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Reconnecting Art and Science

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…” Albert Einstein

When we are faced with something new and unfamiliar it is examined to distinguish its differences from what is known. Our survival depends on being able to recognise subtle unique characteristics that separate one thing from another. What is edible or toxic, what is safe or dangerous, who is friend or foe. We have become very good at sorting knowledge into highly specific niches, genres, categories and taxonomic groups. Everything in its own separate box. Differences are important yet over enthusiastic classifying has perhaps lead to the disconnection of subjects that share far more similarities than not. My left and right hands are certainly different but it is their similarities that make them work so well together. This is true of many things but let us focus on the unfortunate divide that has formed between the Arts and Sciences.
As a child, everything is so marvelously interconnected. So much of life is still a mystery. The beginnings of discovery and understanding come from constant experimentation, through creative and deconstructive play, storytelling, dance, song and the eternal question, “why?” Give a child some paint for the first time and instantly it becomes a sensory study of texture, tone…and probably even taste. Squeezing it through fingers, mixing the colours, before exploring beyond the bounds of paper to other surfaces within reach; wood, brick, floor, wall, cloth, skin, hair. It becomes difficult to distinguish these actions as being specifically art or science based. They may well end up with an abstract expressionist masterpiece, but they will also know a great deal more about the physical and practical qualities of paint. Art and Science appear to naturally cooperate in the developing human mind, yet this connection seems to erode with age and we are left with more choices between one or the other and less opportunities to explore them together.
Thankfully I had a family that encouraged both my scientific curiosities as well as my creativity and imagination, but my journey to adulthood and career was often faced with frustrating decisions. One passion invariabley had to give way to another. At secondary school, I frequently had to pick between either Biology or Drama, Music or Maths, Art or Physics, Chemistry or Literature. And at a Tertiary level the institutional push to create specialists tends to restrict diversity even more.
Surely it wasn’t always this way. Early evidence of art, preserved in caves across the globe, like Sulawesi and Chauvet, show careful depictions of animals, plants and people, culturally and astronomically significant events and concepts exploring mortality. Important aspects of biology, geography, social law, moralistic lessons and history are still commonly conveyed through song, dance and performance by many indigenous people today. These creative expressions also reflect our inherent scientific fascination with the natural world around us and a striving to understand our place within it.
The first humans must have faced many situations that required the full spectrum of their capabilities. A dramatic change in the environment, the discovery or loss of a resource, a new tool made. Adaptability is a vital trait of our species. With new information, we can reprogram our behavior to better assure survival. We can accomplish, in one life time or even a moment, what most organisms may take hundreds of generations to achieve through chance mutation. Adaptation on this scale requires a certain kind of mind that doesn’t just learn from the past but also plays with potential futures.
The ageless art of storytelling has provided a means for documenting and remembering our past as well as a way to test and practice possible future scenarios. In the same way animals play fight so they can hone their skills for the real thing. The ‘what if’ ponderings of fantasy, science fiction and philosophy are the creative sparks that fuel curiosity and drive us toward science fact.
Science is valued for inventions; the tools and technology it has given us, but also for ideas. Copernicus and Heliocentrism, Darwin and Evolution, Einstein and Relativity. Ideas such as these required great leaps of the imagination, often amidst widespread opposing beliefs. When art and science have combined in the minds of our most esteemed intellects it makes for powerful outcomes.
Dr Lynne Kelly’s research and the work of The Orality Centre into oral based memory technologies, from cultures across the expanse of time and wisdom, has given us a new glimpse of old ideas and has helped revive the highly compatible relationship between art and science. Orality is a fusion of all disciplines and naturally creates positive feedback loops with information, because the components of knowledge are not kept isolated. The technical and the romantic are entwined in a symbiotic striving for understanding and greatness.
Allow a moment for playful thought. Imagine a desirable future where students of all ages are encouraged to explore the whole repertoire of tools used to build the foundations of human intellect. A world where Polymaths are not just the remarkable exception to the norm, where it’s less about choosing between left and right brain and more about finding the similarities and connections that allow both to work so well together. Perhaps we can’t all be Leonardo da Vinci with his famously exquisite drawings and elaborate inventions, but if our minds are cultivated in an environment where thinking can thrive in all directions, we will be more ready to adapt when life presents new mysteries.

Alice Steel

Story and Our Sense of Place

We all share a strong emotional connection with the concept of home. Where we live, or more specifically where we were raised as children, is an integral part of our self-identity. My father for instance, was born in southern Queensland and although he lived the vast majority of his life in Victoria he always considered himself a Queenslander first and foremost. These parochialisms seem increasingly outdated within a highly mobilised society such as ours here in Australia, where we often move to far flung corners of the country (if not the world) for the sake of work or family. How many people living in a modern urbanised society still live in their family homes, or even the same suburb or town in which they grew up?

Our childhood homes are laden with our earliest recollections and our burgeoning ‘narrative of self’ is the result of these memories. Thus we are, in essence, a product of the places in which we were born and raised. Personally I have a strong attachment to the city in which I was born and grew up. Melbourne holds the ghosts of my past: the streets I walked as a child provide the link with my past self whenever I walk those same streets today. So much of my identity tied to memory by the multisensory experiences of smell, sound and the highly tactile sensation of Melbourne winter sunshine. All of our senses act as tethers to place, and whether we are conscious of them or not, they become a part of us and serve to ground us in place with strong emotional attachments.

