collective intellection

31st October, 2006

The origin of the words art and entertainment have a lot in common. Their essences seem to be a notion of bringing people closer together. A few nights I went to Melissa Moore’s SoundPillow to hear some new works by John Berndt entitled Three Ambiguities. The pieces were excellent and the ambience of SoundPillow – six or seven blue, circular seats facing each other around a blue-lit basement space with a good sound system – was conducive to deep listening. There were about thirty people who wanted to listen the thirty minutes of music and John had to keep things moving so that everyone could have a chance to hear the works.

Last week, as a part of Baltimore’s Free_Fall events, I was involved in a project at the Cork Factory that will culminate in a micro-radio event in the Station North District featuring audio created by residents that speaks to their experience living in the neighborhood. In brief, participants will record a few minutes of spoken words and broadcast their ideas on short range fm transmitters all tuned to the same frequency. Visitors and residents can then walk or drive through the neighborhood and listen at any time. The content is entirely up to the residents, and can change at any time. The key to the work is to provide the opportunity for us to listen to each other.

In preparation for the recordings, and to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood and locate participants, my collaborators and I have participated in various events, the most recent at the Cork Factory. This last event involved about eleven people, a diverse (age, race, ethnicity, orientation, etc…) group, sitting around a table with a microphone on it (I think the presence of the recording device was a great help, see below) speaking about community. In order to establish a comfortable atmosphere for expressing ideas, we set up some very simple ground rules, principally that overtly judgmental, contentious, argumentative statements would not be verbalized – instead, they would be suspended – not repressed, or ignored, simply suspended within the mind. We imagined giving our will to judge a vacation, and realized that it is an essential aspect of who we all are. Instead, we decided to voice experiences, associations, or observations that integrated one participants experience with another’s. The last caveat was that we would work to listen and accept – not blindly agree with – but accept (i.e., think through until we understood the idea) whatever anyone wanted to say as a legitimate aspect of the dialogue. If we disagreed, that is fine, but the idea was to contribute relationships we experienced between whatever was expressed in the dialogue and not pass judgment on what was said. Simple rules produced a complex result. Our dialogue went on for several hours (unforced, btw), and at the end it seemed that we had all become significantly closer. I had what felt like an aesthetic buzz for a long time afterwards, and when I came home, walked into my studio and saw this:

It occurred to me that much of my actions are intended to bring me closer to others: lecturing, teaching, art making, but, post Cork Factory, I questioned my reliance on the creation of gizmos, and the paradigm of performer/audience to do it. My practice seemed to be placing a gap in a gap, to be complicating my will towards integration, when what I seemed to really respond to (I’ve had the aesthetic buzz many times before, but this time it was of a longer duration which seemed to be because the connection I’d established with others was not one of triangulation via some social [performer/audience] or plastic [gizmo] construct) was the close up, real time act of face to face integration with others, at the “conclusion” of which we were still in the same positions – suggesting that what we’d just experienced was readily available and didn’t require additional hardware.

Back to the SoundPillow, and how this started, I wrote: “the origin of the words art and entertainment have a lot in common. Their essences seem to be a notion of bringing people closer together.” Sitting in a comfortable room on Argonne St, seven people facing each other. Of course I thought back to the Cork Factory Dialogue and wanted to just listen to these people I had just met. To connect with them one person to another, and to work on how our varied experiences, as vast as they are, can be associated to form a glimpse of the complex nature of our collective experience. But that wasn’t necessarily the plan, and that is ok, this is not a criticism, it is an expression of my experience and a portrait of how, really, the present is a mix of remembrances (past) and anticipations (future) and how our “own” understandings are connected to others’ ideas, and how, perhaps, there are forms of interaction, even “forms” of intelligence: intellection, founded on a practice of listening hard, thinking collectively, and working to associate all the experiences within any group. George Lewis, a fabulous improviser, refers to this social form as multi-dominance.

