propeller or electric aircraft that are much more economical to run and short distance flights, kind of flying over traffic in major urban areas rather than San Francisco to New York.

Jim: Cool. If you want to check it out, Now, let’s jump into the meat of our episode here. What I can tell, and maybe you can tell us about this a little bit, Nancy and Bruce have collaborated in thinking about the intersection of complexity science and art. On the blog, on the website, there’s a whole bunch of very interesting essays which I’ve read and then followed some of the references from, et cetera.

Jim: I think I’m just going to run through what I extracted out of it as some of the main points, but before we do that, maybe you guys could both chat a little bit about what you see as at a higher level the intersection between art and complexity and how you happen to make that synthesis.

Nancy: Well for me, being an artist is about continually evolving your art. It is about stepping into the unknown and embracing that and accessing deep experimentation, and then ultimately evolution. The first step for an artist is to move beyond emulating others’ art, and to do that, you experiment and you ask yourself what if, and you allow yourself to not know what’s going to happen, and you even embrace what we call ugly art. You get to this place where you’re a deeply experimenting, but then you run into the next problem, the next trap, and that is the danger of repeating yourself.

Nancy: That’s where I’ve found that from these intersections of evolutionary biology and mathematics, that we can access the adjacent possible. From evolutionary biology, we can access evolving or art and in that way, continually move along into innovation rather than emulation.

Jim: As you saw the article in today’s paper that a graduate student discovered that the first few of Edward Hopper’s paintings were actually copies that Hopper made copies of other people’s art.

Nancy: Yes.

Jim: Isn’t that interesting?

Nancy: It is, and there’s kind of homage to [APASO 00:04:58] or Matisse, and we can learn from that and extrapolate from that, but ultimately we want to get to that place of our own voice, vision, and articulation of our own lexicon and signature and language and yet also keep evolving that. And the risk that people run into is fear, and this is where the inner journey, the psychology is a big part of all of this in these intersections, is that fear stops us and kind of tells us to emulate not only others but ourselves and stay in that place of safety and yet that is a deadening place.

Jim: Yep. That seems right to me that the good artists show no fear, and when they start to show fear, they’ve stopped being good artists.

Nancy: Yes.

Bruce: Yes.

Nancy: It becomes a success disaster where they might start experimenting deeply and they’re really excited about their art and then they start to get kudos from their audience and they start to sell out their solo exhibition only to find that then they don’t move off the dime. They keep repeating what has worked before, and that is not where you want to go as an artist.

Jim: Yeah. I’m frankly less knowledgeable about the visual arts than I’m about music and we can see that in the various music genres, my wife and I follow. Some musicians continue to grow until they’re 80. Billy Joe Shaver is a guy that comes to mind. Still out there doing original stuff at the age of 80 while others at the age of 34 are kind of just stuck in their rut, so to speak, and just go with what brought them there, make lots of money but have basically become dead as far as being artist [inaudible 00:06:52].

Nancy: Exactly and recently, Bruce and I were talking about this concept of monocoque. Do you want to talk about that for a second?

Bruce: Sure. In one of the recent blog posts, we talked about things that are conceived all as a piece where it’s nonseparable. There are pieces of music, the German Expressionist durchkomponiert through-composed where there’s no repeat. There’s no logical place to break it, and like the egg is something that has no natural dividing line and both pieces of music works of art and people’s entire works throughout their lives can fall into this category.

Jim: That’s actually very interesting. Say more about that.

Nancy: Well, yes, the Sydney Opera House that was designed by a Danish architect, and what is his name?

Bruce: Jørn Utzon. I think it was late ’50s.

Nancy: Jørn Utzon came from this concept of the monocoque, and he was looking at, I believe the egg and the absolute perfection of the egg and being through-composed durchkomponiert and integrated. He took that concept, a big idea, more like the roots of the tree and the trunk of the tree. The big idea rather than random techniques or repeating what others have done and he came forth with this idea for the Sydney Opera House. It has a egg shell type appearance, and it hadn’t been done before. He won the contest, but they didn’t know how they were going to build this in a safe way.

Nancy: They did ultimately with structural engineers but what is interesting to me is that he broke all the ideas that have been done before by breaking the rules, by coming from a foundational concept of the monocoque which had been done in the single hole boats and kayaks and he brought-

Bruce: And airplanes.

Nancy: And airplanes, and he brought that to architecture. A big piece of being an artist and innovator is continually evolving and breaking those rules, but coming from deep underlying concepts from nature.

Jim: You could almost think of such things as emergent phenomenon, right? They’re at a higher scale. When I look at the… I suppose that’s probably the most famous building in the modern world, the Sydney Opera House. I think about, it’s got elements from different scales like I say, kind of looks like sailboats or something at one level, but then it scaled up and I’m sure the architectural problems of making that all hold together, as you say, safely would be more than a little intriguing and had a whole bunch of underlying problems that had to be solved.

Nancy: Yes.

Bruce: It had a cost of around of about a factor of 25, I think, but I’m going [inaudible 00:09:36]. I think it was originally supposed to cost 7 million and ended up more like 150 to 200.

Jim: Interesting. Well, let’s hop into some of the topics that you guys lay out on your blogs, I thought were right interesting. The first of these, and this is very important, not only in art but in some of the socioeconomical political work that I do, and that’s phase transitions. Talk about a little bit how phase transitions and art inform each other.

Bruce: Well, phase transitions come up in many situations. One is connectivity, just as an example that goes back to Erdős and Rényi around 1960, but Stuart Kauffman calls it buttons and threads. That you have a bunch of buttons lying on a table and you have little segments of thread and you close your eyes and pick a pair of buttons and tie them together, and then you look at what is the largest connected piece because you can have A connected to B connected to C and so on. You do this for a while. You end up with lots of pairs of buttons, but then very rapidly it clumps together and you get most of the buttons all in one clump, and this was a very abstract kind of phase transition. It’s just about links and nodes, but a lot of things have this characteristic, including in art.