The unique way place evokes memory is the fundamental mechanism that lies at the heart of the method of loci. We remember things better when they are hitched to our memories of place: our sensory perceptions and the myriad of emotional attachments that are associated with them. These memories and sensations then evolve into stories, or narratives, that serve to evoke this sense of place. In the technique of creating a memory palace, stories are the key to unlocking the information encoded by the specific place in which it has been stored. How much more memorable then would these stories be if we used our personal history to help encode and then unlock vast stores of knowledge and information?

As I have begun to experiment with my own memory palaces I have come to appreciate the profound inter-relationship between the mnemonic stories I create and the broader context of the place I now call home. The distinctions between the realms of knowledge and understanding I am encoding are gradually diminishing. There is no single thread of information that follows its own unique path. I can only wonder at how inextricably intertwined the stories, histories and pragmatic knowledge encoded in indigenous cultures around the world must be after many centuries of continual practice.

The cultural stories, folk lore, legends and fables that encode the memory of a nation (such as the ANZAC legend in Australia, or the ‘Thanksgiving’ of the early settlers in the US) become the matrix of perception and understanding of a nation’s shared identity. In the modern context of mobility and displacement from our childhood homes however, these cultural associations and affiliations have been completely disrupted. As a result, our cultural stories have become increasingly disassociated from the places we actually inhabit and so the deeper purpose for which they were intended become corrupted and rendered meaningless.

Here in Australia, those of us of European descent straddle two distinct worlds. That of the stories from our displaced culture and the realities of the new country in which we actually live. For example, think of the strong cultural association between the celebration of Christmas and the falling of snow, reindeer sleighs and hot pudding, while it swelters outside in a blistering Australian summer! Or the fertility celebration of Easter that heralds the end of a long cold winter in the northern hemisphere, while here the crops are being harvested and the non-native trees are beginning their colourful retreat into dormancy. Or the pointless definitions of the four seasons that may well match the seasonal changes in Europe but provide little practical use in the various environmental contexts of the vastly diverse Australian continent.

The inconsistencies and contradictions of these broader cultural narratives undermine the true depth of meaning we might otherwise attribute to the more personal stories we tell ourselves. We have come to think of ‘story’ as mere entertainment: a past-time that we may enjoy, but which holds no real importance to the ‘reality’ of our daily lives. Yet it is story that grounds us in place, linking us with the larger narrative of where we came from and who we are as individuals in relation to other people and other things. Our removal from a true sense of place makes the stories that help ground us in our natural environment become increasingly irrelevant. Without the stories to help us understand and appreciate our natural environment we become even further removed from a sense of place. Untethered as we are from this profoundly important connection with the ‘country’ that sustains us, is it any wonder we heedlessly destroy the forests, drain the rivers, and dig up our natural resources?

Dr Lynne Kelly’s research provides us with an insight into the once universal connection all humans had to their natural environment. As a member of an urbanised culture that has lost this connection to the natural environment I am only beginning to truly appreciate how profoundly important these issues are by engaging with my environment in a whole new way. Not by exploiting it as a resource, but using it as a tool for memory.

Paul Allen

Announcing our second day of workshops

The second  Memory Workshops will be held at The Ray Bradfield Room in Castlemaine, Victoria, on Saturday 26th of August, 2017.

The practical workshops will be led by Paul Allen and Alice Steel, with Dr Lynne Kelly attending as our guest assistant.

You do NOT need to do two workshops, but are welcome to come morning or afternoon only.

Morning: 10 AM to 1 PM  $60 per workshop.
Memory Palaces (Tea / Coffee / Biscuits provided)

Afternoon: 2 PM to 5 PM  $65 per workshop (materials included).
Memory Boards (Tea / Coffee / Biscuits provided)

Make your bookings here

800px-Hans_Vredeman_de_Vries_Nachfolge_Ideale_PalastarchitekturMemory Palaces (also known as the method of loci or memory trails)
Paul Allen will lead this workshop, which requires no materials other than a list of information attendees may wish to memorise on the day. The memory palace consists of a sequence of locations in which information is stored by linking it to the physical properties of the location. It is the single most effective memory system known, used by all indigenous cultures (such as Australian Aboriginal songlines and Native American pilgrimage trails). They are best known from the orators of the ancient Greeks from Homer to Cicero. All contemporary memory champions use this method.

Paul will teach the method using the example of the countries of the world in population order. The workshop will then adjust to working with participants to encode the information of their choice to the outdoor memory palace in Victory Park, Castlemaine.

 

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Memory Boards
Memory boards are incredibly effective portable devices and found in various forms right across indigenous cultures, from the songboards and birchbark scrolls of Native Americans to the tjuringa of Australian Aboriginal elders. We will model our memory boards on the well-documented West African lukasa of the Luba people.  In its simplest form, the lukasa consists of beads and shells attached to a piece of wood, just the right size to hold comfortably – which we will call a TOC-lukasa. A personal TOC-lukasa is a gorgeous object which is hugely practical as well.

side-view-lukasa-400Alice Steel will run this workshop, where participants will encode information of their choosing and design their memory boards accordingly. Please bring information for any topic with you. We will also have examples of suitable information on offer. The TOC-lukasa at right is encoded with an entire field guide to the birds of Victoria.

A charge of $5 will cover all materials needed. The workshop will be lead by Alice Steel from 2 PM to 5 PM.