The nature of creativity

A video still from States of

Early this week I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Anne Blair-Hickman for ArtsBytes through BMCAN (the Blue Mountains Creative Artist Network) broadcast on our very own Radio Blue Mountains 89.1 later this week. During the conversation, we discussed artistic practice and the role of imagination in creativity, which lead me to think further about how we engage in creative practice and naturally, why we make art in the first place.

As a kid growing up in the foothills of Adelaide in South Australia, I was fortunate to have a wonderfully stimulating environment to draw upon for creativity. As well as the rolling vineyards and green paddocks bordered with eucalypts of my semi-rural upbringing, visits to my grandparents’ house in suburban Dover Gardens, where as kids we would trek to beach in summer to play in the cool sand beneath tiled pavilions, all inform my idyllic world view. As a solitary child I alternated between reality and imagination, drawing, painting and creating scenarios with imagined friends. Also as a child of the late 1960s I was exposed to fantastic artwork and music, and was aware of events of the time such as space exploration, the moon landing in 1969, 2001: A Space Odyssey – this all seemed fantastic and somewhat unreal and played further into imagined worlds and places.

Later in my teens I became interested in graphic design and illustration and learnt photography and movie-making through my uncle, using Super 8 cameras to make hand-drawn and stop-motion animations and using still cameras to create time-lapse images. I enjoyed darkroom photography, what could be done with images within the darkroom environment, using filters or pushing film stock to obtain high contrast, grainy imagery. I was interested especially in effects of photography such as motion blur and using depth of field to create background imagery that was out of focus, ambiguous. These abstract effects I found fascinating as they captured a sense of time and space that would lend easily to imagination, a place one step removed from reality. Perhaps through this spatial and temporal interest in imagery I found a similar home in music. I became interested in recordings that created environments, especially how music in combination with sound could impart a sense of place and time. For me, this was apparent in mid-60s popular music with the advent of psychedelia and the manipulation and juxtaposition of sound environments to impart unreal or dream-like spaces, i.e. the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows and Strawberry Fields Forever or early Pink Floyd songs such as See Emily Play. I was interested in how these recordings appeared to do strange things with space and time, bringing the listener into hypnagogic, dream-like worlds. And by logical extension, I eventually wanted to discover how these spaces were created. Much of my early experimentation with sound and music was done on borrowed reel-to-reel tape recorders, bouncing tracks between them and seeing what I could achieve by changing tape speed, playing audio backwards and using feedback and echo. I loved making and recording music, but I equally loved creating weird and wonderful places in sound.

This interest in alternate spaces in music and imagery stayed with me through much of my creative life and was revisited in detail during my honours year at Western Sydney University in 2014, culminating in doctoral studies that I have only just finalised this year. My research aimed to discover how the suspension of time and space is perceived and experienced through music, sound and imagery and looks into some of the aesthetic reasons why this may occur, further suggesting how this experience is conducive to imagination and creativity. What has emerged through this research is the idea of art not only serving as a mode of expression, but a desire to recreate alternate spaces or worlds, however fleetingly. Lord of The Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien has written of the idea of what he terms “secondary worlds” or the capability of the human mind to create “a Secondary World sufficiently convincing to allow Secondary Belief…the assignment of reality to something known rationally to be improbable or impossible”. By “forming mental pictures of things not actually present”, Tolkien considered art to be “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation”. Academic Mark Achtermann considers that the sound and music work of Brian Eno in many respects fulfils many of Tolkien’s criteria for a ‘secondary world’. The “arresting strangeness” of Eno’s music and its capacity to suggest “an environmental re-creation as much as a music composition” goes some way to explaining my own fascination with sound and light environments and their capacity to elicit places that could exist in the imagination.

What my own work sets out to achieve is not a prescriptive rendition of an auditory or visual environment, but rather provide the means or circumstances for it to occur. When a creative use of light and sound come together in a way that is imitative or recreates the condition of an environment that might exist, it stands to reason that this would elicit a similar bodily and affective response. I suggest there is a perceptual ‘sweet spot’ that emerges along a spectrum between recognisable, easily identified phenomena, and at the other end, that which is completely unrecognisable and abstract. Where a recognisable phenomenon starts to leave the dominion of reality and head into an unknown realm, imagination is, in a sense, given permission to follow. This invitation to imagination I believe is an aspect of what I call suspended experience, as a way for our creative selves to step briefly into a world of imaginative thought and recognising this a safe place to do so. Brian Eno has said effectively the same thing about the purpose of art:

Every art object is the manifestation of a point in cultural space….But every art object is also an invitation to anybody else to experience that point in cultural space. It’s a way of saying to people ‘here’s a little world, here’s a world of propositions, about how things could be. What do you feel like when you experience that?’ I think this is what happens when you look at something or listen to something. For a little while you surrender to the terms of a different world. (Eno, 2007)

I would suggest that as we become older, our natural curiosity and sense of wonder of the world often diminishes, perhaps through an increasing knowledge or cynicism of the world or reliance on technologies to provide new aesthetic experiences. So how do we maintain a sense of interest into new experiences, to maintain that sense of wonder about our craft and about the world? I believe that the idea of suspension taps into that sense of wonder, about the creative impulse and the magic that allows us to see everyday occurrences in a fresh light. It attempts to understand in a physiological and neurological sense the factors that engender a sense of wonder in the world, uncovering the underlying principles, patterns and correspondences with our experience of the natural world that provide inspiration and meaning in our lives. The cyclical phenomena in nature we often take for granted hides a potential, a fascination with processes already at hand. The abstraction already taking place in natural phenomena is perhaps reflected in particular types of music and imagery, especially that which is not conclusive, leaving an open area of possibility, of engagement in the process. The suspended approach leaves this open—there is no requirement to conclude, rather an invitation to engage in an ongoing process, to take part in the flow of life itself.

The interview will be broadcast on ArtHouse on RBM 89.1 at 6pm Thursday, or you can hear it online at Talking Artz at later in the week.