Bruce: When I lived in Santa Fe, I observed that a lot of artists would work for years and years and be completely unrecognized and then it would knit together for them very suddenly. Maybe after 10 years of painting, they would suddenly start being in shows, be recognized, be known, be on everybody’s lips. I think that this was a kind of social phase transition, but even individual artworks also display this characteristic, and Nancy could speak to that.

Nancy: Yes. I do believe that phase transitions map on to artistic breakthrough. I work with thousands of artists, students, and essentially you’re kind of going along and I have a story of an artist who is a very brainy woman. She was a professor of French and Russian literature in San Francisco in college. Because she’s got this big brain, she would tend to overthink her art and she’s going along and she is trying to not only loosen up her art, but she is also trying to simplify it, kind of that elegant simplicity that DaVinci spoke of. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and kind of moving more towards minimalism, but she was having such a difficult time because she tended to make things more complex and even though she liked her complex art, she really wanted to go in this path.

Nancy: She said recently, “Nancy, I had this breakthrough. All of a sudden I did it. My paintings are immediate and I just lay down a few strokes and I’m done.” This was such a breakthrough for her. I believe that these breakthroughs are informed by getting into your studio, creating lots of starts and experimenting and really stepping into that unknown and that’s when you have that sudden phase transition, and in my mind I could see that graph of the phase transition when she described this breakthrough.

Bruce: You’re trying to knit together disparate elements in your art and when you finally get it right, it comes together apparently very suddenly. Of course, it isn’t very sudden, you’ve been working at it all along to get there.

Jim: Yeah. I love the quote [inaudible 00:13:08]. I’ll actually read from your blog. I submit to you that most epiphanies, they’re not sudden and surprising. If you dig into them deeply, they basically are the result of lots of previous work which the outside world may not recognize, but you were building it in within yourself. That last bit was just a paraphrase by me. I can frankly recall the one real epiphany I ever had, was when I was 11 years old. I’ve been raised in a fairly traditional Catholic family and always being intrigued by a good story. I kind of thought Catholicism was neat. This was after Vatican II, so we were allowed to read the Bible. I enjoyed all that, but I was also into science and started reading science books when I was five.

Jim: I was quite annoyed when I went to the library in first grade and they wouldn’t let us take books except from the little kids shelf and they were all boring as shit, but I was tall for my age and I discovered if I went into the library after school, they let me take books off any shelf. I started reading astronomy and chemistry and what passed for physics for sixth graders or whatever. As I was reading them I was sort of comparing and contrasting the two and it took years of working the two together until finally at age 11, I had to steal the most powerful epiphany I ever had, which is religion is bunk. It’s some stuff some people made up to control other people.

Jim: It just screamed at me that it was arbitrary, ridiculous, and I would move my flag clearly and unequivocally from religion to science and I did, and I never looked back. To my friends it seemed like a sudden, maybe even disastrous phase change but in reality, it had been six years worth of little bits of work at a time.

Bruce: Yep. That bonafide example.

Jim: Yeah.

Bruce: Illuminating evidence.

Jim: Yeah. Very interesting. Now, let’s go on to our next topic, another one of my favorites. As people who listen to the show know, I do some work in AI, particularly at the AGI level where we’re looking at human level and beyond artificial intelligence and there we always run into combinatorics. In fact, it’s one of my little jokes I tell people. If you want to talk to people about artificial general intelligence, you don’t actually know shit about it but want to sound smart. Just ask the person, how do they plan to solve the problem, the combine, the toric explosion of possibilities, right? It’s the only question you have to ask that sounds sagacious.

Jim: I’ve actually, even before I knew anything about it, I actually used to use that, but now I know it’s something about, so I don’t have to anymore. But anyway, let’s start off by explaining what combinatorics is. It’s actually a very interesting, and when you think about it with respect to art and talk about how combinatorics informs thinking about art.

Bruce: Well, it’s counting patterns. In fact, Donald Knuth, well-known computer scientists and one of the early founders of the Stanford Computer Science Department I think said once to me, “How do I love combinatorics? Let me count the ways.” The reason, it’s about counting patterns, usually in numbers but not necessarily. It can be in colors, in patterns, in shapes, in musical sounds and so you can readily see how it might apply to artistic endeavors.

Bruce: In one of the blog posts, we give a simple example of combinatorics. If you have a pile of books and you’re going to put them on the shelf. Let’s say you have 50 books. While you can choose the first book, one of those 50. You can put it there on the left end of the shelf, that leaves 49 and you can choose 49 and so you get into these factorials, you end up with 50 factorial. 50 times 49 times so on, all the way down to one, which is a very big number. It’s about 10 to the 60 something. One with 67 zeros after it. You rapidly get to astonishingly huge numbers. This comes up in things like scheduling airplanes too, especially if you’re doing this dynamically on demand. I encountered this in other aspects of my life also, but it definitely comes up in art in terms of the possibility of numbers of patterns.

Nancy: One of the things that we’ve done that was very interesting is we took a exercise called the Six Maquette Exercise that I developed. Maquettes are little studies. This was informed by Henry Moore, the British sculptor who created monumental sculptures and he would create those by creating tiny clay Maquettes to play with ideas. We would take the Six Maquette Exercise, and the idea there is you mark off six squares or rectangles on a piece of paper, and on each square you go in with six moves or six marks or six shapes or brushstrokes or whatever you want to do, but it’s basically six moves on each of these six blocks, and then we would have the students cut them up and move them around.