I left the SoundPillow thinking that our mechanized, individuated culture has defined intellection perhaps too narrowly and located it somehow within one person’s mind. Yes, if you, or I proceed along a developmental path of greater and greater limitation of possibility, until we become “masters” of a certain abstract body (or part of a body) of knowledge there is a decent chance we will be respected as such. Our intellective practice will be understood to have produced a clear result, and we will be rewarded with a higher level on the pyramid of personal achievement.

We are a significantly homogenous, and deeply social species: we depend on each other, and the collective, to survive, literally, yet we seem to relish and even worship the concept of transcending the group. It is as if our social forms are so fundamentally unfair, complicated, and controlled from elsewhere that we idolize those who seem to escape – while simultaneously knowing that there really is no escape from the collective. Our structure seems to rely on being able to position ourselves as individuals in relation to those above, and those below. We celebrate competition and praise rugged individualism. Our Freedom is a freedom from – to reference Kant, among others. Instead of taking action to make it better for all of us we take “action” (I worked for a guy who used to say “not saying something is saying something”…) that makes it great for a tiny subset of people. Given our inherent and seemingly necessary closeness this system we’ve been cultivating strikes me as odd, and utterly reversible.

The physicist Lee Smolin says, “there is a city, but no city maker”. We are the city and its’ makers and the construction unfolds in real time – it happens glocally – where the local is a focal point of the global, where the unfolding is a collective act and the moments of enfoldment, of clear focus, where we experience ourselves as individuated, when one’s experience is understood for a moment as clearly, uniquely one’s own, is literally an ephemeral focal point of the collective process. we are part of a complex collective and our glocal actions are all equally essential to its development, yet we maintain the illusion of servitude to some absent authority while multi-dominance is always at our fingertips.

I feel strongly about developing models, or metaphors, to aid me in exploring the idea of what I’ll term collective intellection (I should probably develop a better sounding phrase, too…). My instincts are to build some gizmo or network a bunch of stuff, write some scripts, do some programming, build something – but the act of building things on my own seems to segregate me from others – cooped up in my studio. Also, for me, designing things seems to be a sort of “duty now for the future” routine. I will build this thing for a future event that will suggest other future events, etc… I imagine researchers being engaged utterly in the present as they work – noting cause and effect relationships, trying things, looking for/creating/engaging connections – a process similar to musical improvisation. It seems that the tools I need are actually improved integrative techniques for the building of the now (I need to become a better listener and learn to balance my ego with the other aspects of my, and other’s experience to understand by engaging the complex nature of the present), and it will be better, and more accurate, to engage in this practice in concert with other people – and, it seems to me, with as diverse a group as possible. The idea, in short, is an understanding of higher intelligence as an environment in which as many members as possible are being heard (implying serious listening and thinking on the part of each member of the group), and what they are expressing is understood as a fundamental element that must be supported in the developing structure. The degree to which the experiences of the parts are supported by the structure of the whole is the measure of the intelligence of the group. You can see this is a different model then the individuated human off in a room by themselves developing a branch of knowledge that, purportedly, is for the common good.

Our inherent collective, de-centralized nature seems obvious but creating social forms that respect it as such seem elusive. To demonstrate: try to organize a diverse (race, socio-economics, age, orientation, ethnicity, etc…) group of fifteen members and speak aimlessly while listening actively for several hours – working hard to accept other’s points of view without competing with them, and bear this in mind:

The concept of a field in physics describes the integrating property at a point in space of adding up contributions from various individual particles, so that individual contributions cannot be identified, only their sum.

And the sum, like the collective process from which it comes, will be multivariate, and take on different meanings when it is collapsed into and individuals frame of reference – and the depth of our understanding of the sum of our collective actions will necessitate the collective action of groups listening to each other and exploring the connections among the individual experiences expressed by its members. Shared, relational intelligence. The resulting constellation of experience is the real answer, and this practice may provide an appreciation of the complex nature of our experience while affording agency to each member of our society. We need to be able to connect all the dots to glimpse the complex picture. I suggest we develop forms that explore this practice.

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