Nancy: Within that constraint of six maquettes, we found seemingly almost infinite possibilities. I know it’s not infinite, but it’s enormous possibilities within the constraint, and so that’s one of the ways we play with combinatorics and abstract painting.

Jim: Of course as you point out, take something as simple as a thousand by a thousand pixel black and white monitor. In these days that would be a tiny little monitor, and black and white would be… what the hell? What’s black and white? But just that very simple palette is two to the millionth possibilities, way more than a number of subatomic particles in the universe. That’s just on the simplest and stupidest possible framework. I think you guys referred to TV static as an example. The amount of TV static on a large screen HDTV is absolutely immense. The two will never repeat. There’ll never be a repeat of the static pattern.

Jim: The amount of combinatorics accessible in our universe is just ridiculously large and the only way to do anything interesting with it is, as you say, start thinking about constraints. Maybe talk a little bit about kind of the theory of constraints and its intersection with combinatorics.

Bruce: Well, so this gets… My favorite approach to this or way to discuss it is the idea of satisfiability. This occurs in the realm of logic when you have logical statements, like if you have a statement that says maybe two clauses, Nancy is a woman and Bruce is a man. If both of those have the truth value true, then the whole thing is true, so it’s satisfied. If you say Bruce is here and Bruce is not here, that’s unsatisfiable. They can’t both be satisfied at the same time. The satisfaction comes up in constraints. I think a good example that I use comes, of course, I think about this world of logistics and travel.

Bruce: If you think of some kind of delivery service trying to deliver I don’t know, food somewhere in a town. Let’s say you have two people who are doing the delivery. Well, let’s say you have three things that need to be delivered. Well, if there are different times, that can be satisfied. If they’re at the same time, you can’t because two people can’t be in three places. Constraints are things like when and where things have to be delivered and sometimes if it’s over constrained, like they have to be delivered all at the same time, that’s unsatisfiable. It’s unworkable, or sometimes it’s under constraint and we’ll probably get to this later, but very interesting things happen when it’s right at the edge.

Jim: Yep. We will certainly get to that. Nancy, I’d love to get the artist’s view. Being a non visual artist myself, in fact, amazingly the opposite. I draw like a four-year-old. How does an artist think about taking these essentially infinite set of possibilities and then constraining them down into something that is their style, let’s say?

Nancy: Yes. This is a big one, and that is, I think oftentimes with artists in the beginning, there is almost like an allergic reaction to the concept of constraint. Because as artists, we see ourselves as bohemian and endless possibility and somehow there’s a paradox here. The paradox in the painting and at art, an abstract art is riddled with paradox, and one of those is the enormity of possibility and freedom within a constraint because creating is about, you got to make decisions. It comes from the Latin word, discedere, which means to cut through. You got to make decisions otherwise it’s chaos. Otherwise it’s white snow-

Bruce: TV snow.

Nancy: TV snow.

Jim: Yeah. Lots of static, right?

Nancy: Lots of static. All sounds together are a cacophony, right? In music. We need constraint, and one of the ways we do that early on is with a limited palette and limited values. Values are dark light patterns. If we throw in every possible color, it is not compelling visually. Visually our eyes biologically are very drawn to contrast, to a light dark contrast to edges, to movement, and I believe this comes from survival, right? We’re very drawn to asymmetry and predominance. A lot of this, a little bit of that, and all of these are getting at simplicity and constraint.

Nancy: When you really get that, you have so much freedom within a constraint and it takes me a while to get the artists there but when they get it, they are on fire with innovation and creativity. It just fuels it. This is what [inaudible 00:23:14].

Bruce: Right. Our brains are evolved systems that are the product of millions of years of evolution, and so they’re particularly adapted to living in an evolutionary system and so the way I like to think about it is that we create as the universe created us.

Jim: It makes a lot of sense. We live in a lawful universe which is the result of evolutionary emergence. Maybe talk a little bit about that. The idea of living in a lawful and evolutionary emergent universe and being an artist trying to react with that.

Nancy: Wow. Well, I think if you really understand some of these foundational principles that we’re talking about at the intersections of art, psychology, creativity, science, mathematics, evolutionary biology, and you really get that, that it’s continually evolving. The world is continually evolving. You are evolving, your cells are turning over every seven days in your gastrointestinal tract. You’re emerging continually and you realize that your art is a mirror of you, of your states of mind, of your awareness. If you can access these principles and bring that to your art, you’re doing what artists do and innovators do, which is to evolve their art and their lives.

Bruce: I think of, well, for instance, an example might be what’s called the common practice period in music when I was an undergraduate music major. The common practice period is roughly 1600 to 1900 and it was the things we often know from at least learning music, which is keys, tonic, dominant, the idea of harmonies, of triad, chords, of certain voice combinations, voice leading and counterpoint being kind of “legal and not” and this gives us a universe with laws.

Bruce: Artists are creating worlds all the time. They’re creating miniature worlds with their own set of laws, and there has to be a certain degree of consistency and constraint and it’s part of sense-making. Why we look at something and say that makes sense or that’s beautiful That comes from a certain innate ability to make sense.

Jim: Is that what the artist is actually doing, trying to make sense of the universe?

Bruce: Or trying to make a model of the universe in their artistic creation that makes that a self-consistent, that makes sense unto itself.

Nancy: Well, and I think that it’s also about getting at meaning, that which is most meaningful to one, and that evolves through one’s life cycle. Living the kind of most alive and meaningful life and I think part of that is creating and expressing that in their art.

Jim: Makes sense. I’m going to jump back to a previous topic because Bruce’s discussion about the period of music, et cetera. Something I don’t understand at all, but would fit into the idea of phase transitions is the idea of periods of art or schools of art, the impressionists. We had the dataist and we had the abstract expressionist, I don’t know what the hell we had before and after. We have these relatively describable schools of art. Are those essentially clusters of miniature worlds that have similar laws, something like that, and if so or if not, tell me what they are and second, how do bifurcations occur in the equivalent of phase transitions? Was the phase transition into impressionism sharp or was it gradual or something in between?

Bruce: Well, I know in science that Thomas Kuhn wrote about revolutions in science. How it happens is that you think back to when people thought that the earth was the center of the universe. As people got better and better making celestial observations, there started to be more exceptions accumulating. Like errors started accumulating, and so they started coming up with increasingly complex explanations of what would cause these strange motions of heavenly bodies. I think they called them epicycles and then they became epicycles on epicycles all to explain around the fact that the fundamental theory wasn’t working very well, and then eventually it collapsed under its own weight and a far simpler explanation of the sun being the center of the solar system took over and was by Occam’s razor able to explain a lot more observed phenomenon with a lot less complexity.

Bruce: Things should be as complex as they need to be but not any more than that, and I think that drives revolutions in science. I think in art that there can be… I don’t know if it’s exactly the same because there isn’t really the comparison with outside experimentation and evidence. It’s more about self-consistent worlds. I think that maybe when one mode of expression becomes tapped out, the system becomes right for another one, but I also believe that what happens in art is connected to what happens in lots of other aspects of human existence, and so it can’t be explained by art alone.

Nancy: Well, and I think too that it reflects changes in the culture in terms of understandings, for example, there was automatism or automatic drawing kind of, and then action painting by Pollock in the ’40s and there was a lot… this was coming out of the awareness, probably kind of early 1900s from Freud and others about kind of the unconscious and the kind of stream of consciousness, and so this abstract expressionism came out of kind of automatism and the awareness of the unconscious and that you could bring that automatic drawing or those unconscious stream of consciousness marks to the canvas and that that’s a value, and that is expressing some deep gestural expression that comes out of you that’s unique to you.

Jim: Why do things like that emerge as a school as opposed to just one person doing it?

Nancy: Well, it’s a very good question. It seems that we are very social beings and that it seems that there will be certain pioneers and then there are followers, like for example, Freud, and groups of people following him and various artists are right out on that edge and then they also are in community with one another. Picasso was in there with Matisse and oftentimes they’re in competition, but they’re also informed by one another, and Braque and they would play off of ideas. I think about too, like I always think about calculus and kind of this-

Bruce: Magnets and Newton.

Nancy: Magnets and Newton. This kind of simultaneous-

Bruce: Bubbling up.

Nancy: Bubbling up of awareness around certain concepts. Bruce and I have talked about this a lot. It’s like, why does that happen?

Bruce: Yeah, in different fields. It’s almost like there’s a machine language to use a computer metaphor, machine language of these things that has higher level languages associated with it like art and science and that we don’t really understand this machine language. It’s in the deep unconscious, but how revolutions or changes can occur in many different areas of human endeavor before people have the cognizant ability to discuss and relate them.

Jim: It’s quite interesting. One of the examples I kind of independently discovered, just my readings over the years, was probably not a coincidence that Freud and surrealism overlap.

Nancy: Yes. He was very much about lying on the couch basically, and very much kind of stream of consciousness, also dream images where the value of the imagery and the kind of symbology and meaning and dreams, and then there was [Lecan 00:31:34], he was very interested in kind of language and what that represented, but I also think about Jung, Carl Jung and the collective unconscious. He and Freud were contemporaries and also kind of competitors, quite frankly. Juan talked a lot about these deep kind of symbols that emerge.

Bruce: Talk about bifurcations. I suspect for every school that happened, when you talk about a school as a way of doing art or music, there are probably 99 schools that tried to happen and didn’t. I suspect that there’s a strong selection process going on and that there are certain ones that just are the right place at the right time and take off like a match in a dry forest.

Jim: A lot of drift in evolution. I think that’s always something that’s important for people to remember, that random movements do and frozen accidents, as Stuart Kauffman used to call them, are an important part of what happens in history. You also write a little bit about aesthetics with respect to constraints. It’s interesting. Aesthetics is a curious thing. People can come to very different opinions about it. There was a great flowering of new kinds of art during the Weimar Republic in Germany in the ’20s and early ’30s and then when the Nazis came to power, they declared it all degenerate art.

Jim: Hitler who was sort of half-assed artist, I guess, said this was horrible, ugly stuff, and it needed to be burned in the city squares. A little bit of an excessive overreaction there, I’d say. Talk a little bit about how the people raised in the same general culture could come to such radically diametric views about aesthetics.

Nancy: Aesthetics is subjective.

Bruce: It’s a combination of the art and the observer.

Nancy: Art itself is subjective, and I’m not a big fan of art critique for that very reason. We would have to go on for hours about that. There is something… The art reflects, the person reflects the culture, the movements, the ideas, the evolving ideas that are happening, the particularities of a person but there’s something very important here. It’s the surprise benefits of ugly art. Ugly art, I believe is… it’s the art that we’re uncomfortable with. It’s the art that we reject. It’s the art that’s unfamiliar, but I believe that we need to embrace this ugly art because it comes out of experimentation and evolving the art. It’s unfamiliar.

Nancy: I also believe that ugly art is often the nascent embryonic forms of new work, new art that is trying to emerge and be born, but sometimes we tend to reject it at first. It’s kind of allowing for that very unfamiliar art and seeing where it goes.

Jim: In our political work where we’re trying to bring into being a new social operating system, we say the hardest thing is to remain in the liminal state where things are not nailed down and you’re still exploring. Homosapien seem to have a tendency to crystallize too early perhaps and not search long enough.

Nancy: Yes.

Bruce: Yes.

Nancy: Yes. I love that. We talk about that a lot. It’s the search.

Bruce: The search, and Donald Knuth, the computer scientist again, said the greatest sin is premature optimization. In other words if we try to optimize a system where you don’t know all the variables yet, you can end up in a very suboptimal place.

Jim: Used to say the same thing. I managed software development for many years and manage businesses that were involved with heavy software development. That’s what I’d always say. Get the functionality first, before you optimize performance. You start to optimize performance too early, you’re never going to get anywhere because you’re not exploring a big enough space in the functional realm.

Nancy: I love that and in art, we don’t want to reduce it down. We want to open it up. I say more starts, fewer finishes. Lots and lots of starts, lots and lots of explorations of possibilities and don’t be too quick to try to “finish the art”. A lot of artists run into the struggle in themselves where they’re just so focused on finishing. They talk a lot about finishing. They’re focused on creating the masterpiece, but great artists have said, have asked the question, “Is it ever finished?” Kind of like a river. I don’t think personally that art is ever finished because you stop it, you stop somewhere and you decide because you’re the composer and the artist and the author of this work that you’re going to stop here, but it could go off in any potential direction.

Jim: And yet at the same time in that same section on your website, you guys talk about the power of simplicity. Contrast that with the fact that simplicity is also a goal.

Nancy: That’s right. Art is riddled with paradox, absolutely riddled with paradox. We got to hold that paradox. On the one hand, yes, simplicity and constraint, but within the constraint is infinite possibility. We sometimes decide to stop on our paintings and “finish them”, but are they ever really finished? We’re continually living at that edge of those paradoxes, understanding that there isn’t really an answer. It’s more about living into the questions, continually questioning and evolving and allowing. Some art will be minimalist, and some art will be complex, and all of that can be reflective of different aspects of you, the artist and aspects of the environment that you’re in that’s continually evolving.

Bruce: I think of this is resolvability. Resolvability has to do again with sense-making. When you experience something, a combination of your state, your internal state with what you are experiencing or interacting with has to be able to make sense, but for it to be interesting, it has to be somewhat challenging. It has to make you think. It has to make you ponder on it. If you look at something and then immediately categorize it, it’s not very interesting, but something that resists categorization. I think that’s one of the ingredients of lasting art.

Jim: Let’s move on to another topic, a little bit closer to the edge of chaos. That was your idea of satisfiability phase transitions. You guys wrote that in a system with an increasing number of constraints, there’s eventually a point where they can’t all be satisfied, but just before that point is a place where they might all be satisfied but it’s laborious to figure it out if it’s possible or not. That’s pretty deep.

Bruce: Well, so this is related to the edge of chaos. There were many conversations while at the Santa Fe Institute over margarita is about the edge of chaos. Some of them, I remember. A few people like Stuart Kauffman and Seth Lloyd and David Walpert and [Bill McCready 00:38:57] were often parts of these conversations. I started thinking that, maybe it’s not the edge of chaos per se, but the edge of satisfiability that Darwin had a metaphor of pounding wooden wedges into a floor. Most of the time, if you try to pound a wooden wedge into a floor, you don’t hit a crack and so it basically just breaks apart. It doesn’t succeed in entering, but once in a while, it’s in the exact right place and finds a purchase and you can hammer it in.

Bruce: I think of evolution happening this way, new species try to enter all the time and sometimes they can find a way in and sometimes not. The satisfiability phase transition, you start with no constraints, just a bunch of disparate facts. What happened when it starts getting complex is when you start tying those facts together, like buttons and threads you say, well Nancy and Bruce are in California and Jim is in Virginia so that… and ties two facts together. They both have to be true for the overall thing to be true. As you start piling on ands, eventually you might get to a point where it can’t all be true because either is simple or complicated conundrum in there.

Bruce: It’s been shown, relating this process of adding constraints has been mapped onto a phase transition in physics by Sherrington and Kirkpatrick in the ’90s and they compared it to a system of spins, which are models of magnets and so you have a bunch of atoms that, do they line up or not, and there’s a phase transition between those two states. It turned out this logical situation of satisfiability can be mapped onto a physical material phase transition, but this is a different kind of phase transition. That’s not one we want to hurry through like from disconnected to connected. It’s one we want to poise right at the boundary because that’s where the mystery is.

Bruce: It’s a stay of execution that I’ll get back to you pending, processing, that it takes a while and on average to, if you’re confronted with a system of logical statements that’s right at this phase transition, it takes a lot of exploration to find whether it’s satisfiable or not. Before you find that you are in the state of not knowing.

Jim: Nancy, could you talk about that from the artist perspective? This sounds very rich.

Nancy: For the artist, you are definitely at that edge, at that place of not knowing and you’re embracing that uncertainty and you’re stepping into your experimentation to evolve the work, and I believe it’s a kind of poised instability that art is poised between creation and collapse, and the juice is at the edge.

Jim: Yeah. Sounds like that’s entrepreneurs, we like to say, if you don’t fail enough, you’re not trying hard enough.

Nancy: Yes.

Bruce: Well, and entrepreneurs are definitely a part of an evolutionary system, all trying to find cracks to hammer their wedge into.

Nancy: It’s embracing so-called mistakes in art. You could even ask the rhetorical question, is there ever a mistake? Is it really a mistake in art? Or is it something new emerging at that edge?

Jim: You mentioned poised situations or poised systems, that kind of ties back to Bruce’s work on self-organizing criticality. Could you maybe tie those two things together? Between the two of you, you ought to be able to.

Bruce: Well, I think of this great statement that’s often told by Economist. Brian Arthur once said that economists were people who didn’t have the charm to be accountants and-

Jim: Not true about Brian of course.

Bruce: Well, he’s very entertaining and regaling, but a story… it’s not from him, but it’s an old economist story, is that the economist was walking with one of his students, undergraduate students across the quad of a university. The student looked down and saw a $20 bill on the ground, but he didn’t want to interrupt the economist talking so they carried on. They got to his office and finally, the student said after a while, “I have to ask, didn’t you see that $20 bill on the ground?” And he said, “Yes, I did. But if it had been real, somebody would have already picked it up.”

Jim: Yeah. I remember that one, that’s a goodie.

Bruce: It’s this idea that that’s a true of an equilibrium world. Everything happens. In an equilibrium world that would be true, but anything interesting happens far from equilibrium, which means that physics has concentrated learning about the equilibrium moral, because mathematics is very powerful there, but a lot of the interesting stuff happens far away from equilibrium such as evolutionary systems.

Jim: I was a little bit surprised. At the Santa Fe Institute, people always give me dirty looks when I mention Prigogine and his work on the fundamentals of non-equilibrium system and dissipative structures. Even the Santa Fe Institute folks, well, yeah. They buy far from equilibrium, but they won’t go as far as Prigogine.

Bruce: That’s true. Part of it is at the Santa Fe Institute, it has a little bit of a bias toward digital systems. Prigogine studied systems that were described by differential equations, and I think people at Santa Fe Institute like discrete math and bits a little more. That comes up in self-organized criticality. Per Bak was a frequent visitor to the Santa Fe Institute and he along with Tang and Wiesenfeld invented a model called the sandpile model, which was to describe how a sandpile, if you’re pouring sand on it eventually gets a certain shape characterized by the angle of repose.

Bruce: When you keep on dribbling sand on it, it avalanches off. In a statistical sense, the amount of sand coming in balances the amount of sand to coming out, but if you look more closely it doesn’t happen… every grain of sand in does not equal a grain of sand out. It’s a bursty. Sometimes there’s one in, one out. Sometimes there’s one in, none out and sometimes there’s one in, 357 out, and this is a non-equilibrium system characterized by these fluctuations.

Bruce: I think of evolution like the species trying to be hammered into the wooden floor like those grains of sand. None of them stay in the system forever, but they have different stays of execution. Some very short, some very long, and this is corroborated in the fossil record of the duration of species. They follow a similar statistical distribution to the avalanches of sand off of these computational sandpiles.

Jim: And the artist, how does the artist think about these poised systems and these small, big, and medium moves along some predictable in the aggregate but not predictable in the individual trajectory?

Nancy: Your illness life cycle as an artist and… it’s interesting. I kind of think about asymptotic functions here, of going from one point to the next but you never quite get there. As you go up on that curve you’re getting closer and closer and closer and closer and closer and closer and closer. At first you’re going up steeply and you’re learning all these things and you’re changing and experimenting. Hopefully you’ll keep that experimenting and all of that. As the stakes get higher, it gets harder and harder and harder to keep going to that edge of poised instability, to keep evolving the work but it’s so important to do that.

Bruce: It’s like you start by loading up that sandpile where you just pile the sand on and none of it falls off because it hasn’t reached the angle of repose yet, but as you get close to that angle of repose, it gets harder and harder and there are more avalanches and readjustments. You’re running into constraints, the balance of constraints.

Nancy: We’re back to constraints.

Bruce: Back to constraints.

Jim: People say, I got to get rid of bias. Bias is another constraint. How ridiculous. It got to be biased. You don’t want to accomplish anything. Right?

Nancy: Exactly.

Jim: Bias constraints are pretty much the same thing. Let’s move to the next step that we’ve been setting up. Bruce could lay out a little bit, Stuart Kauffman’s work and thinking and other people too. Stuart obviously borrowed some from other folks, but he added a lot of his own. This idea of coevolution to the edge of chaos.

Bruce: Co-evolution means that there’s lots of things evolving together. You could think of this as at first, there are plenty of niches. Plenty of ways to fit in more species. Since evolution involves variation, there are new candidate creatures, entities entering the system at all times and so things get more and more crowded, and it’s like the sandpile piling up that eventually you get to the point where it’s harder and harder to fit something in without driving something out, and this tends to look more chaotic. There’s endless churn.

Bruce: I think that the edge of chaos is also related to the edge of satisfiability, phase satisfiability, phase transition. In that sense it generates a lot of fluctuation that looks kind of chaotic. There are related concepts.

Jim: How does the artists think about the domain? There’s a chaotic domain, static on the TV. Ordered domain that’s, I don’t know what? A plain white wall. How do you think maybe a little bit less mathematically and more personally and aesthetically about evolving one’s work towards the edge of chaos, where you’re not too ordered and you’re not too chaotic?

Nancy: Yes. That’s excellent question. Being an artist, you’ve got to make decisions. You’re continually making decisions. You’re continually problem solving. You’re continually responding to the market just made. It’s an interesting kind of uneasy truce between on the one hand, constraint, simplicity, decisiveness. On the other hand, experimenting and moving into creating ugly art, and sometimes that can devolve into chaos. I believe that that’s essential to experience the place where it devolves into chaos and then your body tells you that this is not reading, this is not moving me. I can’t read this painting. I don’t feel it. It’s gone too far, and yet that is very powerful to have that experience because then you kind of can feel intuitively where you want to stop on that particular painting, and perhaps you want to simplify even more. Maybe you want to bring in more constraints.

Nancy: Sometimes chaos reflects indecision and just kind of throwing anything up there, and then it becomes throwing the kitchen sink at your painting. I think that this is an ongoing uneasy truce to be aware of and to experience over and over again, and to keep working with basically the paradoxes of being an artist, which is all of this shows up for you when you go into your studio.

Jim: Now, do you actually see this learning happen in your students where they’re able to sense when they’re too ordered and sense when they’re too chaotic and develop some ability to navigate towards the edge of chaos?

Nancy: Yes. This is a big one that comes up for students. I have online courses and some people come in with the issue of I’m so controlled. Like my friend who had that breakthrough to, some people say I’m too controlled, I need to loosen up and so there’s ways that I can help them to loosen up. Whereas others may come in with the issue of my paintings are absolute chaos. We work with the concept of simplicity and constraint for both of those situations, but it plays out a little bit differently.

Nancy: You just have to go through it and you have to get in to the paint and grapple with it, wrestle down these dark angels of despair and you’ve got to wrestle down these difficult areas, whether it’s too much control or too much chaos.

Bruce: Nobody said evolution was easy.

Jim: Yeah. A lot of deaths along the way, right? [crosstalk 00:51:50].

Bruce: A lot of [inaudible 00:51:52].

Nancy: It’s the dark night of the soul.

Jim: Evolution progress, one failed reproduction at a time.

Bruce: [inaudible 00:51:59] quite right, and also evolution doesn’t [inaudible 00:52:02] the mistakes.

Jim: Of course, evolution don’t have agents to have to try to sell the shit either, right? Another concept we talked about it in passing a couple of times, we just did. We mentioned Brian Arthur, is the idea of the adjacent possible. The idea that at any given time, especially if you assume some constraints, there’s only some set of moves that make a lot of sense. There’s a bunch of them usually. Talk a little bit about how the idea of the adjacent possible is so central to the kind of work that you all do.

Bruce: First came up to me before Santa Fe, when I needed to come up with an algorithm for preparing organ recitals. I played pipe organs in cathedrals, and it was an unusual music major. What I would do is I would choose several pieces I knew, and then I would choose one or two that I had never learned before and learn them and that way I had one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown. This turned out to be a very good way to develop a repertoire, and then I would use the sensibilities developed in the pieces that I did know to inform how I was going to perform the pieces that I didn’t know, but the interaction of the known and unknown would affect my desire as to what I was going to learn next and I couldn’t have gotten there any other way.

Bruce: Later this came up again. When I moved to Santa Cruz I learned how to surf and I discovered that at any point, there’s like a quantum mechanical wave function of possibilities radiating out from the nose of your surfboard, where you can go next and so you have to choose one. You have to choose something, and I found that if you did not choose, you ended up on the beach with your bathing suit full of sand, and if you said the Frank Sinatra approach was I did it my way, I’m going here. You got the same result. There had to be this in-between interplay. That’s the avenues that make sense that Bryan Arthur and Stuart Kauffman talk about.

Bruce: I also talked to some other people, Seth Lloyd and [Jim Crutchfield 00:54:04] and others when I first came to Santa Fe about this idea of… see, as a physicist, I’m used to very well mathematically defined systems. Look, you have a standard thing is a box full of gas, a box full of hydrogen atoms. They’re all the same. They’re interchangeable with each other. Biology talks about things that are different and furthermore, the interaction of things that are different can produce something that wasn’t there in the first place, whereas electrons and photons and positrons are going to interact and they’re just going to create more of the same, and so this requires kind of a different formal framework to think about, is systems that can change their own participants.

Bruce: I think that the supplier is definitely to the world of creativity because it’s adding new degrees of freedom, new things in there that you… a platypus came from somewhere, but there wasn’t a platypus to begin with.

Jim: I was thinking about it when Nancy was talking about a stroke at a time. It’s funny, as you add each stroke you’re reducing some possibilities because you can’t put a similar stroke in the same place, but you’re also now adding an adjacent possible that other strokes now start to make sense. Is that a reasonable way to think about how an artist might think about the adjacent possible?

Nancy: Yes. You start in your experimenting and you’re making a move and as you make that move, you respond to that move you just made, and each movement, each step illuminates not only that which was invisible before, but didn’t exist before and so you are essentially co-creating and co-evolving. By your action, you are changing the environment you’re in, and then what we do is we take that even further and we work in a series exploring associated possibilities. It’s so important as an artist to evolve, continually evolve. To me that’s really the deepest definition of being artist. You’re continually evolving, continually stepping into the unknown.

Jim: In business I always counsel young entrepreneurs that where you think you’re going is probably not where you’re going to end up, but you can’t see where you should go until you’ve made a couple of steps.

Nancy: That’s right. It was invincible. You bring visibility to the invisible.

Bruce: And there’s often many pivots.

Jim: Yeah. Well, too many of these days. That’s an excuse for not just admitting you are stupid and shutting the show and going home sometimes as long as you can find a sucker to give you more money. One or two pivots, okay but I hear about five pivots. I go [inaudible 00:56:47], probably the wrong team on the wrong project, but anyway, that’s another story for another day.

Bruce: My favorite pivot story is, we all know what Jacuzzis are. They’re kind of hot tubs? Well, Jacuzzi did not originally make hot tubs, they made airplanes in the 1920s in the Bay Area. When the depression hit, they found there wasn’t much of a market for airplanes, but they found that the fuel pumps were really good at circulating water. That’s how [inaudible 00:57:12] very successful. Sometimes the pivots can be quite distant and quite successful.

Jim: Absolutely. I’ve known a few. Well, let’s go on to our last topic, which is this very big area, kind of the limits of knowledge, et cetera. The known, the unknown in the unknown unknown. You guys talk quite a bit about that and the dynamics of evolution in that kind of context and how one can think about that in terms of self-explanatory concepts.

Bruce: Well, I think in our previous topic of the adjacent possible that the unknown unknown describes what you are going to encounter if you continue exploring with one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown. You will create things that you weren’t able to see before and in some cases didn’t exist before. That’s the unknown unknown. Even though a few have heard unknown, is what’s the temperature in Taos? Well, I don’t know it, but I know that it’s knowable and I know how to go find it.

Bruce: I would consider that just plain unknown, but something in the unknown unknown might be like, well, temperature is important to us. What might be important to alien creatures? Well, we don’t know anything about alien creatures let alone what’s important to them. That’s more like the unknown unknown. Do aliens on Arcturus IV measure temperature, or do they measure something else?

Jim: In that same section, you guys talk about how we can find luck for ourselves, moving from the more abstract down to the much more tangible. Maybe talk a little bit about how do people become lucky?

Nancy: Well, firstly I think it’s important to kind of cultivate an attitude of surprisability, the willingness to be surprised. By accessing and activating that, you begin to set up possibilities to bring luck to the foreground. By going places you wouldn’t go before, by changing up your routines, right?

Bruce: Right. By not being over-scheduled.

Nancy: Yes.

Bruce: By having gaps in there. Those are like the wedges in the floor that new species can enter in.

Jim: Yep. Very important. The other one you said that was quite interesting… and this was I think something I’ve always practiced as you called it, the power of weak ties. The idea in addition to having your solid close collaborators and friends and lovers and family and all, there’s some real benefit to having a big network of weak ties. I hear about all kinds of stuff from people I barely know, but I do know a little bit and that’s very useful.

Bruce: Well, this relates to that economist in the $20 bill. Mainly that if you need connections to advance in your life, whatever you consider advancement to be, chances are the people you know well are like that $20 bill. You would have already picked it up. You would have already contacted them for help, so therefore it’s going to be people you don’t know well. That’s the strength of weak ties, and it’s compounded by the fact that in general, it doesn’t take as much effort to have weak ties, so you have more of them. When you look back at places where your life bifurcated from a possible different future, it often has to do with a weak tie.

Nancy: Right.

Bruce: And this was studied by… I think the name was Granovetter in the late ’60s who wrote a paper on it.

Nancy: It’s like that chance encounter, that conversation that came out of nowhere of someone you may not even know and yet she’ll start talking about something and you have something in common and then they have an idea that they put forth and then that takes you on a new trajectory. It is being open to those adjacent possibilities. It’s allowing in the unknown and continually kind of going long walks and seeing what emerges. Having more downtime, time of seemingly doing nothing, that that’s the space where things happen. It might be taking a shower. This is where ideas show up.

Jim: The shower. I definitely appreciate this. Sometimes people give me a dirty look and I tell them if I like their idea, I’m going to upgrade this to shower time, because that’s my… [inaudible 01:01:34] what kind of a pervert are you, right? I actually mean-

Nancy: I love that.

Bruce: That’s the highest compliment an idea can have.

Jim: In my space, it literally is, right? The next level down is walking time. Right? But shower time is the ultimate. Something about the noise of the random waterfall and the warmth and the cold and all that stuff. It doesn’t get any better than that for doing serious thinking.

Nancy: If you’ve got a glass door shower, you can write equations on the glass or you can draw pictures there.

Bruce: Like they do at the Santa Fe Institute on the office glass.

Jim: Mostly for show, as it turns out.

Bruce: Mostly for show, it’s true, because so many mistakes otherwise which [inaudible 01:02:17] evolution hides.

Jim: Exactly. A yellow pad just crumple the paper up, throw it in the trash, right?

Bruce: Well, a lot of these ideas that came out in blog posts started out as walks that Nancy and I take. We walk along the ocean here, or we walk up at a track at University of California, Santa Cruz both with tremendous views and it inspires conversation. A year ago, Nancy gave a live workshop at a place called 1440 Multiversity and it was very successful and very exalting, but she was completely exhausted afterwards. She had been writing a blog post for four years or so. She said, “Well, I’m too tired to write this. Why don’t you write it?” I said, “What am I going to say?” It turned out I had a lot to say. That’s been going on for almost a year now and I think it will become a book.

Jim: I think I really liked it. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I decided to put you guys on the show, but I dug into it and I sort of had a good time going through it and it sort of made sense to me. If you had a couple of final words, we’re going to wrap up here in a few minutes. How complexity perspective and artistic perspective can work together to produce greater art and greater artists. I’d love to kind of end with that.

Nancy: It’s been so meaningful to me to have these conversations with Bruce and to bring in not only art. I do abstract art and teach abstract art, but psychology which is also my thing. I’m a psychiatrist and creativity, I’ve been fascinated with my whole life, but also bringing into that concept from evolutionary biology, from mathematics, from the work you’ve done in theoretical physics and all of that and how we can take that and bring it to art as a foundational structure, concepts that can inform artists. What I see from that is, it really hits at three big areas for artists. One is starting and we didn’t get into that here today but zero to one. Start from nothing to something is larger than something to something.

Nancy: Starting is extremely important as an artist. Experimentation, stepping into the unknown, asking what if, allowing for the ugly art is extremely important to get beyond emulating others’ work and lastly, evolve. Evolving your art, accessing the adjacent possible, poised instability, going to that edge. That place between creation and collapse is the place where the juice is as an artist, and really ultimately getting at expressing your deepest most meaningful art is about the inner journey of ultimately allowing and trusting yourself enough to step into the unknown and the unknown unknown.

Jim: Very good. I think I’m going to wrap it right there. Perfect-

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at